Public transport users in Auckland can travel on trains with their canine companions, but buses remain off limits, despite the council’s wishes. Alice Neville asks what’s going on.
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As a dog who, given the chance, will choose any form of transportation over his own four paws, Stanley would love to ride the bus. When we’re out walking and a car pulls up to the kerb, he’ll drag me over in the hope he’ll be invited to hop in and ride in the passenger seat, where – in cars with electric windows, anyway – he’s figured out how to push the button with his little paw so he can feel the wind in his ears as we drive.
Alas, Stanley cannot travel on the bus here in mainland Tāmaki Makaurau (Waiheke Island is another story). He could go on the train, yes, if I were to muzzle him or put him in an approved pet carrier, but the nearest train station to our house is a good 30-minute walk. That does not make for a sensible commute – especially when there’s a bus stop mere metres from our house – so the only train Stanley’s had the pleasure of travelling on to date is The Stan Express.
But I’m not just talking about taking Stanley on the bus for kicks – with fuel prices going up and the lure of half-price public transport just days away, I, like many people, would like to drive my car less and take the bus more. I live in an apartment, and leaving my dog at home alone for long periods isn’t ideal, so I take Stanley to work most weekdays, on outings to see friends and family at weekends, on the occasional trip to a dog-friendly pub or cafe, as well as to parks and beaches that aren’t walking distance from our place. It would be great if we could rely less on the car for all of these trips. There’s no relevant research in Aotearoa, but in 2017 one Australian study estimated that Sydney dog owners took a mind-boggling 2.4 million dog-related car trips a week.
For me it would be a nice-to-have, but for those who don’t own cars, don’t drive or struggle to afford petrol, being able to take a sick pet to the vet without relying on finding someone to give them a lift or shelling out on Uber Pet (which adds around $5 to a standard fare) could be vital.
And in many parts of the world, taking a pet on public transport is entirely normal. In the UK and Europe no one blinks an eye at a leashed dog on a bus, train or fondue tram. Istanbul even has a celebrity dog who rides the city’s public transport by himself. Most cities in the US and Canada allow small dogs in carriers, with many allowing larger dogs on leashes too (in Seattle this extremely good dog takes the bus to the park every day – all by herself). In Tokyo, small pets are allowed on the subway if they’re in a crate – or not, if you’re this cat.
Dog-loving Auckland councillor Cathy Casey, who’s originally from Scotland, has been advocating for making the city more dog-friendly for years. “In Europe dogs go everywhere and it didn’t make any sense to me why there was no public transport access for dogs in New Zealand,” she said. “That was the first step.”
Her first big win was in April 2018 – the month after Wellington started letting pets in carriers on public transport – when Auckland Council’s planning committee unanimously voted to support allowing pets on PT in Tāmaki Makaurau. “I was really pleased,” she said.
But progress since then has been slow. Since that 2018 decision, the ball has been in the court of Auckland Transport (AT), a council-controlled organisation, to make it happen. After an AT survey found just 12% of respondents were opposed to the idea, in June 2019, a three-month trial began allowing pets enclosed in suitable pet carriers, small enough to go on the owner’s lap or under the seat, during off-peak times – but only on trains. In December that year, the trial extended to dogs of all sizes, as long as they wore a muzzle and were on a leash – but again, just on trains.
The train trial ended in March 2020 an unmitigated success – “it was 100% great”, said Casey. No fights, no bites, no worries. In June, it was made permanent: dogs of all sizes were allowed on trains, during off-peak times only, as long as they were in a suitable pet carrier or muzzled and on a lead.
But buses, by far the most popular form of public transport in Auckland, carrying 70-80% of all the region’s PT users on any given day, remained off-limits. And almost two years later, nothing has changed. There has been no trial, nor even a plan for a trial, of allowing dogs on buses in Auckland, making bus travel the only form of public transport in Auckland that doesn’t allow our furry friends (ferries have long been open to dogs on leashes travelling outside).
“I am not sure where the blockage lies,” said Casey. “We’ve [the council] told them in no uncertain terms this is what we want, and it just rolls on.”
Since the train trials ran, the small matter of a global pandemic has upended all sorts of aspects of our society – including public transport use. This is particularly marked in Auckland, where in March 2019, more than 10 million trips were taken on public transport in the city, according to AT data. In February 2022, it was about a third of that number.
But restrictive Covid measures like lockdowns are, for the most part, a thing of the past, and recently, other regions in New Zealand have moved to make their buses more pet-friendly. In December last year, both Nelson and Otago began trials of allowing small pets in carriers on their bus services during off-peak times, joining Wellington and Hawke’s Bay, which both gave the OK to pets on buses (under the same conditions) in 2018. I asked the respective councils how their trials and permanent policies were going – and none had had any issues or complaints.
On Waiheke Island, an anomaly within the Auckland Transport network, dogs have always been allowed on buses – no muzzles or carriers required – going back to before the route became an AT-contracted service. Fullers360, which operates the Waiheke Bus Company as well as the ferries that run between the city and the island, said the rule is “generally positively received by both passengers and drivers”.
So what’s happening with the rest of Auckland? Allowing dogs on trains but not buses “doesn’t make any sense”, said Casey. Over the past couple of years she’s made repeated requests of AT to get a move on, and in September 2019, was told “AT are proposing to discuss a bus trial with our operators and employee unions during the scheduled engagement sessions we have planned for November”. It’s not clear if that ever happened.
In February 2021, Chris Darby, the chair of the council’s planning committee and the AT liaison councillor, co-authored a letter with Casey to AT chief executive Shane Ellison, saying “we are unsure what is preventing action and would like clarity from Auckland Transport about what issues need to be resolved and what steps are being taken”.
The following month, a reply came from Mark Lambert, AT’s executive general manager of integrated networks, again saying pets on buses was “scheduled to be part of joint conversations between ourselves, bus operators and unions over the coming months”. Lambert wrote there was “some trepidation with animals on buses because of potential for driver vulnerability and distraction. The bus environment is indeed different from our other modes with just the driver on-board and also the cabin being open and accessible. Many of our operators and their unions feel strongly about this.”
Craig Inger, AT’s train services manager, told The Spinoff that while dogs on trains had been a big success, buses and trains weren’t “like for like”. When the idea was first raised, he said, “There was a reasonable amount of feedback from unions and bus drivers because unlike trains, where the drivers are separated from customers and can concentrate on driving, bus drivers are the only people on – if there’s an issue between a customer and a dog owner the driver has to deal with it.
“It’s not an easy one unless you get on-board staff,” added Inger. “Unions felt pretty strongly about that – whether they’ve changed their view I don’t know.”
On being approached, the unions that represent bus drivers in Auckland said they had no issue with the prospect of dogs on buses. Gary Froggatt of the Tramways Union told The Spinoff that Auckland Transport had not consulted with the union on the matter at all. “However, feedback is that if dogs are on a lead and cats are in a carrier there should not be any problems,” he said. Kevin O’Sullivan of the union’s Wellington branch chipped in to say, “It happens in Wellington no problems!”
It was a similar story with First Union, which also represents bus drivers in Auckland and around the country. “We have not yet, to the best of our knowledge, recorded any objections or concerns from First Union members about allowing dogs to travel on buses in Auckland. We are not aware of the policy having been raised with drivers at this stage,” said union organiser Gem Pritchard in an email, adding that of far more concern to drivers than a few pooches on board was the violence and abuse they faced in the line of work from some (human) passengers, “and the lack of support they receive from their employers and Auckland Transport in dealing with the fallout from these incidents”.
As for the operators – companies contracted to AT to run their bus services – their views weren’t so clear. Jay Zmijewski, chief operating officer of NZ Bus, which operates a large number of services for AT including the Link buses, first said The Spinoff’s query was best directed to Auckland Transport. On being told AT had already been approached, he said he was “not aware of any recent discussions with Auckland Transport on this matter”, adding that “NZ Bus is supportive of Auckland Transport’s current policy”.
Other bus operators in Auckland either couldn’t be reached for comment or didn’t respond to requests.
Inger said the idea would likely be reviewed again in the future, “once we get out of Covid and get back to more normal numbers”. But Casey said she didn’t understand why passenger numbers needed to increase for a trial to take place. “Surely we’d be better to start now when buses are empty to familiarise and normalise that.”
And with a lockdown-boosted rise in dog ownership in Auckland in recent years – numbers jumped nearly 5% from 2020 to 2021 – what better incentive to lure people back on to the buses? There are currently 111,522 registered dogs in Auckland, which equates to “nearly 112,000 paying customers”, pointed out Casey.
It’s not just the owners, either. It is my firm belief, based on the number of smiles and warm looks I get when out walking with Stanley, that true dog haters are few and far between. A brief interaction with a cute pooch on one’s commute would surely improve the morning of many a PT user – it certainly did for me when I lived overseas.
Casey, whose discussions with unions have garnered similar responses – they’ve told her they don’t have a problem with the idea – said she believed the bus operators were the real block. “I think it’s this risk-averse nonsense,” she said. “They think there’s going to be disruption, fights, smells, pees … and there was none of that in the train trials, it was 100% great.”
In a 2017 piece on The Conversation, University of Sydney researchers noted that in car-dependent cultures such as that of Australia and the United States – New Zealand could easily be included here too – dogs tended to be restricted from public transport, while in countries where car use is less common and public transport the norm, they’re welcomed.
In 2021, the same researchers analysed comments on the 2017 article to try to understand the opposition to allowing dogs on PT. References to smell, hygiene, allergies and attacks were common, they found. “Statements that dogs are dirty and dangerous often either implicitly or explicitly referenced the notion that dog owners cannot be trusted to control, or minimise the impact of, their dog.” Many comments claimed that a policy that worked in, for example, a European context would not work in Australia, with a sentiment that Australia was somehow “behind” countries in Europe underpinning them.
Interestingly, my own informal survey of, ah, Stan’s grandparents elicited similar comments – the idea that dogs and dog owners were less civilised in Aotearoa than Europe, and that while it worked over there, a similar policy would end in “chaos” here. This is despite this pair having taken various family dogs on the ferries to Waiheke, as well as on the buses on the island, many times with no problems.
All this leads me to believe that Casey is right – perhaps there’s a mindset here, partly underpinned by a lack of understanding of how public transport can be a normal part of life, that dogs and public transport simply don’t mix.
Casey retires in October, at the end of the current electoral term, and getting dogs on buses would be an apt parting gift to the city of Auckland. “I am so determined to get a trial at least started before I leave – because it doesn’t make any sense.”
Until then, it looks like The Stan Express is going nowhere.
Declaration of mum: Cathy Casey’s daughter Alex Casey is a senior writer at The Spinoff.