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Improving Auckland’s PT: what we need to do

At last month’s meeting of the Auckland Council Transport Committee there was a very interesting “benchmark study” that compared a wide variety of measures of public transport in Auckland with a number of cities around the world. Inevitably, Auckland performed worst in most of the measures – even when compared against other cities like Perth, Brisbane and Calgary that have much lower population densities, traditionally seen as a fundamental reason for Auckland’s poor performance. In terms of per capita usage, we are right at the bottom:

I noted in my blog post on the study at the time a few key observations:

  • Despite an improvement to Auckland’s PT system over the past decade, we’re still doing very poorly compared to comparative cities in Australia, Canada and the USA. Furthermore, most of those cities have been increasing their patronage at even faster rates to Auckland.
  • Compared to other cities, Auckland’s PT service quality is considered to be extremely low, while quantity of service provided is also fairly low (although somewhat understandably given our low use). Improving service quality (better reliability, faster speeds, value for money etc.) is likely to be the most effective way of increasing use.
  • Compared to the other cities, Auckland’s fares are incredibly high – particularly as we don’t have integrated ticketing. Making fares for unlimited daily, weekly or monthly travel quite a bit cheaper is likely to be quite effective at boosting patronage and making PT seen as better value for money. Peak/off-peak pricing splits are also likely to be a good idea.
  • Compared to Wellington in particular, we are paying too much for the provision of services on a per kilometre basis. Compared to all cities we’re paying too much on a per passenger basis. This suggests that we’re running too many empty/underloaded buses or trains around, particularly during peak times when it’s most expensive to get a vehicle on the road. I also wonder whether this makes a good case for a publicly owned bus company to do what Kiwibank has done to the banking industry and keep prices a bit sharper.
  • Our farebox recovery levels are actually quite high compared to many overseas cities, suggesting that efforts to improve cost-effectiveness should come from boosting patronage through service quality improvements, rather than by hiking fares. 

The Transport Committee was obviously rather concerned by these results, particularly given the significant increase in funding provided to public transport over the past decade. The Committee made a number of resolutions, and following up those resolutions we see in the agenda to next week’s Committee meeting a letter written by Mike Lee to Auckland Transport Chair Mark Ford, which also usefully includes the entire benchmarking study, whereas previously only a portion of it was included. The study (and the letter preceding it) are spread across three documents (one, two and three).

The report is lengthy, and complex, and makes a large number of recommendations for Auckland to pick up on so we can ‘lift our game’ in comparison to these other cities.The recommendations and current constraints in relation to PT service provision are outlined below: There’s really nothing I can argue about what’s outlined above, and it’s certainly good that Auckland Transport are well aware of all these issues. There are some really useful proposals here:

  • Focus on higher frequencies and fewer routes
  • Bus services to be designed around corridors rather than historic operators’ “patches”
  • A big focus on improving speed, particularly through better bus priority measures (as the RTN will always be spatially limited)
  • Enhanced monitoring of reliability – hopefully a shift away from the “99.9 % self reported” bollocks that we see in each monthly patronage report
  • Making it easier (physically and through ticketing) to transfer between services
  • Being careful about fare increases, but exploring potential splits between peak and off-peak pricing
  • Focus on branding “superior” routes, particularly those of the RTN and QTN

As these are generally the same issues I’ve been banging on about over the past couple of years on this blog, it’s good that either the message is finally getting through, or I’ve been thinking along similar lines to Auckland Transport and their consultants the whole time. With integrated ticketing and the new PTOM contracting model rolling out over the next couple of years (which will enable and by necessity require a fundamental relook at the city’s bus routes). As always the key will be the issue of whether these good ideas actually happen. We’ve had a lot of good plans for improving the management of Auckland’s PT system for a long time, the issue has been with implementation.

Usefully, the recommendations don’t just stop with the narrow issue of PT service provision, but also go on to discuss broader transport policy decisions and how they may impact upon our public transport results. Perhaps the most obvious point is that if we continue to build masses of new motorways (particularly along corridors that compete with public transport) we’re probably not going to achieve much of a modeshift (leading to the good old Downs-Thomson paradox): I like the proposal under 2.2 to conduct an integrated pricing study to look at all the costs and benefits of public transport in Auckland. My recent calculations suggested a pretty massive amount of congestion relief benefits coming from Auckland’s public transport system – but it would be good to see some more detailed numbers about this, and also in relation to what the “benefit maximising” fare level might be – potentially a fair bit lower than what we currently have I tend to think. Further analysis of parking policies and priority measures are also obviously things that I’ve been pushing for over quite a sustained period of time.

Another critical matter is land-use integration. While I think the transport-density debate is much more complex than the simple “Auckland’s density is too low for public transport” myth which has infected our transport thinking for decades, there clearly are strong connections between land-use decisions we make and our transport outcomes. But perhaps even more importantly, I think there are very strong links between the transport decisions we make and the land-use outcomes we get, a relationship that is either not well understood or is generally just wilfully ignored. Some useful ideas are outlined in the report in relation to this matter as well: In terms of overall density, I would be interested in seeing a comparison of Auckland to the other 13 comparator cities (maybe such a figure is hidden away somewhere in the report) as I suspect we’d actually have one of the higher overall densities. But as I explained in this previous post, the bigger problem with Auckland is the “flatness” of our density and the fact that many of our newer high density environments are just as auto-dependent and single-use as your typical low density sprawl. It’s also good to see recommendations about “integrating land use and transport planning better”, although I’ve been seeing similar things for years now and I’m yet to really see it mean much more in practice than “build heaps of roads before people start building houses”.

The fourth area of analysis is how to improve the cost-efficiency of the system. Once again this is something that I’ve talked about many times before, with key things being removing duplicative services, running fewer long-haul bus services and  Auckland Transport taking more power back from the operators to reduce the “cherry picking” of commercial services, allowing some level of cross-subsidy from better performing to not-so-busy routes. These issues aren’t picked up on specifically, although we still see some useful recommendations here: Given that ratepayers and taxpayers (through petrol taxes) subsidise PT to the tune of around $150 million a year, one would hope that the results of the further research and analysis recommended above will be undertaken and made public, so we can be reassured we’re getting the best bang for our buck – something I’m not convinced about at the moment.

Finally, some general points are made about the planning and regulatory environment. Much of this seems likely to be resolved through the implementation of the PTOM system – although that still seems to be a messy compromise. Often I do wonder how much simpler life would be if we ran our PT system in the way that most North American systems are operated, with the local government owning and operating the vast majority of all services. Not that a privatised system can’t work – London’s bus system is operated by private companies – but all route planning really does need to be centralised to create a proper PT system. I’m not quite sure how that ‘balance of power’ has been resolved in the rollout of PTOM, we’ll probably just have to wait and see.

The recommendations are pretty comprehensive and align very strongly with the points I have made over and over again during the past couple of years. Most of them won’t really require much extra money, and in fact could save a lot of money in the longer run if implemented well. But in the end it will come down to implementation and whether Auckland Transport most particularly are up to the task.

10 comments to Improving Auckland’s PT: what we need to do

  • Sanctuary

    No mention of reliability?

    I went to the All Blacks-France test match, and because it included a corporate hospitality component starting at 4pm in Britomart I thought I would catch the 3.39pm (I think) train. Service was cancelled. No excuse or reason or information was supplied to the platform at Mt. Eden, until ten minutes before the next one along when some Indian idiot on the PA appended it to the front of a meaningless message about special RWC trains starting at 4pm. I didn’t get to my event until 4.35pm, 35 minutes after it started and I swore, yet again, “never again” on a train service where random cancellations are so common they don’t even attract comment.

    I gave up after a week trying to catch the bus to work for exactly the same reason. Granted, I am going AWAY from the city down New North Road but there is still supposed to be a service according to the timetable – but 3 out of five days it just never appears, or possibly comes 15 minutes early/late, when I’m either not their or headed home to get my car.

    My experience could be repeated ad nauseum by non-PT people who dabble with PT with a view to replacing their car. People will put up with most things, but the unreliability of the published timetable is THE killer blow for PT IMHO.

    No one will use PT for routine trips unless they are have to – in other words, it will be a PT system for losers who can’t afford cars – unless it is more than 99% reliable, 24x7x365.

  • It is laughable that you could dare suggest New Zealand follow the North American model of politicised, unionised, capital starved urban bus monopolies that have achieved results that are truly absymal. Passenger boardings per head are not necessarily a helpful measure of mode share – Portland, for example, has its LRT free of charge for the inner city, so people ride rather than walk in many cases. Bear in mind that privately run public transport is also commonplace elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Sweden).

    Again, it’s difficult to see what you want improved PT to achieve. Is it about reducing traffic congestion? In which case you can argue for subsidies paid for by motorists (if it works). Is it about growing usage? If so, why is it “good” for people to ride trains and buses more if it isn’t about mode shift? Why not bike and walk more, why not read more, why not go to the gym more, why not cook at home more? It isn’t a good thing in and of itself. The only people who can rationally be expected to want higher patronage are operators because it generates more revenue, but that in itself isn’t a public good.

    • Per capita PT use is, in my opinion, a good proxy for how auto-dependent a city is. Generally PT and cars are competing for longer trips than walking (especially) and cycling cater for.

      The problems with auto-dependency should be fairly obvious, like destroying our cities for ever more car lanes or that South Auckland families can barely feed themselves because they “need” to keep two cars running.

    • ingolfson

      Yeah, because unionising is bad. We all know how bus drivers aren’t human beings – they have no right to represent their own cause, they should serve us like the peasants they are.

      Slightly off topic, but Libertyscott’s casual diss of unions really riled me.

  • Matt

    Integrated tickets don’t just need to exist, they need to be realistically priced. The closest thing we have to an integrated ticket right now (Discovery Pass) costs over double a non-discounted monthly transport pass for Vienna urban area (EUR49.50/month or EUR458/year) but doesn’t even encompass the same modes for the same area: buses to Pukekohe, but only to Papakura for trains.
    I get that Vienna’s urban area is rather smaller than Auckland metro, but comparing for quality of service there’s no excuse for the cost of transport fares in Auckland. None at all.

    One gets closer to our prices by looking at the costs of a pass for Berlin, which includes the river ferries, and for EUR120/month or ERU1164/year will get you distances not too dissimilar to those in Auckland metro.
    But, again, the quality of service pisses all over anything in Auckland. 15-minutes-or-fewer service frequencies from the early hours to the early hours or, at worst, until at least midnight. Getting around Vienna on a Sunday was amazingly easy, and in Berlin we never waited more than six minutes for a service, ever, even at 11 on a Tuesday night.

    I’ve been very vocal on the urgent need for integrated tickets and fares in Auckland, but that’s tempered by our historical urge (and not just in PT. Look at what ISPs do whenever there’s an increase in speeds) to bump prices whenever services are improved instead of allowing for the improvement to increase turnover and thus revenue. The other thing that makes our tickets so expensive relative to Vienna and Berlin is how they compare to incomes. Incomes in Auckland are quite a bit lower than in Vienna and Berlin.

  • A monthly SwissPass (http://www.swisstravelsystem.ch/en/content/offer/tickets/prices/) valid for travel by all PT systems in the whole country costs 590 Swiss Francs or NZ$854. Which is only 2.5 times the price of my monthly Fullers Ferries pass. Considering the wage differentials, I’d say we are majorly being ripped off in NZ by private transport providers.

    • Rtc

      For around 2000-3000 you can get an annual unlimited pass – consisting an average salary is 100,000+ you’re talking around a weeks salary – that’s a pittance to be able to use every form of PT in Switzerland for an entire year.

      • Matt

        That’s roughly in line with buying a Discovery Pass every month, but with far fewer caveats on use and much, much more utility. We just don’t do public transport links into small towns, whereas we had a post in here a few weeks ago looking at how good the public transport is in Swiss towns that have only a few thousand occupants. We can’t even manage good-quality public transport by international standards in our biggest city. But at least we’re world leaders for motorway lane kilometres per capita.

  • I would prefer a national scheme of integrated electronic ticketing where there is a maximum charge per day. i.e ride any local train, bus, ferry, tram or cable-car in the country and it costs $2, $3, $4 or $10 or whatever for each trip depending on length (and time of day to smooth demand peaks) and when they accumulate to $20 or $25 or similar, that’s it. Free rides for the rest of the day. No need for daily, monthly or weekly tickets. Simple and clean. It works for the typical commuter with a single ride in the morning and afternoon, and it works for people who want to hop on and hop off at will all day without fear it will break the bank.

    • Matt

      $20 or $25 per day?!?! Bloody hell. That’s not much less than a two-stage 10-ride train ticket that’ll cover a week of commuting. Christchurch’s current daily cap is $4, I believe.
      Comparisons back to places in Europe, a 24-hour pass for Vienna will set you back about NZD6. Even $10 would be steep for a daily cap, especially for those who currently live within three fare stages of their ordinary daily destination.

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