What is a fair public transport fare?
OPINION: The price of a bus, train or ferry ticket has suddenly become one of the year’s political hot topics.
In Auckland, Labour-linked mayoral candidate Efeso Collins has backed the ultimate version of affordable public transport – advocating the scrapping of fares.
In Wellington, the regional council has delayed the onceinevitable inflation-matching fare rise of 3 per cent because councillors are divided over whether a freeze would be better.
Across Canterbury, public views are being sought on options such as fare-free travel for under-25s, students and Total Mobility or Community Services cardholders – or flat fares, $2 per adult.
The debate has shifted dramatically during the past few years, from one led by the finance-focused, to those arguing the benefit of making public transport a preferred choice for today’s motorists
The world is gettingwarmer, the country and Auckland as a city have pledged to halve carbon emissions by 2030 to counter that warming, but real action on the scale needed remains absent.
It is easy to find arguments against fare-free travel in Auckland, such as: who will pay for it?
At present, thanks to a Covid19 patronage slump, fares cover only about a third of public transport running costs. In normal times, fares brought in nearly $200million a year to council coffers.
The other argument is that public transport would attract more users if it was better, not necessarily cheaper or free, and that a demand surge might also need costly new capacity.
At a time when Auckland needs to reduce transport emissions by 64 per cent, a capacity-strained public transport network might be a dream scenario.
There does not have to be a choice between fare-free, and continued improvement of public transport services. It is amatter of cost. And also of benefit.
In Auckland, that is an equation being left more directly in the hands of councillors this year, after council agency Auckland Transport (AT) sidestepped the annual February fare-rise. AT has seemingly, intentionally, left to politicians the question of how much they will commit to public transport, and how much, if anything should come via a fare increase.
The annual fare increase previously emerged opaquely as an operational decision by AT, even though it had been flagged to politicians months earlier as part of the annual budget-setting process.
Fare levels do affect how many people use public transport. Wellington’s regional council calculated that 400,000 fewer trips would be taken if fares rose 3 per cent, versus a freeze.
Auckland’s 4 per cent fare rise last year was estimated to result in 557,000 fewer trips taken than otherwise.
The stark reality of Auckland having any hope of getting near its climate change emission goals is that there will need to be a lot less driving, and more movement by walking, cycling or public transport.
AT’s outgoing chief executive Shane Ellison in public presentations describes the climate change challenge as requiring a 40 per cent reduction in private motoring.
Fare-free might not be the answer. If it’s not, then what is the answer to making public transport irresistible to those who currently drive, especially those who can least afford either?
That is not posed as a rhetorical question but one that Aucklanderswill need to debate soon, if the climate action goals are to be anything other than political hot air.