This is a Guest Post by reader and commenter Louis Mayo:
Hello everyone. This is the first of my promised guest posts and I thought I’d cover this issue outside of Auckland, as the other writers do a fantastic job of this already. Greater Wellington Regional Council / Metlink appear to (finally) be looking at integrated ticketing and integrated fares. As a regular user of Wellington public transport and someone who is very interested in fare structures and have guest posted about Auckland before (here and here), I thought I’d throw my two cents worth. I’d like to thank Stuart Donovan for reading over my draft copy and I have edited the post, taking into account the feedback he has given me.
Wellington’s fare system is structured slightly better than what is currently (hopefully not for much longer) used in Auckland. The system is based on “zones”, which radiate from the CBD, rather than “stages”. The difference is that zones are clearly defined and cover the entire network, “stages” on the other hand, can be different for each individual route (or group of routes). Another feature about Wellington’s system is that all fares are in fifty cent multiples which makes cash handling easier, speeding up dwell times on buses.
As with Auckland, there are cash fares, which are only available as single trip, no transfer tickets as well as frequent rider fares which are, in some cases (i.e Snapper on NZ Bus operated services, and I believe Mana and Newlands coachlines have a smart card as well) a stored value card (e.g HOP or Ritchies Fastpass in Auckland) or in other cases, a ten trip, “clip the ticket” system (e.g the rail network). There are also several (expensive!) daily and monthly pass options. All in all this amounts to a confusing system, almost as bad as Auckland, although one advantage is that the discount for ten trip and stored value is fixed at 20%, which is better than most discounts offered in Auckland (Ritchies only offer a 5% discount in Auckland!) and is at least standard across all operators (the discount, not the card).
The system that is currently used is archaic and needs to be changed. There are a huge number of very small zones. There are total of fourteen zones over the entire Greater Wellington (admittedly including Wairarapa). This would have to be comparably more than almost any other city in the world that I am aware of. The small zones consequently amount to very high fares, as only a small handful of people will travel only one zone. Zone 1, for example, barely gets you out of the CBD. You can view the current zone map below:
Penalties for transferring:
The single worst element of both Auckland and Wellington’s fare structure is that transferring between services is penalised. The use of “single trip” tickets is a major disincentive to transfer between different modes and services. Wellington are also redesigning the bus network to a system with better frequencies,the trade-off being that additional transfers will be required, therefore a time based fare structure rather than a single trip based fare structure is crucial. As far as I’m concerned if it penalises transfers, then it’s a bad system, regardless of other features. Obviously changing to a time based fare system will require full gross contracting of all services.
The subject of penalties for transferring between services seems to be an “elephant in the room” (similar situation as Auckland) and disappointingly, was not addressed in the survey. Hopefully that means that GWRC are already planning on changing this and did not require it to be in the survey. It’s all very well to be talking about distance based fares but shifting to time based ticketing would provide far more benefit. This seems to be a case of putting technology ahead of the best interests of the customer.
My recommendation is that we move to a time based system. For example, single tickets are replaced with “2 hour passes”, so instead of taking a single trip, you get two hours of unlimited transfers within the specified zone/s.
Price of fares:
Wellington have a relatively high farebox recovery rate, around 55%, the highest in the country. But personally I think fares are far too high in Wellington and they are affecting patronage numbers, growth has been a little unspectacular over the past few years (albeit starting from a higher base than Auckland). Public transport has to be reasonably cheap if you want people to use it on mass. Yet GWRC seem intent on regularly raising fares, with a disadvantage of the 50 cent rounding being that the minimum fares can be raised by is 50 cents. For example increasing the one zone fare from $1.50 to $2 meant a 33.33% increase, which is significant.
By increasing fares you are reducing potential patronage. Stuart informs me that the price elasticity of demand for public transport fares in Wellington has been calculated at around -0.5, so theoretically total revenue should increase after an increase in fares but I don’t really think that maximising revenue should be an aim for public transport. Remember that for every less car there is on the road, the less that should need to spent on roading projects.
A 50% farebox recovery rate seems relatively fair but I think NZTA’s approach to this matter is flawed. They seemed determined on enforcing an arbitrary figure but need to be supporting initiatives to improve long term farebox recovery such as ticketing technology (reduces fare evasion and encourages new users), bus priority measures (bus lanes, traffic signal priority). Calling for better farebox recovery and then reducing funds available for public transport capital improvements is hypocritical and GWRC should not accept this.
Zone based vs Distance based
There are obviously advantages and disadvantages of the zone based system that is used by Wellington. I see that Wellington is looking at the idea of distance based fares. The idea is that you would pay for the kilometres you travelled directly, rather than by the number of zones you travelled through. There would be a rate of x per km, with the possibility of having a uniform base charge (e.g $1 + 40 cents per km for instance).
Arguments for distance based fares (counter arguments in italics):
User pays / fairness: For example if you travel 2km then you only pay for that much. Under a zone based system you could pay for 8km of travel and not use it. As people are using the system pay for what they use only , users are not cross subsidising another person’s travel on a distance based system. Cross subsidisation is not necessarily a bad thing in all cases. See below.
Removes arbitrary zone boundaries. In a zone based system you have a case where making a short trip could cost you a 2 zone fare simply because it happens to go across the boundary. The larger the zones are, the larger the fare will increase by. This can be solved to an extent by having zones “overlap”, and by having clear geographical cut off points, see below.
Behavioural inefficiencies caused by zone based systems. For example under a zone system we could see people doing a “park & ride” and driving to the zone boundary and then catching public transport from there. This can be solved by charging fees for the usage of park & rides.
Arguments for a zone based system:
Convenience and easy to understand: It is much easier to calculate fares quickly by simply counting through zones rather than measuring distance. Smart cards can easily calculate fares automatically.
Can make fares for travelling longer distances very expensive, remember that one car doing a 20km trip creates more congestion than one car doing a 5km trip, yet the former will have to pay four times as much if they use public transport. This can partially be solved by having a base charge and then a lower per km rate.
Introducing a time based “pass” system that allows users to make unlimited transfer within the given time window is much easier on a zone based system. This could be solved by having a mixture of both systems, see below.
There is a question of how distance fares are calculated, would it be ‘as the crow flies (the shortest measurement between the two points)’? Or is it the length of the route taken. which would mean people have to pay extra for indirect routes, which would be unfair. The former would mean that factors such as hills (very common in Wellington!), which increase the cost of providing the service would not be taken into account. The Johnsonville Line and the Cable Car are prime examples of where this difference raises an interesting issue.
There is the option of using different fare structures, the “best of both worlds” one could argue, and to be honest the only way distance based fares would work well. How this would work is you have a distance based system for a stored value smart card (load up money), the system deducts the fare automatically from the stored value by recording the difference between the “tag on” and “tag off” point. A flat “time based” fare (e.g 1 hour unlimited travel) for cash / paper tickets would then be used. Monthly passes could then be offered using a zone system. This would probably work okay and is what is used in Amsterdam and Singapore.
Trying to do a distance based system for cash fares on paper tickets or for monthly passes wouldn’t be feasible. An example of a PT network that tries to, is CityRail in Sydney, who charge fares in blocks of distance, rather than in zones. In reality this creates a highly confusing system, because tickets are only point to point, i.e you buy a ticket for travel between “Central and Chatswood” rather than simply “three zones”. This is the reason why integrated ticketing has been such a nightmare in Sydney (T-Card).
On balance I definitely think zones are the way to go (Stuart raised some valid points but not quite enough to convince me:) . Having one fare system for all (with a discount for smart card users) should bring big savings in IT and administration costs. The main point I’m trying to make is that the zone system is not the problem with the fare structure. The problem is that transfers are penalised.
Size & Number of Zones:
The fewer zones, the easier it is to use the network. If it is easy to know how much you need to pay to make a trip, then you’re more likely to use public transport outside of your normal “daily commuter trip”. If a “time based” system is used then you can also get better value for money as you have a larger area to use.
With larger zones this will mean lower priced fares for longer distance travellers. By reducing the number of zones to five, each zone would approximately be the same size as three zones currently. it is likely that you’d set the fare at about the price of a current 2 zone fare ($3.50 for an adult) for one zone of travel which would mean that people going three zones pay less and people going one zone pay more. Therefore, people going shorter distances are effectively cross subsidising longer distance travel. This could have the effect of encouraging undesirable urban sprawl which should be avoided. But at the same time longer distance public transport travel does reduce congestion more than shorter distance travel does. The other point is that shorter distance travellers are going to have more of an option to walk or cycle – the most sustainable mode of transport you can get!
When I stay in Wellington, I’m lucky enough to be on the boundary of zone 1 and zone 2 which means I can get to / from the airport on the #11 bus on a two zone fare. When I go to the CBD I only need to pay for one zone, which is great for me but I’d be part of a minority. I guess that many using one zone fares will be people transferring between modes, for example I often catch the bus into the CBD on a one zone fare, then catch a train, if there was a time based system then I could go all the way on one ticket.
A lot of people who currently travel one zone only will be encouraged to make further use of the public transport network. For example after coming home from work, they will have an incentive to use PT to go to the shops because it won’t cost them anymore under time based ticketing.
It is very important that zones have a large overlap, which Wellington currently does not have. This would mean that there would be a number of stops / stations that were in two zones. It’d be in whatever zone that benefits that particular passenger. For example if the zone boundary was at Pukerua Bay, then the zones would overlap as far as Plimmerton and Muri. If you were coming from the north you’d say the boundary was at Muri, if you were coming from the south you’d say the boundary was at Plimmerton.
I agree fully with the idea of concession discounts being expanded to all people under 20. Providing beneficiaries and people on low incomes with concession fares would also be a good idea, remember that high transport costs hit low income citizens the hardest. I do appreciate the additional costs involved, but feel that this is worth the gains. Another thing I would like to add, is to lower costs for families and groups travelling together as the fares start to stack up in favour of driving the car once you have two or more people travelling together. I would like to increased discounts for families when travelling off peak.
Off peak fares:
Off peak discounts should be available on all modes, not just train fares. A discount of 20-35% seems about right. Off peak discounts encourage a more efficient use of resources as it is likely that increasing off peak capacity will incur less marginal costs than increasing peak capacity as there are fixed costs of buses and trains that are parked up at the depot doing split shifts, whereas improving peak capacity will require purchasing of additional vehicles.
Stuart also suggested allowing off peak fares for people travelling in the counter direction during peak hours. This would be a good idea (the vehicles have to run back out again no matter what so might as well fill them up) but could have a few issues issues defining counter peak. For example what is counter peak for services that don’t run into Wellington CBD? I’m sure this could be worked around though.
Smart card vs cash fares:
The current system of a 20% discount to incentivise smart card travel should remain. Cash fares are important to remain in the system to encourage casual usage of public transport but regular travellers should be encouraged to use smart cards to reduce dwell times for buses and reflect the additional costs of printing paper tickets, etc. As well as that I would make weekly and monthly passes only available on the smart card.
Smart card technology:
One advantage of Wellington starting this project later than Auckland is that they can hopefully learn from Auckland’s mistakes and hopefully minimise failure. It does appear that the Snapper system that is established on NZ BUS operated services has a number of deficiencies, in particular the slowness of the tagging on and tagging off and the inability to conduct online and automatic top ups as well as the issue of giving NZ BUS unfair access to statistics about other operator’s services.
My observation is that fare evasion is increasingly problematic on the rail network in particular. The system of conductors walking through trains and clipping tickets is very dated and must go. Ticket gates could easily be installed at Wellington station and consideration should be given to gating other busy stations on the network. Staff should exist only to conduct random inspections and issue fines where required.
I congratulate GWRC on consulting with the public. You can fill out the survey http://www.farereview.co.nz/ and can also choose to attach a document of a longer submission. Submissions close on 14 September and the plan is to finish design of the new system by mid 2013, lets hope they can meet this deadline. I certainly look forward to the debate that will hopefully result from this post!