More money should have been spent on marketing the fact that Bay of Plenty buses were running free of charge, says an alternative transport advocate.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council buses have been operating fare-free since New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown during the Covid-19 crisis.
The buses have remained free for passengers despite the lockdown levels easing and will continue operating for free until July 20 in Rotorua and July 27 in Tauranga, when a new electronic ticketing system comes into effect.
The regional council has spent $10,000 advertising the fare-free buses, compared to $80,000 advertising the Bee Card ticketing system.
The fare-free buses were advertised through in-bus notices; back of bus advertising, digital billboards and radio, digital and print advertising.
Yesterday The fact buses have been running free of charge was not immediately noticeable on the regional council or Baybus website homepages, or the "buses and transport" section of the council website.
It is mentioned in the fares section of the Baybus website.
The Kollective manager Gordy Lockhart said he found out about the free buses through a Chamber of Commerce post on Facebook.
"We then shared it and have been promo-ing it ourselves on social media."
The Kollective is big on promoting alternative transport as part of its services as a shared workspace for non-profit entities in Tauranga.
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Lockhart said he felt the issue of encouraging more people to catch buses was greater than what had been spent on marketing, and "if it were the case that buses were free permanently, that'd be brilliant".
He said while authorities were creating greater access to buses, through providing more routes and making buses faster with unimpeded bus lanes, neither option would make any difference if it was not continually made more difficult to drive a single-occupancy car around Tauranga.
The solution to the city's transport woes lay with greater use of e-scooter, e-bike, small petrol scooters, walking and running, he said.
Park and ride centres at Ōmokoroa, Pyes, Pa, Welcome Bay and Mount Maunganui were also options.
"Permanent free buses will get people to change their habits, but only as a sustained plan involving [more route and bus lanes]."
"... if it were the case that buses were free permanently, that'd be brilliant".
Rotorua District Residents and Ratepayers chairwoman Glenys Searancke the advertising for the free buses was "very clear".
"The problem is of course that not a lot of households get the paper.
Searancke said she was unaware whether there was advertising through other mediums.
"A point to be made is that the regional council has a nil rate increase for the coming year."
Bay of Plenty Public Transport Committee chairman Andrew von Dadelszen said at first, the council wanted to make sure buses would not be too crowded.
"It's not that we didn't want to promote the free buses, but coming out of Covid we had to cater for social distancing."
Later, the council wanted staff focussed on the rollout of the Bee Card integrated ticketing system, as it would deliver vital data about how people actually used buses. This would enable the council to offer a more tailored bus service, which would have "miles more long-term benefits".
"The Bee Card is our big break-though."
The $10,000 was funded from the public transport budget.
Lost revenue from the free buses was being covered by NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi, which agreed to replace the funding from the National Land Transport Fund until June 30 as part of a Covid-19 response.
The regional council was still awaiting confirmation on who would pick up the shortfall from June 30.
Von Dadelszen said the transport agency allowed free travel during alert levels 3 and 4 while passenger numbers were very low.
Reasons incluided to protect frontline public transport staff and users by removing the need to handle cash; ensure the equitable treatment of public transport users and councils across New Zealand given differing availability of contactless electronic ticketing; help essential workers get to work.
The transport agency extended the free travel for the regional council to help smooth the transition to the Bee Card, he said.
Public Transport Committee councillors Stacey Rose and Heidi Hughes recently issued a challenge to Bay leaders and residents to grab a bus for free at least four times during July.
They were concerned that, despite the free buses, not enough people seemed aware or interested in using them. They hoped the free buses would change people's mindsets about their travelling habits.
The regional council manages the regional Baybus bus network that covers the Tauranga, Rotorua, Whakatāne urban and rural areas.
This network also provides the urban school bus network in Tauranga.
Polls on the Rotorua Daily Post and Bay of Plenty Times Facebook pages last week revealed 593 respondents did not realise the buses were fare-free, compared to 316 respondents who did.
In posts responding to the poll, Cindy Foster said she had been using them and "keep them free and get bums on seats".
Others said they "didn't have a clue" or they found out via social media.