Who would be a bus driver? Whenever I see a bus travelling around Auckland empty, or nearly empty – and I see it all the time – my heart goes out to the driver. Imagine how soul-destroying it must be to drive those behemoths around all day with few, if any, passengers on board.
Now that plenty of other jobs are available, hundreds of drivers have found work that makes them feel more useful and public transport is in a crisis. Buses are not turning up, commuters can no longer rely on them, almost 1000 Auckland services are to be abandoned.
Like most crises, this one has been building for a while and should not have come to this. It is more than two and half years since patronage of public transport fell off a cliff called Covid, and it became obvious after the first lockdown that patronage would not fully recover.
People had rather liked working from home. Fewer were going to commute every day and, on days they did commute there was less traffic, so they took their cars. Roads were soon mildly congested again but there was much less spillover for buses and trains.
Auckland Transport managers and planners will have been racking their brains for two years about this. My eyes tell me the drop in passengers has been far greater than they have admitted. Furthermore, they know they have fired their best shot and it didn’t work.
They fired it well before Covid and it was failing even before the virus arrived. They’d redesigned their bus services to make them so frequent (20-minute intervals) people wouldn’t need to check a timetable. I tried it and it was pretty good.
But not enough others tried it or if they did they didn’t use it enough - and nor did I. The car was more convenient. Those frequent reliable buses seldom had little more than a few passengers at off-peak hours and usually none.
They must have been costing a fortune and I wondered how long they could be sustained. Eventually a glossy brochure came in the mail, extolling “revised” schedules. They were to be less frequent.
So we can be grateful bus drivers have brought the crisis to a head. It could not have happened at a better time. Auckland has just elected a mayor who wants to change the fundamental mindset of urban planning, especially transport planning.
He wants planners to start helping people live the way they want to live, not change the way they live. This is a radical idea for the planning profession and will not be welcomed by social missionaries.
For transport planners, it means they need to stop thinking public transport always means mass transport. It is very evident the vast majority of people want to travel independently, able to go from where they are to where they want to be, when they want and at any time they want.
The automobile was one of the great advances of the 20th century and human life is not going back to the 19th century technologies of bicycles and railways.
Climate change, today’s excuse for regressive transport schemes, can be answered just as well with electric cars and trucks as electric buses and trains.
Planners, civil engineers and politicians of the left and far right (Mussolini’s trains) love big projects with fixed routes and limited destinations. The more rigid the route, the more they like it, which is why they prefer rails to roads for public transport.
Such is the cost of these projects, always more than budgeted, that it is often said it would be cheaper to provide taxis for the passengers, which is not entirely silly. If Wayne Brown can get planners working to a broader definition of public transport, they might look at on-call systems.
Uber is the most popular form of public transport these days, but not so long ago on-call, shared ride, door-to-door “shuttles” were a popular way of getting to Auckland Airport. The shuttle companies were keen to serve many more destinations had the licensing authority allowed them.
With modern internet capabilities for booking and co-ordinating routes, shared-ride, door-to-door public transport could take myriad forms, including employer-provided services perhaps. The vans could feed busways – which still attract some patronage - and be allowed to use the busways.
All kinds of possibilities will open up if planners start working with us rather than against us. They need to begin by observing what we do (not what we say) and working out why we want to do it.
Then the job of planners is to enable us to do more of it, more safely, efficiently and productively. Not so radical really.