Call me cynical, but if I don’t hear anything about a public transport project for quite some time I start to get suspicious. This generally is for good reason – with examples including the near screw-up of electrification last year and the consistent delays to the Onehunga Line’s opening almost passing under the radar without a ‘peep’ from the powers to be. My newest worry is about integrated ticketing – because we have heard absolutely stuff all from ARTA and now Auckland Transport about how the project is progressing. In fact, the only tidbit of information from ARTA/Auckland Transport was in the form of a media release in October that managed to contain next to no information of use whatsoever.
My concern about this project is that we know so little about what’s going on, yet there remain so many unanswered questions. What has happened in the year since ARTA signed the contract with Thales, for example? We heard some detail from Thales back in August on some aspects of how things were progressing – but that was mainly in terms of the technical “making it happen” side of things. There are also some huge unanswered questions relating to fares policy, how things will work with snapper, whether there will be free transfers, what part of the system will be up and running by the Rugby World Cup, how will the system as a whole be phased in, will we have zone-based ticketing and so forth. Plus, last but certainly not least, what will the card be called?
Integrated smart-card ticketing will make such a massive difference to the quality of Auckland’s public transport system if we do it right. By enabling easy transfers from buses onto rail we can reorganise our public transport system to be far more efficient and effective, by enabling free transfers we can achieve the “network effect” and not punish people for changing from one service to another: but rather simply charge them based on where their trip begins and ends – regardless of how it gets there. But we have to get it right, and there are some pretty big problems sitting out there that haven’t been resolved as far as I know.
Problem 1: Snapper
As people may remember, shortly after ARTA announced that Thales was getting the contract for supplying the integrated ticket for Auckland’s public transport, Snapper/Infratil decided to do their best to sabotage the entire process by deciding to roll-out Snapper on the buses in Auckland that Infrail (Snapper’s parent company) run through NZ Bus (Snapper’s ‘sister company’). While we haven’t heard anything about how the roll-out of Snapper is progressing, I have started to notice the installation of equipment on various NZ Bus operated services that sure look like they’re designed to take Snapper card readers.
The problem here is that Snapper isn’t an integrated ticket, as nobody but NZ Bus is ever going to accept the Snapper Card. Yet if Snapper gets their system going before Auckland Transport/Thales, people will (either by choice of not if the current machines are replaced) replace their existing Go Rider cards with Snapper Cards. Who’s going to want to have to replace their Snapper Card with a Thales/whateveritscalled card just a few months later? That’s a recipe for absolute disaster – thanks Snapper.
Problem 2: The Fare System:
Back at the start of this year I had a chat with some senior staff at ARTA about whether the fare system was going to be simplified into something of a “zone based system” in preparation for integrated ticketing. The advantage of a zone based system is that you could easily provide free transfers: in that it wouldn’t matter how people got from A to B – they would simply be charged for a trip from A to B. This means that if I’m travelling from Herne Bay to Newmarket I could have the choice of walking to Ponsonby and catching a very long Link Bus trip or I could have the choice of catching the 005 into town and then catching the train to Newmarket – both for the same price. This makes sense: as long as I stay within “zone 1” it shouldn’t matter how I got there.
Unfortunately, the response I got wasn’t particularly optimistic. It seems that we will be keeping our stupid stage based system – even though it hugely discourages transfers. Considering all ARTA’s transport strategies utterly depended upon making transfers more attractive, this would appear to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made. People will continue to be punished for transfering meaning that we will continue to have to try and provide “everywhere to everywhere” services, which means that we will continue to have bus maps that looks like spaghetti thrown at a wall – with all the routes operated at horrifically low frequencies.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that if integrated ticketing doesn’t include zone=based ticketing and the elimination of transfer penalties, it will be one of the biggest lost opportunities ever.
Problem 3: What’s going to be ready by the World Cup?
I was talking to someone the other day who said that there has been pressure to create integrated ticketing since the early 1990s. As long as I have had even a passing interest in public transport (about 10 years now) the “need for integrated ticketing” has been highlighted again and again. Yet up until recently nothing whatsoever had happened – aside from the Discovery Passes that were deliberately priced excessively by the bus companies to “prove” that there was no demand for integrated ticketing. So really, there’s little excuse for why we wouldn’t have implemented integrated ticketing years and years ago.
Added into that mix is that in September and October next year the eyes of the (rugby playing) world will be on New Zealand, and Auckland in particular – as we host the Rugby World Cup. There will be a big influx of visitors and there will be a big influx of media. Contrary to the government’s belief, all these people won’t be bringing cars with them on the plane from Australia, Europe and wherever else they come from – they will more than likely use the public transport system in vast numbers. While a lot of work has gone into ensuring that things are right for the whole “getting people to the game” issue, the nature of a Rugby World Cup – particularly in its latter stages – is that you play a few games on a weekend and then nothing happens for 5 days until the next weekend. So there will be a lot of people staying in Auckland, without a game to go to, looking for something to do – they will be people without cars (memo to Steven Joyce: cars don’t fit on aeroplanes) so they will use the public transport system: all parts of it.
A whole pile of visitors and international media, with nothing to write about other than whether player X will recover from some injury in time for the next game, plus a public transport system where train tickets aren’t accepted on buses, bus tickets from one company (say MetroLink) are accepted on what appear to be three other companies (NorthStar, GoWest & Waka Pacific) but aren’t accepted on the trains or ferries or any other bus companies. Seriously, we’re going to be the laughing stock of the whole entire world.
If I were high up in Auckland Transport, I would be extremely worried about these issues. Extremely worried that Snapper appear like they’re going to sabotage the entire integrated ticketing project, extremely worried that all this effort to implement integrated ticketing is going to be undermined by not modernising the fare structure and, perhaps most particularly, extremely worried that Auckland’s public transport system – but most particularly its extraordinarily complicated fare system – will become the laughing stock of international media at next year’s world cup.
The Snapper issue is somewhat difficult to solve, but the others are most definitely fixable. Implementing a zone-based fare system with free transfers must be a core part of the integrated ticketing project: if that means base fares need to be raised a bit then I think it’s still worth it – but I actually think the fact that free transfers will enable the RTN/QTN/LCN hierarchy and the elimination of so many pointless duplicative routes, it’s likely to pay for itself. In terms of ensuring we have at least some sort of fully integrated ticketing system in place for the World Cup, the solution is simple:
- Make rail fares the same as bus fares
- Force all bus companies to accept and sell rail tickets
There, sorted. We could have integrated ticketing tomorrow if we really wanted it.