The confirmation of a free school bus trial for Tauranga has been warmly received by parents who will be able to save hundreds of dollars a year. The Bay of Plenty Regional Council agreed to fund the trial, which begins next year, in an effort to help reduce city congestion. Reporter Kiri Gillespie investigates how the free school bus trial will not just make a difference to the commute times, but will make a difference in the lives of those struggling to afford bus fares.
Tauranga parents could save more than $650 a year under a new scheme to bring free school buses to the city.
The decision could mean children from low-income families attend school more often, a community leader says.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council will fund a $326,000 trial of free buses for Tauranga students travelling to and from school for a year, beginning January.
For Welcome Bay Community Centre manager Anna Larsen, the confirmation of free school buses, even as a trial, was a victory.
Just over three years ago Larsen spearheaded a campaign for free school buses. She, with other community representatives, lobbied the regional council hard and won a trial for free school buses for students in Welcome Bay. On Friday, the regional council agreed to extend the trial city-wide.
"It just makes me really happy, that they've listened. It makes me feel they really care about the issues to the point that they are going to invest in something that will make a difference, not just to transport but in people's lives."
Larsen has seen the negative impact bus fares had in her role at the centre.
"There was a family who was here at the community centre one day and I asked 'how come you aren't at school today'. She [the mother] replied 'his uncle borrowed his bike and didn't bring it back and I don't have $2 for the bus fare'."
The mother said she told the school they were at a tangi instead, Larsen said.
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It was just one example of "a huge social issue".
"They won't admit to the school they couldn't afford to send their kid to school."
A standard school bus fare if paid in cash costs $1.60 per trip. If paid via Smartride Card it costs $1.15 per trip.
Larsen said free school buses would help level the playing field for all children to get their share of education.
"It's taking down that barrier."
Parent Lee-Anne Taylor also saw the impact on families trying to get children to school daily. In particular "the ones who can't afford to put their kids on the buses, this will affect all of them".
Taylor, head of the Aquinas College Parent-Teacher Association, has also pushed for free school buses.
"It's good to show the kids who signed the petitions that if you stand up and fight for what's right, your voice will be heard."
Michelle Beaumont-Whibley's 14-year-old son regularly caught a bus to school and she said felt she was regularly handing over a $20 note each week which was "a squeeze on the finances".
The Pāpāmoa mum said the $326,000 to fund the trial was a "pittance" if it helped alleviate pressure on infrastructure. In the past three years, she had noticed "a lot more congestion".
Beaumont-Whibley's regular commute from Pāpāmoa to work on Tauranga's Cameron Rd usually took about 40 minutes. During school holidays it could be anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes.
"There's growth as well which coincides with all of that but you see it in the school holidays - where is everybody? It's like a ghost town."
Regional councillor Stuart Crosby said the decision was three-fold.
"I do agree with it ... look at the potential: a) affordability, b) to assist with congestion and c) to get young people used to using buses so when they become adults it is already a habit.
"It's the first high-level investment that both the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Tauranga City Council should make in terms of people using other modes of transport.
"Walking and cycling are good but they don't suit everybody."
Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless said the trial was bound to make "a huge difference" to the city's congestion.
"I just hope that people embrace it and use it. There's a difference between saying you would like free bus transport and actually using it."
In a written statement, Bay of Plenty Regional Council chairman Doug Leeder said where there was a net cost to the council, transport initiatives would primarily be funded through targeted rates.
More regional services
Bay of Plenty Regional Council is spending $354,000 to trial extra bus services between Whakatāne, Rotorua, Katikati and Tauranga to help get more people between tertiary education sites.
The trial is conditional on achieving a cost-sharing arrangement with Toi Ohomai and the University of Waikato to help reduce the costs to ratepayers.
More information on this is expected to be made available later this year.