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.

To achieve 360 million boardings, we’d need to see about 1.25 million per weekday.

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.

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  1. $100 for a monthly pass should be the goal. Cheaper for concessions again obviously but any cheaper it seems we are sacrificing funding for services for a utopian goal of free

    1. Fares raise roughly $300m a year and rather more than a million live in Auckland, so why $1,200 a year for a pass? Shouldn’t it be more like $300?

      1. Not quite John, Auckland PT costs about $300m a year to run, actually more like $350m a year.

        Fares are only about half that. The last financial year before covid brought in $173m, plus the supergold subsidy of another $15m.

        So fully subsidising public transport would cost around $190m a year extra. Split across every man, woman and child that is $206 a year. But if you add it to the rates then it is more like $600 a year extra per ratepayer.

        According to AT about 400,000 people ‘use public transport’ , which I believe is defined as once a month or more. I guess half of those might be regular users of several times a week or every day. It would be quite a cross subsidy from the majority to the minority (although it might shift the balance a little, and we do have plenty of them for other benevolent reasons).

        Still, rather than making the existing system cost free to the users, if we were to raise $190m a year extra for transit I’d rather see some targeted discounts for people that need it (say another $15m like supergold but for people with limited means) but the majority spent on better service.

        For example that would be enough funding to make every bus, train and ferry run 24 hours as day, with service at least every ten minutes from 6am to midnight, seven days a week.

  2. This is an easy question to answer when you frame it right.

    Would you be more likely to switch trips from driving if we made PT free or if we made every single service in Auckland an all day frequent route?

    The cost is about the same for those two options.

    People who currently drive are already paying to drive when a fare might be just $5. $5 won’t make a difference for them, but changing an hourly bus to one that comes every 15 minutes saves them 45 minutes on a return journey. That’s worth much more than $5 to most people.

  3. One effect they didn’t mention is that removing the cost barrier means that a certain number of people will be permanently on public transport until they get kicked off. This is one of the things that can make new riders less likely to use it.

    I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, just that if you’re looking to increase ridership, understanding what can put people off using public transport should always be a consideration.

    1. And an associated increase in vandalism, damage, sleeping, loud music, anti-social behaviour etc etc. Good move putting the new Britomart toilets behind the HOP barriers, they will stay in much better condition if Newmarket is any guide.

      1. Agreed. It is very unfortunate that people do such “anti-social” behaviour / have to. But loading our PT system up with that should not be the outlet / solution. Moving the toilets behind the gates was a good move imo.

        1. Our city has a dearth of public toilets, water fountains, and public phones. It’s shameful.

        2. I would argue paying zero dollars with a hop card is public enough. And if it increases the number of people willing to use them because they are less constantly destroyed id argue it’s better. Agree about the water fountains. Designed right they’re almost zero maintenance.

        3. In general, Aucklanders need to go to the toilet when they don’t have a HOP card on them, so toilets should be provided outside the barriers – as well as inside the barriers.

  4. A CBD congestion charge will obviously get people out of their cars. There would be a fear that it would drive people out of the CBD and destroy retail but I doubt that would occur if it only applied at peak times. And if they had a single national payment system for tolls / PT / parking then making the payment shouldn’t be a deterrent either. I am not a fan of an Auckland wide congestion charge as I don’t think a lot of people have many options at the moment, but the CBD does have reasonable PT, they just need to get on and do it, no need for studies and analysis etc. It shouldn’t be expensive to implement (just a few cameras). Maybe the congestion charge collected could be used to lower PT fares.

    1. People don’t have many options when it comes to electricity either, none in practice, and we still charge for that.

      1. Which is why civilised countries have consumer interests protected through central government agencies like Ofgem in the UK. I have no problem at all paying for power or road use or any other monopoly product but there needs to be fairness in the charges. For road pricing that might mean a congestion charge where there is free travel outside of the peak. It definitely needs some sort of regulatory oversight of AT or whoever sets the price.

      2. User pays is a whole different kettle of fish. The sole purpose of a congestion charge is to prevent people from using the service, which is a bit crap if they don’t have a reasonable alternative.

        1. Not quite prevent people from using it, but more like charge people something close to the actual cost of them using it at the time, so they have an accurate price signal for their consumption.

          Not only is there the cost of building and maintaining extra peak traffic capacity, when you drive in congested conditions you also slow down everyone around you (externalised cost).

          That’s exactly the same a peak pricing on electricity. Power price goes up when everyone tries to use it at the same time, in part to create a price signal to spread the load over time, and in part to pay for the cost of marginal production to meet peaks.

          Electricity costs five times as much at peak times on most networks (unless you are on a flat rate plan which charges you above the board at all times), the the rate changes across the year in response to supply and demand.

          It’s a bit sad that we have created a system where the majority of people are dependent on a single network, but that’s much more the case for electricity than driving.

      3. But congestion charging doesn’t stop anyone accessing the roads, just accessing them in a big vehicle. Access is still completely free for everyone on foot, on bike, on e-scooter, on skateboard etc. Public transport is not the only alternative in town.

  5. Free road use has resulted in too high a quantity demanded and a funding problem for new roads, with a combined result of severe congestion. Why would anybody want to apply that failed policy to public transport?

    1. Because people don’t understand economics 101?
      You’ll just end up with homeless people living on trains.

      Reducing prices won’t get people to shift modes if the service is crap.

      I stopped using PT because it took too long. The cost of my time far outweighs the cost of the ticket. It took 3 legs/stages to get to work, taking up to 1.5hrs or more, when it’s only 30min by car. Plus I can sing along badly to the radio. No contest.

      1. Exactly – for many Aucklanders, myself included, that’s the real point. Two transfers, nearly twice the door-to-door journey time. Until that is fixed for more of us, then AT should focus on trying to attract more people where their product IS competitive.

    2. That’s exactly why we need to. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need to subsidise public transport at all, it’s only because we subsidies driving that we need to rebalance the playing field and also subsidise public transport.

  6. as devonport ferry user, if ferry is free or halved, I would buy an ebike. Even the monthly pass is worst than driving.

  7. “we need PT to be better – faster, more frequent and more reliable.”

    And more accessible and a nicer experience. Research shows that improving bus stops in an area can more than double ridership AND reduce the reliance on mobility services.

  8. In summary, positive action: build more shared paths / cycleways, increase frequency of public transport services, take electric scooters to the suburbs so people have an easy trip to the train station (this may be anti walking but walking is the slowest mode (my personal favourite) and not time efficient) and lower cost of PT. Negative action, make personal vehicle use less attractive, more expensive, more frustrating (peak hour traffic does this well but modern vehicles are extremely comfortable) and most importantly, play the climate change card, make drivers understand the real cost of their selfishness. Crap summary I know.

    1. No that is a good summary. I think they can provide all the carrots they want to PT use (and many of those are obviously needed), but at some stage they are going to have to take the stick to car users: increased fuel tax, congestion charges, less road space, no new roads, etc. Unfortunately it is a hard sell when most of your voters drive a car.

      1. A lot of the “stick” is a natural outcome of reallocating the road and parking spaces to better uses and to internalising the costs driving imposes.

        On whether it needs to be a hard sell: The vast majority of New Zealanders want action on climate, and they want our people safe and healthy. So this is a communications exercise about how to achieve that.

        We can learn from Covid – the communications needs to be from central government, and we can learn from smoking – you can’t provide good communications until you ban the advertising of the products and activities that are harmful.

    2. There are points of conflict though which is where we can have both positive and negative in one swoop. If we did live in a vacuum and cycling / PT infrastructure didn’t require the same space as cars it would be a lot easier equation to improve.

      As for directly discouraging car use, that is a significantly harder sell. We can see that people dont want this, even when there is a clear benefit, and increase in capacity by re-allocating space. Let alone making cars worse for the sake of it.

  9. I thought free public transport for the kids in the weekends put ridership and revenue up?

    Seems to me there might be other opportunities like that.

    1. Which makes sense, PT costs can blow out pretty quickly when taking the family, whereas the car cost stays roughly the same.

      I take the kids on PT as they find the train or bus part of the adventure, whereas the car is just a boring necessity to get there!

      Making PT more appealing to group of people going out for dinner on a Saturday night might be good idea too, although four or five people travelling together in a car isn’t the biggest issue we face at the moment.

    2. Yes – these sorts of opportunities are great.
      I’d go as far to say 50% adult fares in off-peak and weekends too in combo with free children fares on weekends.

    3. One free public transport idea I agree with Generation Zero on is the free public transport for under 25’s.

      At the moment public transport fares go up just when people are learning to drive, and then further again (if they’ve been studying) when they might be buying their first car or deciding where to live / work / whether they need a carpark etc. Pragmatically, it would a powerful modeshift lever to have free public transport available at each of these key decision-making moments.

      It’s about setting habits. I think this would be an excellent investment in our young people, who have so many costs to pay that we’ve put on them.

    4. Good point. Why not free off peak for everybody? I doubt that would make up much of the total fare revenue anyway would it? And there is no real infrastructure cost to provide it (no increase in peak demand)

      1. I’ve long been a fan of having free PT on weekends – I feel like this is a good way to get people to dip their toes in the water of PT use when they’re not rushing to meet schedules for starting/finishing work, picking up/dropping off kids etc; it doesn’t increase costs (unless wildly successful) and it can help the many, MANY people who complain about the quality of Auckland’s PT despite not having used it in a decade to start getting their head around using PT instead of driving

        1. Something like this, or the ability to take 1 or 2 children for free if you have a monthly pass would be great to encourage family PT uptake

        2. Children already travel free on weekends as long as they have a hop card, doesn’t need parents to have a monthly pass.

          It’s a great idea that AT have actually already caught on to.

  10. Seems like it would be easy to have monthly / annual passes put through employers like they do in the UK. Change the tax rules asap for this.

  11. If public transport is free, it means some bureaucrat has to fund all of the cost.

    So that act as a dis-incentive for whoever funding it.

    The more they work to make PT good, the more they spend and more issue it creates if things goes wrong (like a crash).

    So bureaucrats will tend to make the PT as unattractive as possible and work the least to get paid to avoid taking responsibility and risk.

    So the outcome is, we get more bureaucracy, very low efficiency, very high cost and low quality PT.

  12. Free? No – encourages too
    much anti-social behaviour etc and costs a lot.
    Cheaper? Most definitely! Cost is a big deterrent to usage so cheaper would help.
    Better service? Absolutely.
    As others have said, the best and simplest way to get more usage (especially out of peak) is to bring in realistic and affordable daily/weekly/monthly caps.
    1 zone $100 per month
    2 zone $200 per month
    3 zone $250 per month
    4 zone $300 per month

    1. “especially out of peak” – well only for those that use PT enough to need a pass.
      Why not just make off peak free? It already essentially is for pass holders anyway.

      1. Off-peak accounts for about 65 % of journeys at the moment. I think making it free would smash too much of a hole in the PT budget, making it cheaper off-peak makes a lot of sense though.

  13. Exactly. I’ve done a bit of work on this topic professionally. Free PT creates all sorts of problems, including making peak loading even worse, mode shift from active modes, etc. The funding for that also has to come from somewhere, which will typically be at the cost of service quality and expansion. Some will say, ‘then we should fund both’. Well, if you can come up with the additional funding for free fares, then that should be put into better service instead.

    If your goal is increased patronage, free fares are a bad choice. If your goal is equity, then free fares could help but the budget constraints will likely require service reductions, which often affect poorer communities more, so it could have a negative second order impact on low-income people. There are better ways to provide more equitable fares than a blunt ‘free PT’ policy. The exception is where ridership is so low that fares only cover a tiny portion of opex (often just the cost to administer fares). So you’ll see some podunk towns in the US eliminating fares and actually saving money because of the cost to collect & admin fares.

    The Tallinn study is interesting because it was more or less revenue neutral because of the way they tax people. You are taxed on your ‘official’ residence. Large numbers of people would come from the villages to live in the city but never changed their official residence, meaning the city lost out on large quantities of tax revenues. The free fares were only available to Tallinn residents so people had to change their official residence to get them. They estimated that the increased tax revenues more than made up for the free fares, at least at the beginning.

  14. The biggest issue with public transport is that it is not PUBLIC TRANSPORT.

    The way PT is organised in NZ does not provide a base service that is a full urban coverage network (i.e. all ODs, even using on-demand where fixed routes are not viable) at reasonable headways for those that have no transport alternatives.

    The Crown needs to step in and fund that part of the network & users paying fares with adequate social welfare transfers for the poor. Ratepayers, NZTA & users can pay for service level improvements above this.

    The article is right in that free public transport is not the right approach.

    The appropriate approach is to ensure that motorists pay their full costs including:
    a) congestion tolls
    b) dynamically priced parking fees (also all on-street parking should be charged for. If a space doesn’t make a return it should be converted to amenity use).
    c) carbon tax
    d) vehicle related air pollution
    e) any component of road safety not currently paid by road users (i.e. if taxpayers are picking up part or all of the downstream health costs)

    Full pricing of private vehicle travel will see a shift to PT which will require lower subsidies (with congestion toll revenues). But there is also a need to free up land use restrictions so that land use is elastic to demand and transport users have more choice in choosing origins and destinations

  15. Making PT much cheaper (or free) is only one side of the ledger.
    The better option is to be much more punitive about driving.
    Poorer people who will be disproportionately affected get tax cuts / bigger benefits to compensate.

  16. If the bus doesn’t go where you want it to then it doesn’t matter if its free. I understand the counter that it will make it easier for me to drive my car if the roads are less congested but then I still have to pay for rip off expensive parking and increasing restrictions due to AT hating car drivers.

    1. Or if the bus does go to where you want it to but takes the most convoluted route getting there, then it also doesn’t matter if it’s free.

    2. Except AT provides the cheapest parking of any provider, way under market rates.
      And the “increasing restrictions” are reserved for places that cars are restricting other more productive transport uses.

      Objectively letting more people pass through, increasing access to people. Just because you’re no longer the one getting such easy access doesn’t mean its not better / allowing more people total.

      1. You obviously are way out of touch with reality…. AT charge almost double for parking in the city centre. Early bird parking at the viaduct car park is $25 per day where as the AT downtown car park charge $40 per day. As soon as competition for parking is removed then the prices are going to sky rocket.

        1. If you think removal of AT’s parking in a market – where any private parking provider can enter – is preventing prices from “sky rocketing,” then AT’s prices can’t be summed up by the $40 price you list here. Is it the long term lease prices skewing the market? Or the short term parking?

          What do you think AT’s role is here? Allowing continued subsidies to the most polluting land transport mode? Or resetting the market signals to encourage modeshift to a sustainable system?

  17. “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”
    PT needs to be more affordable and efficient for the low income section of our community. The better off will soon take advantage if it’s in their interest.
    The ideal would be to increase the cost of running the ice vehicle. This could be achieved by adding emissions testing for all vehicles at WOF or COF time and the cost of registration or permission to operate it for the next period adjusted according to the result.
    We need to change the characteristics of the NZ fleet and it could be done on the basis of ICE efficiency and total emissions anticipated for the next period

  18. Another item regarding fare free travel has been mentioned by someone else and which has quite a few negative implications:
    The encouragement to use HOP system for all travel and produce stats for service calculations and planning.
    There can be no incentive to spread the peak times of travel.
    There is less incentive to use the active modes.

  19. How about we add a 10c/L charge, that then gets evenly paid back to every adult in Auckland, and then slowly increase that amount.

    If you drive, it costs you more.
    If you catch the bus, use your payment to subsidize your trip.
    If you walk or cycle, you get paid to take active modes.

  20. Another vote for improving the service before making it free. Start earlier, run more frequently, finish later, better bus priority, bikes on buses, weekly fare caps. And sort out the dwell time fiasco that makes the EMUs slower than the old DMUs!

    1. Vienna has been a stunning example of growing PT ridership with affordable annual passes. 800, 000 annual passes sold for a population of 1.8 million. 962 million trips last year. Auckland wouldn’t even have 800,000 people holding Hop Cards.
      Prague has had similar success with yearly passes and cities like Milano have adopted variations.
      We can all dream up ideas that we think might work, but many European cities have showed that this model does work.
      However there does need to be a coordinated approach and AT’s parking pricing strategy is the largest impediment to growing ridership that exists. What possibly could be the reason for free parking on Sundays for example?

  21. Fares are one thing, levels of service are another. The trains are a shambles. The eastern line journey is almost always way longer than it’s supposed to be (after months of works that were supposed to sort things out), and we’ve had the service between Otahuhu and Manukau cancelled again this afternoon.
    I’m a PT supporter but I’m starting to think about driving, to be honest. Especially when you’ve got a busy working and family life, with lots of kids after school activities, these consistent issues with service reliability start to get really inconvenient.

    1. The total lack of transparency is really annoying too.
      What are they expecting to get the level of service to?
      How long will it take to get it there?
      will this be forever, is New Zealand seemingly incapable of running a rail network for some totally inexplicable reason.

      1. It’s a fucken debacle. This country is falling apart. I went to my beloved Auckland library today and I was turned away because the roof is falling in.
        What a sad joke this country has become. Housing, trains beaches, libraries, roads, hospitals…

  22. Question for the knowledgeable transport folks here.. Is there any evidence as to which of the following possible future car transport scenarios would deliver the most efficient transport system.

    Scenario 1: No privately owned/stored vehicles whatsoever. Everyone who travels privately by car uses an uber-style system of ride-hailing

    Scenario 2: No privately owned/stored vehicles whatsoever. Everyone who travels privately by car uses a zipcar-style system of on-demand cars.

    Just doing some future-gazing and wondering whether former or latter models are likely to be more effective/less congested when it comes to moving people? And whether there are studies to support this?

    My intuition says scenario 2 because scenario 1 would create a lot of traffic from cars moving from drop-off point to pick-up point. Under scenario 2, private vehicles would only ever move when they’re actually moving people.

    Of course there would still be PT/walking/cycling in this hypothetical future, I’m just interested in the most efficiently shaped future of car ownership/operational systems… TIA!

    1. Yes I think you’re right.

      Ridehail’s effect on emissions:

      Ridehail’s effect on congestion:

      Ridehail’s effect on safety:,off%20and%20pick%2Dup%20locations.

      I’ve not been following carshare closely. This is a post from 2019 which shows the difference between floating and fixed location carshare models.

      One difference though, is that the ridehail model will serve people who don’t have drivers’ licenses whereas the carshare model won’t.

  23. What we don’t know is if there will be a lasting effect on public transport by Covid. The other night I watched as northbound NX1 and NX2 buses went from Constellation to Albany between 5 and 5.15 pm. One bus had four passengers and three or four were completely empty. All those buses would have been full pre-Covid. While we might succeed in suppressing the virus – I don’t think we will completely eliminate it – will we in fact be able to get over the physiological effects of it.

  24. According to Todd Niall in this article on the Stuff website today, even with the bus services being free to many potential users in Hobsonville Point, it hasn’t attracted patronage after running for quite some time:

    Also interesting to read where he mentions that the trial AT Local Rideshare service in Devonport has been cancelled but the vehicles will be rolled out later this year in South Auckland to replace some poorly used bus services. I wonder if that will include Pukekohe?

  25. Think we should have free transport in the zone where you live, it would make much more sense than making it completely for free.

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