With COVID restrictions mostly removed and other winter illnesses receding, I’ve been back in the office more regularly. But I’m clearly not the only one and particularly over the last few weeks trains and buses have been feeling much busier with some trips even feeling a bit more like the before times. And those anecdotal observations are starting to be backed up by the data.
Auckland Transport’s data shows that last week was the busiest on public transport this year with the weekday average passing 240k trips per day for the first time since delta struck in mid-August 2021. Last week also saw the first day with more than 250k trips too. That’s good news and with the last few weeks sitting at around 65-70% of pre-COVID levels, it suggests PT use is finally starting to recover again after being stuck in the 55-60% range during autumn and winter.
As you can see above, we still have some way to go, even compared to other times since the initial lockdown in 2020 when we reached 270-300k before new lockdowns occurred.
The results are actually slightly better on weekends with usage last week close to 100k per day, or about 75% of pre-COVID levels.
Given the anecdotal observations around some buses and trains being quite full again, I do wonder if one thing we’re seeing is that demand on the edges of the peak times is not as strong.
Looking at the results by mode we can see that trains continue to lag behind buses and ferries and this has been the case since August 2020, when after seeing usage recover at a similar rate to buses, the large rail network shutdowns began after it was discovered the network was in much worse shape than expected. However I do expect that train usage might also be being impacted because those services were used by a higher proportion of city office workers who are now working from home more.
Speaking of working from home, Mondays are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the quietest weekday is a Monday. Meanwhile the busiest day is a Wednesday.
One area where the drop in usage, and the more recent half price fares, is having a major impact is in the amount of money collected from fares in comparison to the cost to run the system – a metric known as farebox recovery. The metric has a bit history as the previous National government set an arbitrary target of achieving 50% of costs covered by fare revenue regardless of what the level was that would attract the most economic benefit. Auckland did reach that milestone in mid-2016 before integrated fares and the then new bus network started rolling out.
As usage rose and AT put extra services on to cope with the demand – which was primarily at peak which is the most expensive time of the day to provide, farebox recovery had fallen to about 42%. However, the arrival of COVID has seen reach a new low of just over 14%.
Related to this, the amount of subsidy per passenger km to run services has skyrocketed to an average of $1.42 per km.
Casting our gaze overseas we can see that even some of the cities with rich public transport provision, like London, Barcelona and Madrid, are still only seeing PT use of around 80% compared to pre-COVID levels. You can also see that Wellington is looking strong and in August usage was around 78% of 2019 levels. Given the results we’re started to see in September, it’s possible we could soon be seeing Auckland back to those levels.
Have you been noticing more people on buses, trains and ferries?