A new weekly bus service costing $35,000 of public money for a one-year trial had only a single passenger aboard last week.
In the first month it has operated, the greatest number of passengers it carried was four people.
On one day, the bus trundled in from Whangārei Heads to town with no passengers at all.
The Northern Advocate joined Ritchies' bus driver Margaret Ututaonga for the Thursday trip and our reporter was initially the only other person on the bus.
Three stops in, passenger Mandy Smith joined the bus journey to town, paying the $5 ticket price. Smith was the only passenger - she alighted 30 minutes later at the bus depot in Whangārei's Rose St.
The Whangārei Heads route is one of two new bus services costing Northland Regional Council and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency $70,000 for the one-year trial. The other runs from Hikurangi into Whangārei.
The trial was in response to out-of-town residents who had called for public transport.
Northland Regional Council regional transport committee chairman Rick Stolwerk said the $70,000 was half-funded by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and covered the cost of the bus service, advertising and promoting and tendering.
"Within the budget, there's also a provision to increase the service with an extra day if demand is high."
One month on, a maximum of four people had caught the Whangārei Heads bus on a single journey. One day no one caught the bus. The passenger numbers for the Hikurangi service were similar.
Stolwerk said he was unperturbed by the near-empty buses.
"We have to be careful how we read the figures. It's only been a month and the first day was really stormy. We've just come out of Covid and it's coming into Christmas."
Northland Regional Council increased the rates it took from the public for transport over the 2018-2021 financial period to trial passenger transport services in Hikurangi, Whangārei Heads and Ruakaka/Waipu.
Stolwerk said the Bream Bay bus service was part of the strategy and had launched earlier. The other routes were delayed as fewer people used public transport services because of Covid-19.
"The Bream Bay service picked up very quickly but it had quite a community drive toward it." It now averaged 11 passengers per trip, he said.
"It makes it worthwhile and it has been a success. I think in the end, the success or failure lies in the hands of the community and we really encourage them to use it. With these services, it's really up to the public as to whether they continue."
Both new trials involve 25-seater Ritchies buses operating once a week on a Thursday with a morning and afternoon run.
The Hikurangi Link leaves Whangārei's inner city Rose St bus terminal at 9.15am on Thursdays bound for Hikurangi Town Centre arriving at 9.52am and stopping opposite The Miners Rest, before returning to Rose St with multiple stops enroute.
The bus begins the approximate 37-minute return to Hikurangi from the terminal at 1.30pm costing $3 each way.
The Whangārei Heads Link departs at 9am Thursday from the corner of Reotahi and Whangārei Heads Rd to the bus terminal for a 40-minute journey to the city incorporating multiple stops. Costing $5 each way, the return trip departs at 1.30pm.
There will also be a Christmas school holiday Beach Bus trial from Rose St bus terminal operating only on December 17, 24 and 31, 2020 and January 7, 14, 21, and 28, 2021. People wanting to travel to Ocean Beach can catch this service at Rose St bus terminal on these days at 11am. The bus returns from Ocean Beach carpark at 2.30pm and the trip will cost $10 per person return.
'Awesome' idea needs time
Manaia looms majestically over the still waters of Whangārei Heads. Then into the serenity rolls a Ritchies bus.
It's public transport offering to bridge the gap to town. Driver Margaret Ututaonga performs a U-turn outside The Deck on the corner of Whangārei Heads and Reotahi Rds, and calls cheerily: "Good morning!"
It sets off from the 9am pick-up point, with no one aboard except the Advocate.
"Everyone who has been catching it has been saying good things," Ututaonga says. "The most we've had is four."
That's four passengers per week, to be clear.
The number of passengers is probably best illustrated by the fact Ututaonga remembers those she carried and where they were going.
"We had a grandmother with her grandchild going to the movies, another lady and child were going into have lunch at the Town Basin before doing the Loop."
We pull into the second stop at McLeod Bay – there's no one in sight so we continue on our way.
Ututaonga lives at Whangārei Heads. She has her own bus and starts her day at 7.15am with the school bus runs. She then swaps buses and begins her Ritchies day runs – a mixture of shuttling year seven and eight students into town tech days, chartered school trips and this new Thursday town trial.
We pull into the post-school drop-off bustle of the Parua Bay settlement and Ututaonga looks around perplexed.
"That's funny, we usually always have people get on here."
The Parua Bay and Whangārei Heads Community social media pages have received positive feedback to the service.
"What an awesome idea!" said one. "Great timing. I was just about to ask where it departs from Reotahi. Thank you. I'll be there at 9am," said another. And: "We are on it." Yet, they weren't.
The journey itself is scenic; the twinkling harbour dotted with vessels and club-swinging golfers to one side, iconic maunga and hillside to the other.
The next stop is the Parua Bay marina. In summer, passengers may be campers, explains Ututaonga.
"At this stage we're adaptable. We're thinking possibly people could even get on at the bottom of Whangārei Heads Rd, down the hill from Onerahi if needed or we could dip through Okara (Shopping Centre) before Rose St. It's pretty relaxed, you know. Rural." She grins.
We approach Scott Rd, Manganese Point, and – hallelujah - "Here's one of my regulars," announces Ututaonga.
She welcomes Mandy Smith aboard. "I don't drive," says Smith, "and this is my independence. Before, I would go into town with my husband and spend the day in town until he finished work."
Smith said the timing between the town and return run was perfect: "It gives me time to go to the library and wander around town, picking up ideas for Christmas presents."
No one boards at Tamaterau and Waikaraka stops. Smith was the sole passenger for the 40-minute, $5 journey. She bids farewell and is off to her errands.
"It's still early days," says Ututaonga of the service. "But if you don't use it, you lose it."