Plummeting bus passenger numbers in Rotorua have prompted a call for the area to follow Tauranga's lead and adopt a fare-free system for school buses.
Bay of Plenty bus patronage numbers for March revealed year-on-year drops between 94.3 per cent in parts of the region such as Ōhope and 29.5 per cent in Rotorua. Meanwhile, the numbers of students catching Tauranga's Bayhopper fare-free school buses increased 29.5 per cent in the same time period.
On March 25, New Zealand was thrust into Covid-19 alert level 4 restrictions, locking everyone except essential workers into self-isolation. Buses operated only for essential workers on a reduced schedule.
Overall, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council recorded a total drop of 4.1 per cent in people catching the bus despite increases being experienced in Katikati/Ōmokoroa, Te Puke, Pōtaka and with the Tauranga school buses.
In a Public Transport Committee meeting on Friday, councillor Phill Thomass expressed his concern at Rotorua's and Eastern Bay of Plenty's drop in numbers.
Thomass said it was obvious Covid-19 had an effect on public transport but it was important to delve into other possible reasons for the reduction urgently.
"I do worry that the only area where we saw a dramatic increase was BayHopper school buses for Tauranga. I think that really represents the value of free transport for school children," he said.
Thomass said he would like to see the fare-free school buses trial expanded into other Bay areas, such as Rotorua, to cover the costs of buses not already covered by the Ministry of Education, which does not operate buses in Tauranga.
"We are going to be badly hit by Covid. We are a tourism town. Things like that would be a real assistance to our community," Thomass said.
Councillor Lyall Thurston said the decline in Rotorua's numbers was not necessarily new but Thomass' concerns about the city potentially missing out was understandable.
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"In the days of the inner city hub on Pukuatua St, the buses were bringing in in excess of a million passengers a year but when RLC [Rotorua Lakes Council] moved the hub from Pukuatua St to Arawa St, that's when the patronage started to go on the slippery slope to nowhere," Thurston said.
"The heavy focus on school buses in Tauranga was born out of the need to initiate a pilot that commenced in Welcome Bay to see if we could take some pressure off the transport infrastructure of Tauranga.
"I do stress it was never done as a social issue or social welfare issue. It was all about taking pressure off infrastructure in Tauranga as a pilot."
Last July, the regional council agreed to fund a year's trial of a citywide free school bus fare scheme for students travelling to and from school.
"... when RLC [Rotorua Lakes Council] moved the hub from Pukuatua St to Arawa St, that's when the patronage started to go on the slippery slope to nowhere."
The decision, adopted into the regional council's 2019-20 Annual Plan, followed six months of a free school bus trial already in place for Welcome Bay students. It also followed years of lobbying by parents and transport advocates who said such a programme would help families financially.
Asked for comment after the meeting, Rotorua Lakes High School principal Jon Ward said he was in favour of anything that reduced cost to students. However, the vast majority of students arrived at school on buses already paid for by the Ministry of Education.
Ward expressed concern that by potentially offering fare-free public transport for students, the school could lose those ministry buses which were already well used.
The regional council's general manager of strategy and science, Jessica Easton, said patronage numbers had been tracking well until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
The alert level restrictions meant the council was struggling to meet the demand for fare-free school buses, resulting in a "significant reduction" in passengers.
"We've organised extra buses where possible. We also have some buses doing run-back services, doing one trip, then running back to get any other kids at other stops. We've adjusted some timetables to remove some urban trips to allow us to have a greater capacity on the school runs."
Easton said the buses were still restricted regarding capacity for now - such as being unable to allow passengers to stand. However, the council understood it will be able to resume normal rules under alert level 1 from next month.
When asked how many buses the regional council had and needed, a spokesman referred the Daily Post to NZ Bus for answers. NZ Bus did not respond.