Mode-shift, getting people out of their cars and using public transport or active modes for more of their trips, is at the core of our various plans and strategies to address climate change, reduce the impacts of congestion and generally improve liveability of the city. Mode-shift is needed not just to help improve the lives of existing 1.7 million Aucklanders but becomes even more critical if the city grows as expected to about 2.2 million people by 2048.
While most of those plans and strategies talk about mode-shift and ideas for achieving it, the Auckland Climate Plan puts some figures around it. It says that by 2030 we need to see the following changes in mode-share:
- Walking to increase from 4.1% to 6%
- Cycling to increase from 0.9% to 7%
- Public transport to increase from 7.8% to 24.5%
Cycling is the biggest percentage increase but that’s because it’s also coming off a low base. It’s also something that could be eminently achievable if we just built safe and connected cycleways, as we’ve learnt from the Northwest. The challenge is not what to do but getting Auckland Transport to actually do it.
The hardest of the targets is likely to be the public transport with total modeshare shift of more than twice what the active modes are. I’ve looked before at what those figures actually mean and for PT it suggests we need to see about 300 million journeys by 2030. But that’s combined journeys and based on what we currently see, suggests we’d need around 360 million boardings. To put that in perspective, prior to COVID we were at just over 103 million boardings annually. In a post COVID world we don’t even know yet how long it will take to get back to that level let alone 360 milion boardings.
There are of course a lot of things that are being done which will help towards that goal. Most notably would be the City Rail Link but lots of other projects may help contribute to that, such as The Eastern Busway, Airport to Botany, Northern Busway extension and enhancements and of course later this decade maybe even light rail. Modelling done for the previous ATAP suggested the improvements might deliver about 170 million trips, well short of what’s required.
One option that often gets thrown around as a way to boost use is to make public transport free. But would it work?
Tallinn in Estonia has been one of the few cities to introduce free public transport and a new paper from the country’s National Audit Office have been investigating it.
The National Audit Office of Estonia have been investigating the free public transport introduced in Tallinn, including the free bus and tram travel for local registered people. Analysis included studying whether economic feasibility as well as the mobility needs of people had been taken into account when deciding to cut payment by users.
Results on the county model were that free public transport has not reached its goal to reduce car journeys. Whilst public transport use numbers have increased, still more than half of all trips to work are done by car.
“What is positive is that the decline in the share of public transport users has stopped for a couple of years,” stated Auditor General Janar Holm. “Unfortunately, not a significant number of new users have been attracted to public transport despite the fact that over the recent years, the state has allocated more and more funds to cover the costs of county bus transport and has allowed people to travel by bus free of charge in most counties.”
Furthermore, the National Audit Office found that funding for public transport services is unequal between Estonian counties and that state expenditures in funding public transport has risen rapidly. “In a relatively short period of time, the costs of county public transport can be expected to triple,” Auditor General Janar Holm said.
The costs mean that in some cases, planned new bus routes haven’t happened.
This report isn’t the only one to find that free PT hasn’t achieved its goals. A Finnish researcher found:
“Free public transportation increases the number of passengers, and can increase them significantly, but the shift is mainly from pedestrians and cyclists, and hardly takes drivers from their cars,” Liimatainen said.
According to Liimatainen research in various cities around the world has found that car traffic is not necessarily reduced once public transport fees are waived, but rather when parking costs are increased.
“If a door-to-door journey on public transport takes as long as it does by car, half of commuters will take public transport and half will drive their cars. If the same trip by bus or train is one-and-a-half times longer, public transport use drops by 25 percent. If the journey is twice as long as in a car, then no one other than those who have no other means will use public transport,” Liimatainen said.
Transportation researcher Liimatainen estimated that making public transport totally free would only reduce personal vehicular traffic by a couple of percentage points, but at the same time potentially overburden the transport system.
“Due to the capacity constraints of public transport, they would become congested,” he said, noting such a development would negatively affect the experience of end users.
Flink noted that transport service levels in Tallinn have not been sufficiently developed since they went ticket-free. She said that no new tram lines have been built since 2013 even though new housing developments have sprouted up in the city.
Back here in Auckland, the mode-shift strategy released at the end of 2019 states that while cost is a factor for some people, making the network better will have a bigger impact.
Public transport fares can be a disincentive for some people to travel by bus, train or ferry, but international best practice generally suggests that improving service quality is more likely to grow ridership than lowering fares. This is reinforced by local research, which suggests that the primary disadvantages of public transport relate to travel time, getting wet and poor reliability includes some quantitative research on the things that hold people back from using PT.
All of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aim to make public transport more affordable and PT fare increases while parking costs are not increased don’t help with that.
One positive to emerge from this years Auckland Transport Alignment Project is a trial called the Community Connect programme which will give those on low incomes a 50% discount on public transport trips. This is a great way to start addressing some of the challenges faced by those on low incomes. But both they and the rest of the residents in this city need PT to be better – faster, more frequent and more reliable. Do that and people be jumping to use those services.