When I was in North America earlier this year one thing I noticed about a number of the metro systems was that they used flat-fares. In New York City, for example, one ride cost $2.25 no matter how far you went and no matter how many lines you changed. While this clearly advantaged long-trips over short-trips (and we probably should have bought a seven day pass even though we were only there for five days), it certainly made riding the system incredibly easy. You didn’t have to worry about the particular cost of a trip, just how many multiples of $2.25 you had left on your MetroCard.
London’s bus system does something similar, with all trips being ₤2.30 as a cash fare or ₤1.30 as the Oyster Card fare, no matter how long they are. As someone who lives a one-stage bus fare from the city, I am wholly aware that a flat fare would probably be to my significant disadvantage if it was applied across all bus routes in the Auckland region, but I wonder whether the opportunity might exist to take advantage of the Rapid Transit Network(RTN)/Quality Transit Network(QTN)/Local Connector Network(LCN) hierarchy of routes and apply a flat fare to some of them.
The obvious candidate is the Local Connector Network, where the trips are intended to be relatively short, generally as trips which feed into train stations, busway stations or into the higher quality, faster QTN. LCN trips aren’t intended to be that long, and with integrated tickets many should end up being ‘lumped into” the cost of the longer-distance trip on the RTN or QTN. An easy to remember $2 flat fare (or perhaps more if a significant discount was given for travel via the smart-card) could prove quite attractive with travellers – especially if they knew they didn’t need to worry about remembering how many stages their trip was going to be. You just jump on the bus and the fare is $2 (or whatever) no matter how far you go on that particular bus.
There are pros and cons when it comes to such an idea. The advantages would be simplicity, an easier service to market (the Link Bus’s flat fare was crucial in its success I think) and much faster boarding by people paying cash. However, there would be some disadvantages and ultimately I don’t think it’s necessarily as good an option as zone-based ticketing – which I have advocated for previously. Here are some of the disadvantages, or difficulties, with implementing such an idea:
- Choosing which routes were “in” the flat fare scheme and which routes weren’t could prove to be quite a headache. At the moment, most of Auckland’s bus routes fit into none of the RTN/QTN/LCN split – sitting somewhere between a QTN and an LCN: long-haul services without any bus priority measures. While overhauling the bus network to fit more neatly into the RTN/QTN/LCN hierarchy would be advantageous in many ways – it is quite a long-term project and isn’t likely to occur without a bit of pain.
- The fare for shorter trips would probably have to increase, in order to compensate for longer trips. This would depend, to an extent, one what kind of routes were included in the flat fare rate. The current cash fare for a single stage is $1.80, so that would have to increase.
- Under the current system, where the bus operators have a crazy amount of power over how things work, it could be difficult to distinguish between the LCN routes/services and other services. Ideally, we would have one bus colour for feeder routes (where the flat fares applied), one for QTNs and one for RTNs or other express buses.
Ultimately though, I think such a scheme would be useful: in terms of making the whole process of catching the bus a little bit simpler and easier to do. But perhaps more significantly, something very useful that such a scheme could achieve is forcing a dramatic reorganisation of bus routes in Auckland to a more obvious hierarchical structure – which ARTA’s planning documents have talked about for around five years now, but which has hardly happened in reality. The “one size fits all” approach to providing a bus service in Auckland really hasn’t worked that well over the past few years (bus patronage is still around 2003 levels despite public subsidies for buses increasing dramatically since then), so having something that forces bus route to operate differently could be a very good thing.
In the longer term, it’s interesting to think what a flat fare (or a very simple two or three zone fare based system) could be like for Auckland. Given that every dollar spent by NZTA on subsidising public transport in Auckland generates around $4.40 in congestion relief returns for motorists (a cost-benefit return most roading projects could only dream of achieving), it could well be worth NZTA coming to its senses and ploughing big bucks into lowering PT fares in Auckland. We’d probably need a different government for that to happen though.