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The benefits of making off-peak PT useful

On Friday I had a meeting in Manukau City, and our work car was being used by someone else, so I thought I’d honour my public transport commitments and catch the bus down there from the CBD. The weather was utterly horrible, but I can’t really complain about the bus trip in terms of its reliability – in that it showed up at both ends exactly when expected, it arrived at Manukau City pretty much exactly on time and so forth. Furthermore, when I boarded the bus and offered a $10 note saying “Manukay City thanks” the bus driver asked whether I was coming back the same day, and then once I said yes, suggested that a $10 “bus about” pass would give me the best deal. I really like and appreciate that level of customer care and concern (so big kudos to the driver of the 471 bus that left Britomart at 10.30 on Friday). So certainly I could not have realistically expected the public transport service to be much better than it was.

What was interesting though was to note the people on board the bus (which went up and down at various points of the 50 minute each way trip). While there was quite a mix of types, including what seemed like most of a kindergarten class at one point, what seemed particularly noticeable to me was a big absence of people between around 20 and 65 years of age. This dichotomy, with only the old and the young seeming to use public transport, was also evident last weekend when I visited New Lynn train station to take some photos of how it’s coming along. All the people waiting for the train, or for a bus at the rather sad looking old New Lynn bus terminal, once again either seemed to be teenagers or pensioners.

I suppose that the obvious conclusion to come to is that during these “off-peak” times, generally it seems as though the only people who use public transport are those who don’t own a car: either they’re too young, too old or too poor. Now obviously it’s crucial that public transport is there for these people, as if they had no transport choices whatsoever it would be grossly unfair, but it does seem to me as though the whole off-peak public transport system is designed around the idea of only providing for those who unable/unwilling to drive – in other words, it’s a second-class system with nobody there by choice.

One only has to look at how busy Auckland’s road remain at weekends and during ‘inter-peak’ times on weekdays to realise that an awful lot of people still need to get around the city during these off peak times. The majority of trips in urban areas aren’t commuting trips, but rather simple “errands” trips – getting milk from the diary, dropping the kids at school or at a friend’s house, visiting friends and so forth. Yet it would seem that for just about all these trips, one would only ever use public transport if you didn’t have a choice.

In some respects, off-peak car trips aren’t so much of a problem as long-peak hour commuting trips – for which public transport can offer a service that people would choose to use over driving (although generally only where public transport priority exists in the form of bus lanes or a railway line, or when parking costs a lot). Congestion is lower during off-peak times, so the benefits of removing vehicles from the road through offering a better public transport option aren’t seen as so significant – or at least that appears to be the argument in NZTA’s economic evaluation manual when it comes to assessing the benefits of public transport: As you can see, the benefits (particularly the “road traffic reduction benefits”) are way higher for getting peak time PT boardings than off-peak PT boardings.

However, this misses something potentially quite important. As I was slowly making my way out to Manukau on the bus (and this would have worked even better on a train) I was able to read through some background information relating to the meeting that I was attending, and I was able to keep up with emails and so forth. In short, I was able to to productive in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible if I was driving my way out there. Sure, the bus trip seemed to take forever (another thing that hopefully a train service would improve upon), but surely there was an economic gain from me being able to be somewhat productive during that time.

People have to travel between offices to attend meetings all the time when it comes to their work, and I imagine in Auckland that about 99.99% of those trips at the moment are undertaken by car or by taxi (the latter of which I suppose enables the possibility of being productive while on the go, but of course is very expensive). To me that seems like a huge amount of lost economic activity – with everyone driving when (at least theoretically) if they were on a bus or train they could be being somewhat productive with that time.

So what’s causing the almost complete absence of people making public transport trips for these purposes? Well I got a clue when I said that I’d think about catching the bus out to Manukau, with the general response being along the lines of “good luck with that”. In short, it would seem as though the image problem faced by public transport is particularly severe when it comes to off-peak public transport. Sure, I could have done my trip quite a bit faster by car (which is an issue that needs attention in my opinion), but otherwise the service was reasonably convenient, reasonably inexpensive ($10 return wouldn’t have paid the petrol between the CBD and Manukau return I suspect, and pales into insignificance compared to a taxi fare or rental car) and everything turned up when it should have – so it was reliable.

Perhaps some of the answer is a hangover from when Auckland’s public transport was truly terrible. Perhaps some is because we rarely hear about public transport when it goes right, only when it goes wrong. Perhaps it is some sort of anti-bus bias – that perhaps could be resolved through the upcoming rail link to Manukau (even more so when we have sparkly new train to run on it).

In the end, I think there are significant, and real, benefits out of somehow breaking down this mentality that you’d only use public transport for a non-commuting trip if you didn’t have any alternative. Workers could be more productive, workplaces could save significant amounts of money currently spent on rental cars, taxi-fares and so forth, and unnecessary car trips could be eliminated – with the resulting environmental benefits that would bring. However, I really do think that something drastic needs to be done to improve the image of public transport for this to be possible, and – critically – it needs to be a lot faster. Spending almost two hours of Friday on a bus really did rip a big chunk out of my day.

17 comments to The benefits of making off-peak PT useful

  • Ross Clark

    OK, how much time would you have needed to drive from downtown to Manukau City? Twenty, twenty-five minutes max? A rail journey, once the direct link is in place, should be around thirty minutes? Would appreciate confirmation.

    There are two problems here, one specific to bus and one shared with rail. The bus-specific one is that you are travelling on the local roads network. The problem shared with rail is the number of stops you make, because they add an awful lot to the time taken; I don’t think there were many people who would have made the whole journey from Auckland out to Manukau city by bus, though I’ve done it myself.

    Solutions – look at offpeak express buses; extend the rail network; others?

    Also, you probably noticed that people joined and left the bus at different stages; not many of which were journeys which would have directly paralleled a rail journey. Hypothesis: the 471 provides a complementary as much as a competing service to the train. Criticisms of this view welcome.

  • I think driving in free-flowing traffic would take around 25 min. I’m not sure how long it will take the train, although I’m prepared to be underwhelmed as Auckland’s trains are terribly slow.

    Interesting issue about Great South Rd buses complmenting the trains. Generally the two go to fairly similar activity nodes: Newmarket, Greenlane, Otahuhu (though the train station here is terribly located) and so forth, except for Manukau (for now). People catching buses along GSR generally were focused at the “nodes” so I think there’s some double-up. I think there should always be Great South Rd buses, though I think they should do shorter runs in the future to improve efficiency.

  • James B

    Well personally I keep foreign language CDs in my car. One day I will know Japanese, one day. How cool would it be to have WiFi equipped buses, trains and ferries. Although that could end the days of idly staring out the window or reading a good novel.

  • Matt L

    Based on the current timetable it looks like Britomart to Manukau would be around 40 mins by train so it still doesn’t compete well with the car unfortunately. Post electrification hopefully we can get this down a bit but the changes probably aren’t going to be huge and I would be surprised if it was more than 5 mins faster.

    Can I also suggest that most of the people who are using PT during off peak daytime hours are also unemployed as most people of working age are actually working. Further to this most jobs don’t require people to travel during the day for meetings. This of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage better PT during these times.

  • Vin

    The young, elderly, unemployed and shift workers who use PT off peak are generally also potential car users. The aim has to be to make PT services efficent so they make PT their first choice. I live in Te Atatu North and when not working during the week use PT to get to Henderson but frequencies and reliability of service is very poor, much easier to use a car or even take PT to Auckland CBD. Not having reliable off peak services impacts on local shops, community cohesion etc. Would be interested to hear any views on real “off – peak fares” as an insentive

  • I am trying to make use of Auckland PT for something similar to this on a regular basis (as explained in my infrequently-updated blog).

    I don’t think WiFi on buses is the way to go – I think the speed and affordability of mobile broadband will quickly eclipse the need for that. I have an ultraportable laptop on mobile data that works reasonably well.

    Annoyingly, the signal always drops dead on the train between the prison and Newmarket but that’s another issue.

    The trains are definitely better than the buses for working on the move – more legroom and less jerky/lateral movement. I’ve found I can’t work on my laptop on a bus (other than on the Northern Busway) for more than 15 minutes without feeling a bit queasy from the motion, however I’ve not had that problem on a train.

    And on the side, I think a lot of seniors are using it because it’s free for them!

  • James B

    Yeah you are probably right about that Andrew, although given the monopolistic nature of Telecom and Vodafone it may be some time before mobile broadband becomes cost effective enough.

  • Why do buses at Britomart suddenly all go to a town called “Sorry” after 8.45am? It’s as if they think we don’t need PT during the day (or even late morning).

  • Scott M

    Will trains go directly to Manukau City Centre, or will you have to transfer from the main line?

    • All Eastern Line trains will terminate at Manukau City Centre, so yes there will be a direct service between the city and Manukau.

      • Matt L

        However there is no link between Manukau and further South which is probably where a lot of potential patronage would come actually from which is a shame.

        • Yes that is very very strange indeed. I think a lot of Manukau’s patronage will come from bus transfers, as I suspect all bus routes south of Manukau will terminate there, and if people want to travel further north they’ll pretty much have to transfer onto the train.

          Which is good as it will be a more efficient system and fit between with the hierarchical RTN/QTN/LCN system.

  • axio

    Did I miss something fundamental here… I would assume that the majority of people using inter-peak are under 20 and over 65 because the folks in-between are at work and not travelling.

  • Axio, certainly that explains the issue to an extent during weekdays. However, the same observation can definitely be made on weekends as well.

  • Luke

    On my rail journeys around the Auckland network the last couple of days (mostly interpeak) I saw a wide variety of people using trains. There were many people aged 20′s and 30′s as well.
    Maybe this shows that
    a) trains are more attractive to the general population than buses
    b) as more young people grow up using trains there are likely to keep using them when older, and will then use them when they have a choice

    • Matt L

      I was off work for about 4 months last year, I would often come into town by train for interviews in the middle of the day, I also noticed a wide variety of people using it and was surprised by how many actually were. I do think trains have more appeal than buses and also agree that kids who get used to using PT are more likely to use it later in life as it won’t by considered as much of a poor persons option.

  • Luke, I think that trains are starting to get a better image than the buses (Northern Express and Link Bus excepted). It’ll be interesting to see whether ARTA’s b.line idea can help improve the image of buses.

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