Wollongong is not a huge city - at metropop of 284,000 one of the smallest CANZ cities monitored by NZ in Tranzit and even at 80km from Sydney has a considerable rail commuter population ...each day over 8,000 residents use the trains, primarily to Sydney and there is also a smaller backflow of commuters in the reverse direction, to Wollongong itself from areas further north. With much of Wollongong strung out along a narrow coastline strip, a bit like the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington, it is an area well suited to rail commuting. However it news of the recent success of a new bus service that most impresses this blogster.
A couple of years back in March 2009 Wollongong, whose bus service is operated under the overall auspices of the NSW State government, with tendered routes, introduced a service that appears, in style and concept, to be similar to Christchurch's "The Shuttle" (free inner city service). The Wollongong service, operating on three different route patterns, links all the key high transit user generation dots together - University, Station, Hospital etc - and creates a 15 minute circuit, with no charge applying.
A few days ago Wollongong MP Noreen Hay yesterday revealed 3,011,939 passengers used the shuttle last year, a huge jump from 1,699,194 in 2009. Measured against Christchurch's million pax per year inner city shuttle passengers (and the metropop of Wollongong itself) this is an astoundingly successful bus service by any standard and the growth rate that is staggering.
Advocates of "free bus services" will no doubt jump on the band wagon [or at least the free bus!] saying dropping all fares is the key factor but I would be a little more questioning. In the first instance The Shuttle in Christchurch is also free. And in general bus fares in Christchurch are already fairly low (and the more you use buses in any week the cheaper they get if you have a metrocard) and overseas studies suggest frequency and reliability come in well ahead of cost in bus use surveys. Indeed, from what I've read (somewhere, way back), "no charge" systems tend to achieve a patronage plateau of how many extra passengers they attract and that is it - in the meantime the service has generated no extra capital to expand as is the case with more conventional systems sharing costs between users and taxpayers. A classic example is the Belgian town of Hasselt, centre of the Limburg, often cited as a "no fares" success.
As usual it is very hard to translate the European situation to New Zealand - Hasselt ostensibly has a local poplulation of 70,000 but its land area would fit within the "Four Avenues" in Christchurch and it is surrounded within a few kilometres by a multitude of small to medium settlements and villages. Perhaps more to point, to get some comparable measuring stick, it is the capital of the province of Limburg with a land area slightly smaller than Timaru district but with 20 times the population [826,000 compared to 42,000 for Timaru district]. Hasselt has a completely free bus system, which at last count readable in English, 2006, carried 4 million plus passsengers per year. Amazing (by New Zealand standards) for a town of 70,000! But is it really amazing for a population centre of a relatively small area, with almost double Christchurch's population? The city of Hasselt appears to have achieved a significant service for a very small city but, as always, in public transport matters there are about a dozen key statistics that need to be viewed in totality to really determine success. In general regional taxes seem to play a far bigger funding role in European countries, not least because small cities in effect serve extensive peripheral populations using these centres and often arriving by the train services that only very densely populated areas can render viable. It would be interesting to know the funding sources involved.
In Wollongong's case, it would also be interesting to know what percentage of Shuttle passengers are coming off or getting on trains, and also what percentage are students, our own University in Christchurch being outside the free fare CBD area. This said the "Gong" shuttle does not seem to travel far outside the CBD areas.
But yes - astute readers, you are right, there is indeed a twinge of parochial envy in my voice, (i.e. one green busspotter wabbit here!!) - a shuttle in a city two thirds the size of Christchurch carrying three times more passengers than The Shuttle in Christchurch? Man they must be doing something right.
What a pity our own city doesn't look around the world for all the truly successful public transport systems (of any mode) in cities similar to Christchurch (hello, not Seattle??) and try to analyse what makes them work rather than pursuing extreme case fantasies of rail that have almost no precedent in a city of our population, demographic character, shape or density and can only be a very long term strategy, at best.