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Freeze the Fares and other great ideas to fix public transport in Auckland

In February, Auckland bus, train and ferry fares went up. Again. We say we want a world-class transport system, writes Auckland Councillor Richard Hills – so why do we keep hitting users in the pocket?

I want to freeze public transport fares.

I am not alone in this. There are many voices around the council table who have joined me since I raised this issue publicly last year so I was incredibly excited to see Generation Zero, a youth advocacy group, present at Council this week.

We’ve had some impressive presentations from young people in recent months (and some less impressive presentations by Hayden Donnell). This one set a real standard in the quality of research and delivery.

It’s time to get to work in making it happen. Most of the stakeholders involved – Auckland Transport, the Mayor, Ministers – are aligned.

Whether you use public transport or not, a freeze in fares – and a subsequent increase in patronage – benefits you. The more people we can get into public transport, the less congested our roads are.

We’re still hearing arguments for more roading: ‘add another lane’, ‘just build a causeway over the top’, ‘just get Auckland Transport to buy all that land’, ‘just make the whole city into a giant road’. Providing more lanes just doesn’t work. It’s not just that it’s prohibitively expensive, or that it involves knocking down homes in the middle of a housing crisis. It’s that it’s not possible to solve the congestion issue this way.

At the current rate of population growth, if everyone travelled in cars, we would need to add a new lane to our motorway network every few weeks to cope in peak times. Just google image search “Los Angeles traffic” for a glimpse of that future. In short, we need to prioritise road space to move as many humans as possible as quickly as possible.

We can’t, however, ask people to use transport at any cost. Public transport is one answer, but it also needs to be an easy, viable option. For people to choose to use buses, trains, and ferries to move from home to work, to school, to events, to the shops, to restaurants and bars it needs to be easier or cheaper than taking their cars. That doesn’t mean making it harder to use a car, it means making it easier to use public transport.

We are right on cusp of this change in Auckland from reliance on private vehicles to a reliable public transport network right now, with 98 million passenger trips in the last year (vs 57 million pre ‘supercity’). The North Shore New Network this February has seen a 12% increase in bus journeys compared to last February – that’s 142,000 extra journeys in one month. Cycling, walking, skating and electric scooters are all part of the solution too.

So why did bus, train, and ferry fares go up in February?

The short answer is the Farebox Recovery model meant they legally had to.

Every public transport fare is already subsidised by the government as public transport networks are expensive. They’re not as expensive as building new motorway lanes every few weeks, but it would be too expensive for the fares we pay to cover the entire cost of a public transport network.

The model that controls these subsidies is the Farebox model. This model is set by the government and requires 50% of all public transport expenses to be recovered through the fares we pay. This was enshrined in legislation by the last government and prevents us from subsidizing fares from other sources, or in leveraging other sources of funding. The new government, thankfully, has given us some wiggle room and allowed the current situation with 45% of public transport costs being collected through fares. This is still much too high.

As we attract more people to public transport, we deliver more services, which means higher spend both in infrastructure and running costs. It is counter intuitive to our goals for higher public transport use to result in higher fares.

The ultimate goal is to grow our public transport patronage in a way that benefits this city and all the people in it. There are many things that we could do to achieve this, if we were able to operate without the restrictions of the Farebox model. In short, the more people we can get using public transport: the more options we can deliver, and the more enticing the network will become. The benefits are felt in many of the ways that count: congestion, sustainability, affordability.

Patrons at a North Shore bus stop. Photo: Richard Hills

What should we do about it?

My preference is to freeze public transport fares and to investigate free fares for varied groups, whether that be school kids, students, or other groups. Gen Zero’s other ideas such as daily fare caps or caps within a zone makes a lot of sense too, making it more attractive and affordable to use public transport for more than just travel to and from work.

Reducing fares for some, or at certain times, does not necessarily mean a loss in revenue. There are examples in the past where dropping fares has led to an increase in patronage to such a level that they also increased revenue. It would be foolish, however, to simply assume induced demand would lead to an increase in revenue. Changing the Farebox model is a first step in allowing us to trial and adjust, to undertake research and costings, and make the right changes for the benefit of all. It will take months, but it could be delivered faster than the large scale infrastructure projects we are currently looking forward to.

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A short, quick win would be to extend the half hour grace period between journeys. In 2016 we made bus and train transfers free, which means your trip is counted as a single journey if you make the transfer within half an hour – anything after that begins again as a new journey. This effectively punishes people if they miss their next bus, or if buses aren’t as frequent in their area. I believe we can adjust this fairly quickly. It would enable more flexibility: heading into a shop or to grab dinner on the way home; shopping; even a public transport pub crawl having a beer at each bar then getting onto the next bus within the hour. I absolutely support this idea and continue to push for the change to be made.

I will admit it is cheaper today to get my bus from Glenfield to the city than it was ten years ago. I supported and celebrated the large drop in fare prices in 2016 with the introduction of Simpler Fares. We now have big discounts with a AT Hop card, more frequent services, new buses, and we secured some pretty great double deckers. It’s a fantastic set of results, but if we continually raise fares our public transport system will become less attractive, which can only harm our transport network.

If we freeze fares to increase public transport patronage, we can grow our city and reduce congestion at the same time.

Richard Hills is an Auckland Councillor for the North Shore Ward. Learn more and support the call to Freeze the Fares here.



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