Unfairness and bias in proposals to increase bus fares and change routes

by Murray Jaspers
The proposal to introduce a 3 per cent fare increase for public transport is not necessary if the proportion of costs recovered from fares (57 per cent for Wellington commuters) is more fairly aligned with the equivalent recovery of 38 – 44 per cent in Christchurch and Auckland. A move to direct a greater portion of the NZTA public transport grant for local transport to Wellington bus services should be considered.

Currently, there is modal inequity and a bias evident in the way resources from the GWRC are directed to rail services at the expense of bus provisions for Wellington city. This has been a conscious decision by the Regional Council over a considerable time and must be addressed as an integral part of implementing the fare proposals.

In July next year there are several major changes related to bus services which, if implemented simultaneously, will be problematic and will lead to widespread disquiet, potentially undermining some of the worthwhile measures being proposed.

Furthermore, there are various proposed route changes for some major suburban bus services that will not enhance the effective operation of the bus network in parts of the city. Additionally, to reduce the frequency of some off-peak evening suburban services in the “shoulder” commuting period is a counter-intuitive degradation of the service destined to reduce bus usage, force commuters back into cars and undermine principles of best public transport practice.

Wellington has a justified reputation for having historically an excellent public transport service with high levels of usage. This reputation and the patronage levels need to be sustained. As a consequence, the fare change proposals and other modifications to the network need to be amended and work in tandem to ensure such a reputation, usage and quality provision is maintained.

I want to highlight the following issues

. There are problems that will arise from the planned timing of multiple changes to transport provision
. The proposed general fare changes for 2018 are not necessary
. The modal inequity and bias evident in the level of resources directed to rail over bus provisions
. The flaws evident in some structural aspects of planned changes for the bus network and services
. The proposed route and off-peak frequency changes scheduled for 2018 being of serious concern.

Some of the proposed “Better Metlink Fares” changes undoubtedly have targeted benefits for particular groups. They also herald some long overdue changes that are necessary to provide for a better integrated multi-mode transport service for the Wellington region and particularly for the city and its immediate suburbs, to ensure a modern public service provision and building for the future.

However, despite this there are a number of implications that stem from the proposed changes. As a consequence there is a pressing need for further consideration of what exactly requires attention at this time.

Quite critically, there are matters of the timing of implementation and some structural implications.

What is apparent is the prospect of the proposed fare restructuring and the proposed change to the bus network route structure and frequencies being simultaneously imposed on commuters next July. These simultaneous changes mean that the same adult commuters, as the lifeblood of the bus service, will be hit with two fundamental changes, both of which are potentially adverse for many. An increase in fares for most users when there is a degradation of some bus services is neither appropriate nor acceptable. Nor will it be able to withstand expensive subsequent scrutiny with remedial action inevitable.

KEY MATTERS THAT RELATE TO FARE PROPOSALS and OTHER NETWORK CHANGES

We are looking at fare increases for the majority of adult bus users and service degradation in many suburbs. But there are currently bus service issues of reliability. This means that bus services do not meet reasonable quality performance standards coupled with detrimental route changes and reduced frequency issues. As a consequence, annoyance levels are high. The changes as proposed give no guarantee this will improve, just a projected hope and increased cost for these users.

On balance the prospects for improvement appear grim.

Funding of bus services is from a balance of fares, regional rate provision and government subsidies from NZTA. For Wellington bus passengers, the actual fares paid are more expensive than other cities in New Zealand. The evidence is clear and apparent. The proposals are premised on a 3% fare increase, yet given that public transport services receive government funding, the bus fare recovery component is already too high for Wellingtonians, especially for those travelling 1 – 3 zones. The balance is wrong.

The public bus situation has arisen because the GWRC has made a conscious decision to heavily prioritise rail services over the city’s bus needs in recent times. There was a need. But this bias must be changed. It must be addressed now.

The time has arrived to stop over-subsidising trains at the expense of bus services in the city and immediate suburbs. The “Better Metlink Fares” proposal does not redress that balance and as a consequence is not fair for bus patrons.

Of the total quantum of the NZTA funding allocated to Wellington, the portion GWRC has dedicated to the bus component of the public transport service is too low. The NZTA grant is dedicated funding for public commuter services, yet bus commuters are missing out.

The Regional Council’s decision to upgrade the regional rail services over reasonable funding of the metropolitan bus services reflects the regional bias evident in the composition of the council members. The focus on rail at the expense of the bus services for Wellington city and suburbs must stop.

This rail-bus imbalance has been widely identified. It has been acknowledged by some councillors. This means that 2020 is too far out to wait for this modal inequity to be addressed, especially as the inequity remains imbedded in these fare proposals.

Much credence has been ascribed to the new bus tender. However, merely having a new bus operator company and a new bus fleet with new drivers for Tranzit from next July will not in any way rectify some of the pending problems with the bus network itself and the plans to reduce some off-peak service frequencies. In fact there is the likelihood they will be made worse.

There is little that is being proposed in the fare restructuring that will guarantee to get people out of cars and on to the bus services. There are patronage impact projections but it is reasonable fares and quality service provisions such as regularity, frequency and reliability and conducive route design that are what is required to increase patronage – not fare increases.

Patronage needs to be encouraged, and it is Wellington city users who need to be encouraged. Regional rail users have had their share.

The rather unique topography of the Wellington city area, the confined CBD, and the bottlenecks caused by previous lack of foresight and planning can only be addressed by urgently giving affordable and improved bus services a priority. For the majority of the city population other than using their cars, it is the bus network that is their “go to” option as they cannot easily and affordably long-term park within the city, they do not bike, it is too far to walk and for most there is no rail option.

It needs to be acknowledged that a very significant portion of the off-peak bus travel is by Gold Card holders, and they are not accounted for in Snapper data collection (as this depends on the vigilance of the bus drivers and many drivers wave G C holders on without recording the journey), so for many off-peak passengers the proposed 25% discount incentive is a phantom benefit and undermines the validity of the ambitious 2.6% increase in patronage.

Critically there are also proposals to reduce off-peak night time services to many suburbs from next July. This will simply increase car usage both for the morning commute and for evening usage as users will not wait one hour between scheduled services, and will in 2018 revert to using their cars. This will impact particularly in the identified weeknight “shoulder” period to perhaps 9.00 pm after work and evening activities with those travelling from the city. Increased car congestion and parking pressures in the CBD will prevail throughout the day. This is a conscious degradation of bus services.

The proposed extensive route re-design from next July is ostensibly to provide increased services to some additional suburbs. What it really means is that established bus routes are being changed to the detriment of some suburban services. It is appropriate in some instances. But for some suburbs this is ill considered. The removal of the Khandallah “loop” service is a case in point.

The provision of dedicated school bus services from the Khandallah – Ngaio area and possibly other suburbs into the CBD and across town to colleges at the Basin Reserve or further east is needed to alleviate overcrowding at peak commuter times, particularly the mornings. The proposed school student discount incentive should only be available on dedicated school services as in many other NZ cities. It is common for there to be locally funded, non Ministry of Education sourced bus services in many places and this is sometimes the case already from the central city to eastern suburbs.

This city has a greater number of students crossing the city to attend non-neighbouring secondary schools than is the norm in other large metropolitan areas. Instituting this restriction would mean full fares are payable by students on the normal commuter peak hour services so as to alleviate and manage overcrowding for full fare adults. Gold card holders are so restricted on these peak services, so need to be school students.

To further elaborate on some of the more major issues. These issues relate to the adequacy of (previous) consultation undertaken, the timing of proposed changes, allocating equitable funding for buses and maintaining patronage by reconsidering route and frequency implications for bus services.

THE CONSULTATION PROCESSES

The consultation undertaken in 2013 on route and frequency changes for bus services was flawed. It was not comprehensive and was shallow. The result is the predicament that now exists. Looking back, the consultation was simplistic even and the conclusions are now certainly outdated, yet it remains the definitive basis for the GWRC proceeding with route and frequency proposals for 2018.

A lot has changed for the city since 2013, even since 2015, for transport provision, public attitudes and accessibility. Not the least of which are the consequences of earthquakes, the failure to progress alleviating the Basin Reserve daily congestion fiasco, the protracted resultant “Lets Get Wellington Moving” initiative, the pronounced parking difficulties besetting the city, expenditure on cycleway management, overcrowded morning commuter bus services and inner-city gridlock as car usage continues to rise. On top of this are the proposals to degrade some off-peak bus services.

There is a need to revisit the proposals arising from the earlier [2013] consultation as the outcomes of that process to gauge bus user’s views at the time, have become the proposals that were always going to be counter-intuitive.

After this mess is sorted then, and only then, address the fare issues by redirecting NZTA funding to better bus services, as would have been intended, to serve the city’s needs properly.

THE TIMING of the PROPOSED CHANGES

Most serious is the prospect of the Metlink fare changes (with projected fare increases) being introduced next July impacting at the exact same time as the new Wellington city and suburban bus routes changes and the changes to the off-peak frequency.

This is also at the same time as new contracts for service across the city with a new bus operator starting to service the routes with the teething problems of a new bus fleet. All of these are inextricably linked. This is absurd and defies any planning logic.

Does the right and left hand know what each is doing ?

It is difficult to reconcile GWRC’s proposed increase in fares and reduction in some services with their stated aim of improving access and affordability. To reduce fares for a small segment of patrons whilst reducing service quality, making route changes and increasing fares for peak users is unsustainable.

Put simply, there is no direct evidence that this overall fare proposal will lead to improvements to the way the city’s bus network will operate. In fact with concurrent plans to degrade aspects of the off-peak service and institute route changes to a number of suburbs there is the likelihood that matters will be worse. As a consequence there is the prospect of fare increases for the core adult user base to fund certain more marginal objectives, with those same full fare paying base users receiving a degradation of service.

THE FARE RESTRUCTURING ISSUES

It is evident that the goal of the quoted 55-60% of operating costs being funded from fares for Wellington commuters compares most unfavourably with Auckland at 44% and Christchurch at 38%. This 55-60% target range for fare revenue needs to be seriously reviewed. The actual 57% for Wellington bus users’ must be reduced by redirecting government funding from NZTA for the purpose from other uses, and to further use the much touted savings from the ‘successful’ bus contracts in 2018 and beyond to lower the base fares for bus users.

If the way the NZTA funding is allocated by the GWRC is reviewed, the projected half of all full fare paying passengers impacted upon will NOT need to face a fare increase. Patronage is not increased when Wellington bus fares are too expensive.

GWRC has driven savings through the bus contract procurement process. Yet it is now proposing to increase fares.

What is GWRC doing with the tender-generated savings ? Wellington city residents may wonder if GWRC is using some of the savings and projected increased fare revenue into other parts of the public transport service provision at the expense of Wellington city bus commuters. Benefits for train users are already evident. The Regional Council needs to be fair to all public transport users across the region and avoid any perception to the contrary.

It is notable that the short distance bus zones are expensive already. Travel incorporating outer zones is disproportionately cheaper. The discouragement of shorter distance travel with even higher fares will further undermine the intended boost in usage.

STRUCTURAL IMPLICATIONS of PROPOSED ROUTE AND FREQUENCY CHANGES and the DEGRADATION of BUS SERVICES

The suburbs of Khandallah and Ngaio are to be the recipients of less frequent bus services in the evening off-peak period. Furthermore there are to be unnecessary and counterproductive route changes. This is also applicable to some other Wellington suburbs.

The current Khandallah – Ngaio “loop” route service works very well. It provides a predictable service and the frequency and patronage support its retention. The GWRC‘s proposals do not. The patronage figures compiled by the GWRC are dated and not comprehensive.

A route into Broadmeadows is the justification for severing the “loop,” but in doing this it will degrade the service. It is possible to incorporate several options to service Broadmeadows with some lateral network thinking whilst retaining the “loop” route. This aspect of network analysis has been poor and has exaggerated our concerns of “tunnel vision.”

The proposed route design change is a classic example of planning from a map and failure to understand the topography and the distances those in the community will have to walk with reduced service frequency whilst ignoring what the community wants retained.

A further justification for a route change has been that it will improve the timeliness of the 43 and 44 routes from Strathmore. The real problem is the current length of the route and it crossing the CBD, NOT the actual “loop” nature of the Khandallah section. The route change will reduce the service frequency and create two new more problematic routes. The result will be a further degraded service. If the “shoulder” frequency issue is addressed then the costs of retaining a half hour frequency on two separate routes will be correspondingly greater than on one “looped” route. This lack of foresight and empathy in route design was clearly illustrated by the Ngaio Gorge slip.

In this context the sudden slip-induced closure of the gorge illustrates the problems the proposed route changes will create. The closure effectively foreshadowed for commuters in these suburbs what the impact will be if the enduring Khandallah (43,44) loop route is severed as the current plans intend.

The slip resulted in
. Serious loss of convenience and pronounced car generated traffic congestion going into the city
. Massive commuter concerns with bus reliability and a realisation by users of the benefits of the current dual gorge route (previously taken for granted)
. A significant loss of bus frequency caused by one part of the “loop” route being out
. Increased local traffic using cars to get to more remote bus stops and near to the village
. Unprecedented parking congestion around the village streets which simply did not cope

The proposal to split the “loop” route did not foresee this, or planners have chosen to ignore it. The proposed two separated substitute routes will not provide adequately nor effectively for these suburbs. With the re-opened gorge service, reliability and timeliness has been restored. Separate routes serving each separate side of Khandallah – Ngaio will not work and will be more expensive, will have reduced individual route patronage and be less frequent to the point that car usage will increase.

Finally, it is pleasing to have received some assurances from GWRC councilors that the viability of the weeknight off-peak “shoulder” frequency concerns are being reconsidered. We will await the outcome of these deliberations. The object is to retain a half hourly frequency perhaps as a compromise to 9 or 10 pm. This applies to Khandallah services but also encompasses some wider area of the Wellington city bus network.

The representations we have made to date concur with all of the accepted arguments which underpin best public transport practice and the promotion of usage. The previous impediment of “fiscal neutrality” now being superseded by new or redirected NZTA funding is welcomed, but such considerations should equally apply to the route rationalisation of the “loop” service and to the increased subsidisation of fares (as with Christchurch and Auckland).

Murray Jaspers is a former government manager and long term Wellington and Khandallah resident with an interest in education and public transport issues. He presented this submission to the Regional Council on Wednesday.

Read also:
The WCC does not support the 3 per cent fare increase

 

4 comments:

  1. Ian Shearer, 8. October 2017, 15:55

    There are other factors that Murray does not mention that also mean the overall 3% fare increase is not necessary. GW announced last year that the “trains operator” tender resulted in savings of $10m/year last year. GW also announced that the “bus operator” tenders resulted in substantial savings. Where have these savings gone? Also the GW public transport operations receive account is very large – around $20m. There is absolutely no justification for a general public transport increase in fares at this time. The GW excuse “they have not gone up since 2013” is not an acceptable reason. The request for a general 3% increase must be turned down by Regional Councillors.

     
  2. Ross Clark, 9. October 2017, 8:43

    The fares are probably going up to keep the demands on rates down. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

     
  3. David Bond, 9. October 2017, 14:55

    I suspect the region’s so-called “rail-bus imbalance” is a myth. Between 1983 (intro of Ganz Mavag rail units and extension of wires to Paraparaumu) and 2009 onwards (start of Regional Rail upgrades), pretty much nothing was done to improve rail, except perhaps building the Waterloo Interchange and that was to benefit bus-travel also. During this period I believe there were three general renewals of the regional bus fleet. Rail had been neglected for decades, with the Johnsonville Line in particular seeing no new equipment for 60 years!

    But to be honest, the comparison between modal expenditure is rather futile. A better measure would be route- or corridor-investment, and if it turns out that certain corridors which are currently operated by bus, could benefit by being converted to rail then this should be done, modal-balance be blowed. There is no sense in trying to balance out rail and bus expenditure, purely on the basis of the arbitrary modal split that history has landed us with today. The reality is that rail should be extended to serve more of the city and region.

    If we are worried about modal imbalance we should open our eyes to the massive sums being poured into roading, largely to facilitate single-occupant car-commuting.

     
  4. Brent Efford, 9. October 2017, 21:39

    Quite so, David. Portraying “bus users” as a separate hard-done-by minority group is a tactic of rail-haters around the world. Three realities stand out:

    1 Wellington’s geography is one of the most conducive to development of a rail corridor in the world, and yet

    2 We are one of the very few urban areas with a rail transit system which deposits its users at the edge of the regional CBD rather than penetrating it, which is the normal function of rail transit. Rail users are, if anything the hard-done-by ones.

    3 The true measure of transport activity is not mere ‘trips made’, which may be of any length and but often very short (many in Wellington are) but passenger/km: passengers times distance.

    By this measure, rail performs about 70% of the regional PT function but requires a much lower subsidy due to the numbers of passengers carried much longer distances for less labour input per passenger. It is not surprising that these economies of scale are reflected in the fares.

     

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