An item attached to the minutes of an ECan meeting – a draft publication on the Long-Term Plan 2012-22 – recently caught my eye. Entitled “What do you think?” it has a series of articles on areas ECan want to get feedback on, including one section titled “Rebuilding Christchurch Metro Patronage” as follows:
We believe that a convenient public transport system is essential in a modern, vibrant city. The Christchurch earthquakes have had a significant impact on our ability to operate an efficient and cost-effective service in Christchurch, and patronage of the network declined significantly after February 2011. Environment Canterbury aims to return and then exceed pre-earthquake patronage levels as quickly as possible. In the short term, we propose to offset reduced fare revenue with a mix of additional targeted rate within greater Christchurch and increased government subsidies from the New Zealand Transport Agency. We also propose to make network-wide changes to services to reduce the overall cost of the system. This additional targeted rate for greater Christchurch represents most of the overall proposed rates rise for Christchurch’s ratepayers in 2012/13 – an overall rise of $23.25 on an average $400,000 property in Greater Christchurch, or around 45c per week.
So there are a few things to take from this. First, ECan are taking the short-term role of public transport seriously. It is a good sign that they want to return patronage to pre-earthquake levels, but even better that they have an ambition to exceed them as quickly as possible. Patronage prior to the earthquake had climbed to about 18 million per annum from a low of about 6-7 million in the early 1990’s. The Metro Strategy 2010-16 had a goal of 30 million passenger trips per year by 2020.
Unfortunately, this does not say how ECan propose to go about creating a system that will attract people back to buses in the numbers seen prior to February 2011, and instigate further growth beyond that. Worryingly, patronage appeared to have levelled off during 2010, which I put down to delays with projects like bus priority, park and ride, and suburban interchanges. In effect, the system as it was had reached its cap. To attract more patronage, it needs to be more effective at being a real alternative transport option. To catch up to where we were at is great, to exceed will require implementation of new ideas and projects.
Perhaps the Metro Strategy 2010-16 provides a hint at more immediate future directions? These are the “top five” improvements, from that document, required to maintain patronage growth at a level of 5% per annum, and reach the target of 30 million trips per annum by 2020, or 75 trips per person per annum (as opposed to a lowly 46 trips per person per annum in 2009) :
So improving reliability and frequency are at the top of the list, which is pretty straight forward. However, how do you achieve this when you are making “network-wide changes to services to reduce the overall cost of the system“? The correct response to this, in my view, should be targeted investment in core services, which would also provide a focus for development of bus priority measures. Develop a secondary network that feeds into the core network, with services heading to the CBD and suburban hubs, and another level of peak-only and express services. In fact, putting in place such an approach is also covered in the strategy (second down) aligned with the development of hubs in “key activity centres”:
In fact, pretty much all the details required to take the public transport system to the next level are here. If I had to list what I thought were the top priorities for the next five years, my suggestion, as a minimum, would be:
- Develop a hierarchical bus network (core, secondary/feeder, peak-time)
- Bus priority rolled out on core network
- Develop transport interchanges (“hubs”) at key suburban centres, including secure cycle facilities
- Develop transport hubs in key regional centres (Rangiora, Rolleston, Kaiapoi etc) with park and ride and secure cycle facilities
- Identify and protect rapid transit routes, and develop an action plan and timeline
The NZTA have introduced a 50 percent farebox recovery ratio (that is, the percentage of costs covered by fares) due to be introduced in July. This poses some significant problems for the operation of the Christchurch bus network, as the system took quite a hit from the quakes and patronage really tapered off. This means that there are going to be issues with meeting that farebox recovery without cutting services and increasing fares to the extent that it impairs the ability to grow patronage. The answer in the short-term seems to lie with increased subsidies from NZTA, and targeted rates. The former is interesting as it implies wider recognition of a) the difficulties faced by the Metro network, and b) the importance of public transport to the local land transport network going forward. The latter is interesting because it underlines b), above, and also brings to the table the idea of looking at alternative funding mechanisms for future transport projects.
Getting back to the “network-wide changes to services to reduce the overall cost of the system” point, while we don’t know what that might be, I once again point to the concept of focusing on a core network linking key hubs, which are fed by secondary routes, as a means to improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of the bus network (see posts here, here, and here) coupled with investment in new infrastructure and other improvements. It simply makes sense that this is the model that is followed, and is already being implemented to a degree in Wellington, the city with the highest uptake of public transport use per capita in New Zealand.
Already this week we have seen the announcement of new bus lanes along Main South Rd. This is a promising development as it shows the concept is well and truly being implemented and has not fallen by the wayside, and that investment in public transport is actually a reality in Christchurch. We have also seen patronage reach through the one million mark in a month, for the first time since the earthquake, and the farebox recovery ratio improve to 37 per cent. New services have been introduced, most prominent being the Comet from Hornby to Papanui via the Airport, as a response to changing travel patterns and effects on the road network. Further changes must happen to make the system more efficient and effective to a changing city, and to get patronage back up to where it was and beyond as quickly as possible. Rail and other rapid transit schemes are great ideas that we must start planning for, but the place to start making things happen now and getting the changes we want is with the bus network we already have.