Better or cheaper public transport?

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.

HOP costs to Takapuna

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.

Concentric Zone structure

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.

A note from Lester Levy

Lester Levy has asked me to publish this note from him in full.

Hello Matt

I want to take this opportunity to thank the Transport Blog, Generation Zero and Cycle Action Auckland for taking up my invitation to present the Congestion Free Network concept to our recent Auckland Transport Board meeting. The Congestion Free Network is a thoughtful and constructive concept and I thought it important that the Auckland Transport Board and Senior Executives had the opportunity to engage with your group directly, on this concept. The presentation was very clear and perfectly articulated by Patrick Reynolds.

It will be interesting for Auckland Transport to now examine the Congestion Free Network in more detail with you, but without a doubt this is a concept that helps create an environment of both more contestable ideas and generative thinking.

I believe that Auckland Transport needs to be more open to examining ideas from outside the organisation, a good example is the suggestion from Luke Christensen regarding bus lanes on Fanshawe Street, westbound from Albert Street to Nelson Street and on to Halsey Street. As many of your readers may know, there is currently a more comprehensive piece of work being undertaken to develop a potential busway from Beaumont Street, along Fanshawe Street to the downtown area, with a bus station on Fanshawe Street – but this solution is certainly some time away from delivery, so any interim and pragmatic relief is very sensible.

I asked Auckland Transport management to examine Luke’s suggestion (which was supported by the advocacy of Cameron Pitches from The Campaign for Better Transport) and management have concluded that it is possible to provide bus lanes over this section suggested, and that these could remain in place until an ultimate solution is provided. The City Centre Integration Group will coordinate this work with Auckland Transport and look to put it in place as soon as practicable. As always, there is a process around designating bus lanes, but I understand this can happen reasonably quickly.

Auckland Transport management had themselves been progressing a number of opportunities in respect of pragmatic interim solutions, but Luke’s suggestion was not on that early programme. I am very pleased with management’s response in that they quickly reviewed their programme and concluded that there would be value in doing the Fanshawe Street westbound bus lane improvements as soon as practicable. Once the planning regulatory processes have been resolved it is possible that we could have a solution in place within three months.

I have also noted that there is a subsequent transport blog item proposing more bus lanes on the Symonds Street corridor. Interestingly our team have been considering this already and there are some fairly significant infrastructure issues to overcome before we implement the solution there, but we are programming work to achieve this.

Increasingly we need to have pragmatic, interim solutions in place whilst we work towards the more time consuming, ideal and more complete solutions – this response is an exemplar of this type of approach. Thanks to Luke and Cameron and Auckland Transport’s management – an excellent virtual team.

You may recall that late last year I invited Jarett Walker (“Human Transit – How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich our Communities And our Lives”) to make a presentation to the Auckland Transport Board. Like the proponents of the Congestion Free Network, Jarett is a clear thinker and an articulate advocate for public transport. I was pleased with his positive view of what we are doing, in particular with the roll-out of the new, high frequency bus network (starting in South Auckland).

One of the most salient messages that I took from Jarrett’s work is that bold initiatives, require courage and commitment (and perseverance) to ensure the benefits are in fact delivered. I was very interested in Jarrett’s point of view that what is in the greater public interest is not going to be in everyones interest. I happen to agree with Jarett and it is very important for Auckland Transport now and into the future not to jump and react to every issue raised, but rather to clearly define its direction and priorities, hold true to them and then focus on excellent and rapid implementation.

Finally, I take this opportunity to thank and acknowledge the Transport Blog and all its contributors for adding – mostly constructively – to the vitality of discussion around how we are taking transport in Auckland forward.

Kind regards

Lester

Dr Lester Levy
Chairman
Auckland Transport

 

 

Our presentation is here.

AT Chair Lester Levy on fixing PT in Auckland

As we know, public transport in Auckland often leaves a lot to be desired with it only seems to work really well in a handful of situations. The good news is that despite a few delays and false starts, we seem to be on the right track and over the next few years there are a few massive changes happening. We will get an entire fleet of brand new electric trains, an entirely revamped bus network and tying all together will be integrated ticketing and fares. There are a few other important things going on behind the scenes like the roll out of a new contracting regime but that is something that most people won’t know or care about.

Communicating some of these changes is not going to be easy for Auckland Transport as there is simply so much changing over what is a relatively short period of time. There are also bound to be some challenging times for the organisation, especially in relation to the changes for new bus network. So it is good to see support and communication for the changes coming straight from the top of the organisation. In an opinion piece in the Herald today, Chairman Lester Levy provides his thoughts.

Restoring faith in Auckland’s transport system

When it comes to transport in Auckland the stakeholders are as many and varied as are the differing and divergent views.

I guess it has always been like this and over many decades ad hoc decisions, decisions half-made, questionable decisions and decisions deferred or never made have severely limited options.

Transport solutions in Auckland are well behind where they should be, but not where we have to stay.

I have been chairman of Auckland Transport for six months. What do I see? Public transport in Auckland is just not yet good enough. The trains do not run frequently enough and frequently they do not run on time. The bus real-time information does not seem real to many, because it is not, a lot of the time.

Peak times on trains and buses are often very crowded and it just seems like there are not enough of them – that is because often there are not. The new AT Hop card has had some issues – these have been very frustrating for passengers.

Doubt, distrust, ridicule, criticism – that has largely been the history of transport in Auckland. The possibility that transport issues in Auckland could ever be resolved seems to have been consigned to the wastebasket of history.

I believe a large part of the problem is there have been so many strategies and plans that it seems to me that figuring out what to do has become more important than actually doing something.

Perhaps because of this, far too many Aucklanders have lost faith that there is an alternative to their private car.

There is no need to declare defeat.

Change is coming fast! I believe that Auckland’s transport problems can and will be resolved – but it will not be easy.

Imagine if every negative, downward-spiral critic had prevailed in history. We would have no antibiotics, no air travel, no smartphones and a whole bunch of other fantastic stuff that has enriched our lives. We need to move beyond the downward spiral critics (even many of the transport reports are loaded with pessimistic assumptions and outcomes), but just as importantly we need to take off the rose-tinted glasses, confront reality and be very honest about where we are with transport in Auckland and very clear about where we need to be.

As I said, change is coming fast. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood, transport operator by transport operator, mode by mode, route by route, street by street – we at Auckland Transport are taking this thing apart piece by piece and will return it put back together in a new form – a form where public transport will operate with precision.

High frequency, reliability, attractive and affordable pricing, higher levels of passenger comfort, accurate and accessible information and high levels of safety and security are the principles that we are now moving forward on.

What we are proposing is not a simple “chemical face-peel” where the changes are minor and temporary. For a few months the skin looks perfect and then just returns to what it was before. What Auckland Transport is about to undertake is “major reconstructive surgery” where the changes will be significant and permanent.

Auckland Transport is embarking on a full review of every single bus route, a major upgrade of the trains, new ferry services, new fare structures, new ways of paying for everything – so much needs to be turned around and we are going at public transport like it has never ever been done in Auckland before.

Auckland Transport is going to create a public transport network of buses, trains and ferries that will present as a highly desirable option for those who have never really considered it before. Critical to providing public transport in a totally different paradigm is planning and delivering the services totally from the perspective of the passenger – not of the bureaucracy or the provider. Revolutionising the passenger experience is fundamental to moving forward.

Sure, we will need to build more infrastructure (and hard choices will need to be made), but let us not miss the opportunity right in front of us to extract the huge and unseen potential from our existing investments. It is not simply about building more, it is also about getting a lot more out of what we have and then when we do build more we will get outcomes that currently seem unlikely.

Change will happen, but like all progress will take time – in three years transport in Auckland will be different and by 2020 it will be very, very different.

This comes less than a week after AT launched the excellent new video for the new PT network that we are getting.

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.