Last week we covered the transport policy of mayoral candidate Viv Beck. Later that same day, the Labour and Greens endorsed candidate and current Councillor Efeso Collins announced his transport policy, calling it a “Five-point Transport Plan To Unlock’s Auckland’s Potential“.
“We are lucky to live in this wonderful city – with beautiful beaches, awe-inspiring maunga, delicious eateries, and richly diverse communities. But Auckland’s traffic problems are choking the joy out of our city,” says Collins.
“That’s why my plan for better and more accessible public transport is a plan that puts the future of Auckland first.”
Collins’ five-point plan includes: a fully free public transport system, an expanded more frequent network, re-aligning Auckland Transport to Auckland Council’s vision for a better connected city by ensuring two councillors sit on its board, support for electric ferries and integration of ferries into network, and ensuring Auckland Transport’s parking strategy is rolled out equitably and democratically.
“Better and more accessible public transport is a quadruple win: good for the cost of living, for congestion, for climate, and for revitalising our town centres,” Collins says.
This plan is underpinned by the strong intent for Auckland to meet its climate action goals which will require 64% emissions reductions to come from transport by 2030.
So let’s look at those five points.
Free fares is Collins’ key initiative, and continuing focus since the start of his candidacy a few months ago. And it’s something the public do seem to like: Collins cites recent polling showing 73% of Aucklanders support the idea of free public transport, including 62% of National and ACT voters. That poll was conducted by two of the country’s largest unions, who also released a 40-page report on the feasibility of the proposal.
Great to see the govt extend half-price fares for PT til Jan. Fares-free public transport for Akl is feasible & a quadruple win: good for cost of living, congestion, climate & local economic dvpmt. Better & more accessible public transport will be a top priority as Mayor.
— Efeso Collins (@efesocollins) July 17, 2022
There are certainly some compelling arguments for free PT. After all, from a user point of view it’s hard to beat the price, and if free travel encourages more people to use public transport, it delivers benefits in helping reduce emissions and congestion as well as improving the health of those using PT. There are also operational benefits: faster boarding, improved driver safety, and not needing to run a fare collection system – though there is a downside to that last point, as AT would almost certainly lose rich vein of travel data which can be crucial to monitor the performance of services and help plan improvements.
The challenge I have with this is that for the most part it’s not the cost of fares that is holding back public transport adoption. As we’ve talked about in a number of posts recently, the key thing holding back PT use is the quality of the service. We’re seeing that play out on the system right now, with ridership stagnating well below what it was pre-COVID and even below what it was in previous Level 1 scenarios despite the government making fares half-price.
So it’s hard to see whether free fares will significantly encourage people out of their cars – a challenge in some overseas systems that have also tried this approach. Importantly, the paper mentioned above has this to say:
The examples from some cities, such as Tallinn and Luxembourg, give us important learnings on how not to implement free fares. Both cities made fares free for a share of the total travelling population and failed to disincentivise driving as an alternative.
And there’s the rub, as there’s so far nothing in Collins’ policy that does anything to disincentivise driving – not even a mention of supporting something like congestion charging.
There’s also the issue of how to fund free fares: it will almost certainly require government support. Yet government won’t even provide long-term funding for the current half-price fares, so why would they suddenly support free fares just for Auckland?
So, sure, who wouldn’t want something for free if it’s on offer? But would I prefer that over other potential improvements to public transport? Not really. It’s the kind of policy that we would be better to look at once we’ve got some more fundamentals of the network in place, such as most (if not all) of the currently envisioned rapid transit network, far more frequent services backed up by abundant bus priority along with improvements in access to the network. Effectively, free fares should be the cherry on top, not the main course.
An expanded more frequent network
To be fair, perhaps some of the improvements I listed above sit under this policy point. But as with the other points below, it’s hard to say, as there’s not much to go on other than a couple of words.
It would be good to have specifics – like whether this is further expansion beyond the plans currently in the Climate Action Targeted Rate (CATR) and if so, just how much further. One example of the kind of thing we’d like to see is a shift to making all frequent services run at least every 10 minutes all day instead of every 15.
Putting Councillors on the AT Board to re-align Auckland Transport to Auckland Council’s vision for a better connected city
On the surface this sounds like good idea, but there is a notable issue with it: we already have councillors on the AT board. After choosing not to appoint anyone to the board in his first term, current Mayor Phil Goff appointed both Deputy Mayor Bill Cashmore and Planning Committee Chair Chris Darby to the board in early 2020 as ‘Liaison Councillors”. These Liaison Councillors don’t have voting rights, but the description of the role sounds very much like what Collins is suggesting:
The key purpose of the liaison councillor role is to develop trusting relationships with the CCOs, to allow a better exchange of information. Liaison councillors can act as a key point of contact when specific issues arise, and provide advice when issues are likely to be of high public interest. They can provide the CCO with Governing Body perspectives which may help board decision-making, while at the same time being able to provide Governing Body colleagues with information about the rationale and detail of board decisions.
There is further issue though – it appears AT have developed a tendency to schedule their board meetings on the same day as key council meetings, such as those for the Governing Body or Planning Committee. A quick analysis shows that of the 17 AT board meetings over the last two years, only one fell on a day where there wasn’t a Council Governing Body or other Committee meeting. Just coincidence?
The government has already announced we’ll be getting two electric ferries and AT have just announced they’ll be buying a further five plug-in hybrid ones as well as changing the operating model. So this is kind of underway already, although it’s good that Collins expressly supports it.
Of course we’ll need a lot more than two electric ferries, so is this policy set to achieve that? I’m also a little less sure what “integrating ferries into the network” means, especially in light of the recent announcement. I wonder if this was referring to the Devonport/Waiheke issue, one of which is now fixed, while it seems that the other (Waiheke) sits with the government, who seem to be finally looking at it.
Rolling out the Auckland Transport Parking Strategy
I think it’s good that Collins explicitly states he supports the roll out of the parking strategy, as it’s critical to improving our networks of bus and bike lanes. The one caveat is Collins’ note about the policy being rolled out “equitably and democratically“. Is that code for if communities make a lot of noise against it we won’t do it?
Paying for it all
The big question for all candidates is of course how to fund their initiatives. This is what Collins’ press release says:
But there are also significant financial reasons compelling Collins’ plan. According to research, congestion costs $1.2b per year in productivity, the social cost of car accidents was over $4 billion in 2020 and car pollution alone has been linked to 400 premature deaths per annum.
“Fares-free public transport, along with the other four elements of my plan, will support families and businesses: this is a plan for the people, and for all of Auckland,” Collins says.
I worry that he and his campaign are perhaps mixing up their understanding financial and economic benefits. A boost in productivity from reduced congestion and fewer deaths is important, but it doesn’t result in a new source of revenue to help pay for stuff.
Walking and Cycling
Much as with Viv Beck’s transport policy, the absence of any mention of walking and cycling is glaring. Not just because in a climate emergency, sustainable modes are a vital part of the story – but also because these are the modes most amenable for children, and cities that are nice to walk and cycle around deliver a better quality of life for everyone.
Given Collins’ stated support for the parking strategy, I’d have least thought we might see something straightforward like “delivering on the cycling strategy”.
Light rail is going to be one of the main talking points and issues the next mayor will have to deal with. It would be good to see some information about Collins’ views on it.
Roads and Congestion Pricing
As mentioned above, achieving mode shift also requires disincentivising driving, so it would be good to see some commitment from Collins on this.
Can we please have a candidate promoting the planting of street trees?
Overall, I’m not that impressed with the policy. The headline initiative just doesn’t feel right at this time, let alone the challenges of trying to implement it. Meanwhile, the other initiatives largely feel like they’re support for stuff that’s already happening – which is definitely important, but a missed opportunity to really supercharge the policy with some inspiring and practical ideas, and a bigger, clearer vision for how the transport system could restore joy to our city.