With the great news that the Hop Card has finally been fully implemented, attention now turns to complementing integrated ticketing with integrated fares. Integrated fares is all about ensuring that you pay the same amount for a trip from A to B regardless of how you got there: a single bus, bus & train combination or whatever. The Regional Public Transport Plan indicates that Auckland Transport want to implement integrated fares through a zone based fare system – with latest board reports noting a couple of options still being analysed.
With my trying out of various options to get to and from Takapuna it has also highlighted just how important integrated fares are. With HOP to go via the 130 bus like I described yesterday it cost me $5.04. By comparison to catch a train to town and then get a bus to Takapuna – a journey that takes about the same length of time but doesn’t feel like it due to at least feeling like you are moving – costs $8.68. That’s a difference of $3.64 just to get to the same location. Even worse another bus I accidentally tried from town to Takapuna (which I will discuss in a separate post) cost a grand total of $9.67. That’s three completely different costs to go between the same two locations.
The fare zones originally proposed in the draft Regional Public Transport Plan looked at using geographic boundaries largely reminiscent of the old council areas however that didn’t receive a lot of support and sent AT back to the drawing board. The latest board report suggests that AT are looking at two different concentric zone models like this one from a survey in August last year which I understand was much preferred over the geographic boundary option.
In Wednesday’s NZ Herald, Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy discusses the potential for the integrated fares system to result in cheaper travel on public transport:
Aucklanders are being offered hope of cheaper public transport now introduction of the region’s $100 million electronic ticketing scheme is complete.
A report that Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy expects will recommend lower fares to help meet ambitious patronage targets is due before his council body’s board in two months…
…Dr Levy told the Herald after yesterday’s meeting that the card was a stepping stone to a simpler fare structure, which he hoped would give passengers cheaper trips.
The prospect of cheaper public transport is obviously appealing in some respects – and perhaps for some people the cost of public transport is what stops them from using the system. For most people though, I think the bigger issue is simply the usefulness of the system. When the system is full of routes like the stupid 130 that I talked about yesterday and/or routes with such low frequency meaning you have to plan your life around a bus timetable then no amount of price reductions is going to get lots more people using services.
Furthermore in the past I’ve looked into a number of Canadian and Australian cities and interestingly despite different fare structures and prices, the average fare paid by passengers is actually very similar to that in Auckland. These cities have much higher patronage than Auckland and some of the key reasons are the more developed Rapid Transit services and the connective bus networks. In other words they have developed a higher quality PT network and people are prepared to pay to use that.
There has also been some interesting research into this area by the NZTA. For example this paper found that while fares did play an important part, service was the key driving factor for patronage while this one notes that initiatives like free transfers, ticket promotions, improvements to hours and better timetables may have had a profound impact on patronage.
In saying all of this, I do think it’s possible that cleverly lowering some fares might lead to patronage growth significant enough to more than make up for the loss of per passenger revenue – particularly during off-peak periods where spare capacity already exists on many services.
However, clearly any reduction in fares that leads to a requirement for more operating subsidy is potentially taking money away from where it could otherwise be used – particularly in two areas:
- Improving service frequency. The flip-side of this is that any lowering of revenue from PT fares could necessitate cutting of services to fund the extra subsidy requirement – which would be a pretty crazy thing to do if patronage increases.
- Investing the money in infrastructure improvements to make public transport more attractive by being faster, more reliable or with higher quality facilities.
Obviously there’s the potential for money to be redirected away from building unnecessary motorway projects and into lowering PT fares, but one suspects that would require a change of government to occur.
All of the above doesn’t mean it’s impossible for Auckland Transport to change the way it prices public transport to be more attractive and offer better value for money. A few suggestions for how fares should be improved while not necessarily breaking the bank are:
- Fixing up fare irregularities like mentioned in my example to Takapuna
- While average fares are similar, compared to overseas cities, fares for short trips in Auckland are unusually low while fares for longer trips are unusually high. This could be redressed – although perhaps not to the extent of Melbourne’s flat fare proposal - in a way that’s ‘revenue neutral’.
- As already mentioned, fares for off-peak travel could be lowered to ‘smooth out’ peaks in demand that require very expensive peak services to be operated.
- The price difference between cash fares and Hop Card fares could be substantially increased to encourage greater use of Hop (which means faster boarding times and a more efficient system).
- Monthly passes could be made more price attractive, to encourage higher levels of PT use by existing users.
As Jarrett Walker often mentions, every public transport user benefits from better public transport and improved public transport makes it more likely for anyone to use the system. Cheaper fares, particularly if achieved in a way that comes at the cost of lower overall revenue, only help a much smaller section of society and therefore are less likely to boost public transport use than improving service through bumping up frequencies or building better infrastructure.
Ultimately I think we have an important choice to make, do we choose between better or cheaper public transport. Personally I would rather a better quality service but I realise not everyone will agree.