Further patronage analysis

I must admit I got a little sidetracked in writing yesterday’s post about PT success, by the analysis I did of Auckland’s bus patronage since 2002. Analysing the patronage of the bus network, and of all PT modes as a whole, is actually something deserving of its own dedicated blog post as there are some quite interesting things you find if you look closely enough. So I’ve updated and extended the Excel Worksheet to include all patronage, and I’ve also made some distinctions between patronage figures just above/below average and those well above/below average.

If we start with the bus patronage again, I have updated the table I put together yesterday to include estimates for October, November and December 2010. Hopefully over time Auckland Transport will release the patronage information for these three months – and I will be able to update these with the real information. But I think I’ve taken a reasonably good approach to my estimates – working out the increase in general for 2010 against 2009 for January to September (5%), then for November and December 2010 applying that increase on the 2009 numbers. For October I had to do something a little different, as back in October 2009 there was the bus lockout – so I’ve applied the 5% increase to the October 2008 stats, potentially an under-estimate but I can live with that. This has also enabled an update to the per capita statistics to include 2010 – as full yearly patronage (though only estimated for 2010) can now be included. That brings us back above 34 bus trips per capita per year for 2010 – which is a big improvement on recent years but still below 2002-2004 figures. Some modeshift to train appears the likely reason behind this.Matt L pointed out in a comment on yesterday’s post that some of the declining bus use around 2005 might be attributable to that being about the time when we got the first “SA Trains”, and about the time that rail patronage really took off. While that’s probably true to some extent – looking at the total patronage statistics for 2002-2010 shows that 2005 to 2007 were still pretty bad years. Total patronage fell from 53.1 million in 2004 to 50.1 million in 2005, and it took until 2008 before patronage was once again higher than it had been in 2004.
On a much brighter note, it’s clear that total patronage has gone up massively in the last few years, meaning that the early 2002-2004 years now appear as being ‘below average’ years quite clearly. This year in particular, the patronage statistics have been particularly impressive. For October, November and December I have used a similar method to what I said above for bus statistics – though I used a 6.2% increase instead of a 5% increase: because PT patronage as a whole in the first nine months of 2010 was 6.2% above the same months in 2009.

Some interesting things jump out at me from looking at these numbers. Perhaps one of the stranger statistics is how high August patronage was in 2002-2004 compared to March patronage; but how that has turned around in the last few years which March becoming clearly the busiest month of the year. The timing of Easter may have something to do with March being so high (Easter has fallen in April for the last two years), but it still seems strange that August’s total PT stats back in 2003 were only matched in 2010. For bus patronage, 700,000 more bus trips were taken in August 2003 than were taken in August 2010. That’s really strange.

Looking at per capita PT boardings, thankfully the big patronage increases in 2010 has pushed us over 43 trips per person – an increase from 41.6 trips per person back in 2002. I’m debating whether I should use Statistics NZ’s population figure for the “Auckland Region” or simply that of the “Auckland Urban Area”. I have settled on the region as a whole, although the table below shows a comparison of the two in terms of PT trips per capita. It doesn’t really make too much difference in terms of the change over time.One aspect of the data that I am a bit wary of is that I have got all these figures off the line graph that ARTA included in all their monthly business reports: This means that there’s probably a little bit of impreciseness in the figures, as sometimes it’s a little tricky to tell whether I should say the patronage was 4.2 million or 4.3 million. This shouldn’t make too much of a difference to the longer term statistics, but it might mean that some months come out as being below average or just above average incorrectly. To compensate for this, and also to provide quite an interesting further insight into the data, I’ve gone through both tables (bus patronage and total patronage) and changed the colours of months where the patronage was at least 300,000 lower or higher than average. This highlights what might be called ‘particularly good’ or ‘particularly bad’ months.What comes out most obvious again is just how bad things were in 2005-2007, and also how much patronage has increased in 2009 and 2010. I really am curious to know what happened in late 2004 and early 2005 to cause such a dive – something that wasn’t really arrested until the high petrol prices of 2008 kicked in.

Another way (in addition to how a particular month compares with the average figure for that month over the nine years) to assess the ups and downs of the statistics is to compare how a particular month performed against that same month the previous year. Obviously, as I don’t have any statistics for 2001, I can’t compare 2002 months against anything earlier, but for later years the results are quite interesting indeed – especially when you apply the same “particularly good/bad” additional measure as I did in the graph above. The results are shown below: What becomes clear in the above table – more so that earlier tables – is the timing of the fall in patronage in late 2004 and early 2005, and then the timing of the recovery, firstly in 2008 and then again pushing forwards in 2010 yet again.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about all this analysis is what appears to be the immense impact of the May 2005 bus stike. During that strike action, Stagecoach buses were off the road for around six days – plus there were further strikes before that big one (and maybe afterwards, I can’t remember). Interestingly, by contrast the October 2009 bus lockout did not have anywhere near the adverse effect on patronage in the long term – perhaps because people switched to catching the train for a few days rather than going back to driving? While it seems PT patronage in general was declining before May 2005, the biggest falls (August 2005 bus patronage was a massive 1.2 million less than August 2003) appear to happen in the few months immediately following the bus strike in 2005.

Looking a bit more longer term, across the whole of the nine years the data tracks, there are some interesting statistics when you put it all together: Unfortunately it’s a bit difficult to separate out the rail and ferry data, so I’ve had to lump them both together. What immediately stands out is how Auckland’s public transport system has diversified over the last nine years – back in 2002 almost 88% of PT trips were on the bus, whereas in 2010 that figure had declined to just under 79%. As ferry patronage has been fairly stable, most of the change has come as a result of the massive increase in rail use. This is reflected in the 111% increase in ferry/train use between 2002 and 2010 (almost all of which appears to have been on the trains). This compares to only a 8.6% increase in bus patronage over the nine years.

Looking at things from a per capita basis, it’s heartening to see that there has been an increase in per capita PT use in Auckland since 2002, even if it’s only relatively small (4.2%). What continues to worry me is the 6.6% decline in per capita bus use over the period of the data – a reflection of the fact that, aside from the central connector and the Northern Busway, we’ve actually done very little to improve the bus system over the last 9 years. That’s where I think our real focus needs to be in the immediate future – particularly if we want to achieve ARTA’s long-term goal of 100 million trips across the whole network by 2016. A big chunk of those are going to have to be on the bus network – and they won’t happen by magic.

Measuring PT success

A lot of effort, and money, has gone into improving Auckland’s public transport system over the last decade – mostly in the form of upgrading the rail system, building the Northern Busway and providing the bus companies with increasing levels of public subsidy. I’m the last person in the world to say that this increased spend has been unjustified (with the possible exception of the increase in bus subsidy), but the amount of money and effort that has gone into improving public transport clearly leads to the question of “how do we judge that it’s been worthwhile?”

ARTA, and now Auckland Transport, focus a lot on patronage increases. Rail patronage has increased dramatically since Britomart station opened in 2003 – from around 2.5 million trips a year to 9 million trips a year. Bus patronage hasn’t grown much though in the same time period – as shown in the graph below from ARTA’s September monthly business report (are we ever going to see patronage reports from Auckland Transport?)

The orange lines show monthly bus patronage. While it obviously bounces around on a month by month basis, the longer term trends for bus patronage in Auckland since 2002 don’t make for the best reading.

To show this a bit more clearly, I’ve taken the statistics from the graph above and popped them into an Excel Spreadsheet. I’ve then compared how each month between 2002 and 2010 compared with the ‘average patronage’ for that month over the nine years. Where patronage is greater, the month is highlighted green, less is red and on average is yellow:

The two shaded months (May 2005 and October 2009) indicate months when there was industrial action (at least I presume that’s what caused the unbelievably low figure back in 05) that disrupted the figures. What’s immediately obvious about the statistics is the obvious question of “what the heck happened in 2005 to 2007?” The other five full years looked at (2002-2004 and 2008-2009) all had total bus patronage of above 45 million trips – and I’m sure 2010 easily got above 45 million too eventually – but those three middle years all had patronage of merely over 42 million.

So patronage levels tell us something when it comes to determining how successfully our PT system is working. It’s pretty obvious that something went terribly wrong in those three middle years: perhaps it was low international student numbers, perhaps it was rail patronage cannibalising bus patronage, perhaps it was because there were few, if any, improvements to the bus system during this time.

However, there’s something else to throw into the mix when it comes to analysing patronage, and that’s the fact that Auckland’s population continues to grow. In fact, between 2002 and 2010, Auckland’s population grew from 1.254 million to 1.459 million: an extra 205,000 people. So you would expect patronage to increase in line with population growth to be an indicator that the system is ‘standing still’, with an increase in per capita boardings being the true test of whether public transport patronage is actually increasing.

Dividing the annual number of bus trips in Auckland over the 2002-2010 time period by the population of the Auckland region shows some interesting results:
So from 36.5 bus trips per capita per year back in 2002, we’ve actually decreased to a figure of 32.5. Now obviously some of those trips would have gone from the bus onto the train – as rail patronage has increased significantly – and I’m sure the 2010 figures (which remember don’t include October to December) would show a much higher per capita figure than any year since 2004, but overall I think this provides an interesting insight into answering questions about what has happened to our bus network in recent years. (I will do something similar for total PT patronage in a future blog post).

So there are clearly some flaws in completely focusing on total patronage, without having regard to population change. But simply focusing on ‘boardings’ also has its limitations. The benefits, to reducing congestion, to the environment and so forth, of a long trip being made by public transport instead of by car, is surely greater than that of a short trip. Auckland’s roads, in particular, benefit a heck of a lot more from someone taking a peak hour trip from Papakura to the CBD on the train than they do from someone taking an off-peak trip for a couple of kilometres to visit a friend. This is reflected in the NZTA economic evaluation manual when it comes to assessing the economic benefits of PT projects, but otherwise doesn’t seem to be reported much.

One exception to the general lack of focus on public transport trip length were figures presented by ARTA to the ARC last year (on the very last page of that document) – which indicated a huge increase in the amount of passenger kilometres travelled on the PT network.

An improved rail system, plus improvements to the bus system that have focus on longer distance trips (like the Northern Busway services and improved frequencies to growing areas of Botany and Flat Bush) have contributed to making the average public transport trip in Auckland a lot longer over the last couple of years. This is likely to have had a much greater impact on reducing congestion than if trip lengths had stayed the same.

Another measure that’s often used to calculate the “success” of public transport is ‘modeshare’, which effectively calculates the percentage of people who use public transport to get to work/university/school (for those 15 and over). Modeshare’s disadvantage is that it pretty much completely ignores off-peak patronage – people using PT to go to the movies on the weekend or pensioners going shopping during the week. So while modeshare may be useful in telling us something about PT’s ability to reduce peak-time congestion (ie. if we increased Auckland’s 7% modeshare to something like Vancouver’s 16%, the roads are likely to end up significantly less congested), it doesn’t tell us much else. An example of this is the fact that Christchurch has a lower PT modeshare than Auckland (5% compared to 7% I think), but because Christchurch’s PT system works well for off-peak trips, they actually have more per-capita annual boardings than Auckland does.

A single, region-wide, modeshare figure also ignores the difference between trips made along congested corridors or accessing places like the CBD with short trips to work from one suburb to another that may not generate much congestion at all. So while Auckland’s 7% overall modeshare sounds incredibly low, if you look at what happens in important places things are quite different. Around half of all commuters into Auckland’s CBD each morning use public transport and around a third of people crossing the Harbour Bridge a peak times do so on the bus. In other words, if it weren’t for public transport we’d need twice as many road lanes into the CBD (and twice as many carparks in the central city), plus another few lanes on the Harbour Bridge.

While place specific measures of peak-time modeshare may give us more useful information about how PT is helping the city function, it does focus a lot on a narrow (if very valid) view of the purpose of public transport as a congestion reducing tool (or perhaps more realistically, a measure for shifting more people at a set level of congestion). We may want to have other measures, like what amount of CO2 emissions or other air pollutants are being reduced (if any, given the state of many of our buses) through the use of public transport. Or how many people are able to participate in society without having to own and drive a car. Or how many families are able to get by with one car, instead of two or more – and the huge economic benefit that provides them.

I think that fundamentally, the best tool to use to measure the success of public transport is dependent on what you want your system to do. What makes a good public transport system? Is it one that is attractive for people to use largely at peak times, but not so good at other times? Is it one that gets longer trips off the road? Is it one that reduces auto dependency – by that do we mean the perceived necessity to drive to work or the perceived necessity for a household to own more than one car?

The ‘burden that PT eases’ test is one that I think is useful to focus on. This would include the burden of congestion, the burden of CO2 emissions, the burden of social exclusion if you can’t drive for physical or financial reasons, the burden of having to own more cars than you want (or can really afford), the burden for businesses having to spend a lot of money on providing parking, the burden of urban sprawl that auto-dependency encourages and so forth. What this all really means is that measuring PT success is actually a lot more complicated than simply reporting a patronage figure every month. It’s also a lot more complicated than ensuring there’s a bus stop within a few hundred metres of every house in the city – as if that bus comes only once a day it’s hardly of much use.

I think perhaps the biggest burden Auckland suffers due to its below-par public transport system is the perceived need the general population has to own a lot of cars. There is almost one car in Auckland for every adult – a very high number by international standards. Now while I’m sure some people enjoy owning lots of cars, and some people might need a particular work car because of the nature of their job, I don’t doubt there’s a lot of the population out there that owns more cars than they would, if truly given the choice. So perhaps the best measurement tool for PT’s success in Auckland could be reducing our dependence on owning so many cars, and measuring this in a way that’s independent on income.

After all, 75% of Manhattan residents don’t own a car – and that’s just about the richest little bit of the entire United States.

Integrated ticketing: what’s going on?

Call me cynical, but if I don’t hear anything about a public transport project for quite some time I start to get suspicious. This generally is for good reason – with examples including the near screw-up of electrification last year and the consistent delays to the Onehunga Line’s opening almost passing under the radar without a ‘peep’ from the powers to be. My newest worry is about integrated ticketing – because we have heard absolutely stuff all from ARTA and now Auckland Transport about how the project is progressing. In fact, the only tidbit of information from ARTA/Auckland Transport was in the form of a media release in October that managed to contain next to no information of use whatsoever.

My concern about this project is that we know so little about what’s going on, yet there remain so many unanswered questions. What has happened in the year since ARTA signed the contract with Thales, for example? We heard some detail from Thales back in August on some aspects of how things were progressing – but that was mainly in terms of the technical “making it happen” side of things. There are also some huge unanswered questions relating to fares policy, how things will work with snapper, whether there will be free transfers, what part of the system will be up and running by the Rugby World Cup, how will the system as a whole be phased in, will we have zone-based ticketing and so forth. Plus, last but certainly not least, what will the card be called?

Integrated smart-card ticketing will make such a massive difference to the quality of Auckland’s public transport system if we do it right. By enabling easy transfers from buses onto rail we can reorganise our public transport system to be far more efficient and effective, by enabling free transfers we can achieve the “network effect” and not punish people for changing from one service to another: but rather simply charge them based on where their trip begins and ends – regardless of how it gets there. But we have to get it right, and there are some pretty big problems sitting out there that haven’t been resolved as far as I know.

Problem 1: Snapper

As people may remember, shortly after ARTA announced that Thales was getting the contract for supplying the integrated ticket for Auckland’s public transport, Snapper/Infratil decided to do their best to sabotage the entire process by deciding to roll-out Snapper on the buses in Auckland that Infrail (Snapper’s parent company) run through NZ Bus (Snapper’s ‘sister company’). While we haven’t heard anything about how the roll-out of Snapper is progressing, I have started to notice the installation of equipment on various NZ Bus operated services that sure look like they’re designed to take Snapper card readers.

The problem here is that Snapper isn’t an integrated ticket, as nobody but NZ Bus is ever going to accept the Snapper Card. Yet if Snapper gets their system going before Auckland Transport/Thales, people will (either by choice of not if the current machines are replaced) replace their existing Go Rider cards with Snapper Cards. Who’s going to want to have to replace their Snapper Card with a Thales/whateveritscalled card just a few months later? That’s a recipe for absolute disaster – thanks Snapper.

Problem 2: The Fare System:

Back at the start of this year I had a chat with some senior staff at ARTA about whether the fare system was going to be simplified into something of a “zone based system” in preparation for integrated ticketing. The advantage of a zone based system is that you could easily provide free transfers: in that it wouldn’t matter how people got from A to B – they would simply be charged for a trip from A to B. This means that if I’m travelling from Herne Bay to Newmarket I could have the choice of walking to Ponsonby and catching a very long Link Bus trip or I could have the choice of catching the 005 into town and then catching the train to Newmarket – both for the same price. This makes sense: as long as I stay within “zone 1” it shouldn’t matter how I got there.

Unfortunately, the response I got wasn’t particularly optimistic. It seems that we will be keeping our stupid stage based system – even though it hugely discourages transfers. Considering all ARTA’s transport strategies utterly depended upon making transfers more attractive, this would appear to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made. People will continue to be punished for transfering meaning that we will continue to have to try and provide “everywhere to everywhere” services, which means that we will continue to have bus maps that looks like spaghetti thrown at a wall – with all the routes operated at horrifically low frequencies.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if integrated ticketing doesn’t include zone=based ticketing and the elimination of transfer penalties, it will be one of the biggest lost opportunities ever.

Problem 3: What’s going to be ready by the World Cup?

I was talking to someone the other day who said that there has been pressure to create integrated ticketing since the early 1990s. As long as I have had even a passing interest in public transport (about 10 years now) the “need for integrated ticketing” has been highlighted again and again. Yet up until recently nothing whatsoever had happened – aside from the Discovery Passes that were deliberately priced excessively by the bus companies to “prove” that there was no demand for integrated ticketing. So really, there’s little excuse for why we wouldn’t have implemented integrated ticketing years and years ago.

Added into that mix is that in September and October next year the eyes of the (rugby playing) world will be on New Zealand, and Auckland in particular – as we host the Rugby World Cup. There will be a big influx of visitors and there will be a big influx of media. Contrary to the government’s belief, all these people won’t be bringing cars with them on the plane from Australia, Europe and wherever else they come from – they will more than likely use the public transport system in vast numbers. While a lot of work has gone into ensuring that things are right for the whole “getting people to the game” issue, the nature of a Rugby World Cup – particularly in its latter stages – is that you play a few games on a weekend and then nothing happens for 5 days until the next weekend. So there will be a lot of people staying in Auckland, without a game to go to, looking for something to do – they will be people without cars (memo to Steven Joyce: cars don’t fit on aeroplanes) so they will use the public transport system: all parts of it.

A whole pile of visitors and international media, with nothing to write about other than whether player X will recover from some injury in time for the next game, plus a public transport system where train tickets aren’t accepted on buses, bus tickets from one company (say MetroLink) are accepted on what appear to be three other companies (NorthStar, GoWest & Waka Pacific) but aren’t accepted on the trains or ferries or any other bus companies. Seriously, we’re going to be the laughing stock of the whole entire world.

If I were high up in Auckland Transport, I would be extremely worried about these issues. Extremely worried that Snapper appear like they’re going to sabotage the entire integrated ticketing project, extremely worried that all this effort to implement integrated ticketing is going to be undermined by not modernising the fare structure and, perhaps most particularly, extremely worried that Auckland’s public transport system – but most particularly its extraordinarily complicated fare system – will become the laughing stock of international media at next year’s world cup.

The Snapper issue is somewhat difficult to solve, but the others are most definitely fixable. Implementing a zone-based fare system with free transfers must be a core part of the integrated ticketing project: if that means base fares need to be raised a bit then I think it’s still worth it – but I actually think the fact that free transfers will enable the RTN/QTN/LCN hierarchy and the elimination of so many pointless duplicative routes, it’s likely to pay for itself. In terms of ensuring we have at least some sort of fully integrated ticketing system in place for the World Cup, the solution is simple:

  1. Make rail fares the same as bus fares
  2. Force all bus companies to accept and sell rail tickets

There, sorted. We could have integrated ticketing tomorrow if we really wanted it.

Vancouver vs Auckland: the case for openness

I’ve talked a lot about the need for the new Auckland Transport CCO to be open, transparent and accountable about what it does – and how this will be a dramatic change from the highly secretive agency that ARTA was. There were some very positive steps towards this last week, with Auckland Transport announcing at the first meeting of their board that all future meetings will be held in public. Further to that, I had a reassurance via email that all the agenda items and minutes of the meetings would be posted on Auckland Transport’s website (something that hasn’t happened quite yet).

One area that I’m particularly looking forward to seeing some more openness and transparency about is the progress that is being made on Auckland’s integrated ticketing project. While I received something of an update on progress from Thales a few months back, there are still so many unanswered questions:

  • What are the details of the “pilot project” that we’re meant to have up and running by the Rugby World Cup next year?
  • What train stations are going to have fare gates in order to ensure we don’t have lost revenue once we shift away from on-train ticket sales?
  • Will there be any modernisation, simplification or improvement to the current fare system?
  • Will there be free transfers? (If not, why are we even bothering?)
  • How long will it take for the whole project to be completed?

Another question that’s worth wondering about is “what’s the card going to be called?” There’s something of a history of calling public transport smart-cards after aquatic lifeforms, such as Hong Kong’s Octopus Card and London’s Oyster Card, San Francisco’s Clipper Card (slightly different in that it’s a ship rather than a lifeform) and Seattle’s Orca Card. Of course there’s the Snapper Card as well.

On that topic, it’s interesting to see the open, transparent and publicly accessible way in which Vancouver is going about choosing the name of its upcoming smart-card. They strongly encouraged public participation in the process of choosing the name – and have received around 45,000 entries:

To sweeten the deal, the winner (as in the person who suggests the name they end up choosing) will receive a free iPad and a year’s worth of free public transport travel.

Personally I think Auckland should go with some variation of the nautical theme. The sea has played a critical role in Auckland’s history and development, and very much shapes Auckland into the city it is. Something like the Shark Card (or a more nicely worded type of shark perhaps) would be great – because sharks eat snapper!

More seriously though, this is just another example of the advantages of being open and transparent. By the time Vancouver’s smart-card launches there will be heaps of public interest because people were engaged in the process of choosing the name, they will be interested in finding out the final result (to see if they were the winner) and there will be a growing sense of anticipation leading up to the launch of that card. Meanwhile in Auckland, who really knows what’s happening. Perhaps a name had been chosen in secret by ARTA before they disappeared, perhaps we’re not that far into the process yet, perhaps we will get the chance to voice our ideas in terms of what it should be called. Unfortunately, we just don’t know.

Which is just another reason why I’m very much looking forward to a new era of openness from the Auckland Transport CCO.

Shedding some light on this $30 million “funding gap”

My previous post, which commented on an NZ Herald article relating to operating costs of Auckland’s rail system, noted the somewhat bizarre emergence of a $30 million funding gap. While my previous post asked the question of “where the heck did this funding gap come from?” it is fair to say that Joyce has mentioned it a few times now – most recently in his interview on the TV3 programme “The Nation” a few weeks back.

But a bit of digging through the archives of my blog indicates that this matter has been brewing for a while now – as I noted in a post back in May entitled “The electrification battle is not over“. In that particular post I noted how the government’s final funding arrangement for Auckland’s electric trains – which was effectively a loan to KiwiRail – could mean that Auckland’s ratepayers end up funding those trains after all as KiwiRail is now looking to recoup that money from Auckland Transport (and NZTA). Now this is quite confusing, so I’ll run through a bit of history on the rail electrification project to show how we’ve ended up where we are now:

  • Back in the 2007 budget the then Labour government set aside $500 million to be spent on paying for the infrastructure side of the rail electrification project. However, they felt they couldn’t afford to also stump up with another $500 million for the electric trains themselves.
  • Auckland’s local government agencies confirmed that there was not really a hope in hell that they’d be able to stump up with $500 million for the new electric trains either.
  • In this situation, the parties looked at other options for raising the funding – and eventually settled upon applying a 10c a litre Regional Fuel Tax. The money raised from this fuel tax would effectively pay back the $500 million loan for the electric trains and also pay for a pile of other important transport projects.
  • In March 2009 the current National government decided they didn’t like the Regional Fuel Tax, so they got rid of it. However, at the same time they confirmed that rail electrification would still proceed and took on the financial responsibility for making that happen.
  • In November 2009 Cabinet gave its approval of a $500 million loan to KiwiRail to purchase the electric trains. How exactly KiwiRail would pay back that loan was left somewhat undecided.

A very interesting ARC report from May this year outlines that the financial implications of KiwiRail passing on the responsibility for paying back the $500 million loan for electric trains would be significant:

Further insight into the Government’s expectations in respect of the recovery of costs from metropolitan passenger rail is provided in the Minister of Transport’s paper to Cabinet in November 2009 seeking approval for funding for the purchase of the EMUs.2 The paper, released to the ARC in April 2010 following a request under the Official Information Act, contains estimates of the cost of repayment of a loan of $500 million over 30 years. At an interest rate of 6%, the annual cost of repaying the loan would be $35.973 million.

The Cabinet paper notes that such repayments “could not be recovered from current funding sources based on farebox revenue maximisation and NZTA and ARC subsidy assumptions.” It also raises the option of “a transparent Crown subsidy to the region on the understanding that the region increases its contribution to annual operating costs and that a funding glide path is agreed that eliminates or significantly reduces the Crown’s annual operating subsidy over time.” The Minister states that he favours this option.

Taken together, an increase in track access charges and a requirement for the region to repay the costs associated with the purchase of EMUs by KiwiRail could result in a very significant increase in the requirement for rail operating subsidy. The ARC and ARTA have paid track access fees since 2003 at an average rate of $5 million per annum, 60% of which is paid from NZTA subsidy. While it is not yet clear to what extent fees might increase, a threefold increase for example would increase the net cost to the region from approximately $2 million to $6 million per annum. If the region were also to be expected to pick up 40% of the cost of repaying the loan to purchase the EMUs, the annual cost would be approximately $14.4 million. The ARC has allocated $25.364 million in operating funding to ARTA for passenger rail services in the 2009/10 financial year. Adding potential increases in track access and EMU loan repayment costs could add a further $20 million per annum to this amount.

No provision has been made within the ARC’s 2009-19 LTCCP for such an increase, nor does NZTA have additional funding to meet its 60% share of any additional costs.

While KiwiRail’s proposed increase in the track-access fee from $5 million to $16 million shows us where $11 million of this “funding gap” is, it seems to me that the bulk of the rest of the gap arises from the costs of the new electric trains being passed on to Auckland Transport and NZTA. To make matters worse, because NZTA doesn’t have any money for rail (because it’s all dedicated to uneconomic motorways) it seems that the expectation is that Auckland will simply pick up the tab if it has any hopes of advancing its rail aspirations like the CBD Rail Tunnel.

So in effect we have three reasons for the funding gap existing:

  1. KiwiRail’s increased track access fee. This is probably justified to an extent given the improvements made to the tracks over the past few years. However, I do note that if a track access fee is meant to cover maintenance issues then there should be far less need for maintenance of the rail network over the next few years, especially once electrification is completed, as basically most things will be brand spanking new.
  2. The shifting of funding of the electric trains from central government back on to Auckland. I find this element particularly disgraceful as the deal was Auckland didn’t apply the regional fuel tax because central government was willing to fund the trains themselves. For the government to now go back on that deal is pretty dodgy I think.
  3. Finally, because NZTA is required to spend pretty much all its money on uneconomic motorways, it apparently won’t be able to contribute the 60% funding to rail operating costs that it would normally do (even though road users benefit hugely from the rail system – I don’t think I need to post the table with the $17 per trip benefit for the 372950327590th time). This means that Auckland is once again seemingly left to pick up the tab.

What’s interesting is that none of these three matters leading to the funding gap emerging are the fault of any ARTA, the ARC or any other Auckland-based agency. All three matters have arisen from central government decisions. It seems pretty rich to now lump the problem on Auckland and say “no more projects until you fix this problem we made for you”.

Why “Auckland Transport” needs to engage with the public

Last week I asked the question of whether the Auckland Transport CCO would become a “secretive agency”, like ARTA has been, or whether it would be publicly open, accountable and transparent. While my concern in that blog post was about the specific question of whether Auckland Transport will publish agendas and minutes from their Board Meetings online (and there’s still no sign that they will), the extent to which Auckland Transport engages with the public – or conversely the extent to which it undertakes most of its work in secret – will be a key factor in whether the agency becomes a success or whether it ends up being a failure.

Of course I have a bit of a vested interest here – in that I want Auckland Transport to let the general public know what it’s doing to as great an extent possible because I want information to blog about. But that’s not really the main reason why Auckland Transport should be open and transparent about what it does – rather it should engage with the public, let people know what it’s doing, get in the media arguing the case for public transport improvements and so on because if it does this it will be much more successful. (As an aside, I do want to make it clear that if Auckland Transport does not post its board meeting agendas and minutes online I will request copies of each board paper for each meeting under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, scan them in and post them online – so let’s hope Auckland Transport comes to its senses and we’re all saved the trouble of this).

As the Super City election results showed, people are interested in transport and they want to see significant improvements to public transport. Furthermore, as we’ve seen on various transport matters in recent times – such as the bus lane fine debacle and the Dominion Road T2 lane debacle – people also get pretty passionate about making their voice heard when the transport “powers to be” appear to be ignoring their wishes. Transport is controversial, it is messy, it is subjective as one person’s genuinely good idea to make life better for some may negatively impact on others. In some respects, this is an argument for transport matters to be “in house” within the Auckland Council – an argument well made by Herald columnist John Roughan back when we were having the Transport CCO argument:

Non-elected boards have worked well for government departments that can charge for their services, and for the chargeable services of local government. They can be given a measurable financial objective and left to decide how to organise and price the service to meet it.

The system works when the public doesn’t care how the service is organised so long as it remains reliable. The boards that will manage the Auckland Council’s property, water supply, stadiums, events and the like, should be fine.

But the system is problematic when the public cares about the means to an end. It is the means, not the ends, of solving traffic congestion or developing a public waterfront that are likely to arouse public interest and political disagreement. The ends are readily agreed.

There’s not much point arguing over whether transport should be part of Council or a separate CCO, because that decision has now been made. However, it is still very valid to pose the question of how Auckland Transport will handle being in this position – of doing stuff where people are concerned about the mean, not just the ends. Of working in an environment that’s controversial, political, debatable, subjective and so forth.

ARTA’s organisational structure, particularly its “secrecy”, just isn’t going to work for the new agency in my opinion. So what might we hope to see from Auckland Transport, so that it can be more open, transparent, accountable and generally engaged with the general public? Well here are a few ideas:

  1. First and foremost, it must post online as much information as possible about what it’s up to. This would include all board papers, board minutes, reports, studies, strategies and policies. The public is funding this agency, so we have a right to know what they’re up to.
  2. Auckland Transport should reach out more to the public and ask them for ideas. I’ve been collecting “quick fix” ideas on the Campaign for Better Transport’s forum – small ways to improve the public transport system that wouldn’t cost much and would be quick to implement. Why shouldn’t Auckland Transport do something similar?
  3. Something similar to Vancouver’s “Buzzer Blog” should be considered. This blog provides a great mix of  things like service level updates with special events information,  quirky photos taken by users and information about service improvements. Crucially, this is a two-way communication where people can post comments with staff responding to those comments quickly.
  4. Auckland Transport should also be more active in promoting improved transport options in media debates. As I noted above, ARTA could have weighed in a lot more on things like the Dominion Road and the bus lane fine debacles. Both issues potentially affected them a lot, yet they stayed almost silent. Auckland Transport needs to be much more of an advocate for improving the system.

I am hopeful that we will see a new culture in Auckland Transport compared to ARTA. I am hopeful that the organisation will try to be open and engaged with the public. It might fall to the Auckland Council’s Transport Committee to ensure these things happen, but I’m confident they will.

If not, I guess I’m going to be pretty busy with my official information requests.

Rail patronage skyrockets in September

The September ARTA monthly business report has been uploaded to Auckland Transport’s website, and the patronage statistics in particular make for spectacular reading. Here’s a summary of the report: Two things in particular stand out: the 27% increase in rail patronage from September 2009 and the (obviously somewhat related) 25,000 passengers who took advantage of free trains on the weekend when the Newmarket viaduct was closed. Let’s hope that the powers to be remember how rail saved Auckland’s butt on this occasion, and consider similar ideas in the future when major road shutdowns are necessary. It’s also useful seeing that the Onehunga train station is performing as expected – one would imagine over time its patronage will grow and grow.

The rail patronage statistics are shown in the graph below – which clearly indicate exactly how spectacular September’s numbers are: September 2010 was quite possibly (I don’t know the stats from decades ago) the second highest month ever for rail patronage in Auckland, after March this year.

Bus patronage growth was less spectacular, but still pretty solid. The statistics for October will look incredible as it will have been a year since the bus lockout of October 2009, so the year to date growth will go up enormously from October onwards I imagine: While ARTA do break down bus patronage information by north, south, isthmus and west sectors, I really wish that they gave us more information on how the different routes perform. For example, it would be really interesting to know what difference the b.line branding exercise has made to patronage on Mt Eden and Dominion Road bus services. Surely this information is known?

In terms of infrastructure developments, things have been a bit quieter compared to the last year or so as many of the Project DART components are now completed. However, one of the most interesting things to see is progress being made on real time information signs – particularly for the rail network: It would seem that this means all railway stations should have real time information signs by the end of June 2011. This will be fantastic.

Interestingly, there’s little mentioned about the CBD Rail Tunnel business case – just that the business case and concept designs will be “completed in October”. Well, um, it’s November now.

The end of ARTA

As well as Auckland’s councils being replaced by the Super City as of today, we also see the end of the Auckland Regional Transport Authority and the beginning of the new Auckland Transport. ARTA have put together a useful report showing their major achievements over the past six years, and also information on where things are likely to go next.

Back in 2004/2005 I had a much more passing interest in Auckland’s transport matters, so it is interesting to hear once again about the process that led to the formation of ARTA – and also achievements (or otherwise) that happened in its first few years of being. This is briefly summarised in the paragraph below: It’s scary to think that before 2004, transport arrangements were even more complex in Auckland than they have been in recent years!

It would seem as though the most useful thing ARTA did in its early days was to put a bit of structured thought into analysing how Auckland’s public transport system could be improved – looking internationally at what successful cities were doing, examining the short-comings with Auckland’s system at the time and pulling together a plan to push things forward. This all happened in 2005 and 2006, leading to the Passenger Transport Network Plan and the Rail Development Plan. Most of the improvements to our public transport system that have occurred over the past few years, and will continue to happen over the next few years  are guided by these two plans. An awful lot was achieved in a relatively short time period in 2005 and 2006 in the formulation, which meant that pressure was then able to go on central government to come to the party and support the plans: which the last government (eventually) did by funding Project DART and electrification – and which this government has also supported by not cancelling the funding for those projects.

The work done by ARTA, providing the ‘grunt work’ to guide improvements to the public transport system, is summarised in the sections from their report below: The economic analysis largely done “behind the scenes” to justify many of the public transport upgrades provided some very interesting insights into the benefits of investing in public transport. In the not too distant past, public transport was highly disadvantaged in the way that its cost-effectiveness was measured, but thanks (in part) to the work undertaken by ARTA to justify Project DART and electrification we are now seeing the true economic benefits of public transport investment being highlighted. In large-scale future projects such as the CBD Rail Tunnel, the economic analysis process is likely to be our friend and no longer our enemy.

Some of the economic benefits of public transport are outlined in the graph below: Interestingly, it was shown that the primary beneficiaries of public transport investment are actually road-users, through decongestion benefits (as more people using public transport the roads are less clogged). The government’s current policies haven’t quite yet woken up to this fact, but I’m sure eventually this will be recognised – and is justification for why petrol tax revenue should be spent on public transport projects.

Over the past few years a lot of this early work has started to pay dividends. We have seen huge improvements to the rail network, through Project DART and with electrification not too far around the corner. Improvements to the bus network, aside from the extremely successful Northern Busway, have been fewer though – although hopefully integrated ticketing, the further rollout of b.line services and a shift towards a ‘tiered’ system of routes will change that. ARTA has also been hamstrung in its efforts to improve bus services by unhelpful councils and obstructive bus companies. I guess the ultimate test of ARTA’s success is in patronage statistics, which – after an odd dip in the middle of last decade – have risen sharply over the past few years: I guess overall I think the “ARTA experiment” was a qualified success. ARTA was able to focus completely on improving Auckland’s public transport system – and having an agency do just that provided some useful benefits in the thought, planning and strategising that has been undertaken over the past six years. However, in a way this has also been ARTA’s weakness: that it hasn’t been able to push for bus lanes enough, that it hasn’t been able to get bus companies to change their routes or accept integrated ticketing without an enormous amount of kicking and screaming and that it never had any money of its own to spend, always reliant on the priorities and handouts of other organisations.

While ARTA has done a pretty good job, I must say I won’t be too sad to see it go. The opportunities that having an integrated Transport agency provide will hopefully overcome many of the problems previously faced by ARTA. Of course Auckland Transport’s size and power (and its separation from Auckland Council) present many potential problems of their own.

Finally, as I noted a few days back, I also hope that Auckland Transport is more open and transparent about what it does compared to how ARTA has been.

Will “Auckland Transport” be a secretive agency?

One of my biggest gripes with the decision to hand transport matters in Auckland over to a semi-independent “Council Controlled Organisation” as part of establishing the Super City was whether that agency would end up doing most of its work in secret. At the moment (well, until Monday when the new Council is formally established) there’s quite a bit of information available on what transport stuff the various councils are up to. One of my best resources has been the agenda and minutes of the ARC’s Transport and Urban Development Committee, as well as what the Regional Transport Committee got up to over the last couple of years as it stitched together the RLTS. Information from the Transport Committee of Auckland City Council, and other committees from the various other councils often proved fertile ground for gathering information on the latest happenings in Auckland related to transport.

In contrast, ARTA have acted pretty secretly, with the only information they’ve shared being the Monthly Business Reports. While these reports are certainly very interesting, particularly in updating us on patronage statistics, by in large we’ve been left in the dark as to what else ARTA has been up to. For example, how’s progress going on integrated ticketing? Nobody really knows as we haven’t been able to read up on the various reports from ARTA staff to their board that I am sure must have been written over the past year since ARTA signed the contract with Thales to implement that system. How’s progress going on completing the CBD Rail Loop study that was meant to be finished in September? Once again, nobody knows because of ARTA’s secrecy.

So will Auckland Transport turn into a much larger version of the highly secretive ARTA, or will it turn into an open agency much like the transport committees of the various councils that exist at the moment? The final details of the legislation surrounding the establishment of Auckland Transport suggested that because the CCO will be doing so much work that was previously undertaken by Councils, it would need to be more transparent and accountable. But how will this actually translate into reality? Who knows?

In part there is some selfishness behind this concern, in that a lot of my potential blog posts over the next few years will depend on knowing what Auckland Transport is up to – if they make it difficult to find out what decisions are being made and what is happening, then that will make it difficult for me to keep ‘up to date’ with what’s going on. But there’s also a more fundamental reason why they should be open – transport will account for over half of Council’s spending and it’s arguably Auckland’s number one issue. We need to know what Auckland Transport’s up to because we’re trusting them with a huge amount of money and trusting them to help improve Auckland’s biggest problem: its transport situation.

Early signs are not necessarily that promising. Over the past week or so the websites for Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have emerged and progressively been updated and populated with information from the old websites of ARTA and the various Councils. As I noted in yesterday’s post about St Lukes, the Council website already has been populated with agenda items for the first meeting of the new Council next week. It’s obvious on the website where further information will go, and now we know what the structure of the Council will be I imagine we will see the establishment of various places where meeting agenda and minutes will be uploaded to.

By contrast, while the Auckland Transport website is fairly comprehensive in what it says about various transport projects happening around Auckland, there seem no obvious place where we will be able to find out what their board is up to and what decisions are being made. Perhaps it might be added over the next few weeks when the Transport CCO board has their first meetings, I certainly hope so.

Ultimately, I think it is critical that Auckland Transport is as open and transparent as possible about what it gets up to. Over half the Council’s spending is likely to be on transport matters. While the Council’s transport committee will certainly play an important role in setting the big picture strategies, goals and plans the Council wants Auckland Transport to implement, many of the important decisions in terms of implementing these strategies will be left to the Board of the CCO. It’s important we know what they’re doing with such a significant amount of public funds. It’s important we know what progress they’re making on implementing the Council’s vision for transport. It’s important we know the reasoning behind decisions they make, so that those decisions can be analysed and critiqued.

It’s extremely important that Auckland Transport does not become a secretive agency. We have a right to know what they’re up to without having to go through the long-winded process of making official requests for information. I look forward to seeing Auckland Transport being an open, transparent and accountable agency.

On-time PT stats: too blunt a measurement tool?

Humantransit has a thought-provoking blog post on whether measuring “on time performance” is really the best way to gauge the effectiveness of public transport in providing what its users want and need. Here’s a couple of interesting paragraphs:

I have a great deal of sympathy for transit executives trying to deal with on-time performance, because many of the causes of delay are outside a transit agency’s control. Still, there are two major problems with the measures of “on-time performance” that prevail in the industry.

1. They are not customer-centered. They report the percentage of services that were on-time, not the percentage of riders who were. Because crowded services are more likely to be delayed, the percentage of customers who were served on-time is probably lower than the announced on-time performance figure.

2. For high-frequency, high-volume services, actual frequency matters more. Suppose that a transit line is supposed to run every 10 minutes, but every trip on the line is exactly 10 minutes late. A typical on-time performance metric (e.g. the percentage of trips that are 0-5 minutes late) will declare this situation to be total failure, 0% on-time performance. But to the customer, this situation is perfection.

For a while this year ARTA and Veolia placed significant emphasis on advertising their ‘on time’ stats – even though in the early part of the year these statistics were truly horrible for Auckland’s rail services. Yet at the very same time as rail performance was so terrible, we saw rail patronage skyrocket to record levels.

ARTA’s main response to the poor performance stats fell into the traps outlined above – too focused on the simple ‘statistic’ and not focused enough on the experience of the rider. Basically, they made the timetable slower. While a greater percentage of trains now get to their destination “on time” (in the crazy world where on time means no more than five minutes late) because they do this by simply adhering to a slower timetable, chances are that your average Western Line user (in particular) has a slower trip now than they did back when the trains were so unreliable (particularly now that the Western Line’s express trains have been removed from the timetable).

I think the points made in the Human Transit blog post are highly valid when it comes to Auckland – that what we really need to be measuring are statistics that people using the rail system find important. How long are they likely to have to wait for their train? How likely is it that their train will get them where they’re going in the time it should? How long will their trip take? While reliability – which is really all that on-time performance stats measure – is very important, so are other aspects like ensuring consistent spacing between services and trying to get the trains to travel as quickly as possible.

I suppose that the main problem I have with the current focus on “on-time performance” is that it encourages overly slow timetables. This may make the statistics look nice, as it’s pretty easy to keep to a very slow timetable, but in the end the slower you make the train trip – the more likely someone is to choose to drive instead. So perhaps we need to broaden our measurement of how good the rail service provided actually is. Perhaps we need to think more about what really matters to customers, rather than trying to find a simple measurement statistic that perversely makes our trains slower by encouraging an overly forgiving timetable.

On time performance is useful, but not in isolation and not to the cost of everything else (like speed and frequency).