Yesterday Auckland Transport were celebrating, as the most recent Sunday was the busiest Sunday they’ve ever had.
That’s a great outcome and I’m sure the recent car parking issues at malls has probably helped encourage a bit of use too.
The previous busiest Sunday was November 24 2019, which was also a Santa Parade day. Even so, for some time now – even outside of special events – public transport use on weekends has been at or near pre-COVID levels.
To me, this once again highlights something we’ve been saying since well before the pandemic. Which is, that AT should be putting more effort into making public transport better for a wider variety of trip types in more locations, rather than their often single-minded focus on weekday peak-hour trips to and from the city centre.
This issue was somewhat highlighted yesterday in an interview with AT CEO Dean Kimpton by the Herald’s Simon Wilson, which came in part in response to the mall car parking issues of the last week.
But as with congestion problems everywhere, Kimpton knows there’s no easy fix. The problem isn’t practical, it’s emotional. People want to drive to the mall.
Newmarket is on four of the city’s five rail lines and has at least a dozen bus services. When it comes to good public transport, Newmarket is what that looks like, isn’t it?
“Yes,” says Kimpton.
So is the lesson that even when you build it, they still won’t come?
“I’m not a believer in ‘build it and they will come’. There’s a cultural resistance: we love our cars. And I think there’s an immaturity around Auckland growing as a modern city.”
True, Newmarket has lots of buses and trains (hosting two and a half of the city’s three and a half train lines), but I wouldn’t call it an example of “good”:
- Off-peak and weekend trains still only run once every 20 minutes on the Western and Southern lines, which don’t even meet AT’s own definition of a ‘frequent’ service.
- Where bus priority does exist, it largely vanishes off-peak and on weekends – as highlighted on the map below. Only the green and blue sections operate on weekends, and they’re far from continuous – so lots of buses will be caught up in weekend congestion.
Meanwhile, across the public transport network, weekday usage continues to hover at around 80% of pre-COVID levels. Some of this is due to issues like the ferry network crew shortages and parts of the rail network being closed down. A high-level estimation suggests we’d be back at around 85-90% of pre-COVID levels, if rail ridership had been able to recover at the same rate as buses.
All of this is important, as Auckland Transport have set themselves the ambitious target of getting back to 100 million trips on public transport by the middle of next year. That said, the actual target in their Statement of Intent is only 83.4 million trips – and they think they’re on track to achieve about 84.3 million trips.
Those goals will be made even harder if the AT Board today approves a staff recommendation to increase public transport fares in February by a weighted average of 6.2%. This is just the adult section of the proposed fare schedule:
The biggest increases will come for shorter journeys, with single-zone trips increasing by nearly 10%. AT say this is because:
Updated benchmarking against 44 international cities shows that Auckland continues to offer relatively low short-distance fares, ranking 4th place overall for affordability. Longer-distance fares (15km or more) benchmark poorly and rank 33rd place for affordability.
The big driver behind the need for this change is large increases in the cost of providing services, due to inflation and wage increases. AT describes these increases as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unparalleled’. The total cost increase is around $107 million across all modes – about a 21% increase.
Overall, they expect the changes will increase revenue by $5.8 million, or around 4.3%. This is lower than the weighted average of 6.2% fare increases, because AT expects the higher fares will result in around 1 million fewer journeys – or about a 1.6% decline in usage.
I get that AT are under financial pressure, but raising fares right now is going to hurt. And while they did finally get around to raising some parking prices earlier this year, those should be aligned with PT price increases. Itw ould make sense to at least increase parking rates by the same amount.
One thing we may see next year is schemes to assist businesses to encourage more public transport use by employees. From the interview with Dean Kimpton:
Yes, he says, and talks about a plan to persuade corporates to shift their staff on to public transport. The companies pay for Hop cards and save substantially more by not having to provide car parks.
“We’ve done some trials, and we’ll go large on it next year.” The plan is to roll it out “corporate by corporate and precinct by precinct”. He mentions the Wynyard Quarter, East Tāmaki and the airport.
One other thing about the interview stands out: an absolute clanger from Kimpton about cycling.
“And we won’t be doing the big urban cycleway projects – we can’t afford them.”
He adds that contracts have been let for the Great North Rd and Pt Chevalier cycleways, so they will proceed. But he’s taking a good look at Glen Innes to Tāmaki.
And he has a message for cyclists.
“In that emissions reduction plan, cycling is supposed to rise to 17 per cent of all trips. But it’s still stuck on 1 per cent. We’ve got the facilities available and people aren’t using them. My message to the cycling community is this: ‘If walking and cycling are important to you, then do it.’”
Sorry, what? “The cycling community”? Is the “driving community” a thing? Does AT tell the “walking community” to use it or lose it, when footpaths are the subject?
Does “the cycling community” include the many Aucklanders who repeatedly tell AT, every time AT repeatedly asks, that they cycle occasionally and would cycle more if it were safe to do so? Does it include children, whose journeys don’t typically use the disconnected scraps of “the facilities”?
And where are these “facilities” he speaks of? Even AT’s own maps show most of the city has no access whatsoever to safe cycling facilities.
And we do know that if you build it, they will come. The network effect is well attested to, and it works – yes, even in Auckland.
Below is a video I put together a few years ago, showing the leaps in growth on the NW Cycleway over time, as the route was upgraded, extended and gained additional local connections. This is the network effect in action – and we’ll only see it strengthen and reach the levels needed in the emissions reduction plan if the transport agencies responsible keep expanding the safe network.
Kimpton is clearly a statistics guy, but that 1% comment (presumably drawn from average census stats across Auckland, now five years old) is bizarre, especially when he has more detailed statistics at hand, as well as regular explanations of what the numbers mean and what the barriers are to more people cycling.
Notably, AT hasn’t updated its own public-facing stats on cycling since June this year. AT’s data, based on a few dozen counters on key routes, shows that, as with PT, usage did drop off as a result of COVID – and that it is now recovering, and already back to above 90% of pre-COVID levels. March is always the busiest month, and March 2023 was the third highest on record.
Moreover, a quick dip into the census stats would confirm for Kimpton that the areas lucky enough to have access to “the facilities” (such as they are) tend to have higher bike-to-work numbers. Also, that some schools across Auckland are already knocking on those TERP targets – albeit this largely involves kids and caregivers biking on the footpaths, due to a local lack of “the facilities”.
You would think the head of transport for New Zealand’s largest city would quickly develop a stronger understanding of this stuff, especially as his short tenure has seen high profile examples of community calls for AT to deliver safer cycling.
Speaking of safety: the comments on the Herald interview, before they were closed, show how easily these kinds of statements can unleash and encourage hostility against the most vulnerable people on the roads that AT is responsible for keeping safe. That’s not good.
This may have been an off-the-cuff statement, but it’s an unforced own goal for the leader of a Vision Zero organisation with a mandate for encouraging lower-carbon travel.