COMMENT

At least one member of the Auckland Council is opposed to Auckland Transport increasing fares on the city's buses and trains. Richard Hills, representing a North Shore ward, finds the average 2 per cent increase excessive and believes it will discourage patronage.

The Public Transport Association's Jon Reeves agrees, pointing out Aucklanders had a special petrol tax imposed on them last year which is supposed to be helping pay for public transport.

Auckland Transport says it has to increase the fares to cover its evidently rising costs. AT is an unusual quango. Like all of the "council-controlled organisations" it has operational independence from the council but unlike the others its board is answerable to the Government as well as the council and the Government required it to recover a certain proportion of its costs from its "farebox".

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Regular users of Auckland's buses and trains will not be surprised that AT's costs have risen, and for the best of reasons. Last year the agency completed a revision of bus routes feeding the train lines and Northern Busway and, at least for commuters to the city centre, they appear to be working very well.

The "feeder" buses are running more frequently and the transfer at rail and busway stations is presenting no problem. Perhaps more important, the transfer does not unduly delay the homeward journey as local buses continue to run frequently well into the evening.

Doubtless the revised local routes are less convenient for many who do not commute to the city centre but patronage overall rose 5.2 per cent in the year to November so the revision can be counted a success.

To compete with the attractions of door-to-door car travel public transport needs to be fast and frequent, preferably so frequent that intending users scarcely need to consult a timetable. AT appears to have achieved that on the North Shore with feeder buses arriving at 15-20 minute intervals and busway services almost continuous.

But the good news has still to reach many commuters who are enduring slower journeys to the city in congested traffic. Consequently, there are many local buses to be seen running almost empty outside peak hours.

Clearly AT is investing heavily in frequency and its costs must have risen by at least as much as the 5.2 per cent increase in patronage plus a 2 per cent fare increase. It needs many more city commuters to try its much improved public transport system. They could be surprised.

Of course public transport needs to be not only fast and frequent, it needs to be affordable. The more people that use it, the more affordable it can be. Conversely, the more affordable it can be, the more people will use it. Many advocate that it be free.

It would have been possible to put all of Auckland's public transport investment into fare subsidies rather than use some to improve the frequency of services but the Government was right to maintain a strong element of user pays. A charge makes customers and providers more attentive to the quality and the cost of a service.

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Auckland's integrated public transport system is now good value for money and more of us should get on board.