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OPINIONSocietyJuly 11, 2020

If we want vibrant cities in future, we must invest in public transport now

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Photo: Getty Images

Let’s not allow the focus on big-budget infrastructure projects to detract from the vital role public transport will play in revitalising our cities in a post-Covid world, says Greg Pollock.

The recent match between the Blues and the Hurricanes was one of the world’s first major post-lockdown sporting fixtures. It was watched live by a celebratory crowd of more than 40,000. 

The Commercial Bay shopping precinct opened a short time later, and since then has been extremely popular with Aucklanders wanting to try out all its eateries.   

Meanwhile, in Wellington, the creative industries are back to work, including a large crew of people working on the new Avatar movie (now they are out of quarantine), among others. The important government sector is also gearing up to lead on the policy challenges of our economic recovery and in doing so, is helping bring our CBD back to life.

A bus in Wellington (Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton)

This is all stirring proof that New Zealand is past phase one of the Covid crisis (albeit with the need for ongoing vigilance at our borders), and that despite Covid, our cities are becoming more vibrant and dynamic as they grow in size. 

We are now all firmly in phase two: restarting the economy, in the fastest and smartest ways possible. Given that many of those who will pay for the projects that will drive the recovery are still in primary school, it’s vital that this work benefits them, as much as it benefits New Zealanders of all ages.   

Big-budget, “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects will clearly have a role to play in this recovery, and have received a lot of attention. 

But not everything needs a ribbon-cutting ceremony to deliver economic results – let’s think about “shovel-ready services” too. 

One of the simplest ways to help trigger a recovery (and to fight climate change, which must not be forgotten about) is an idea that has been around for a long time. Essentially, this idea is about funding public transport to the tune of how we want our cities to work in the future, rather than disproportionately basing that funding on the number of people who have used public transport in the previous 12 months. 

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Currently, the government requires half the cost of providing public transport services to be paid for by fares. 

There are two problems with this.

The first is that public transport benefits far more people than just those who use it. For instance, if you commute by car, think how much longer that would take if all those people on buses, trains and ferries were also using cars. Fewer cars on the roads also allows trucking operators to better conduct their essential business. Less congestion also means cleaner air, fewer emissions, more efficient use of space (less land is taken up by roads that often have to be widened over time), and stronger communities (which are bisected by busy roads that are dangerous and unpleasant to cross). 

The second problem with basing so much public transport funding on current fare revenue is that trains, buses and ferries can’t be bought, and drivers can’t be trained and hired, once there’s a queue of people wanting to get on board. Public transport networks need to anticipate demand, not follow it. 

Right now, though, customers are steadily returning to public transport. But the effect of three months of virtually no passengers has left a huge hole in the budgets of many of the country’s regional councils, and Auckland Transport. 

It is vital that these authorities are able to continue the good work they have been doing on their public transport networks – these services have taken years to build to this point. 

For example, in June last year, Auckland celebrated reaching 100 million trips made on public transport, over the previous 12 months. That’s more than 60 trips for every one of the 1.6 million people who live in the city. Auckland now rivals Wellington as a city that has public transport as part of its DNA. Christchurch is also building a better public transport network by investing more in services. 

The exit from Mt Albert train station (Photo: Sonya Nagels)

Reaching this point has required better buses, better trains, better stations, higher frequencies and the routes and services that people want. Now, at the busiest times in our biggest cities, a bus or train will come along every 10 minutes, meaning there’s no need to check a timetable. When public transport is as convenient as this, people will get out of their cars to use it. And when they do that, they benefit from a wider range of employment and training options, as well as important social opportunities.

The Covid crisis will likely have one positive legacy: accelerating the shift from morning and afternoon peaks, as a result of employers allowing office workers more flexible working conditions. “Flattening the curve” of public transport timetables – so that higher frequencies are maintained throughout the day rather than just having a morning and evening peak – has a huge benefit. Many of us want to hang onto more flexible working hours and public transport needs to respond to this. Many people in the coming months will need to access retraining opportunities, education and new employment. But of course you can’t have higher frequencies without more drivers, more buses, trains and ferries. Once again, the need to move away from basing decisions on current fare revenue is clear. 

What is also clear is that investing in services will be just as good for our economic recovery, for jobs and, more importantly, for our cities and our climate, as the shovel-ready projects. As a public transport operator, I acknowledge that I have a vested interest – albeit a step removed – in regional authorities investing more in public transport. But as a citizen, I have a far greater vested interest in creating a better future. Modern, high-frequency public transport networks are vital to ensuring that our people, our biggest cities, and the country, can fulfil their potential. I am sure this is what those future generations would want us to do. 

Greg Pollock is the chief officer and managing director of Transdev New Zealand, which operates train and bus services for Auckland Transport and the Greater Wellington Regional Council.  

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