COMMENT:

Cr Christine Fletcher waxed lyrical at an Auckland Council meeting this week about the free train fares she used to enjoy as a schoolgirl. "There's a precedent in this city, you see," she said.

The council was hearing a submission from lobby group Generation Zero on their Freeze the Fares campaign. Gen Zero argues that if the council and the Government were really serious about their desire to "mode shift" more car users into public transport, they would not only stop the slow but steady rise of fares, but also make many fares a lot cheaper.

They've got several proposals, including:

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• Daily caps on travel: if you catch buses within a zone, for example, you wouldn't pay more than $5 a day.

That's the equivalent of 2.6 trips with a HOP card, so you'd be saving money on the third. A great incentive to forget about Uber for those cross-town trips during the day and catch a bus instead.

The three-zone cap they propose is $9, which is a little less than the cost of 2 HOP card trips.

• Free weekends for families travelling together.

• Free travel for children under 12. If it's good enough for the elderly, etc.

• 50 per cent discounts for tertiary students.

Cheaper fares means more customers. That's not hard to grasp. If it becomes easier for young people to catch a bus or train, thus reducing the amount of school-run traffic, that would help remove an enormous burden on the roads. That's not hard to grasp either.

AT has a "clear position" on fares, according to CEO Shane Ellison. "Our preference is not to increase fares and we have absorbed as much of the costs as we can".

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But it is government policy that subsidised public transport will recover no less than 50 per cent of its costs through fares. It's called "farebox recovery" and the policy has been in place for much longer than the current government. AT is actually stretching the permissible limit: it recovers "about 44-45 per cent", according to Ellison.

Transport minister Phil Twyford has asked officials to review the farebox recovery policy, and he, along with Aassociate Minister Julie-Anne Genter and officials from Wellington, will be meeting with council and Auckland Transport soon to discuss this and related transport issues.

But there is a counter-argument to lowering fares, and to date it has prevailed in all parts of transport officialdom.

It goes like this: people will use buses and trains if they offer a better experience than the car. To do that the service has to be frequent, reliable, fast enough, safe, pleasant and cheap enough. Six factors, of which cost is probably not even the most important.

If the bus was really cheap but hardly ever turned up, perhaps you wouldn't bother. If you think it's dangerous to stand around at night on a station platform, you may not risk it, no matter how cheap the train is.

Many people, once they've had two or three bad experiences with public transport, decide they're never going to trust it again. So for transport providers, quality of service, not cost, is critical.

The problem with making public transport cheaper is that it reduces the amount of money available to improve quality.

Want better training and quality control for bus drivers, so they never move off when vulnerable passengers are still finding their seat? Upgraded software to improve reliability? More electronic gates at more stations to stop non-passengers from hanging about?

Do you want cheaper buses, or more of them?

For most people, the answer would be yes. All those things, please. Nobody wants poor service but also nobody wants service to be the excuse for high costs.

It's an equity issue, on cost and quality. People who use public transport shouldn't have to put up with being treated badly. It's also just plain sensible. If the strategy really is to mode shift many more people onto buses and trains, all six of the essential criteria have to be met well.

Which means the Government has to change the farebox recovery programme and fund the providers well enough to keep improving quality of service.

Generation Zero's proposals deserve serious attention, but they don't go far enough.

How about freezing single-zone and two-zone fares but bringing fares right down for three and more zones? The people living further out tend to be poorer and they drive longer distances when they take the car. Because of both those factors, they should be at the heart of the mode-shift strategy.

How about a year-long trial?

As for the enthusiasm of Cr Fletcher, who is John Tamihere's running mate in the elections later this year, she says she "really welcomes Gen Zero on this" and thinks their proposals are "excellent".

"I'll be putting that feedback into the [campaign] policy development," she says. Tamihere says he will announce his transport policy in June. You'd have to figure, cheaper fares coupled with ever-improving services looks like a pretty good vote getter.

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Meanwhile, things are getting both better and worse on the waterfront.

The lovely little footbridge linking Wynyard Quarter to the Viaduct has become too expensive to maintain, says the council's "place-making" agency Panuku, so a new bridge is proposed and the good news is that it's beautiful.

Like the original, it's a "double leaf" bascule bridge with the walkway rising on each side to allow boats to pass through. The new version, 1.6 metres wider, looks like two white ticks, or L shapes. The walkway is split diagonally, with each "leaf" attached to a counterweight arm standing up straight. As the arms fall they swing the leaves out and up.

The design is by Auckland firms Beca and Monk Mackenzie, who also designed the pink pathway, Te Ara I Whiti. There sure are some clever people in this city. Construction should be finished by the end of 2020 and the cost hasn't been announced yet.

The bad news is Hawkins has begun preliminary construction for the "car-storage facility" Ports of Auckland (POAL) is building on Bledisloe Wharf.

This is beyond ridiculous. The Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group has filed its first report with the Government, and chair Wayne Brown says "it is not a good idea to build the carpark yet".

The working group has been considering how to integrate planning for the ports, transport and freight, and will deliver three reports. The first outlines the options, the second will critically evaluate them, and the third will include the price implications.

Brown won't say it, but every indication so far is that the working group will lean heavily towards shifting the car import business to Northport, near Whangarei, supported by a redeveloped rail line running down through Auckland's northwest.

In other words, within a year, it's likely we'll know whether that carpark building is even needed. And there's a good chance it won't be. So what's the hurry, POAL?

That's another thing mayoral candidates could campaign on: stopping Ports of Auckland and the council that enables it wasting time and money and blighting the waterfront in the process.