A ‘big idea’ that's too big for Auckland Transport (AT) to consider:
Seniors show the way to get Auckland moving –
Why not extend the successful SuperGold Card to open up zero-fare public transport for all citizens?
Reclaiming our city from car-centric chaos towards a modern, expanded quality public transport network for Auckland, that is fully integrated, sustainable, publicly owned and free at the point of use.
This proposal is based on an opinion piece by Senior Advisory Panel member, Roger Fowler, that was endorsed by the panel in 2017, and discussed at the Public Transport Accessibility Group meeting on 27 August 2018 and then forwarded as a contribution towards Auckland Transport’s ‘Big Idea’ project. AT rejected the proposal.
A fresh approach – a total modal shift
To effectively combat serious traffic congestion, chronic fossil-fuel wastage & pollution issues that plague Auckland, (and can only get worse, as currently over 850 cars are added onto Auckland roads every week) it’s time to consider a truly sustainable public transport policy that offers a whole fresh approach to city-wide mobility, while also seriously addressing urgent climate change concerns and mitigate global warming.
A total modal shift is required that advances quality public transport as a vital and viable public service, like education, libraries, health services, sanitation and water supplies.
Although not proposed as a complete panacea for all of Auckland’s woes, free public transport could certainly help evolve a positive and practical impact on many aspects city life – answering primary mobility needs for accessibility, affordability, reliability, frequency and quality, as well as propelling social and environmental transformation.
To achieve this goal, there needs to be a new big stimulus to change the decades-long, entrenched mind-set of dependency on private cars, more roads and fossil fuels. In 1956, at the beginning of the boom in car ownership and the disastrous downgrading of public transport, Aucklanders took about 90 million trips on public transport per year, in an era when the city population was less than 400,000.
Had that level been sustained as the city population has grown over the past 60 years, Aucklanders today would be clocking up over 360 million trips a year – more than four times the current annual rate of 90 million trips. Although recent improvements have greatly increased patronage, Auckland now needs to seriously consider a radical incentive to effectively entice the bulk of commuters out of our cars and into quality public transport and put an end to Auckland’s daily & extremely costly traffic congestion. AT hopes PT patronage will reach 100 million per year – but this would be just a quarter of the patronage levels of the 1950s per capita. Public transport will need to become so attractive and so easily accessible to once again be embraced as the main option for travel most days for most people, with our cars parked up in the car port for those special trips.
This is a formidable but essential task, if we genuinely want to achieve these aspirations for a sustainable citizen-focused environment instead of a clogged car-centric dead-end.
A catalyst for change
The SuperGold Card has been profoundly successful in getting seniors out and about on free public transport. This proposal advocates that Auckland Transport, in cooperation with Auckland Council and Government, expand the Super Gold Card success as a proven model, to gradually open up free public transport for all citizens – no longer just restricted to senior citizens. Free transit for all passengers at the point of use – with the costs and immense benefits shared by all.
This move could be the catalyst to transform transport in Auckland, and could be introduced gradually, sector by sector, as capacity to cater for increased patronage is developed.
Rather than building more & more extravagant motorways, tunnels, on-ramps and flyovers that encourage more traffic congestion – the Government should place a moratorium on current and future plans, and urgently divert funds from big roading projects into efficient, user-friendly, quality, free public transport throughout Auckland, coupled with expanded walking and cycling facilities and open spaces. This concept applies the principles of universal design and ‘age-friendly’ cities, also endorsed by the Seniors Advisory Panel.
This paper is based on a concept endorsed by the Seniors Advisory Panel last year, and outlined by the writer at this week’s PTAG meeting, which recommended this proposal to be forwarded to AT’s quest for ‘Big Ideas’. It discusses the proposal to introduce free public transport in Auckland, and invites a considered response.
It can be done - overseas cities opting for free public transport
Free public transport (FPT) is not a new concept. Many cities overseas have adopted, or are seriously considering, fare-free transit, often coupled with a raft of new citizen-focused initiatives. FPT is an innovative solution that can be appropriate for New Zealand cities, especially Auckland.
In January 2013 the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn, (pop 450,000) introduced free public transport for all residents after a referendum. Although public transport had always been popular in Tallinn, the abolition of fares brought about dramatically positive changes in city life, by further increasing mobility and cutting congestion and pollution levels. The city’s mayor reports that the experiment has ‘surpassed all expectations’ with passenger numbers up by 10% and cars on the streets reduced by 15% in just 3 months. Other Estonian cities are now following suit, with free public transport now becoming available to all throughout most regions of the country. (Total population 1.3million)
Free buses introduced on early morning key routes in central Chengdu, (pop: 14 million), the provincial capital of Sichaun province in South West China, have resulted in similar stunning transformations in mobility and air quality. The former hopelessly-gridlocked Belgium city of Hasselt flourished since 1997 when their visionary council stopped extravagant ring-route road building plans and embraced free buses and bicycles, and tree-lined boulevards – ridership soared by 1300% and their rates went down! However, a subsequent more conservative council later re-introduced some modest fares.
Citizens of many other smaller cities in France (such as Aubagne, and Chateauroux) and the USA (notably Chapel Hill & Clemson) have also benefitted by free public transport. Other large cities in Europe, such as Brussels, Leipzig and four other cities in Germany, and Riga (capital of Latvia) are considering introducing free transit. The city of Zory in Poland introduced unconditional free public transport in May 2014, and hosted the 2014 International Conference on Free Public Transport. The municipality of Avesta in Sweden enjoys free public transport and hosted last year’s international FPT conference.
Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia have expansive popular free bus services to increase mobility and combat congestion and pollution..
Bucharest, the capital city of Romania is currently planning to introduce free public transport. Dunkirk in France (total pop 200,000) has introduced free public transport for all, and many smaller cities in France provide free buses services.
Many cities offer targeted free transit, such as for under 14 year old children in Barcelona, and on CBD routes in a large number of cities, such as Perth & Sydney.
Big cities such as Paris, Los Angeles and Beijing are often faced with implementing free public transport and ban cars on days that pollution reaches dangerously high levels.
Public transport – a vital public service
This proposal is much more than just a narrow issue of transport policy and urban mobility. Modern user-friendly free transit can be a key component to foster social cohesion, inclusiveness and civic responsibility, as well as a cleaner environment. Public transport should be publicly owned and operated as an important public service, just like libraries, parks, footpaths, cycleways, playgrounds, schools, street lighting, police and fire service, and rubbish collection – it would be ridiculous to expect householders to pay on the spot for each rubbish bin collected, or to get street lights turned on each night.
We happily pay for these public services and amenities collectively, sharing the cost, even if we may not use them often.
Zero fares are just part of a whole new modal mind-set that will need to be introduced in stages.
It’s not just a matter of simply abolishing fares. The municipalities that have successfully adopted free public transport insist that there needs to be a whole new emphasis & modal mind-set change: firstly, there needs to be a planned transition period to allow for building up the required increased stock of modern no-emission buses, trams, trains and ferries and expanded infrastructure.
A robust promotional campaign will keep people fully informed about the changes and benefits, and help change the prevailing car-dependency fixation into a realization that quality, well-patronised public transport is best for all. Removing all the obstacles (such as fare systems, proximity, accessibility, inefficiencies etc), will switch engrained attitudes from “I’d be crazy to go by bus” into “I’d be crazy to go by car”.
A ‘step-by-step’ transition period
A transition period could commence with a phased fare reduction to say a flat $1 per trip, and a moratorium on all big roading projects in the region.
The abolition of fares could be introduced in stages; firstly for disabled passengers and school students to join the senior citizens, followed by tertiary students who show ID, then lastly all other adult riders.
This gradual process would allow for the infrastructure to be developed throughout the city at a reasonable pace over, say, a three or four year period. It has been estimated that the number of public transport vehicles would need to be increased three or four-fold over this transition period, to meet the needs of the predicted big shift away from mass car-dependency to a popular, modern fare-free public transit system.
Such a transition would fit with the Green Party pledge:
Radio New Zealand News: "A 'Green Card' would be created, which would also provide free off-peak travel for tertiary students and those doing apprenticeships.
Under the policy all people with a disability on a supported living benefit would also be eligible for free public transport.
The Greens' transport spokesperson, Julie-Anne Genter, said the policy would cost $70-80 million a year.
"That would buy about 1km of the Puhoi-Warkworth motorway, if we look at the announcement made by the National government for $10.5bn on a few highways - that's 100 years of free public transport."
Ms Genter said the cost of transport should not be a barrier to getting to class or going on a family outing."
The transition could also coincide with a fare-free trial in one area – such as South Auckland, (for say, 6 months). A fare-free bus trial proposal was floated by the Manukau City Mayor, Sir Barry Curtis 12 years ago.
Mayor Curtis nominated three of his city's suburbs for trials of free bus services, which transport authority chief executive Alan Thompson had indicated could prove a very useful investigative exercise. [‘Increased subsidy hits free bus trials’ NZ Herald 7 Sep, 2005 -
A 4000 signature petition supporting a proposed free bus trial in Manukau, was presented to the Auckland Regional Transport Authority. But opposition from Auckland’s then main bus operator, the multi-national bus company StageCoach, stymied Curtis’s initiative. (Another reason why public transport should be publicly owned and operated).
Developing new improved infrastructure and services
Providing unconditional easy access to a new people-focused fare-free mobility service would help address important issues of social exclusion and equity, and the environment, and should include these features:
• Greatly expanded fleets of buses, ferries, trams and train carriages. It is estimated that this would need to be gradually increased up to about three or four times the current capacity to adequately cater for the increased demand. All new vehicles should be no (or low) emission, modern and comfortable.
• Extended bus lanes & bus-only traffic signals on all bus routes,
• Expanded networks of safe cycle ways, more open green spaces, walkways and car-free boulevards & malls,
• Expanded park & ride facilities, and feeder services at all key nodal points.
• Ample passenger shelters at each stop, that effectively protect people from the weather,
• Limit inner city parking facilities.
• New redesigned & direct bus & tram routes should be colour-coded, criss-crossing the city, integrated and easily linking up for maximum mobility.
• All bus, tram, ferry, light rail & train services & timetables integrated to allow for easy transfer from one mode to another.
• Strategically placed transport information centres offering simple colour-coded route maps, directions and advise.
• All services should be frequent and reliable. Services should become so frequent that the publication of printed timetables would no longer be necessary – another cost saving.
• The introduction of free transit needs to be accompanied with a high-profile promotion of the benefits of the new public transport services.
• Free wifi on all public transport and passenger facilities.
• Clear signage to make public transit easily understood by all. More electronic passenger information signs at bus stops & train stations.
• All services should use modern comfortable vehicles that can easily accommodate wheelchairs, shopping bags and cycles.
• Wide doors, with lowered ramps, at front & rear for easy & rapid alighting & egress for all.
• ‘Public transport ambassadors’ engaged to assist passengers and deter anti-social behaviour – similar to Maori Wardens. This will free up the drivers to focus on getting their passengers to their destinations safely.
• All public transport services should operate 24/7. This will allow for the safe travel of increasing numbers of late night/early morning workers and nightclub patrons etc, and a practical alternative to drink-driving.
• Mini-buses could link isolated suburban pockets to the main public transport network.
• Like many European cities, free bicycles could be available for loan at strategic locations. Hasselt in Belgium even offers a free bike maintenance depot at the central railway station.
• Reintroduce trams along appropriate main arterial routes – modern trams are comfortable, & easily accessible.
• Rail should be actively encouraged as the main means of transporting the bulk of freight, with expanded facilities. This will get a large number of heavy trucks off the roads & severely cut road maintenance costs. Heavy rail services to the airport and beyond should be urgently installed – also with zero fares.
How will it be paid for?
Public transport is a common good that should be paid for by all. Everybody will share the benefits of a big switch to quality public transport and an end to traffic congestion - so everyone should share the costs, instead of expecting the users of public transport to shoulder the burden and effectively subsidise car travel on ‘free’ roads.
There is good reason for public transport to be partially paid for by subsidies from the public purse – why not cover the full cost collectively, as we do for other important public services such as libraries and police and civil infrastructure?
Most of the funding could come from diverting the huge government funds earmarked for planned big roading projects, into decent public transport services. Also direct income from: road & fuel taxes, inner city parking fees, and selling the extremely expensive fare collecting & ticketing systems. The vast tracks of land already purchased for more roads and fly-overs could be sold releasing extra funds for public transport.
A new tourist ‘carbon-footprint’ tax could help of-set their carbon costs and be channelled into the new transit system.
Businesses will be the greatest benefactors as productivity soars and transport related costs dramatically drop. Huge company cars fleets would become unnecessary, and the need for extensive car parking space would be heavily reduced. So a differential rates system could be reintroduced, or a special levy on business could also be applied.
The cost of introducing free public transport to Auckland would be not be cheap, but I estimate that it would be a fraction of the real cost of the current chaos that centres on the dominance of car dependency, (including health & lost productivity costs etc), and also a fraction of the cost of constructing and maintaining more and more motorways.
It would be an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the actual total current costs with the projected costs of opting for FPT in Auckland. This honest comparison, of course, should be the first prerequisite action towards a genuine consideration of this proposal.
A list of advantages:
• Dramatic reduction, or end, of traffic congestion.
• Substantial reduction in traffic related pollution levels and greenhouse gas emissions.
• Substantial reduction in road accidents, deaths and injuries.
• Huge reduction in health costs related to traffic congestion and pollution: respiratory conditions, hospital admissions due to road accidents, stress related illnesses etc
• Cut noise pollution
· Reduction in polluted run-off water from roads into waterways & harbours
• Reduction in ‘road rage’ incidents
• Big reduction in fuel usage, waste and costs
• Reduction in insurance claims and costs.
• The finances and mobility of low-income people will be greatly improved, giving greater access to jobs, health facilities etc by removing cost constraints and coupled with better services.
· Enhanced accessibility and increased frequency of services will benefit disabled citizens.
• Reduce the number of school children currently being dropped off and picked up at school gates by car.
• Greatly reduced costs in road maintenance due to less wear and tear.
• Businesses able to cut their fleets of cars and thereby substantially reduce costs.
• Inner city building owners & developers will not need to assign so much valuable space to car parking
• Taxi services may be required less - surplus taxi drivers can be offered jobs as bus and tram operators or rail or ferry staff.
• Increased health and fitness with encouragement and confidence due to safer walking & cycling opportunities.
• End assaults on bus drivers who will no longer carry cash boxes.
• Faster boarding times and an end to constant delays as passengers one-by-one fumble for change or cards or ID, ask directions and receive tickets etc.
· End the constant diversion and stress for drivers over ticket sales and monitoring ‘fare dodging’.
• Emergency vehicles will be able to get through without traffic congestion problems.
• The increased number of buses & trains will be available to be quickly seconded to rapidly evacuate large numbers of the population in event of an major earthquake or other civil emergency and reduce the likelihood of impassable chaos experienced in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina and Rita floods, where all interstate highways were clogged in total gridlock for 24 hours, resulting in almost as many deaths as the hurricanes inflicted.
• Abolish expensive ticketing and fare handling systems – fares only comprise a modest percentage of current income for public transport but impose an enormous (unnecessary) cost.
• End all problems of ‘fare dodging’ and ‘over-riding’ and disputes over fares. No need for teams of ticket inspectors & punitive measures.
· Bus & tram operators can focus on safe driving without being concerned with fare collecting and protecting a cash box.
• Public ownership & control will reinforce PT as a vital civic service focused solely on the mobility needs of the public.
• As the city becomes far more user-friendly, socially interactive, mobile and genuinely ‘liveable’ – rates are likely to fall.
• The new innovative free transit system is likely to become a major tourist draw-card – think of Melbourne and its popular trams. Tallinn promotes it’s green ‘fare-free capital of Europe’ as a unique and successful tourist attraction.
• Auckland could become a world-leading ‘clean-green liveable city’ renowned for transforming chronic traffic chaos into sensible urban mobility.
A list of disadvantages … well, can YOU think of any?
Some recent interesting articles/reports on overseas examples of Free Public Transport:
1. Should all public transit be free? By John Cookson, Big Think 2017
VIDEO DOCUMENTARY ON FREE PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Produced by Revo Raudjarv for Tallinna Television 
This video mostly focuses on Tallinn, Estonia, and includes interviews with international advocates: Roger Fowler (New Zealand), Greg Albo (Toronto Free Transit), Erik van Hal (traffic planner, Eindhoven), Michel van Hulten (scientist, Netherlands), Anna Ujma (advisor to the mayor of Zory, Poland), Dan Diaconu (deputy mayor of Timisoara, Romania), Raymond Polus (journalist Hasselt, Belgium), Mao Xiang (Chengdu Transport Department), Siim Kallas (European Commissioner for Transport), Lars Isacsson (Mayor of Avesta, Sweden), Allan Alakula (Head of Tallinn EU Office), Taavi Aas (Deputy Mayor of Tallinn).
Author: Roger Fowler QSM
Member of the Auckland Council’s Seniors Advisory Panel from 2014 – Transport portfolio.
Director of the Mangere East Community Centre.
Cell Ph: 0212999491
Postal: PO Box 86022, Mangere East, Auckland 2158. [29/8/2018]