Aucklanders might be facing their most difficult March Madness yet on city roads as a bus driver shortage and reduced public transport services appear to be leading more people to jump into cars.
Auckland Transport says it is currently 393 bus drivers short, heading into what is typically one of the busiest traffic weeks in the year, as school and university students head back to class and workers return from summer breaks.
Driver shortages meant Auckland Transport was now running about 85 per cent of normal bus services. Up to 5 per cent were suspended and up to 10 per cent cancelled daily, affecting around 1000 bus trips each weekday.
Commuters looking to switch to the train network aren’t having it any easier. KiwiRail is completing major work on its Southern, Eastern and Western lines.
This is being further exaggerated by interruptions to school bus routes and road closures caused by recent storms.
Martin Glynn, the policy director of motoring affairs at the AA, said March Madness had hit early.
“It’s probably partly driven by the public transport crisis and reduced services,” he said.
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But also partly by the fact, Auckland hadn’t had a true March madness due to Covid-19 interruptions over the past two years, he said.
“So people have kind of forgotten how bad it is,” he said.
Now considered an annual headache, March’s bumper-to-bumper traffic has been dubbed March Madness to reflect the frustration every commuter feels trying to get to work.
Martin Glynn, the policy director of motoring affairs at the AA, earlier said this happens because of the build-up in people using roads after the summer holidays.
“When the first lot of workers go back straight after the statutory holidays, the roads are pretty free-flowing and then congestion starts to build slowly as more and more people finish their holidays,” Glynn said.
“And then, at the end of January and early February, there’s another big spike as the schools go back and people who have taken holidays around [the public holidays] start to filter back into the offices and workplaces. But the biggest factor, by far, is the school runs.”
The final contributing factor ultimately comes in the shape of university students also returning to their campuses.
All of this places enormous pressure on the road and public transport network across Auckland.
As an example of how busy it gets public transport use in 2019 – the last year before the Covid-19 interruptions – jumped from 8.4 million users in February to 10 million in March and then back to 8.1 million again in April, Stuff reported.
While March typically sees a jump in public transport usage, an AT spokeswoman said there are still fewer Aucklanders using public transport than before Covid-19 hit.
“We’re seeing about 80 per cent of pre-Covid patronage on our buses,” she said.
Yet while there may be fewer users, many commuters are still experiencing greater frustration due to reduced services and a jump in cancellations.
AT’s spokeswoman claimed progress is being made, however.
Before Christmas, the agency was short 500 drivers compared to the 393 currently, she said.
Cancellations had also dropped from about 7-8 per cent late last year to 5 per cent now, she said.
Ferry services – which are taking on more passengers compared to pre-Covid – are also short 36 staff.
These are a mix of skippers and deckhands and cannot be quickly replaced due to ferry staff needing to pass a series of qualifications to work on boats.
The spokeswoman said the shortages are a “nationwide” problem.
“The driver shortage is to do with immigration and recruitment,” she said.
“It’s been a very rough time for the industry with people leaving into different areas.”
“There’s a shortage of drivers across New Zealand and it’s just been harder to recruit them.”
Immigration Minister Michael Wood last year announced bus and truck drivers will be able to access a time-limited, two-year residence pathway in a bid to speed up the process of getting more services back on track.
A recent Tweet by Auckland Transport urging people to travel off-peak if possible this March didn’t go down well with Twitter users, meanwhile.
“You do realise there’s a reason for peak hour traffic? People can’t avoid it,” one user wrote.
Rail and other closures
This year is set to be one of huge disruption on Auckland’s rail network, with a major $330 million Rail Network Rebuild taking place on three lines to pave the way for more commuter trains when City Rail Link opens, sometime from 2025.
It means the busy Southern line between Newmarket and Ōtāhuhu is closing for two months, including most of March, as is the quieter Onehunga line.
From late March to December 2023, the Eastern line will close between Ōtāhuhu and Britomart.
Meanwhile, the Western train line also suffered disruption due to storm damage repairs past New Lynn station.
Transport authorities have said they will run bus services to replace the trains, but this is set to throw more vehicles on the roads and comes at the same time as the bus driver shortage.
There are more than 50 roads affected by flooding, Cyclone Gabrielle and last week’s heavy rains, according to AT’s website.
A number of school bus routes are also still weather affected.
AA’s Glynn called on transport authorities to get more creative to solve the issues, but acknowledged the solutions aren’t easy.
He said AT was actively recruiting drivers and a new immigration pathway had been opened for them after two years with the migration “taps turned off”, he said.
AT also typically called in more buses from elsewhere to help during March Madness, but with the driver shortage this was not easy.
Glynn agreed AT needed to check with private coaches and tourism companies to make sure they had secured every bus possible, but said he had heard the agency said it had got every bus out there that it could.
He questioned whether raising public transport fares during peak hours was wise as some had called for.
While it might reduce demand for buses at a time when there was a shortage that ran counter to the long-term direction of encouraging people to choose public transport and have faith in its reliability.
He also questioned whether March Madness was the best time to bring in pop-up bus lanes as some had said.
While it would improve bus journeys and potentially get more people onto buses, there was currently a bus shortage which could bring the city to an even bigger gridlock during March.
He said people could question KiwiRail’s decision to shut down two lines at once though.
While KiwiRail said it was essential repair work that had not been done for more than 100 years, Glynn said reducing a rail network’s capacity by such an extent didn’t seem to be a common practice overseas.