Friday, June 17, 2011

NZ Government policy and funding needed to upgrade public transport outside main centres

NZ in Tranzit advocates - NZ Govt set and fund small town public transport criteria and standards

The Taupo Connector - an attractively presented "local identity service" in Taupo, a medium sized town of 22,000 boosted by heavy summer tourism.  NZ in Tranzit argues services like this (currently with one bus and erratic,  limited, frequency) should be able to draw upon a pro-active Government policy and targetted funding of smaller centre public transport. Under policies advocated here Taupo would be able to operate a further vehicle and offer service frequency more consistent with larger centres - sufficient frequency and spread of hours to achieve the thresholds that make public transport of genuine social and economic value. Better organization of how public transport is funded could achieve quality transit in multiple towns without added cost to tax-payers.

The demise of the urban bus service in Levin - a service so infrequent, so limited in function and so disproportionately serving one side of this town of 19,000 people - partly highlights the failure of the Government and NZ Transport Agency to set standards for itself.

At the moment all taxpayers are substantially supporting commuters in the cities, particularly rail commuters in Wellington and Auckland, to the tune of something like ten to forty dollars a week, if spread capital costs are incorporated into operating costs.

It is patently unjust in my opinion that city dwellers are so heavily subsidised and given access to bus or train services seven days and nights a week but in smaller cities and towns taxpayers get no such return for their taxes, often no service at all. 

In particular major transport dependent groups, are given minimal bus services (once a week or once a day) or even no bus service at all, in many large rural towns. This includes independent children and teenagers 10-18 years old; mentally and physically disabled in a great variety of ways, not all obvious, such as heart conditions, epilepsy, reduced peripheral vision; mothers of young children in one car families where the father takes or needs the vehicle all day; backpackers, visitors and tourists; students including those arriving by school bus but needing to attend appointments elsewhere during the day, those who do not hold or have adequate English to obtain a driver's license, and those have lost their license through traffic offenses,  and young working couples with one car trying to save for a marriage or mortgage but working in disparate locations.  Not least it includes those on superannuation who become unable or uncomfortable driving, and the aging and infirm needing walking frames that find car and taxi travel difficult.

Attracting new residents, visitors and tourists that help keep other businesses and services alive; making the town an attractive place to retire in or move to in retirement; allowing older people to retain independent mobility for as long as possible; all suggest government should be pro-actively working to avoid "transport poverty" in smaller towns of NZ, putting some tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions invested in huge motorways and commuter rail systems in cities. Designing public transport to be multi-functional, a value to all, also avoids the stigma felt by many older people forced to rely on others to fetch and carry them for basic functions such as shopping or appointments.


Off-set against the minimal level of rural town services provided by current regions and Government budgets (services too limited to ever generate significant social value or a worthwhile patronage) is that over 80,000 country children are carried to school, 40 weeks  year, by the country school bus system without any fare charge applying at all.

While no one should be penalised for the greater distances involved in getting rural children to school,  it seems absurd this select group of country parents pay absolutely nothing whereas a considerable portion of city parents pay $500-1000 per annum per child for childrens' bus transport to high schools, intermediate schools, and specialized, religious or alternative schools in cities.
NZ in Tranzit believes the playing field should be leveled by a set national schools fare - probably something in the range of $2.50 per day, irrespective of distance or whether the mode is bus or train.

Tickets bought in the morning would be date punched or Smart cards systems would identify school fares. These would allow unlimited use without further charge until 7pm at night during school days. This saves a great deal of time and effort and, apart from repeated occurrence, suggests drivers can allow tolerance for any child who has lost his ticket, on afternoon trips. 

Where country schools deliver children to town schools these tickets would also be re-usuable on urban systems within that town.

Asking country parents to pay their share in common with other New Zealanders would reduce the subsidy of country school buses by about a quarter to a third, in very loose figures saving the taxpayer about $35-50 million.


It is my suggestion that much of the subsidy funding saved when country parents pay their share of school transport costs be re-invested in the areas of New Zealand that are typically the worst served by public transport, smaller towns and cities below 30,000 population. The would probably vastly improve the public transport standards in about 25 towns across and/or reduce overall operating costs to the area in one or two others, such as Masterton and Timaru which already have extensive services, benefiting by virtue of operating under the auspices of larger city transit authorities.


As a possible scenario NZ Transport Agency would set a national standard for minimum service delivery of public transport in towns (or closely linked settlements) between 5,000 and 30,000 backed by funding for infrastructure, operating subsidies.  To get around amateurish misconceptions professional guidelines, and assistance in planning and implementation to the regional councils would also be provided. Services would be contracted to private operators based in those towns able to provide appropriate vehicles and back-up systems. Service levels expected could be based on minimum standards for different population levels, possibly other factors.

Some ideas off the top of this blogster's  head - the regional council overseeing a town of between 5,000 and 10,000 would be expected to provide an hourly service, incorporating all major traffic generators;the twenty largest employers, secondary and tertiary educational institutes, retirement complexes, hospitals and hospices, retail centres, accommodation sectors (particularly back-packers and camping grounds) etc from 7pm in the morning to 7pm in the evening Monday to Friday.

In keeping with best practice routes would try to keep to main arterial streets, be relative straight forward, avoid tedious labyrinth streets etc as far as possible, in a sense creating a circuit of the town and its main facilities, and loops through various residential areas, passing through the main retail centre once each hour in each direction.  Also in keeping with best practice departure times would be kept consistent, same time each hour ideally (or same all morning, then change but same all afternoon) Ideally too these arrive at the town centre "before and after the hour" rather "on the hour" and as far as possible are calibrated to significant times at major traffic generators. In the event an hourly "circuit" can not be achieved in a way that does the towns geographic footprint justice, departure times be splayed consistently eg 9.10, 10.20, 11.20, 12.30 etc which are also easy to remember (when you are selling a service available in a brief window of time, memorable times are half the product!)

Goals of aiming to bring service within 600 metres of 75% of residents or similar might apply (recognising country towns often have softer, low density semi rural areas within boundaries, with insufficient population, even for a basic service).

Depending on the shape of the town, the best and most logical routes could be a simplified or modified S or 8 shape [with curves squared]  running on the hour [so to speak]  in one direction, on the half hour in the other - though actual times would be dictated by alignment with work or school start/finish times.  In these patterns the middle of the S or 8 would be the towns main retail and services street and the arms residential areas and peripheral passenger generators such as hospitals, though obviously geography would involve modifications to such a template**.

Attention needs to paid to to keeping catchment areas of loops socially homogeneous, services are likely to attract higher patronage if all passengers feel at home with other passengers.

In this sort of scenario I also suggest further service level expectations apply for larger towns

Larger towns, those between 10,000-20,000 would be given budget to operate a similar circuit, consistent route with loops or hooks to capture the widest catchment at half hourly service levels, and with hourly Saturday services.

Largest towns between 20,000 and 30,000 would be given budget to operate two or more separate S or 8 routes, with half hourly services and services to 11 pm Friday and Saturday.

Or something like this.

One other element might be the analysis of surrounding settlements, if a town had a substantial outlying population, or spread of population beyond normal, an added morning inwards (arrive retail centre about 8.20 am) and evening outwards service (depart 5.15pm etc) would also be funded, with the inbound route if possible integrated into one arm or other of the s or 8 patterns. Expectation would be made of incorporating an existing school run into such a rural commuter service where possible, in which case this would add a 3.15pm type exit trip.

The day long service bus would require low floors, as a major factor in getting consistent bus services is to avert transport poverty in the baby boom generation as they retire, age, and grow unable or less comfortable in driving motor vehicles.

I believe these "circuit style" buses should be given distinctive livery and a local name invited, to increase profile and local sense of ownership and pride.

I also believe that consideration should be given to making fares a simple one price for every adult "all day" say a $4.00 per day. This greatly speeds up loading on return trips, and  encourages multiple trips, and casual use (such as an already paid commuter using the bus to travel down main street in their lunch hour). People on limited income, such as benefits, may not like the higher up front cost but time management for example can give them two whole days a week, unlimited travel to shop,arrange appointments and visit friends for only $8. Those over 65 living in small towns will gain increase benefot from their Super Gold Card (free bus travel). Those on wages will usually not baulk at this sort of amount, even if only one use that day is planned. Being told a ticket is usuable all day is also very tourist friendly and generates greater movement and spending by independent visitors to small towns.

Anything that generates usage, generates familiarity and acceptance, and fosters a busier more lively and credible service.

Recognising the greater difficulty in cost-economies in a small service, the fare-box recovery goal would be graded to town size - 25% for instance in smaller towns through to 33% in larger towns. This also recognises the much larger portion of taxes paid for capital infrastructure in large systems, such as Wellington or Auckland commuter rail, or Auckland's northern busway per passenger carried - conveniently left out of fare box calculations. 

It would also probably take three to five years to grow patronage of this sort of  service, country town residents typically have almost no sense of transit orientation. This said a consistent reliable service, with a high profile bus (and various promotions or involvement in community activities such as the popular US custom "Stuff the bus" - with Christmas Gifts for disadvantaged or free transport on a [non-scheduled day] such as a Saturday to a big festival or fair ) and inclusion in tourist promotion etc should foster modest but consistent usage, measured against set goals.

As service supply becomes more certain it allows older folks to choose best place to live or stay, new families to locate to kid friendly route access, the partner who doesn't need the car for work to accept employment on the other side of town.....these sorts of growth do not occur in a few months or only a year.

Having a bottom line of Mon-Friday hourly service from 7am -7pm backed by Government funding and professional advice is seen as the single biggest factor in creating a service of sufficient frequency, spread of route, operating hours, etc to give small town bus services the necessary lift off to achieve credibility and patronage at subsidy costs that are reasonable given other measurable social value benefits.

Government commitment is needed to assure a minimum trial period and back up professional analysis if under-performing.


Public transport is a social network system, similar to roading and water, sewage and broadband, which would not be possible without collective support, but which also meets part of its costs. Unlike some of the other services tends to invoke controversy because it is seen as replaceable,  by cars.

In fact, according to the census,  8% of the population don't have access to cars. Many other people such as older children, teenagers, wives, older people only have secondary access (rely upon others to transport them). About 50% of the population does not own a car. The potential of this half of the population to use public transport for journeys (or journeys one way) is great if appropriate service is available.

Creating attractive small town public transport services assists their economy, their tourism, attracts and retains residents and creates a more just and user friendly society for all, not least the baby boom generation whose access and ability to operate private motor vehicles will decline during the next thirty years. It would take some years to grow these services, establish trust and confidence in their services, but for all that the relative subsidy needed is not huge per capita, is just and equitable with options offered those in the larger cities.

NZ in Tranzit advocates that the Government rationalise school bus fares across all parents and across city, town and country and used recovered subsidy moneys to help create a reliable and consistent standard of small town public transport.

**A sample of a simple but seemingly effective route pattern for a smaller centre, offering two linked circuits, is that operated by Ritchies under contract to the Marlborough District Council in Blenheim) albeit within limited time parameters. Under the funding scenario suggested here this service could be doubled in frequency and run 7pm -7pm weekdays and hourly on Saturday in Blenheim (22,000 people)

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