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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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. https://www.surveymonkey.ca/r/Auckland240621
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.