Why don't we have lower fares on buses and trains? Auckland's public transport fares are among the highest in the country. Damn it, they're among the highest in the world. If Auckland Transport was really serious about getting more of us to leave the car at home, it would bring those fares down. Wouldn't it? I went to ask them.
The first thing Colin Homan said to me was, "Cheaper fares would be wonderful."
Homan is AT's "group manager of enablement" – who dreams up these names and do they still have jobs? Homan is in charge of fare strategy, among other things. His boss, Mark Lambert, was also there. Lambert is the executive general manager of integrated networks, which makes him in charge of public transport, sort of.
Here's what they told me about fares.
It starts with the Government, acting through the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA), which requires that 50 per cent of the cost of public transport (PT) is met by fares. It's called the farebox policy and it was established in 2010 by a Government that saw PT primarily as a drain on the public purse.
The farebox policy has been retained by the current Government, even though it says PT is an important public good.
In fact, AT is already falling short: fares pay only 43 per cent of its costs. That's because PT has deliberately kept fare rises beneath the level the regulations say they should have risen to.
The Government has turned a blind eye to this, but it doesn't follow AT is being encouraged to do it more. In short, under the current regulations, AT can't reduce the fares. But that's only part of it.
What would make more people catch the bus or take the train? Lower fares is only one answer. More frequent service is another. Also, more extensive services: buses servicing more parts of the city than they do now.
Reliability is incredibly important: every time a bus doesn't turn up, another bunch of frustrated would-be passengers decides it can't be relied on and goes back to using their cars.
And quality? You want cleanliness, air-con that works, seats in good condition and, on the bus, a friendly, considerate driver who lets you sit down before moving off. And safety: you're not going to catch the train at night if you think you will be harassed, either on the platform or on the train itself.
Convenience is valuable too. HOP cards are now used for 93 per cent of trips. Since 2016, the integrated network also means you pay only once when transferring from one service to the next.
It's all important and AT is proud of the gains it's made. And it all costs money.
AT is funded by NZTA on a three-yearly basis, and has to pitch for those funds. That requires it to specify its plans and to gauge future demand on the basis of what it provides.
Homan said their forecasts have been "relatively accurate". They know their income and have decided where to spend it, and every dollar they forgo by dropping fares is a dollar they can't spend improving the service.
But why, I asked, do lower fares mean less income? Don't you get more passengers? On a graph of reduced fares and increased patronage, is there a sweet spot?
"No," said Lambert. "There is no sweet spot."
He explained that according to international research, if you raise fares by 10 per cent you will reduce patronage by 3 per cent. Whereas if you lower fares by 10 per cent, patronage will rise, but only by 1.5 to 1.7 per cent.
Homan said that extra passengers cost more, especially at peak times. That's because in the morning peak the services are at capacity.
"So more people in the morning peak means we have to put on more services," he said. "And to do that we have to buy more vehicles and add more drivers. It's expensive."
Hang on. If having more passengers costs AT money, what does that mean? They don't want more?
Lambert answered that. "Of course we want more. That's what we're here for."
But, they both explained, from AT's point of view, the cheapest new passengers are off-peak travellers, because they can be accommodated on existing services. That's why weekends will soon be free for schoolkids: the services are already there, with spare capacity.
That's a targeted way to increase patronage. The trouble with non-targeted measures, like general fare reductions, is they usually create more demand at peak.
Besides, said Lambert, international research shows frequency, not fare price, is the most important thing for passengers. Reliability is second. Passengers rate fares well down the list of priorities.
AT's own research, he added, says the same, although he admitted it was seven or eight years old.
So when Colin Homan told me "cheaper fares would be wonderful", did he mean it the way tooth fairies are wonderful?
Lambert admitted the same international research reveals that as frequency and the other factors improve, fares rise up the priority list. "When your network's running well, the next thing to look at is the price people have to pay."
The time was probably approaching, he said, for AT to do that. Very true. This isn't just about cost efficiency: for many people, the fares are simply too high.
There's something else. AT proudly hit 100 million trips in the last financial year, a couple of years ahead of schedule. Up from 68 million in 2012: it's pretty good. So they're planning for 104 million this year. The target is ahead of the rise in population but far lower than the growth they've had in the last three or four years. It's ridiculously timid.
What's going on? Auckland Transport is busy improving services, but its expectations are low, which means its budget is low, and it's hamstrung by those farebox regulations.
Meanwhile, congestion on the roads will get worse. Although it's held steady the last couple of years, AT does not expect that to continue.
The congestion policy supposedly relies on "mode shift", which means enticing people onto trains, buses, bikes and their own feet. It's an excellent idea. But the 20-year goal is merely to get 7 per cent of travel onto public transport. An excellent idea, but a doomed one, because the settings are so low. AT is planning to fail.
This is just nonsense.
Why doesn't the council require AT to set a target for 25 per cent of all travel to be on public transport or active transport (bikes, scooters, walking) by, say, 2030? A properly transformational change. Why doesn't AT create a plan to show what that would look like? And why doesn't the Government change that absurdly punitive farebox policy, jump start the light rail programme and commit to a citywide network of rapid transit?
What would the buses and trains and bike lanes be like if they had to meet a 25 per cent target? Lower fares would surely be a big part of it. What would the roads be like? How would the school run work? What would it cost? Watch this space.