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The few remaining passengers on the near-empty buses and trains travelling during the four-week lockdown won’t pay a cent. To prevent users and staff from catching Covid-19, the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) announced all public transport would be fare-free from March 24.
Environmentalists have long called for local authorities to ditch fares on buses, ferries and trains to boost users and mitigate climate change. Taking a bus or train produces a fraction of the greenhouse emissions of driving. In the end, the move took a pandemic.
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NZTA will pick up the tab for all passenger fares while the country remains in alert levels 3 and 4 – until June 30 at least. Once a region leaves alert level 3, the council and operators will choose when and how services will start ticketing again.
Some, such as Greater Wellington Regional Council, announced fares would stay scrapped during the next few months.
University of Auckland population health researcher Dr Kirsty Wild says the government should make fare-free services permanent, especially as the country faced a serious post-Covid-19 recession.
“We want lower-income communities to spring back as fast as possible. We really want to invest in them as much as we can, making sure they can find new employment if they’ve lost jobs, that they can seek out healthcare. It’s a really good investment.”
Communities value publicly funded services, such as libraries and parks, Wild says. “They really appreciate being provided access to a public good for free.”
To have a significant effect on road emissions, the policy may need to be aligned with other incentives, such as congestion charges, she says.
“From a climate change perspective, we need to come to the party and offer high-quality alternatives to car use,” Wild says. “We really want to incentivise that switch as much as possible. The per-trip cost you have to pay each time, the research shows that disincentivises using public transport.”
Before the Covid-19 outbreak, passenger numbers were slowly but steadily rising in most regions – particularly at weekends, according to one-month data released to Stuff under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. However, weekday journeys declined in Canterbury, Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu and Southland between 2018 and 2019.
Activist John Minto is another advocate – he proposed dropping fares on all of Christchurch’s buses when he ran for mayor in 2019.
On top of the environmental benefits, the move could save residents’ money, integrate communities, attract tourists and cut traffic and commute times, Minto says. “On all those counts, it’s really a winner… Even the people you might expect to be strongly against it were actually very keen on exploring the idea.”
It would also make bus services faster and more reliable as passengers could simply “jump on and jump off”, he says.
“I hope out of the lockdown we can take this to the next stage and have a good go at it,” Minto says.
Even when we must purchase a ticket, passengers pay about half the cost of a bus, ferry or train trip – subsidies vary by region – and the government and councils pick up the rest.
That is until Kiwis reach the age of 65 and receive their SuperGold card. From that point, we can hop on any off-peak service, no fare required.
Seniors Minister Tracey Martin says the SuperGold card offers a variety of discounts, however, fare-free public transport is by far the most popular benefit.
“It’s meant they can stay connected to life,” she says.
The SuperGold card also encourages those who can drive to jump on a bus or train instead. In the first year of the scheme, 1.4 million car journeys were replaced by public transport, research concluded.
A government policy once forced councils to charge fares equating to at least 50 per cent of operating costs. The policy lapsed in 2018, and some councils have since introduced schemes aimed at young Kiwis.
This year, bus rides became fare-free for all Tauranga school students. The concept was trialled in one suburb – Welcome Bay – in 2019, Bay of Plenty regional councillor Andrew von Dadelszen says. “It was very successful at getting children into buses.”
Auckland took a similar approach in September when it dropped fares for children travelling on public transport during weekends.
Auckland Transport group manager Stacey van der Putten says young riders are establishing long-term sustainable transport habits. “This is our future generation. Getting them used to using public transport and making it more accessible for families to get out and about and enjoy the city were the key things.”
In the first six months of the scheme, children on services jumped by 15 per cent, she says.
The council also offered all Aucklanders a free day of bus, ferry and train travel one Sunday in June last year, after the city reached 100 million public transport journeys in a year. “That was to thank our customers and also to encourage wider Auckland to get out there… give it a go.”
In a 2019 report, Auckland Transport estimated it would cost $236 million – $176m in lost fares and $60m in increased demand – to cut fares entirely. Van der Putten says fare-free travel is not viable, once NZTA’s lockdown funding ceases.
University of Auckland public transport researcher Dr Subeh Chowdhury says the government’s stay-at-home order is upending long-established travel routines. “Unless something – like a global pandemic, such as now – happens, it’s very hard to get people out of their day-to-day habits.”
The same argument could be made for central and local government, with the Covid-19 crisis demonstrating fareless services are doable, given the right incentive.
Chowdhury says international research shows fare-free public transport boosts passenger numbers.
When Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, made all public transport fare-free in 2013, usage rose by 14 per cent. However, much of the increase was driven by walkers, who now hopped on a service.
Chowdhury says dropping fares is “only successful if you make the service comfortable, safe and reliable”. Commuters want to know a service will arrive and depart as scheduled – and cover everywhere they need to go each day, including childcare facilities and shops as well as CBD offices.
“If you have a system that isn’t very reliable but is free then it will encourage those on lower incomes and those who are reliant on public transport but not people who are time-dependent,” she says. “In Japan and Singapore, when they say the train is going to come at 12pm, it comes at 12pm. That’s very important.”
Chowdhury says a local or central government campaign could use the break in routine to remind motorists of the environmental impact of driving solo to work every day. “People are starting to care more about the environment,” she says.
But after being told to stay apart to stop the spread of Covid-19, even seasoned public transport users could be fearful of getting on a packed service in the coming months.
In the first two weeks of March, as Covid-19 hit headlines and increasing border restrictions halted tourist and international student arrivals, passengers numbers in Auckland dropped by 5 per cent compared to a year ago.
Once the lockdown lifts, our greenhouse gases will skyrocket if public transport users hop in their cars instead of on a bus or train. Our country’s transport emissions were already on the up before the crisis.
With a passenger downturn likely in the coming months, councils could invest in making their bus, train and ferry services more user-friendly and dependable, Chowdhury says.
“Now might be a good time to plan for the future, to collect data and to understand what people want from their system, but encouraging people during this pandemic situation to use public transport would be very difficult,” she says.
Van der Putten says new habits cemented during the lockdown could spur us to embrace active and public transport, both for our health and the environment’s. “Breaking the habit of getting in your car each day has been forced upon us. Can we all make a collective effort to build upon that?”