Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyApril 8, 2022

Five cheap ways to get more people on public transport

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

There are a bunch of simple, low-cost steps we could be taking to encourage more people to jump on board that bus or train. Suraya Sidhu Singh shares five.

The government initiative to halve public transport fares across the motu for three months starting last Friday has amazed many with its low cost – an estimated $25 to $40 million. (And if passenger numbers more than double with everyone paying half price, that cost would effectively reduce to nothing.)

Early numbers look encouraging and it goes to show that while we need to build world-class public transport, there are more ways to get people out of cars, fast and without huge budgets.

I recently started a public transport users’ group in Taranaki called I Love Public Transport. I’m always talking to public transport users and would-be users of all stripes. I’ve learned there are some things we could do today to get more people on board that won’t cost the earth.

People getting on a bus in Auckland wearing masks (Getty Images)
Photo: Getty Images

1. Tell people taking public transport is an excellent way to act on climate change

Believe it or not, they don’t know. When I announced my foray into bus activism to a friend who’d spent last year planting thousands of trees, he screwed up his face. “What’s public transport got to do with climate change?”

He’s not alone. While most New Zealanders are willing to change their lives to reduce emissions, we’re confused on how – thinking reducing waste is the best way. But waste is just a pinch of household emissions compared with transport.

Other countries have seen the potential in clarifying this point – last year, UK’s National Rail launched its We Mean Green campaign. Podcast ads make simple statements linking taking the train with climate action – straightforward messaging that could put this strange misunderstanding to bed.

2. Stop punishing people for paying fares in cash

Almost every public transport service charges more for fares paid in cash, sometimes double. The penalty is meant to persuade people to use pre-pay cards like Auckland’s Hop or Wellington’s Snapper because taking cash slows down services and costs more to process.

But pre-pay cards now account for around 95% of trips taken, which raises questions as to whether this cash punishment can possibly take any more ground, and what unseen consequences it may have.

Cash fare payers tend to belong to one of two groups. New passengers tend to want to pay cash for their first few trips before they decide if they’ll keep using public transport, but I’ve noticed the penalty has an effect on this group – some avoid taking the bus for weeks or months rather than pay the extra. I guess in some cases, this delay will be long-term.

People who don’t use pre-pay cards like Wellington’s Snapper are currently punished with higher fares (Photo: RNZ)

Others who pony up for the cash fare are obviously struggling – the guy with shoes like gaping mouths or the tired mum with three children under five. Some of these users have told me why they’re avoiding pre-pay cards: for example, you can’t put $10 on a bus card when you might need it at the end of the week, or using a card provokes anxiety when you’re unsure if you’ve got the money.

If we want to broaden who uses public transport, we need to make sure we’re not focusing so much on comfortable, middle-class existing passengers that we ignore everyone else. What’s to lose? If we stop punishing cash users, people will keep using pre-pay cards because for most, cash isn’t the most convenient option. But it is a super-important option both for equity and getting new users on board.

3. Encourage half-arsed public transport use

The change we need isn’t for everyone to sell their car and walk, bus or bike everywhere – it’s for most people to drive a bit less. If everyone who drives replaced just one car journey a week, their personal transport emissions could fall 10 to 15% – that’s roughly by how much the Climate Change Commission says we should cut transport sector emissions by 2030.

Sustainable transport advocates tell me the biggest barrier to change is New Zealanders’ “go hard or go home” mentality. We set ourselves lofty goals like not driving for a year or cycling to work every day. A handful succeed. The rest fail in the first week and quietly quit forever.

We don’t need gold medallists for the Sustainable Transport Olympics, we need lots of people half-arsing it – swapping out one or two car trips a week for bussing, biking or walking. I’ve been asking people in my local area to show their support for public transport by taking one bus a week. It’s simple but it resonates because it’s achievable. Please steal this idea.  

‘One bus a week’ selfies from PT users in Taranaki (Photos: Supplied)

4. Councils should shout about public transport

A Swedish study found the greatest increase in public transport passenger numbers was in regions where public bodies and community leaders communicated strongly and positively about public transport.

You might expect to visit the social media or websites of councils commissioning public transport in your area and find them enthusiastically promoting public transport. I could find few such examples. The likes of Greater Wellington, Environment Canterbury and others should be using their substantial online audiences to raise the profile of public transport. Just asking people to use it is surprisingly effective.

5. More public transport. Everywhere. All the time.

We’re starting to see big investment in public transport in New Zealand finally, like light rail in Auckland and Wellington. These headline-grabbing projects are necessary and long overdue. But large parts of New Zealand – including some parts of these cities – have no services, infrequent services or services restricted to traditional working hours.

Research shows that adding more services is even more effective than reducing fares. Running more services also means better value from public transport budgets because big costs like administration stay about the same.

You can’t always add new services fast, but every council will have a list of services they could add tomorrow if they had the money. A dedicated fund for trialling more frequent services, expanded hours and new routes could go a long way to boosting passenger numbers across the country.

Keep going!