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a beach on a sunny day looking idyllic with a bus parked on it (also idyllic)
The beach is lovely, but where are the buses? (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyDecember 24, 2023

Where are all the buses to the beach?

a beach on a sunny day looking idyllic with a bus parked on it (also idyllic)
The beach is lovely, but where are the buses? (Image: Archi Banal)

Over summer, many public transport services run on reduced schedules. But where does that leave people who want to have holiday fun without a car?

In New Zealand, summer holidays create a huge annual migration, with thousands of people driving and flying to see family or friends in other parts of the country. With no kids at school and many people off work, it’s a time to go on picnics, swim at the beach, and lie in the shade.

Public transport organisers accordingly see usage drop during this period – Auckland Transport has less than a half of its normal uptake, according to Richard Harrison, the group manager for growth and optimisation at Auckland Transport. “People are seeing friends and family, and are less likely to be coming into the CBD,” he says. Many services run on reduced schedules during the holiday period, or are cancelled entirely, such as Auckland’s weekday-only bus routes, which tend to be for commuting to school, uni, or work. “We aim to provide the lowest possible inconvenience,” says Harrison

Auckland’s train system will also be closed for three weeks (there will be bus replacements); Wellington’s ferries won’t be running at all, and nor will trains to Wairarapa, the Melling Line or the cable car; all Christchurch and Hamilton buses will be on weekend timetables. 

But what about people who want to get around without their car during the holidays? 

A woman lies on her front, reading, with a small boy lying on his back on top of her, reading. On a beach.
(Photo: MoMo Productions, via Getty Images)

“Most services still have good coverage,” Harrison says, emphasising that there is public transport to many attractive destinations in Auckland: the air-conditioned cool air of the museum, beaches like Point Chevalier, Cornwall Park. The public transport agency also increases the number of ferry trips to Waiheke Island in summer to meet demand – although there’s still no public bus to popular West Coast beaches like Piha. 

Holiday public transport is important not just for leisure, but also for connecting with family and friends. Because of this, AT is running the 321 bus on Christmas Day. The route goes past Middlemore and Auckland hospitals, and is usually reserved to weekdays, as that is when standard hospital visiting hours are. “We add that back in because we know it’s important,” Harrison says. 

In Northland, a unique “Beach Buses” scheme, which started as a trial, is now running for the fourth summer. Costing $5 each way, it goes from Whangārei to Ocean Beach and Ruakākā Beach. This year, they’re adding a new service in Kaitaia, to make it easier to get to beaches with safer surf. 

There are a couple of motivations behind the service, Chris Powell, the transport manager for the Northland Transportation Alliance, says. Because of the long, skinny, dispersed nature of the region, “Northland is quite car dominated,” he says.  In summer, this means popular beaches are crammed with cars, and parking can be stressful. The buses provide an alternative, and are useful for when families sharing cars can’t be in the same place at the same time – with one parent at work with the car and the other keen to take Grandad and the kids for a day trip. 

The other advantage of the buses is increasing water safety. The buses only run to the beaches when surf lifesaving services are there, and they stay in touch with lifeguarding services. To Powell, it’s an example of the regional council trying to meet demand. They don’t run Sunday or public holiday services, because when they’ve tried in the past there was very little take-up, although people will use normal services to go to council pools, go shopping or visit friends. 

Making people aware of their existence can be a challenge for holiday bus services, especially for those running at non-standard times. Bus timetables for the Beach Buses and other services are buried several pages into the Northland Regional Council website, although Powell says the council also promotes services on its Facebook page and in street advertising. Otago Regional Council is putting on extra buses to Dunedin city centre for cruise ships arriving on New Year’s Day, which are at least easier to publicise simply by putting a big bus outside the Port Chalmers terminal. 

a bus going down a road with a blue sky
An (unfortunately infrequent) bus in Taranaki (Image: Suraya Sidhu Singh)

In Taranaki, public transport advocate Suraya Sidhu Singh is frustrated that the council’s free buses to the local lights festival, which run until January, aren’t being publicised. “They offer these things and don’t promote them. I’m delighted about the buses, but I suspect the take-up will be low.”

Singh runs a group of public transport enthusiasts in Taranaki, who encourage each other to take a bus at least once a week – not for the sake of it, but actually to get somewhere useful. She’s particularly frustrated that there is no airport bus, which she thinks limits tourism in the region; visitors tend to hire a car at the airport, which means that people who can’t drive – which is common in many parts of Asia and Europe – can’t visit easily. 

This is particularly prominent with Taranaki Maunga. “People come to Taranaki to see the maunga, but there isn’t a bus,” she says. A private shuttle costs $50, which is out of reach for many. “The carpark gets so packed that [the council] employ four people to manage parking on busy weekends. How does that cost less than a bus?”

Taranaki Maunga (Image design: Tina Tiller)

Singh has “broken up with the beach” personally, but while several good beaches are relatively easy to access from New Plymouth, the lack of weekend buses mean these can be hard to get to when people have time off. Having experienced firsthand the frustration of having more family members visiting than can fit in one car, she wants councils in underserved regions like Taranaki to understand that leisure is an equally valid reason to use public transport as commuting to work or study is. “Families get together on public transport,” she says, and often this can only happen during the holidays. “Beach cricket, barbecues, family get-togethers – all those things rely on most of your family having the day off.” 

While there’s a perception that the Taranaki region never had buses at evenings or weekends, she has found old timetables that show that isn’t the case. “We have really decreased the service level,” she says. There is no public transport running in Taranaki on the Christmas and New Year’s public holidays. 

Not all Wellington public transport services are running on Christmas Day, but those that are are free. That’s good news, says Hana Pilkington-Ching, a campaigner for free public transport in the city. “Lots of communities depend on public transport all of the time, and that need doesn’t disappear on Christmas,” she says. The mini budget this week confirmed that the government will be ending subsidised public transport fares for under-25s and community service card holders next year.

a woman with an orange shirt and platinum blonde hair smilling on the parliament forecourt holding a bit of paper with julie ann genter in a lovely maroon jacket and ayesha verral a brownskinned woman in a black dress looking in a slightly different direction
Hana Pilkington-Ching hands a petition opposing the end of subsidised fares to Julie-Anne Genter and Ayesha Verrall, members of the opposition. (Photo: Supplied)

The motivation prompting the Greater Wellington Council to offer free public transport on Christmas applies year round, Pilkington-Ching says. “People sometimes think that cheaper public transport is just about saving money in the cost of living crisis, and it is an expensive time of year for people,” she says. “But for many people, public transport is more than that – it’s the difference between them being able to leave their homes or not, to be involved in their communities or not.” 

Pilkington-Ching references Merinda, a parent living in Masterton who has made a submission in support of the free fares campaign. Discounts mean that “I’ve been able to take my kids to visit their grandma in Wellington more often, which has meant the world to us,” Merinda said. “[The discounts] gave us money we desperately need for food, housing and education.”

a breen background with a black and white train
(Image: Tina Tiller)

The summer holidays are an enormous annual internal migration in New Zealand – hardly on the scale of the millions who move through China during the Lunar New Year, but significant nonetheless. Even just within urban areas, making public transport accessible and affordable at all times of year can reduce carbon emissions, Pilkington-Ching says. In other places, shared transport for the holidays is the norm, such as “Jitney” buses in New York, or trains across China

To advocates like Pilkington-Ching and Singh, considerations of passenger needs have to include leisure, as well as other reasons to travel – especially if authorities want to ensure passenger growth. With this in mind, summer-specific services like buses to Northland’s gorgeous beaches and the shores of Waiheke make perfect sense. Perhaps in the future, this could include public transport to the Taranaki Maunga or Auckland’s West Coast beaches too. After all, it’s important to have fun, and even better if that fun is affordable, accessible and environmentally friendly. 

“I want to live in a society where it’s possible for everyone to get a bus to the beach or forest, regardless of time of year or cost,” Pilkington-Ching says. 

Keep going!