Public transport usage has been all over the place since the start of the pandemic over two years ago. Where we once were celebrating ever new milestones and wondering how high usage would get in certain timeframes, we now how long, it will take just for usage to get back to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s been a while since we talking about what’s happening with ridership so I thought it is time to see where it’s at.

Average weekday usage in Auckland peaked at the start of May at around 216k trips per weekday after the school holidays ended – note, the weekday averages exclude weekends and public holidays. That followed moving to the Orange Light COVID setting at the start of the holidays and the governments half price fares offer which came in at the start of April as part of their cost of living package – which has also seen fuel tax reduced.

As you can see from the graph below, since the start of May there has been a bit of slide down in usage with last week averaging around 197k trips per weekday. However, that reduction is fairly normal for this time of the year as the wetter and colder weather kicks in and as winter bugs become more prevalent. That latter reason likely plays an even larger role in a COVID world.

So, while usage looks down, we’re still actually seeing similar a percentage difference over the last eight weeks to pre-COVID levels, with that difference sitting in about the 55-60% range. That percentage range is similar to what we saw under the old Level 2 setting.

It’s also worth noting from this data that it’s really hard to see from the this data just what impact the government’s half-price fare scheme has had. Perhaps usage would be even lower without it but more likely is that the PT market hasn’t changed all that much and it’s the quality of services that are driving usage, not the fares.

And the service quality certainly hasn’t been great of late with services being reduced and many being regularly being cancelled , with AT saying:

As the Omicron variant spreads in the community, we may have a high number of short-notice cancellations across our services. We are expecting this to continue as we head into winter.

Looking a bit deeper at mode use, one thing we continue to see is trains really underperforming compared to buses and ferries. While recovery following the first lockdown was fairly similar, since the shutdowns to fix the tracks started in August-2020 trains have remained lower, currently around 5-10% than buses. I think we as the public deserve to know more about what the actual state of the rail network is and AT and Kiwirail need to provide more transparency into how the work to repair the network is going.

Finally, I also like to look at how we’re performing against other cities. This graph can be a little hard to follow but key thing that sticks out to me is that Auckland was one doing quite well earlier in the pandemic but that’s not the case anymore. Meanwhile cities that have historically been much stronger in PT use, such as the Spanish cities and London, are starting to get much closer to being back to ‘normal’.

It also noticed that for the last year or so we seem to have been following Sydney quite closely in our results, just off set by about a month. I’ve pulled the two out below.

In order to help reduce emissions and congestion, we not only need to see public transport use get back to where it was prior to the pandemic but to significantly exceed it. While the spread of COVID is out of ATs control, the fact remains that poor service quality is a sure-fire way to discourage public transport use. We’re also going to need Auckland Transport to be both incredibly creative and aggressive in their pursuit of options to improve the customer experience. Instead improvements seem to be glacial at best.

One hope is that with the passing of Mayor Phil Goff’s budget, which includes a Climate Action Targeted Rate, that we might see some of those needed improvements.

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  1. I use the eastern or southern line a couple of times a week.
    The passengers are very good and always wearing a mask.

    1. In the peak times and on the trains, mask wearing is still mostly very good.

      I know several people that drive to work rather than using the train, because they can’t be bothered wearing masks. It’s fully a barrier.

      1. I think that is the real problem: driving is still very competitive to PT in Auckland in terms of convenience and cost, compared to cities like London where very few people would change modes like that due to the big difference in cost and convenience. For Auckland to have a better PT network we need the roads to get worse and the PT to get better. But no politician is committing to the roads getting worse part even though they are pretending to commit to less vehicles and emissions. Instead they all want to build more roads and spend much more on roads than PT.

        1. Well yea, cars don’t pay anywhere near enough for the activity that is so ridiculously well catered for. In a city how is there free land for parking.?

          The easy the first step. Most roads that have busses on them should not have parking. It should have bus and /or bike lanes.

        2. If it was really easy, it would have happened by now. Hint: it’s not politically easy at all.

        3. Zippo. It is easy, it just needs leadership. We have Phill “no car parks left behind” Goff.

        4. Well you say that, but he did manage to stop AT from reallocating space without consultation.

        5. That “opinion” is what leadership is about, though, because the mayor’s comments get picked up by the media and influence the public discussion.

          The mayor has had the opportunity throughout his terms to publicly demand AT use the existing consulted-upon parking strategy to be bolder about removing parking to achieve the goals of the Auckland Plan and of the GPS. When AT said they needed to “refresh” the strategy and “renew the mandate”, this could be construed as their needing to do this work because they hadn’t had support from him. It was, of course, complete bollocks from AT because they had publicly consulted and the strategy was what they should have been following, not trying to seek pats on the back from the mayor. The mayor could even have pointed that out and told them to get on with it as they should, and not waste rates consulting again. And certainly not on a strategy that regressed as this draft one does.

          All up, the mayor had opportunities to make a difference on parking removal, and didn’t use them, creating quite a problem.

        6. Maybe a lot of Aucklanders like driving and like living in a city where they can get places easily. Maybe the system is working really well. Maybe we don’t want our roads to get a lot worse.

        7. Ah, but maybe some good mayoral leadership and messaging would shift people’s thinking reasonably quickly. So that they see “worse” in terms of a temporary impact on their ability to drive can contribute to “much better” for their ability to choose other ways of getting around. And that the positive impact for so many other people really means that worrying about that temporary hit on driving is not exactly having a community spirit, nor providing for their family members who don’t drive.

        8. “Maybe the system is working really well.”

          If this is the system working well then we should burn it to the ground and start again.

  2. Annecdotally another barrier at play is local education. I live in Birkenhead and my friend lives in Birkdale. She asked how I get into work and I said on the bus, I kid you not she said ‘you can catch a bus from here to Town?’. She was shocked when I said its quicker than going by car. Amazing stuff…

    I don’t think there is a short term answer to getting usage back up, if people would rather drive and pay to park and burn $3 a litre fuel than wear a mask then it really says how little value people see in PT, and thats because we’ve spent years focussing it on getting people to and from the City Centre for work. Soon as that model changes then our PT system is screwed.

    1. “local education” – I have commented on this before. AT have some of the best advertising space in the country available for free. Just a simple thing like painting on the bus lanes something like ” towards city” would help.
      But the biggest thing that would improve ridership is the simple things that you would expect on a train like all door boarding, large double doors, less stops, completely dedicated corridors. None of those things would cost that much to implement. Couldn’t they at least try it on a route? Driving past a bus that is stopped for 5 minutes with a big queue of people lining up in the rain to tag on beside the driver is not good advertising.

      1. My comment got a bit screwed up, it should have been “Frequent route (route number) towards city”

  3. Many people are now working from home and not commuting. Our office had 200 daily, now all staff work from home most days.

  4. The greatest barrier to improving PT,is in recruiting and retaining staff,the immigration tap has been well and truly turned off. The current low $20 per hour driver’s wage rate isn’t working,and a new model will have to be found. Automation of vehicles is a long way off ,so human input will be crucial for years to come. We will have to get maximum use out of hourly input,pointless releasing scarce resources into an overcrowded network (bus lanes anybody ?)
    The answer may well lie in other solutions,as well,live where you work,stop building in sprawl,freeing up active modes,(we know this already).
    The battle for staff is going to be the biggest obstacle in all aspects of NZ,for the foreseeable future, unless this is addressed,all other PT improvements will be rendered useless.

  5. People look down on PT in Auckland like it’s for the lower classes only or something. Hard to change perceptions given all companies offer the big dogs free parking in town, and PT has historically been utter crap. Buses are still pretty average, loud, weird braking (maybe that’s the driving), etc.
    As it gets better and we remove these pointless company car parks (and huge amounts of other city parking) it will change. But coming off a very low starting point.
    In London everyone catches the train regardless of wealth.
    And people are rather lazy here, I watch a person drive 400m to the ferry every morning

    1. “People look down on PT in Auckland like it’s for the lower classes only or something. “

      I don’t know about that, I have called an entitled bus user in the past and there is fully is a perception of people on PT working white collar jobs. When on PT I see I broad mix of people.

      But yes, PT having to compete with free smorgasbord car parking and incredibly low entry costs for cars, is damned hard.

    2. When I moved over from the UK 11 years ago I was shocked at how people looked at ‘walking’ somewhere. People were literally getting taxis and Ubers for less than 10 minutes walk, in very walkable areas…in a Country where walkin is literally a National pastime. Baffling!

  6. With Covid now becoming endemic, and this being the new normal, PT usage will never get to the level it was at before (all other things being equal of course).

    There will be a higher number of people taking sick leave than in the before times, so unless companies are willing to hire additional workers to take this into account there will be staff shortages and hence worse service. If they do hire additional staff then of course it has an impact on cost and will increase inflation if passed on (this is more relevant for retail than for PT, since in theory the government could chose to subsidize PT more, though National has already indicated that they want to subsidize it less, so there is that).

    And from a customer point of view of course it is much safer to not use PT than to use PT with possibly infected passengers or of course using PT with bad service (not to mention that you don’t need to wear a mask in your car).

    1. Wait until petrol hits $10 a litre.

      “And from a customer point of view of course it is much safer to not use PT than to use PT with possibly infected passengers or of course using PT with bad service (not to mention that you don’t need to wear a mask in your car).“

      It’s massively more dangerous to drive a car tho. It’s also going to be far less healthy long term.

      1. “It’s massively more dangerous to drive a car tho. It’s also going to be far less healthy long term.”

        You’re right, but people massively discount these risks of driving when it’s something they are used to and part of their daily routine, so they’re useless for persuading current drivers to adopt PT.

        As a short term strategy, AT would do better to address Covid safety concerns positively, through auditing the filtration on trains and buses, upgrading it where needed and communicating that with vehicle signage, social media etc. Maybe they don’t want to strengthen the association of PT with Covid but it is clearly a persistent objection for many people so I don’t see why you wouldn’t tackle it directly.

        In the long term, though, it’s speed, cost and convenience that will get people using the system, and they’ll downplay or manage perceived health risks just the same way they currently do with driving – because we’re all creatures of habit and are great at doing the things we’re used to and finding reasons afterwards.

        1. That would be a complete waste of time and money.

          PT gets used when it’s reliable and effective. Ideally more so than other modes. That is where focus should be.

        2. Is it more dangerous though? Walking and cycling are more dangerous (for you) than driving, and taking public transport often means walking to some bus stops. And you’ll often find your bus stop on an arterial road near you.

        3. roeland. Sure statistically walking and cycling may be more dangerous (i.e. more deaths / injuries per x amount of trips) but just remember that that is because of cars. There is a reason why AT is changing many speed limits to 30 km/h: (according to their website) at 30 km/h there is a 10% chance of killing someone with your car in a collision. At 50 km/h there is an 80% chance.

          Also, the health benefits of walking and cycling may outweigh these risks.

          I’d also argue that walking in NZ is fairly safe, even safer than driving.

    2. I agree. What I don’t understand is why so many people think it will miraculously get better. Polio never got better and nor has dengue. This thing isn’t going anywhere and being an RNA virus can mutate rapidly.

      This being the case why would we invest in public transport? Surely the answer is cars, cycleways and footpaths. And of course not travelling.

      1. AT is reducing speed limits so that more people will paying speeding fines and recoup the loss of fare box revenue.

        1. That is a completely unfounded assertion.

          The reason AT is reducing speed limits is to save lives, prevent trauma, and encourage active travel.

        2. They need to do a bit of investment in *safety cameras* to make that work, with only 50-some opportunities to get snapped in Auckland.

          Plus the Police currently own them and will be transferring them to WK/NZTA next year, so no direct gravy for AT anyway.

          I say go hard, since there is a foolproof device to avoid the fines built in to everybody’s right ankle.

    3. “With Covid now becoming endemic, and this being the new normal, PT usage will never get to the level it was at before”

      The endemic phase is exactly why PT usage will return to normal. Its certainly the case in Europe, where I have been recently. Sydney is the same. Only in NZ is the death of the office/CDB/PT being proclaimed. The rest of the world is back to normal, or near to it.

      And from today’s stuff (indirectly related to PT):

      “And plenty of people are back in the office regardless.

      Google Mobility statistics show workplace attendance is 3% above the pre-pandemic baseline (a median figure derived from activity before the pandemic).

      Fewer people are at the office in the larger centres of Auckland and Wellington, but the drops are not catastrophic, 10% in Auckland and 4% in Wellington.

      Companies are also still opening new offices, 2degrees’ new HQ in central Auckland at the end of last year.

      2degrees head of property Ben Blakemore says all workers have the option of working remotely, but the new office is luring them back.

      “There are just things that the office is still really perfect for, especially if you get the chance to build it the way we have.”

      1. I rode into the city today for work and around noon decided to treat myself to lunch – timed it perfectly sat down and received my order just before a seemingly never ending stream of other city workers formed a queue inside and outside the place. Easily 50 people grabbed takeaway Sushi in the time I was in there.

  7. I believe ferry patronage has been noticeably improved by the half fare scheme. Unfortunately the bus and rail parts of the Auckland PT system are far too prone to meltdowns even during the week, let alone the weekends which are often total writeoffs. It’s no surprise rail is underperforming, since the cracking fiasco, it’s just been one damn thing after another. Pukekohe is shutting down completely for 2 years! in September so that’s another loss of patronage.

    1. Yes the trains have had it bloody hard the last few years. The message is clear, they don’t care about providing a robust service.

      It’s all going to be sunshine and roses when the CRL open tho…

    1. It really isn’t that dangerous, the trains are spacious, have excellent aircon and the doors are open every few minutes. Just about everyone is wearing a mask. Really, all things considered, many other public areas are far more of a covid risk, elevators for example.

      1. Yeah, I agree, everyone on PT wears a mask but lately I’m seeing fewer and fewer people wearing masks in retail and communal office spaces – I think those are more of a risk. And schools.

    2. By way of reassurance, pretty much everyone on trains and buses is wearing a mask. I doubt PT is a major cause of transmission of covid in Auckland these days. But it would be itnreresting to see the data if there is any. Perhaps the MoH or AT could do some research and publish the results? Or AirNZ for that matter.

        1. no. Do not accept getting covid.
          Go do some more reading please JJ.

      1. Anecdotally schools are the big spreader. I try to avoid the school train for this reason, and that the high school kids are amongst the worst for incorrect mask wearing.

    1. I don’t think it is a habit at all, more a sensible economic choice. Most people find changing away from car use in the short term to be more painful than reducing spending elsewhere- like eating out less or not buying new stuff or not having a fancy holiday. You still live where you live and work where you work and kids still need to get to the same places. Changing any of that if a long term thing.

        1. Yes I didn’t understand what he meant. Is he saying putting the boot in when people are down? Policy can’t make lives better when people face a supply shock. It can make things worse- but it certainly can’t make things better.

        2. As we age, miffy, we need to see the positive that comes from change, instead of assuming, incorrectly, that it’s all negative.

          Helping people see their options when they’re making changes isn’t putting the boot in, it’s offering freedom from stuck mindsets.

        3. I guess it all depends why you think people do what they do. If you assume they are stupid then I guess you can apply policy to them like some sort of corrective measure. But good luck with that. They might actually be optimising already and just get really cross when someone treats them like an idiot. Make enough people cross and they vote for a Trump just to annoy the people who made them cross.

        4. “Make enough people cross and they vote for a Trump just to annoy the people who made them cross.” I mean that would be a thing that.. stupid people do?
          Mass behavior is rarely rational or at least short sighted (more roads are more efficient in the short term, more PT has the potential to massively increase quality of live in the long term)

        5. What do you think those Trumpists actually stand for? They want to deny liberals power and they oppose anything liberals support. Why? Because most of them are really pissed off and have been made to feel they are not allowed to express their opinion. It isn’t stupid, it is tribal.

        6. The nicer one of the two explanations why somebody would be a Trumpist is that they believe blatant lies and bullshit.

        7. Actually I think widespread oxycodone dependence might have a lot to do with Trump’s success. A lot of areas in that country saw families ruined by addiction of people who simply followed an expert’s advice. Once people lose faith in expertise, public institutions and government then you get a wrecker like Trump. But he is nothing compared to what is coming. Sooner or later they will get someone like Trump who is actually effective. Then their country is really stuffed.

      1. You can’t make a rational economic choice when you’re dealing with a monopoly.

        Car dependence is baked into the landscape by decades of investment choices by government and into family finances in the sunk costs of vehicles.

        Correcting that is an antitrust action.

  8. Passenger numbers might increase if people are given the right information.
    I have cause to go to Britomart this Friday (now a public holiday). The South
    line I use will be closed (I live at Pukekohe), so I decide my best option is
    Rail Bus to Papakura, then Bus 33 to Manukau where I can get on a train on
    the Eastern Line. So, I look up journey planner, and yes, there is a Rail bus leaving Pukekohe every 20 minutes.
    Just to confirm this, I look up ‘Rail Closures’ only to find that is not correct – there
    is only one Rail bus every hour, not every 20 minutes.
    Who do I believe ? Rubbish in, Rubbish out !

    1. Afaik rail buses run at the same timetables as trains, which would be 10-20min on peak and 30-60min off peak

      1. In this case it says on AT’s planned closure page that due to driver shortage the Southern line buses will be running hourly. The journey planner suggests taking the rail replacement bus and swap to Eastern Line or other options but gives a 20 min frequency of the RBS- so yes you can see why the Smurf is grumpy.

    2. Pukekohe rocks – but not for PT.
      No need for it – everyone has a car….
      Yes – i live out that way – and next bus is 2025 where i live.

  9. I think Ralf hit the mark. Bus and train driver pay needs to be truly livable to attract more people into the jobs. Sickness rates are also affecting services, so pay level, immigration freeze and sickness are all combining to affect services. And trying to run trains on flimsy steel strips with spongy trackbed can’t help. The rather viscous response to travel costs needs time to take greater effect, which customer experience and advertising of PT can help, but tackling the improvement of reliability is important, however hard that is.
    And the “Ha, ha – fooled you again!” shifting of temporary stops in the city centre isn’t really helping. “Take you to your bus stop?” cash opportunities for people on the streets?

  10. What is the impact on cost if you only commute 2 days per week? It is not like your monthly pass gets 60% cheaper compared to commuting 5 days per week.

    Is car traffic also still down or is that already back at previous levels?

  11. A lot of Eastern buses have had reduced timetable so they are more reliable rather than random cancellations you can’t plan for due to drivers been off with COVID etc.
    This has made our local 298 bus, running to a Saturday timetable, almost useless. It is now hourly so in our family the car has been used more than it would otherwise.

  12. Where I am (the UK) rail demand is still only two-thirds of prepandemic levels. When that is broken down, though, we’re finding that our busiest day is actually Saturday – I never thought, after 30+ years in this business, that I would ever see that. Interpeak volumes are at about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. *Peak* traffic is little better than half its pre-pandemic level, and my not-so-humble-opinion is that that is here to stay. For a variety of reasons, bus traffic has recovered more strongly.

    Car volumes are pretty well back to normal, though. Because of home working, people can start their day at home, but commute in once rush hour has eased off, where previously they would have taken the train.

  13. Wow in that last graph of comparitor cities you can really see how PT use is skyrocketting, the line is nearly vertical!

    If we look at March, normally the highpoint of the year, we had about 125K, and a couple months later we are hitting 200K. That’s a 60% increase in only a few months.

  14. I was let down by the bus on Friday. The loop has two contra-rotating bus routes but they cancelled both. I don’t have other people in my household to come and collect me so I had to walk. At least it wasn’t raining.
    Maybe i will buy an electric scooter and not patronize the bus at all.

    1. I too am a very infrequent PT user. Tried the bus this week, on paper it’s perfect for my trip. In reality, not so much.

      In 2 days I had:
      – 2 ghost buses (INN inner link hopelessly off its evening schedule)
      – 1 bus left 4 mins early from its first stop so I missed that connection
      – 2 discourteous driver interactions (1 my fault for grumpiness at ghost busses)
      – 1 cancelled bus that actually showed up (yay!)

      I’m glad I have the physical ability to walk part-way home so that I don’t have to rely on connections.

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