On Friday, half price public transport fares came into effect as part of the government’s ‘cost of living relief package’, which has already seen petrol tax reduced by 25c per litre. The reduced price includes daily and monthly passes as well as existing concession fares. ATs implementation of package also includes ferry trips to/from Devonport as AT say the service’s inclusion in the Integrated Fares scheme would have made it too costly and ‘technically challenging’ to exclude – even though the government aren’t covering the cost of them due to Devonport ferries being commercial services not under ATs control. Waiheke services aren’t included in the package.
The minister refused to cover the costs for those services with Stuff reporting a letter from Transport Minister Michael Wood to both AT and Fullers saying
“I am immensely frustrated on behalf of the people of the affected communities that this (exemption) issue has not been resolved,” replied Wood to Horne, in letters obtained by Stuff from Wood’s office.
“AT and Fullers cannot have it both ways,” wrote the Minister.
“I am profoundly hacked off that this issue has not been fixed and I think that the parties concerned need to absorb a lesson here and sort it out – and cannot in my view now reasonably expect a government public transport subsidy for them.”
If the minister wants to get this sorted out once and for all he should use his powers under section 150(1)(b) of the Land Transport Management Act to revoke Fullers’ exempt service status for Devonport and Waiheke ferries, which are clearly ‘integral’ to the public transport network.
Putting aside these minor issues, the general lowering of the cost of PT is great and will certainly help to make it more attractive to use. I’m looking forward to seeing just what impact it has on PT usage. AT estimate it could increase usage by 10-15% but then that’s coming off a much lower base with PT usage at about 35-45% of what it was pre-COVID.
For their part AT are advertising this as a great opportunity to explore Auckland. Perhaps they should lean into that narrative even more and suggest some great PT trips people could take, especially ones that might help support business areas around the region.
As I noted at the time, one thing that stood out to me about the announcement of this package was indications from Deputy PM and Finance Minister Grant Robertson that this fare drop, or something like it could be extended in this year’s budget as part of the government’s response to their Emissions Reduction Plan.
While I’m certainly supportive of cheaper public transport, for many, price is often not the biggest barrier to its use. Instead, the quality of the service such as the route, the frequency and the reliability of the service is what is key. Put another way, a crap service that’s cheap (or even free) will still be a crap service.
That got me thinking about what some of other things are the government could do in the short to medium term to increase the usage of public transport.
Funding to further improve Services
The council have just finished the consultation period for their Annual budget, the centrepiece of which is a Climate Action Targeted Rate (CATR). The CATR more than $600 million invested to improve services above the level they currently are and will combine with other planned improvements to further enhance PT in Auckland.
The government could take this a step further with additional funding to speed up the implementation of the changes and/or provide for further enhancements to services. For example it would be great if we could get all frequent bus routes up to a minimum of every 10 minutes during the day instead of just every 15.
Better Bus Infrastructure
The media debate and stoking of outrage about on-street parking has been in overdrive over the last week or so following Auckland Transport seeking approval to consult on their updated Parking Strategy. Most of the focus has been on the impact removing parking from arterials might have on local shops, often ignoring the potential benefits. As Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore said during the Council’s debate on it “One car is one shopper, a bus full of shoppers is a business.”
With Auckland Transport saying will consult on each time they look to remove parking from an arterial road it’s going to be a long time before we see significant change. AT themselves acknowledge this by noting that at present, only around 20% of arterial roads are proposed to see changes over the next 10 years.
The government have already shown a willingness to bust through council bureaucracy in other areas, such as their changes to housing rules. Perhaps they could do something similar for on-street parking by making it easier or even requiring its removal from some roads.
More bus lanes will help in speeding up buses but in addition we should also be speeding up buses by rationalising bus stops. In some parts of Auckland there are bus stops less than 150m apart. This can be useful for some, but it can result in much slower journeys. Along with making it easier to remove parking, the government could require that bus stops be rationalised.
In addition, the government could provide funding to improve bus stops in other ways. A big area that needs focus on it is how people access bus stops. This would include things such as adding pedestrian crossings at bus stop locations.
The City Rail Link will make a massive difference once it opens but there are many other things that could be done in the short term to improve trains and that are needed. I’ve covered this in more detail in the past but like with buses we need to see improvements to the speed of our trains, particularly dwell times, and improve the access to them. Improving access could include pedestrian crossings as well new connections to stations to open up catchments.
A package of projects to improve public transport by removing the pain points, combined with cheaper fares, would have long lasting impact and benefit new and existing users alike.