Fewer people are using Whanganui's urban buses - but those who do say they are essential.

There were 2700 fewer bus trips taken in the first half of the 2018-19 financial year, compared with the same period in the previous year.

It's a clear decline across all user groups, from children to gold card holders. Horizons Regional Council handles public transport in the region and the chairwoman of its transport committee, Rachel Keedwell, is unsure why the decline is happening.

But she said it's similar to what was happening elsewhere in the region and country - up until a year ago when bus use stabilised or started to grow in many places.


She hopes the same will happen here, once changes suggested in last year's review start in October.

The review was done ahead of choosing a contractor to run Whanganui's four urban loop and three school routes for the next nine years. Tranzit Coachlines Whanganui won the contract, and the nine years begin in October.

The review asked customers what they wanted. They asked for extra afternoon peak services and a slight route change in Aramoho, and there will also be a new Saturday timetable and services on public holidays.

A Whanganui bus advisory group was formed, with staff from Horizons, Whanganui District Council, Tranzit and the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA).

"Staff will work closely with Tranzit to see what they have to say about what's working and not working," Keedwell said.

At the moment there isn't much information about which are the busiest stops and how far people travel. That will change after August, when a new tag-on, tag-off ticketing system begins.

Former Whanganui councillor Stephen Palmer has criticised the cost to residents of having "empty buses" plying around the city. For the 2018-19 financial year that total would be more than $600,000, with just over $150,000 taken in fares.

It means each bus fare is subsidised by $1.60, and the user only pays 28 per cent of the cost.


NZTA pays 51 per cent, and there's a contribution from UCOL toward free travel for students. That leaves more than $200,000 to be paid by Whanganui people, as part of their Horizons rates.

Elaine Morrison, from Whanganui East, has been using buses a lot for a year, and was annoyed by Palmer's letters. She was one of 11 on a Whanganui East bus on March 22.

She doesn't want to drive in the increasingly heavy traffic, and said people without cars need the buses.

"I just think it's a great service. Sometimes people get on the bus just for a ride around the city. It's just a service that people should be able to use without any moans and groans."

Castlecliff bus user Marjorie Hart was among about 15 on her bus. She said Whanganui's bus drivers are the best in the world, and one even lent her money one day when she had gone to town without her purse.

The buses are also very friendly, as Aramoho user Fiona Donne often says.

"The nicest thing is, we all know each other. We all look out for each other."

Some say people who drive cars are subsidising the people who use buses. But Keedwell says the subsidies go both ways - people without cars also subsidise people who have them - often in hidden ways.

For example, she said, supermarkets have huge areas of free parking for drivers. The cost of owning all that land is added to the cost of groceries - which everyone pays.

Also, vehicles burning petrol and diesel contribute to global warming, which everyone will have to pay for somehow. And people who use healthier "active transport" - walking and cycling - help pay for the healthcare of drivers with lazier lifestyles.

Some have said Whanganui should have smaller buses to use in off-peak times when the large ones are nearly empty.

But Keedwell said the main cost of bus travel is the fuel and the driver's wages.

"The vehicle itself isn't the key driver of the cost."

It's always hard to get people to change their means of transport, she said, and the biggest changes happen when the price of fuel goes up.