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.