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.