The transport minister has called the chronic shortage of bus drivers a crisis, but has praised the recently announced wage raises in the region which aim to relieve it.
The Bay of Plenty Regional Council this week announced about 300 roles would be impacted by the decision to lift the wage of bus drivers to $28 an hour.
At a time when there was a push for more public transport usage, the driver shortage in the Bay of Plenty had resulted in reduced services.
But while the minister said the wage increase was an excellent step, he said there was also room for improvement in making the job as attractive as possible, saying there is "zero-tolerance" for abuse and attacks on drivers.
Transport Minister Michael Wood spoke at the Bus and Coach Association conference in Rotorua this morning, and was among those to cut the ribbon for the launch of a new E-bus made and designed in New Zealand.
"Ambitious" targets had been set on the sector, including that only zero-emissions public transport buses were to be purchased by 2025, and that the fleet needed to be completely decarbonised by 2035.
Wood said he was confident this would be achieved ahead of time. Referring to the E-bus, he said about 2500 more were needed.
Speaking to NZME after the launch, when asked how that would happen, Wood said most of the big councils had "already moved ahead" of the 2025 target and were already transitioning.
"How it will happen is through councils and providers increasing the shift towards these vehicles, and our Government is putting forward about $120 million over the next ten years to support the sector to do that."
This included supporting projects such as the E-City bus through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority. That project received $302,000 from EECA's Low Emissions Transport Fund.
There was also about $40m designated through this year's Budget for supporting councils with the purchase of the vehicles.
But the biggest challenge the sector faced was the shortage of drivers, he said.
"If you don't have drivers, you can't have public transport services."
He said the Government's work in this space included the replacement of the Public Transport Operating Model with the Government's Sustainable Public Transport Framework, which aimed to prioritise mode-shift, fair and equitable treatment of employees, and improved environmental and health outcomes.
Another $60m was allocated through the budget to help lift driver pay and conditions, which Wood said would help retain and recruit drivers.
He said the regional council's step to increase wages in the region was fantastic, but there was "probably" more to be done to make conditions as attractive as possible.
"We will work closely with councils and operators to ensure we do have a sustainable sector and we keep and grow those drivers, bearing in mind we will need more buses as we decarbonise our transport system."
Bay of Plenty bus drivers have been subject to anti-social behaviour, and when asked how this was being addressed, Wood said it was an important issue.
"Our bus drivers do an incredible job and they deserve to be treated with respect, and we collectively need to send out a message of zero-tolerance for abuse and attacks on our bus drivers.
"Sadly, there have been too many incidents."
He said he was working with operators and unions through WorkSafe to provide support. But good design was also on the up which provided drivers with more protection, including on the now-launched Zemtec E-City bus.
Speaking to the conference attendees following the launch, he called the chronic shortage a "crisis".
Immediately following Wood, Bus and Coach Association chief executive Ben McFadgen outlined an upcoming recruitment campaign.
He said the shortage had existed for years, but since the pandemic had become "acute".
There had been a gradual erosion over the years of bus driving being a professional and viable career, which he said was due to perceived poor pay and conditions.
Going forward, messaging needed to be positive and appeal to a wide range of audiences.
Pay rates were on the up and becoming more competitive, which was great, he said. But it was not consistent. He said the $28 - $30 an hour range was seen as attractive.
Referring to perceptions regarding who drives buses, he said judgement calls were often made that they would be unskilled.
"No. I know bus drivers who have got physics degrees. They're doing it because they love it."
Driving was a lifestyle, he said.
Auckland's Zemtec (Zero Emission Technologies) developed and manufactured the E-City bus, and chief executive John Bayes told the crowd it was the first fully-electric large bus to be designed and created in New Zealand.
"Our team is confident it will be part of a solution to moving public transport to a low-emission future."
Zemtec was working with Auckland Transport to trial the E-City bus on commercial routes in Auckland next month.
Auckland Transport metro services group manager Darek Koper said the bus provided an option not just for zero-emissions, but to also improve customer experience and safety with additional protection for bus drivers.