Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONSocietySeptember 7, 2022

One simple trick to get more people on trains and buses: run them more often

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Enticing people onto public transport seems like a tough nut to crack – until you realise we’re not doing the one relatively inexpensive thing that’s proven to work, argues Suraya Sidhu Singh.

All across Aotearoa, the problem is the same: public transport services don’t run often enough.

Despite much improvement even Auckland’s bus frequency isn’t there yet, with nearly half the population without services that run every 20 minutes or less. Meanwhile, a recent examination of public transport in our small-to-medium cities found most didn’t meet minimum frequencies recommended for network-oriented planning. (The few that did, like Queenstown, had seen significant passenger growth.)

If bus frequency is a cause for concern, our inter-regional train timetables are frankly embarrassing. One weekday return service on the Capital Connection (Palmerston North-Wellington) and two on Te Huia (Hamilton-Auckland) – seriously?

Research shows frequency is one of the biggest drivers of public transport uptake, especially in winning over those who currently drive. Similarly, reducing services is a big patronage-killer. In his 2021 book on our passenger rail history, Can’t Get There From Here, historian Andre Brett showed how loss of services (or reduced quality) usually presaged passenger loss. Yet press releases blame passengers – “Use it or lose it” – and fail to mention service cuts.

Patronage on today’s inter-regional trains can only be the tip of the iceberg of demand, but they’re still doing well. Capital Connection is usually full when leaving Wellington and Wairarapa Connection saw 15% passenger growth in recent years. Te Huia shocked everyone in April with a sudden explosion in patronage, thanks to half-price fares and finally, access to central Auckland.

Te Huia, the Hamilton-Auckland commuter train. (Photo: Grady Connell/Newshub)

Surely a logical next step to further Te Huia’s growing passenger numbers is adding more services. And that had always been part of its multi-phase plan, agreed by all.

So in May, according to plan, Waikato Regional Council asked Waka Kotahi for approval to add one more daily return service, which would significantly increase Aucklanders’ ability to use it. They weren’t even asking for more money, just funds already allocated to Te Huia not used because of Covid.

But Waka Kotahi instead refused to fund this step in the vague direction of a timetable. In a letter to Waikato Regional Council dated 20 May 2022, Waka Kotahi’s board chair says: “We do not support the addition of extra services at this time as it has no evidence to support the value of the investment.”

OK. Two things. First, Waka Kotahi had previously agreed to the plan to use increased services to increase passenger numbers – why agree with “no evidence to support”? Second, claiming to be unacquainted with the overwhelming evidence that more services means more passengers is strange when your own website says so in multiple places.

For example: “Higher frequency, faster [public transport] services typically [attract] people from a wider catchment than slower, less frequent services.” What’s with the wild contradictions, Waka Kotahi?

The Palmerston North-Wellington Capital Connection at Wellington Station (Photo: J Chaung/KiwiRail)

And it’s not just them. I got similarly contradictory messages when I wrote to councillor Daran Ponter, deputy chair of Greater Wellington’s Regional Transport Committee. When I asked why the Capital Connection only goes once a day, he said: “Low population/population density and a bias towards private car transportation.”

Yet at the same time, Ponter pointed me to his own council’s business case to upgrade the lower North Island trains so they can run more services, attracting more passengers. The report says frequency is a “core determinant” of passenger numbers: “Limited frequency makes the public transport option unattractive … Service frequency is a core determinant in travel behaviour and influences the land use and mode shift.”

Waka Kotahi and others seem confused about what drives public transport uptake. We see confident cries that increasing service frequency is a boon for passenger numbers, but also low service frequency blamed on hard-to-change things like population density and love of cars. You’d think the attraction of wheeling out well-trodden excuses would wane in the face of a huge global challenge like climate change, but apparently not.

Who isn’t confused about what drives public transport uptake? Experts. Associate professor Imran Muhammad of the School of People, Environment and Planning at Massey University, a leading public transport researcher and regular Capital Connection passenger, told me this:

“Public transport frequency has historically been neglected in New Zealand because we’ve designed our bus and train services for people who don’t own cars. If we want to see more people switch from driving to public transport, we must provide a service that’s better than, or at least equal to, driving.

“The car’s main edge is being available all the time, so public transport must be frequent and available seven days of the week. It may be too early to know if it’s time to add an extra service for Te Huia, but frequency really matters in making public transport successful.”

And while we’re point-blank refusing to get the basics right, we’re eyeing up expensive, pie-in-the-sky new public transport “solutions”. But how will shiny light rail and gondolas help when we throw a bone at users of our existing services and call it a “timetable”?

Our low public transport use in New Zealand means we suffer greatly from costly (in money and human terms) problems like congestion, the road toll, sedentary lifestyles, urban sprawl, high infrastructure costs, social isolation and more. But we already have the tools to solve it. So let’s quit the excuses and follow the evidence.

Waka Kotahi was approached for comment but had not responded by publication time.

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