This is a guest post by Nick Lovett a long-time reader of the blog and former Auckland/Christchurch expat who moved to Vancouver in July 2020.

Auckland’s public transit system has captured the gaze of many cities in Europe and North America. As urban populations abroad become vaccinated, people are beginning to plan a return to ‘normal life’ as public health restrictions lift. At the same time, many transit operators are beginning to look for clues in how they can expect patronage to recover after a more than a year of emaciated ridership. In most cities where COVID was widespread, boardings have remained below 50% of anticipated levels for more than a year, while in New Zealand (and a lesser degree Australia), ridership recovered more quickly, following short, sharp lockdown measures.

Figure 1 – Data from Transitapp reveals how ridership has remained 40-60% below pre-COVID in much of the English-speaking world.

Data from TransitApp shows how people in the US, Canada and the UK are only slowly returning to public transport in recent months whereas this return to transit began late last year in their antipodean counterparts. The key question many of us abroad are wondering is to what degree the trends from New Zealand can be extrapolated to predict international ridership recovery?

Figure 2 – Official AT data gives an indication of how accurate transitapp’s nationwide approximations are given 60% of NZ’s PT boardings occur in Auckland

The data from Transit is only an approximation but does match fairly closely with the actual bus ridership figures provided on AT’s website. Right now, AT bus ridership remains about 18% lower than where it is normally expected to be which is understandable given how many tertiary institutions are without foreign students and many more people have embraced working and learning from home.

However, despite new working and learning from home trends, traffic volumes have quickly returned to pre-COVID levels, stoking fears that the public transport recovery may be slow and arduous. To make things worse, the one-off cash injections by governments of the USA, UK and Canada were not intended to cover deficits in perpetuity. Consequently, some funds are running out and have led some cities, such as London, to moot the possibility of service cuts. As many readers will know, this can lead to a ‘death-spiral’ of poor-service, shedding riders, and more downward pressure on services and should be avoided.

Figure 3 – In many cities traffic has bounced back strongly, but Auckland’s PT network has fared better than most

Here in Vancouver, the regional transit operator (TransLink) is preparing a return to transit campaign in anticipations of increased ridership this summer. In support of this, they have modelled several scenarios, including a ‘new normal’ which may yield similar results to Auckland’s current ridership patterns being ~10-20% shy of pre-COVID levels later in 2021. Being able to confidently forecast these ridership numbers is important because (rightly or wrongly) many systems around the world have come to rely heavily on farebox revenue to fund services. Most PT service planners know the challenges of balancing service coverage and performance to maximize utility and will only recommend service cuts as a last resort.

Figure 4 – Slide from TransLink Board Meeting in April this year predicting possible recovery scenarios

Another approach to avoid a car-led recovery, is employ strategies that make PT more attractive and in turn get more people riding the bus. We witnessed some of these measures in the early days of the pandemic being implemented only temporarily, such as no-cash policies or all-door boarding. These policies plus many of the temporary streetscape measures that were employed with rapid pace in New Zealand and around the world, have shown how effective and successful they can be suspend our status quo bias during a crisis. Hopefully, many of these will endure to reduce dwell times and make journey times more competitive with private vehicles.

These tactical measures have an added benefit of speeding up bus journeys to also reduce operating costs, something that is vitally important for cash-strapped operators. Here in Vancouver, tactical measures such as removing parking and implementing bus lanes and in-line stops were quickly implemented last year and were expected to save more than $2 million annually. Many of these improvements have been in outside of the downtown core as people are living more locally and not taking as many trips downtown or to the airport. I know that AT’s planners have seen positive ridership growth on suburban and crosstown routes over the past year while airport and downtown commuter routes have been slower to return.

Figure 5- This bus build-out near my apartment in Vancouver was just one of several measures implemented with the hope of speeding up buses and saving millions in annual operating costs.

I’m hopeful that alongside these tactical implementations, cities can learn from one another to improve public transport for their residents. Perhaps AT can be encouraged to be bold and experiment with more tactical quick wins in the future.

For cities outside of New Zealand, operators will need to learn from Auckland to try and forecast when and if a full return to public transit may occur. Key to this will be understand factors that are driving peoples’ travel behaviour. and then explore how these experiences could be applied to and adapted to their local circumstances.

A small favour

New Zealand’s pandemic response has been the envy of many western peers the world. AT’s metro network has shown remarkable resilience partly (in my view) by strong evidence-based decisions and supporting research by Waka Kotahi. To build upon this, I’m assisting with a research project here in Vancouver being led by Simon Fraser University. The research seeks to understand pandemic adaptation and resilience strategies for urban public transportation outside Canada. Auckland is one of the research cities, and if you have a few minutes to fill out this survey it will be greatly appreciated.

Either way I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below about Auckland’s ridership recovery compared to other parts of the world.

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  1. Is this the right forum to bring up mask wearing on PT? Possibly.
    A law that is not enforced is not a law at all, merely a suggestion.
    There are more and more people ignoring the legal requirement to wear a face covering on PT. And no one does anything about it.
    Lots of very vulnerable people use buses etc. and these people have no empathy, no sense of civic duty; just selfishness.
    Surely AT transport officers could hand out a few fines?
    If drivers can refuse to carry anyone not paying, they can do the same for people not wearing a mask?
    And whereas in Auckland it is a few people unmasked, in Wellington my experience was that only a small minority were masked.

    1. AT have no power to enforce mask wearing on PT… The governing act (COVID-19 Public Health Response Act 2020) is administered by the Ministry of Health, they must delegate enforcement powers… and so far they have not….

    2. If you want to be really disappointed, go anywhere except Auckland. Several times I have been the only person wearing a mask on a bus with all seats full. In Auckland at least, it seemed about 90% were wearing masks.

    3. Targeting public transit users in general was problematic from the start but was politically viable because PT users are a small minority that are used to being treated like second-class citizens by government. They should have narrowed the rule to only cover plane travelers (higher risk group due to journey duration and recirculated air, as well as being easier to get 100% compliance) or broadened it to cover more public spaces (if the risk was really that great).

      As they say, hindsight is twenty twenty (pun intended) but really mask mandates should have been made highly responsive to the national risk profile at the time. This would require more effort to be put into communications (could be another use for the Covid tracer app) but would get higher compliance by convincing people that some intelligence was being applied rather than just a blanket rule. For example over Summer masks should only have been required on planes but going into Winter masks should have been required on all PT and indoor public settings like malls and supermarkets (due to higher incidence of respiratory diseases in general, RSV in particular and nagging worries about the Delta variant).

      1. Agree. And while you say hindsight is twenty twenty, following the evidence at the time was always the best option, and it was being demanded by advocates.

        This was a political choice, and not a good one, IMO.

      2. Yes at level one there isn’t supposed to be any of the virus in the community. So mask wearing at level 2 and above on PT and anywhere else people crowd together would have made more sense.

        Mrs mfwic had her first Pfizer jab last week and came out and told me she was the only one in there who brought her own mask, the rest were wearing the masks given out at the door. These are all people who are level 3 and so have a higher risk of serious illness or death, you would think they might take more care of themselves.

    4. Well, the restrictions are pretty farcical anyway. School kids don’t have to wear them, so you end up as i do on my commute home in train carriages half full of St Peter’s College students maskless, with the adults masked.

      Virus particles are 1000x smaller than the gaps in normal cloth or surgical masks, and control studies are increasingly shown no difference in transmission rates between masked and unmasked populations. There is also the matter of the toxic brew of bacteria that are growing on the average punter’s unwashed cloth masks.

      Generally, unless you are going to provide and enforce N95 on everyone, masks are mostly just theatre.

      1. When the conditions require masks, and their use is enforced, the evidence shows cloth masks are effective at reducing the transmission rate.

        1. Heidi – Can I have the double-blind peer reviewed study that you are referring to please?

        2. The way they work Adrian is to cut down the distance that the expelled breath can travel, especially a cough or sneezing. They are a muffler for want of a better term, not a filter. The N95 masks are just the same only slightly better but again are not filters

          The best public scenario is a disposable mask (not the ones people buy in a 2 dollar shop and reuse over and over, either never washing or only occasionally washing), hand sanitizing ad nauseam and a well ventilated environment (not air-conditioned) with plenty of fresh air and social distancing.

          But these are only solutions to mitigate and it does work.

        3. Keith – as I said where is the peer-reviewed double-blind RCT? I know the hypothesis, which you stated, I want the peer review paper so I can read for myself.
          I am not asking for anything too much am I? After all the modus operandi of this site has always provide evidence. I suspect that mandated masks has put some people travelling on PT then we should have very good reasons to mandate it.

      2. I live in Melbourne, id love to see the evidence behind wearing them outdoors, it seems like a great way to panic everyone.

        1. I wear mine between Britomart and office each day, it keeps my face warm and Queen Street’s air pollution out.

        2. Has Melbourne not gone through that cultural shift yet? It’s really quite normal here now. I’m not saying the majority of people wear masks or anything like that, but no one blinks an eye or is panicked.

  2. Today was the first day since early 2020 where the 866 was standing room only at 8am! Annoying for me, but a good sign for PT ridership.

  3. The price of petrol is creeping up that always gives public transport a bit of a boost. I haven’t followed the geo politics so I am not sure where we are going. Obviously in covid times people don’t like being on crowded trains and buses which explains the increase in bike use. Anyway covid is not over yet anything could happen. Actually there is a good comment on Newsroom about the demise of the Marsden Point oil refinery and what happens in the unlikely event of a global conflict disrupting tanker delivery of refined fuels to New Zealand. It doesn’t bear thinking about scary stuff.

    1. Thats a good point about the price of petrol. It’s been quite low for a while, that probably accounts for some of the 20% decrease.

      As for Marsden point, we already have to import heavy crude for the refinery, our local crude is almost all sent straight to export. So there is little geopolitical change in my unprofessional opinion.
      Interestingly NZ is set to gain a lot geopolitically from the switch to full renewable energy.

    2. Don’t worry, Kiwirail will find a way to get that patronage back down again. Oh look, peak time Onehunga trains will now shuttle between Onehunga and Penrose so have fun with that long walk in the open at Penrose in winter.

  4. 20% down isn’t as bad as I thought it was actually.
    Between mask mandates, general COVID fears, low fuel prices, work from home, construction, and the train network disaster, this is actually not too bad. With the improvements still being rolled out / built we’re clearly going to blow past the previous high water mark.

  5. Security of oil supply issues are a very good reason to switch or convert our bus and train fleet to electricity. I can’t imagine New Zealand or the world could sustain another oil shock similar to 1973 on top of covid. Who knows what could happen.

    1. Except Auckland converted the bus fleet from electricity to diesel. Wellington bought a bunch of Auckland’s trolley buses cheap.

  6. Loss of refinery control is a problem, as NZ will have to import loads of pre-purchased products of various specific grades. It leaves no local control of the products or their quality or cost.
    So what do we pave our roads and paths with? Asphalt binders or portland cement?

    1. Imported bitumen can be modified to meet NZ standards at the import terminal without needing a refinery. This isn’t hypothetical; it’s already routine for a significant proportion of our bitumen to be imported this way.

    2. We will be able to go back to using tar. NZ is going to import more coal this year than ever before because for some reason we have decided to reduce the amount of gas we produce and use imported poor grade coal instead.

      1. Yes, but I suppose the tar will be used up repairing the roads between the port and Huntly. If only we had a rail line there so those trucks didn’t have to pass through our city centre. Especially as the truck drivers taking the coal run more red lights than any set of truck drivers I’ve ever seen. Honestly think they’re trying to kill us.

  7. More to the point –
    Masks: At least regular PT users are reminded of COVID by mask wearing. But apart from that, NZ has become extremely lax about scanning. Sydney provides a real warning of what the delta variant can do in a slack city – Auckland is similarly at risk. Setting PT passengers as the only category with any real COVID discipline is taking a big risk. I don’t know that the need to wear masks is actually putting anyone off PT use. I know I am home-working 2 out of 5 days, so 20% ridership reduction.

    1. Plus one regarding working from home 2 days a week.

      Lockdown has also meant that cycling the whole way to the office is now my main method of commuting, where previously I took my bike on the train for part of the journey.

    2. I have worked from home 5days out of 5 for 20 years now. But where I used to go out several times a week, now I go out maybe once every 10 days. Zoom meetings have become the new normal and they mostly work well. We just have to get more people to stop using the internal mic on their laptop.

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