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.