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Britomart train station in Auckland
Britomart train station in Auckland (Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyDecember 23, 2020

What’s with Auckland’s sluggish return to public transport?

Britomart train station in Auckland
Britomart train station in Auckland (Photo: Getty Images)

As New Zealand returned to normality following community outbreaks of Covid-19, commuters in much of the country went back to taking the bus and train. Auckland was different.  

Remember June and July? Those halcyon days following the first lockdown, when it seemed like we’d beaten Covid and alert level one would last forever.

New Zealanders congratulated themselves and largely went back to their normal lives, and this was reflected in public transport use. In Auckland, according to AT Metro patronage data, use of buses, trains and ferries was down 34% in March, 94% in April and 75% in May, but it bounced back impressively in June and July – down just 35% and 26% respectively on the same months the year prior.

Then in August, on the 12th, to be precise, Auckland was shaken out of its complacency with a new community cluster that plunged us back into a level three lockdown. For that month, public transport use was down 65% on the same month last year. The city moved to a cautious level 2.5 on September 1 and remained there until the end of the month, and public transport use stayed well down – 49% on the same month in 2019.

Since then, though, things have been pretty much back to normal, restrictions wise. Auckland has been in level one since October 8, but people have been slow to return to public transport – in both October and November, PT use was down 36% on the same months in 2019. The biggest drop was seen in train use, which was at half of its 2019 levels in October and November. Compare this to Wellington, which in October saw bus and train use down only 16% and 22% respectively, according to figures supplied by Waka Kotahi (November data was not given), and Christchurch, where bus use was down a relatively modest 21%.

The first 20 days of December were slightly better in Auckland, but public transport use was still down 27% on the previous year, with train use remaining close to half what it was in December 2019.

So what gives? Could it be the mandated use of face coverings turning people off jumping on a bus, train or ferry? On August 31, mask use on public transport was mandated nationwide, but only at level two and above, and most public transport users in Auckland ditched the face coverings as soon as the city was back in level one. After a new community case with no known source was reported in the CBD in November, however, from the 19th of that month, face coverings on Auckland public transport were compulsory at all levels.

Blue: 2018/19; yellow: 2019/20; green: 2020/21 (graph courtesy of Greater Auckland)

Matt Lowrie, editor of Auckland transport and urban design website Greater Auckland, believes mandatory masks have likely put some people off using public transport, “but at the same time it has likely given others more comfort in using it. We did see a slight increase in the levels of usage following them being made mandatory,” he said.

That’s backed up by Covid-19 tracking reports carried out by Waka Kotahi in November, before the mask rule came in, which found that for almost one in five surveyed in both Auckland and Wellington, “a lack of mask adherence in others is given as a reason for using public transport less”. Those in Auckland and Wellington were much more likely to cite compulsory masks as a reason to return to public transport.

Another factor could be the fear of infection. During the August outbreak, at least one person contracted Covid-19 through catching the same bus as someone who had the virus, and several other confirmed cases took bus trips before they knew they were infected.

Stacey van der Putten, AT’s group manager for metro services, said she didn’t believe fear played a part, however. “A return to normal passenger levels is less about fears of the virus and more about overseas visitors and students returning,” she said, referencing the closed borders that have seen tourist and international student numbers plummet. 

In fact, despite the most recent community outbreak being in Auckland, people in other parts of the country have expressed more concern about infection and transmission since the latest community cases, according to Waka Kotahi’s research. In Wellington, fieldwork carried out by the transport agency from November 12-15 found infection concerns had increased by a “significant” 12 points – this was just days after it was confirmed the Defence Force cluster had spread to the capital.

Waka Kotahi Covid-19 tracker report from November

Van der Putten said the flexible working arrangements many businesses have stuck with post lockdowns has played a part too. “If working from home continues to be a trend post-pandemic, it might take longer to return to pre-Covid levels.”

Lowrie agreed new ways of working was a factor, as well as problems on the rail network – “trains being slowed, frequencies reduced and some services cancelled will have played a part in the differences we’re seeing”. The train use data certainly confirms this theory, with patronage still at half of what it was. 

But contrary to Auckland Transport’s comments, Lowrie didn’t believe international visitors were a big driver of PT use – “maybe a bit of ferry use, but it’s unlikely to be that much in the grand scheme of things. Likewise with international students, there will be some but they’re more likely to be living in apartments in the city than elsewhere and commuting in.”

He also pointed out that the recent dip could be partially attributed to exams and the end of school and uni meaning fewer students were travelling. 

Public transport use is still holding up better in Auckland than in many of the international cities Lowrie keeps an eye on – though many of those are still grappling with Covid-19. 

Graph courtesy of Greater Auckland
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