Gridlock
In February a year-long trial of free bus fares for school students started in Welcome Bay.

The $1.3 million project, jointly funded by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Tauranga City Council, came in response to public pressure for action on worsening traffic.

It was hoped free fares would see more parents bussing their kids to school rather than driving them.

When the city council agreed to its part of the funding, Mayor Greg Brownless' message to parents was: "Use it or lose it".

So have people used it? And how's the traffic?

A trial of free bus fares for Welcome Bay school students appears to have had little impact on the suburb's notoriously bad congestion.

Parents, however, say the trial made a huge difference to their lives in other ways - especially financially.

The $1.3 million trial, jointly funded by Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Tauranga City Council, had a rocky start in February with a scramble to add more buses due to unexpectedly high uptake.

Things settled down by mid-term, with new bus operators helping to share NZ Bus' load while it struggled with a driver shortage.

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According to regional council data for the last two weeks of March, students took an average of 911 free rides a day across both school and public buses, excluding one route.

Assuming most take two rides a day, that would have well over half the area's 724 students taking the bus.

Student bus patronage in Welcome Bay over the last two weeks in March. Source / Bay of Plenty Regional Council
Student bus patronage in Welcome Bay over the last two weeks in March. Source / Bay of Plenty Regional Council

At a minimum $1.60 per ride, it also meant more than $1400 a day in lost fare revenue.

Welcome Bay residents spoken to by the Bay of Plenty Times said in their view there had been no reduction in the congestion during the term.

Some believed it got worse, but blamed factors other than the buses - road works, the closure of Welcome Bay Lane and more cars on the road - that might have also dampened the trial's impact.

Tauranga Transport Operations Centre team leader James Wickham said the data did not show an increase in congestion around Welcome Bay due to the buses.

Nor, however, did it show a reduction.

"Within margins of error, data shows that there has been no decrease in traffic volume or travel times."

Tauranga Transport Operations Centre manager James Wickham. File photo
Tauranga Transport Operations Centre manager James Wickham. File photo

On Friday next week, the regional council's public transport committee is due to receive a formal report with analysis of the first term of the trial.

For Welcome Bay father-of-three Stefan Nogaj, the trial has had an enormous impact.

Last year his children did not take the bus because it was too expensive, even for a double-income family.

They tried cycling but it proved too dangerous.

So Nogaj would spend 40 minutes every morning ferrying them to their three schools in central Tauranga, before driving back to his job in Poike.

It was a drain on his life both at work and at home.

That all changed when the free fare trial started.

"It's made a massive difference," he said.

"It's about free buses, sure, but the bigger picture is that it's about supporting families."

A week of fares to and from school cost $16 per child per week, so about $160 a term.

Welcome Bay mums Rachel Blennerhassett, Amanda Swanepoel and Naomi Gardiner, whose children already took the buses before the trial, said the trial's financial impact had been huge.

Gardiner, who has five children aged between 9 and 16, could pay up $80 a week in bus fares when she could not arrange other transport.

"I've saved a lot of money."

Swanepoel said she had no idea how big- or low-income families managed.

"We are a middle-class family, if we find it hard to afford I can't even imagine how people not working or with more than one child do it," Swanepoel said.

"I hope they don't cancel [the free fares]."

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council is considering extending the trial to the rest of Tauranga next year at a cost of $2.2 million, or $44 per ratepaying household.

Two people who pushed for the trial - Tauranga councillor Bill Grainger and Welcome Bay Community Centre co-ordinator Anna Larsen - said it was hard to tell if the trial had any impact on congestion so far.

Tauranga City Councillor Bill Grainger. File photo
Tauranga City Councillor Bill Grainger. File photo

Neither had noticed much of a drop in peak traffic but both said there were too many other factors influencing congestion to be sure, from people diverting through Welcome Bay to avoid roadworks, to the Welcome Bay Rd slip lane being closed.

Both agreed it had been incredibly popular and had benefited the families that used it.

Grainger said the number of students he had seen at bus stops on his morning walks had more than trebled.

Larsen said the need to put on extra buses at the start of the trial was evidence enough.

"The buses have been absolutely crammed".