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The true test of Auckland Transport

It’s now almost two and a half years since Auckland Transport came into existence: joining together the transport functions of ARTA and all the old Councils into one organisation. There was a lot of angst around Auckland Transport’s creation – why should something as political and as debated as transport be pushed away into a separate organisation from the Council? Would Auckland Transport follow the direction of the Council or that of Central Government? What benefits of having an operationally focused organisation that’s independent from the day to day politics of Council really bring?

While it hasn’t been an easy first couple of years (the mess of Rugby World Cup opening night being the absolute low-point for the organisation in my opinion) it seems that most people are reasonably happy with how Auckland Transport has gone over this time. However, with the next local government elections happening later this year and public transport patronage seeming to be in a fairly lengthy stalling phase, I think the next few months will really become a true test for the whole concept of having Auckland Transport as a separate organisation to the Council.

It’s clear that the patronage issue is starting to filter through to Auckland Transport, with the new Chair Lester Levy laying down the law pretty harshly at the December board meeting:

The Chairman noted this is not a new problem and simply restating the problem will not solve it. In his view, the rail patronage had not effectively grown since October 2011 and overall public transport patronage has not really increased since January 2012. More understanding about the root causes of this is needed and must be addressed in management’s comprehensive plan due to be present to the Board in February next year. The paper needs to address not only what will be done but most importantly how actions will be undertaken and why it is believed they will work. He re-emphasised that AT needs to be a customer led organisation which will require a mindset change within the organisation. Increasing public transport patronage needs to be elevated to the number one issue for AT.

Rail patronage not growing since October 2011. Gee I wonder what might have put people off.

The response to these comments, going to the Board today, sounds a bit like 25 pages of excuses and most of the ideas around improving patronage seem to be related to marketing (not that I’m opposed to marketing) instead of actually trying to make the system better. Some quick wins like better weekend rail frequencies still seem to be ignored yet again – for example, need I remind Auckland Transport that Saturday rail frequencies on the Western Line remain unchanged from 1994?

I’m genuinely hopeful that things will improved under the new Chair, who seems to have an extremely low tolerance of the normal excuses dished out by Auckland Transport management and who seems much more interested in telling a “genuine” story about how things are, rather than the typical Auckland Transport PR strategy of pretending everything’s hunky-dory no matter how bad they’re going. I guess I’m impatient for change though.

Another Board Paper reminded me of an issue that I think cuts to the heart of testing whether it’s worth having Auckland Transport as a separate organisation or not – the issue of bus lanes. Seeing a paper on bus and transit lanes going to the Board I was excited that there might be some discussion around future additional bus lanes – what are useful trigger points for them being necessary, which routes would benefit from bus lanes, what’s the timetable for the widespread expansion of Auckland’s bus lane system over the next few years and so forth. Instead, the paper discusses just about every other possible element of bus lanes except for the most important issue – where the next ones will be.

As well as bus lanes being something of a pet issue for me, I think they’re a good test of Auckland Transport’s usefulness for a number of reasons:

  • They make a lot of logical sense and provide significant benefit for low cost – but can be unpopular. Separating operation of the transport network from day to day politics through having a CCO is designed to enable sensible but potentially unpopular projects to occur where they contribute to the strategic direction the Council wants to go (i.e. improving public transport).
  • They assist other parts of Auckland Transport’s responsibility – most obviously in managing the public transport network. Before amalgamation it was ARTA who benefitted from the bus lanes but the city councils that needed to put them in, so there was little incentive to see bus lanes go in and probably a lot of arguing was necessary. I would have thought having a single organisation would increase the likelihood of bus lanes for this reason – but seemingly not.

There’s a lot that the public gives up in having Auckland Transport as a CCO – less direct oversight through elected members, probably less democracy in decision-making, certainly less information made publicly available. For that loss to be worth it, Auckland Transport needs to start delivering – delivering public transport patronage growth and delivering necessary but politically challenging improvements, like bus lanes. Otherwise we might as well just fold them back into the Council so at least we know what they’re doing.

22 comments to The true test of Auckland Transport

  • You are not the only one impatient for change. History however will be written accordingly 50 years time by our “successors” in how well or not so well “we” did or not.

    I notice the AT Board are making an announcement on Rail Fares this afternoon after the Board meeting concludes.

    I am off to have my third caffeinated beverage today. I am up for some company around the table (not particularly interested in your ideology, just your idle chatting abilities here) – anyone else care to join

  • George D

    I wonder what might have put people off.

    Increased fares. (While the level of service remains constant at its previous level). You increase the price of a product, ceteris paribus demand will fall. It’s what they taught us on the first day of 5th Form economics.

    I’m interested to hear what the announcement on fares this afternoon delivers.

  • Wai

    Absolutely right George. I am fearing they will further increase the fares, as they have to achieve farebox recovery and the patronage is below the target, which was presumably the rationale for calculating the current fares.

  • SteveC

    As noted in another thread, I was amazed that the bus lane paper ignored the RPTP

  • Christopher T

    AT’s considered response to falling patronage is absolutely amazing: a tired marketing campaign suggesting that people take the train to ‘Museum/Swanson/Newmarket/CBD’; I didn’t realise we’ve got a ‘Museum’ station too. It’s like the CRL poster: amateur. Can’t AT get their head around the fact that it isn’t marketing that makes a decent public transport network but real, tangible, interventions like making the trains run on time, providing proper bus lanes and introducing fares that reflect the quality of the service currently being provided. And whoever is responsible for for maintaining the current western line weekend timetable should have been out the door years ago: you don’t attract customers to a rail network by running an hourly service, not in a city of near on a million people.

  • Greg N

    Well if they don’t bring in seriously cheaper off peak fares then they are pissing away their biggest chance of success.

    I guess AT have to decide do they want to first maximise bums on seats on PT or do they want to maximise the revenue component first.

    Can’t do both at once, and one has to come first – bums on seats wins the argument in just about every case so thats what I expect a turn around to getting and keeping bums on seats on PT.

  • starnius

    A-greed & a-men to this post.

    For a body specifically created to give transport the ability to “cut through the crap” and make decisions – even if those are unpopular in the short term – AT has been spectacularly lacking in backbone.

    Mostly, what we get is a slow grind of more road-focussed projects, with some isolated exemptions like AMETI.

  • Hold on, this blog is beginning to take on a multiple personality. We’ve got Missssssster Anderson telling us that marketing is bullshit and concrete service is what counts, just up from Nick R saying that the CRL will be terribly damaged by a lame image in the marketing?!

    • starnius

      Actually, what these posts are saying is that “marketing is useless if the product is crap” [product being train use] while the other post is saying “the product is great, can we please have better marketing” [product being CRL].

      Don’t see any mixed messages there.

    • George D

      You can only market what exists. (Or in the case of the CRL, what is planned to exist).

      Where that service/product is poor, marketing will increase expectations, only to have the reality of the product intrude. This dissonance exacts a high price, and is often more harmful than no marketing at all. Where the product is of a reasonable or high quality, marketing increases expectations to put them in line with the service offered, and is actually useful.

      Trains in Auckland aren’t ‘bad’, but they’re run in ways that mean what we experience is much less than it could be. As further improvements come into being that experience will improve again. The exception is if fares increase again; because psychologically we use price to signal quality, an increase in price increases expectations of quality, Being offered below these raised expectations again causes dissonance and drives people from a service (even among those who are not price-sensitive).

      • George i agree with you on price but the service is very poor too, so that’s a double sense of poor value for the ticket cost.

        The answer is to get enough of the coming changes being delivered, experiment with pricing packages and market cleverly and accurately what they are doing.

        The first part takes time, the recent call on the ferry fares gives me hope that the second may be possible, but the third? That’s going to need a change of culture and some actual comms budget. Perhaps Lester Levy can bring that. Two significant words I have seen him use together are key: Customer focus.

        I live in hope.

  • Christopher T

    I think the observations refer more to the quality of the marketing; and also the fact that AT seem to be using any sort of marketing as a remedy for service deficiencies. Mr Anderson quite clearly states that he’s ‘not [...] opposed to marketing’ and Nick R cites a very specific aspect of marketing failure. That doesn’t strike me as schizoid; and, anyway, Nick R and Mr Anderson and contributors to a multi authored blog, so I’d hope their contributions were reflective of their own personalities rather than an homogenous one.

  • Multiple, for sure! This blog has at least six personalities: http://transportblog.co.nz/contact-us/

  • Tamaki

    The JR East version of that campaign was better
    http://www.beernari.com/kirin/ichi/1traing.jpg

  • Anna

    Like the “balanced” transport plan of the 1970′s, the current “one system or multimodal” approach will be destined to continue to be a peripheral mode. Greater consideration needs to be given to the detrimental impact of enhancing roading capacity and at the same time trying to make pt a success. We can’t have both.

  • Torbayite

    I would like to see the buslane from Greville road to Constellation drive starting 150 metre further North towards Greville Road.
    This could be easily done by turning the T2 lane into a bus lane. Currently when the T2 ends the cars and trucks are crawling into congested motorway traffic whilst the bus waits. This happens by 0640 in the morning. It may be only a few seconds but this slows access from Whangaparoa/Browns Bay/Torbay /Albany to the CBD each morning so the total passenger time and bus time is quite high.

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