If you’ve tried catching a bus over the last few weeks and not had any issues, count yourself lucky, as a wave of cancellations have been striking bus routes all over the region. For example, this was what AT’s mobile app showed me on a trip last week – I had caught the 866 after an NX1 service was cancelled and was hoping to transfer to the 20, but it too was cancelled, along with a few Inner Links in a row.
Here’s another example:
— Todd Niall (@toddniall) July 3, 2022
And it’s not just regular buses impacted. Last weekend the rail network was closed for works and the rail buses were also impacted to the point they were only running hourly.
Not only is the entire #Auckland rail network shut down on the 1st weekend of school holidays, but replacement buses are only running hourly. I understand the need to work on the rail network & the bus driver shortage, but it’s really hard to encourage PT when the PT isn’t there. pic.twitter.com/oCmLD9MHuo
— Darren Davis (@DarrenDavis10) July 8, 2022
A large part of this will be the resurgence in COVID cases the country is seeing right now, but it’s almost certainly not the only factor. Rumours and anecdotal evidence suggest a large number of bus drivers are also also leaving the industry.
I just quit after 12 years driving, people leaving in droves. Abysmal wages, rotton conditions with poor work life balance and constant corporate bullying. NZBUS are the worst culprits. If they looked after their staff things may be different
— Glenn M SMITH (@GlennMSMITH1) July 7, 2022
Poor reliability is probably the biggest ‘turn-off’ factor for public transport users, far more so than aspects like the cost of fares. A few bad journeys can be enough to drive some users back to their car, especially if taking place on a cold and wet night, and will certainly put off any potential new users.
So whatever the reasons for the cancellations, it’s ultimately the public who suffer from having fewer viable transport options along with all the negatives like emissions and congestion that come with increased car use.
The perceptions of public transport are also not helped when it’s revealed AT could have made improvements to air quality in buses but chose not to.
Plans to introduce more fresh air into Auckland’s bus fleet to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission were abandoned due to cost.
RNZ’s ‘Whose Breath Are You Breathing?’ project revealed carbon dioxide levels inside crowded buses could be in excess of 5000 parts per million, a number which has shocked scientists. It’s more than six times the recommended safe indoor level to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission, which is 800ppm.
High readings can indicate how much exhaled air is in a space. At the highest reading on the buses, the equivalent of one in every seven breaths was made up of air breathed out by others.
Most Auckland buses also do not have windows which passengers are able to open, and air is not drawn from outside but instead recirculated inside the bus. However, Auckland’s buses are not fitted with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) air filtration, which filters virus particles.
Mask use is mandatory on public transport, but not policed.
Auckland Transport acting group manager of metro services Darek Koper said plans to improve air quality on buses were dropped due to cost.
“Based on the financial assessment of costs for the identified air treatment options and the efficacy and safety of the systems, it was decided to abandon the plans to introduce air purifications systems or introduce more fresh air onto existing buses and trains.”
He said the investment required to change the public’s perception of safety “without the scientific evidence and subject matter expert support” presented a challenge in justifying such investment.
You certainly have to wonder how much the air quality in buses is contributing towards the cancellations we’re currently seeing. The RNZ article goes on to quote University of Michigan associate professor of engineering Jesse Capecelatro:
He said it was disheartening to hear Auckland Transport was refusing to provide bus drivers with N95 masks.
“The bus driver is the most susceptible person on the bus. The longer you’re on the bus, the more likely you are to breathe in a large number of infectious particles.”
I also wonder if in situations like this, it would be far more helpful if AT had been upfront with the public on the issues and the costs rather than not saying anything until a journalist came asking. For example, how much per bus are we talking here?
But also telling in the larger discussion about issues like climate change and air quality is this line:
Air inside buses is recirculated “to avoid introducing polluted air into the cabin from the urban environment”.
All of this combined with other issues like lower fare revenue and it feels like a perfect storm is brewing that could see drastic and long term cuts to the provision of public transport in our city. That would be the exact opposite of what we need to be doing right now if we want a chance of meeting the our emissions reductions targets.
I certainly don’t envy the position that AT staff are in trying to navigate all of these issues. Many of them could ultimately be solved by more operating budget and political support for what is the bread and butter of the public transport system. Ultimately, both the issue of air quality and driver conditions comes down to cost. Bus operating contracts go to open tender and are let to the lowest bidder. If AT doesn’t require air filters the operators are not going to add them to their buses and raise the tender cost. Likewise, if the tender brief doesn’t specify minimum wages for drivers, then the operators are under competitive pressure to cut them to the bare minimum they can get away with. Staff shortages and talent leaving the industry suggests this hands-off procurement strategy is failing to deliver.
Unfortunately it seems that, other than the recent Climate Action Targeted Rate proposal, neither Auckland Council nor central government would even consider extra bus funding or changes to contract standards. Perhaps it’s because bus contracts aren’t a transport ‘project’ that they can write a three stage business case for? If feels like it’s time for the government in Wellington to step up and bring some of the transport budget to the table to fix this now, rather than risk a death spiral of more cancellations, fewer drivers, less passengers and less revenue. They only thing that would lead to is higher emissions, more traffic congestion and greater transport poverty.