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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 20, 2023

The utter folly of cutting public transport funding in the regions

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Regional public transport is where money can do the most good in the shortest time. So why is the government giving the regions’ funding to the main centres?

I used to think of public transport mainly as a way to reduce our environmental impact. It was only when I started my mission to take one bus a week in New Plymouth that I realised the crucial role public transport plays in lifting up those struggling most. And how when it’s not there, opportunities dramatically reduce.

On our buses I’ve had several conversations that have nearly brought me to tears. There was the 63-year-old man learning to read and write for the first time. One passenger told me she can’t take most of the cleaning shifts she’s offered because there’s no evening or weekend buses. A man said he’s finally attending polytech after five years unemployed.

New Plymouth’s less-than-hourly, largely Monday-to-Friday, finishes-around-6pm service is not unusual for the regions. After the massive reforms of the late 80s and early 90s, public transport funding fell far more in regions than main centres, and has mostly stayed low. Recently, areas like Otago, Horizons and Nelson-Tasman have expanded some services, with great results. Alongside efforts to reduce transport emissions, most thought regional public transport investment was on the up.

Then last week, we got a shock. Prime minister Chris Hipkins announced a suite of changes to government plans. Aiming to relieve costs of living and save money to build back better after the floods, it included shifting future investment in public transport from regions to the five main centres: Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch. Hipkins said it’s because that’s where the biggest difference can be made to reducing transport emissions.

I don’t think the calculations add up. We need more investment in public transport everywhere, but shifting money from regional public transport to main centres is moving it away from where it can do the most good in the shortest time, regardless of whether your priority is reducing emissions, relieving living costs or saving money to help flood-hit regions.

Image: Tina Tiller

Public transport saves more than it costs

It’s rarely possible to save money by chopping public transport. When it’s reduced, other costs balloon – if folk can’t get to work they need benefits, if they can’t access education they earn less, if they can’t get to the doctor they get sicker, and if there’s no bus they’re far more likely to have a car accident. The list goes on.

The World Economic Forum relays the whopping size of public transport’s return-on-investment: Every $1 invested in public transport generates $5 across the economy. To save money, it makes more sense to expand public transport funding rather than cut it.

Vast inequality in per-person investment

In the glory days of Aotearoa’s public transport, you had regular buses or trams whether you lived in a regional town like Napier or New Plymouth, or a main centre like Auckland or Wellington. Timetables promised services at least every 20 minutes, seven days a week from 6am to 11pm.

A big change in public transport funding around this time saw the concentration of investment in main centres. Today, the differences in how much funding public transport in your area gets per person, depending on where you live, are extreme:

Source data and data disclaimer

You might look at these differences and think they’re fine because fewer people use public transport in the regions. True, but is it cause or effect? Do low passenger numbers mean more investment is futile, or does low investment keep passenger numbers low?

Looking at regions that have increased public transport investment helps answer that.

In 2017 Queenstown began a new, regular timetable with buses seven days a week, at least every half hour from 6am to midnight. In its first year alone, passenger numbers grew 182%.

New public transport projects in even smaller towns have been a raging success, like Timaru’s MyWay on-demand bus service, now chalking up some 600 boardings a day. Taranaki’s rural Connector bus saw passengers triple between 2021 and 2022, and Otago’s Palmerston-Dunedin bus is, according to some, so popular it’s getting dangerous.

Success stories like these question the wisdom that the biggest possible gains from public transport investment are in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Tauranga. Half of New Zealanders live somewhere else – likely somewhere with very limited public transport that could be rapidly improved if only the investment were there.

Public transport advocate, elevator operator and muso Anthonie Tonnon, champion of Whanganui’s new high-frequency bus Te Ngaru The Tide, explains the quick wins of investing in regional public transport:

“For Auckland to double or triple patronage now they’ll need expensive long-term interventions like new infrastructure and bus priority. They should absolutely do that, but we’re missing the low-hanging fruit: There’s an Auckland-sized city of people living in urban areas like Dunedin, Napier, New Plymouth and Whanganui. If we can increase their public transport use as much as Queenstown did just by investing in improved routes and timetables, we can make a huge dent in emissions cheaply and quickly.”

Whanganui’s new bus service, Te Ngaru The Tide, runs every 20 minutes, six days a week

As bus driver shortages haven’t hit regional New Zealand as hard as big cities (Whanganui contractor Tranzit successfully recruited some 22 new drivers for their new bus earlier this year) expanding services in the regions is likely to be more successful from a staffing point of view too.

Investing in regional public transport may also save more emissions. Ministry of Transport research suggests those outside major centres drive more. Gisborne tops average annual kilometres driven per person, at 10,477, with Taranaki a close second at 9,934. Wellington is the country’s lowest at 5,989. Gaining a passenger in Taranaki or Gisborne would on average reduce driving by nearly double that of gaining a passenger in Wellington.

Public transport key to building back better

In flood-hit areas like Hawke’s Bay, Northland and East Coast, expanding public transport will now be even more necessary. We’ve seen cars crushed in slips, filled with silt and simply swept away. Those with no insurance – the least well-off – won’t be able to replace them anytime soon.

The rebuild will need all the labour we can get. We can’t afford to have people not working because they don’t have transport.

Napier resident and Repair Café organiser Helen Howard offers a local perspective: “The public transport network in Hawke’s Bay is woeful today. The expressway between Napier and Hastings and the road via Clive have been bumper-to-bumper since they reopened. In the midst of both climate and cost-of-living crises, we need investment in regular, reliable and affordable public transport more than ever.”

Funding public transport more equally to reduce inequality

The government must not pursue this plan to transfer investment away from regional public transport. The numbers don’t add up, whether the goal is to ease the cost of living, reduce vehicle use or build back better in flood-hit regions. All indications point to regional public transport as one of the best possible ways to achieve all these goals and to do it fast.

Beyond that, a government committed to reducing inequality must look to equalise per-person public transport spending across the motu so that those without transport – no matter where they live – see equal investment. We should not fund public transport in the main centres any less, but instead find ways to plug the regional funding gap – especially in areas badly hit by floods. We can’t leave the regions behind – least of all in this time of climate chaos.

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