Guest Post: Regional Council likely adding to congestion woes

A guest post by Anthony Morris:

It is quite likely that Greater (GWRC) policies are adding to traffic congestion in Wellington. Peak-time fares are set too high because simple economic logic has been disregarded and those fares are not subsidised. The subsidies are instead all funnelled to less-used off-peak services.

Fares contribute 52% of the cost of running public transport services in Wellington which is high compared to other cities in Australasia. Given most of those services are running at off-peak times with lower passenger loadings, it is certain that the peak-time services are at least covering their cost.

If everyone tried to drive into work at peak traffic times, the roads would completely block up. The use of peak-time public transport by commuters benefits other road users by lessening congestion, providing what economists call an external benefit. This benefit justifies subsidising peak-time public transport fares from the petrol taxes collected from road users. Trains give a bigger external benefit than buses because they usually get commuters off the arterial roads completely.

Unfortunately, GWRC sets fares that recover the full cost or more of peak time services and pushes all the subsidies to less-popular off-peak routes. This means we get the illogical situation of it being cheaper for a couple to drive to work in the city and pay for city fringe parking than catch public transport, which for three zones would cost them $14.52 per day.

But it gets worse. We have buses and trains traversing almost identical routes at almost identical times, with buses often being cheaper and/or more convenient! For example, using a smartcard it costs $3.63 to get from Johnsonville to the city by bus, and the city means anywhere along the golden mile from the bus depot to Courtenay Place. Using a 10-trip ticket the train costs the same but only gets you to the main station, and you then have to walk or catch a bus to get to other parts of the city. This may be fixed with the new integrated ticketing system but this is not arriving until 2018.

The Newlands buses running from Johnsonville and traversing the golden mile with all the other commuter buses also increase congestion. If all commuters got free inner-city bus trips, the Newlands buses could run to the main depot only, and train users would also not have to pay extra to get further into the city.

Outside of peak traffic hours people with cars usually prefer to use them to get around because it is more convenient. Not everyone has a car or can afford a taxi, so for social reasons it is desirable to have off-peak public transport services.

However, some of the off-peak transport services are likely very expensive per passenger carried, like late night suburban services with one or two passengers. We don’t know for sure because there is no publicly available data available on the average loadings of those services, despite all the data that must be collected by the Snapper system.

Some off-peak public transport routes could be more efficiently served by shuttle vans or even cars. Apps such as Uber organise individual taxis to peoples’ homes so something similar could be applied to get taxis to act as public transport to bus stops. Conditions are ripe for the development of new, innovative and cost-effective public transport solutions. Peak-time users are not getting a fair deal!

Anthony Morris is a Wellington commuter and policy analyst working in an unrelated field.

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