Covid-19 combined with a bus driver shortage has laid waste to a key goal in the ongoing push to get more people using public transport in the Bay of Plenty.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council figures show the district had been on track to reach a goal of 2.87 million trips this year, and potentially increase annual patronage by a quarter.
However, this is now unlikely.
In the year to March 31, Bay of Plenty bus patronage reached 2 million - an 8.2 per cent increase on the previous year. The data comes as a Regional Integrated Ticketing Solution is being installed in Bay of Plenty buses, which are operating free during New Zealand's Covid-19 response.
However, bus patronage numbers for the month of March revealed year-on-year drops as much as 94.3 per cent in parts of the region such as Ōhope and 29.5 per cent in Rotorua.
Overall, the regional council recorded a total drop of 4.1 per cent in people catching the bus that month despite marked increases for runs in Katikati/Ōmokoroa, Te Puke, Pōtaka and with Tauranga's fare-free school buses.
Regional council's Debbie Hyland said in a Public Transport Committee meeting last month had Covid-19 not happened, the organisation would have reached its Long-term Plan target of 2.87 million trips for the year.
"I think we would have been up 25 per cent on the previous year," she said.
Instead, the regional council recorded a drop of about 70,000 people catching public transport and about $300,000 reduction in revenue that month.
Jessica Easton, the council's commercial manager and legal counsel, said the pandemic was not the only factor contributing to the drop.
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"A driver shortage has actually increased because drivers aren't able to run the overseas recruitment (programmes) they had in place. The impact of Covid, the country is scrambling for more buses and more drivers," she said.
Covid-19 alert level restrictions meant the council was also 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 social distancing rules meant the capacity of buses was still restricted for now. The council understood it would be able to resume normal rules under alert level 1.
"We are doing everything we can and we haven't had any significant issues this week but we expect that as people's confidence in the network increases and more people return to work, we will see numbers increase."
NZ Bus chief operating officer Jay Zmijewski would not specify on numbers due to commercial sensitivity but said there was no driver shortage in the Bay of Plenty.
Some drivers had been required to stay home during the Covid-19 lockdown but this was balanced out by a reduced bus timetable, he said.
"Things have actually been running really well," he said.
As of 2017, 5 per cent of people used public transport nationally. In the Bay of Plenty, this was 1 to 2 per cent.
Sustainable Business Network regional co-ordinator Glen Crowther said he would like to see this increased to at least 10 per cent by 2030.
"That's what we think would be required in order to really being a game-changer to meet our carbon goals," he said.
"We are not going to do that unless we change our public transport system for the better. We need more people using buses, more people using bikes, more people walking, more people sharing rides and ultimately change their mode [of transport] - getting fewer people in cars by themselves."
And it was doable, he said.
Crowther said the bus patronage figures, which highlighted a 65.6 and 67.5 per cent annual growth for Katikati/Ōmokoroa and Te Puke respectively, showed "you get what you pay for".
Last year, when NZ Bus took over Western Bay bus routes, services to Ōmokoroa and Katikati doubled, hourly return services were introduced to Te Puke and most buses offered 50 per cent more seats.
The figures also reinforced the findings from a Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency survey that showed most Tauranga residents would prefer to travel by bus, given the choice.
The findings were included in a Tauranga City Council cycle plan last month and showed significantly fewer people choosing a private vehicle to commute - if they had the choice.