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If a favourite corner dairy closes, do you blame the dairy owner or the big new supermarket down the road? A similar problem has affected school buses in Dunedin and Queenstown: improvements to public transport buses are indirectly causing cuts to school buses.
To understand the dynamics of school transport, it helps to understand there are three kinds of school bus:
• Regional council-contracted buses that augment the public transport system on school days, funded by fares, council rates and road tax
• So-called "commercial" school buses run entirely at bus companies’ own risk with no public support, reliant on fares alone
• Ministry of Education school buses mainly for remote country pupils, taxpayer funded and provided free of charge.
The Otago Regional Council has increased service frequency on many public transport routes over the past three years, while lowering the fares to and from the most far-flung suburbs. As a result, commuters have been joined by school pupils on public transport.
This improvement in public transport has affected all three of the above types of school bus service.
The regional council declared its intention in 2014 to scrap its specialised school buses, phasing them out over the next few years. There wasn’t much protest at the time, but each timetable change since has heralded one or two school buses’ disappearance from Dunedin roads. The most recent casualties were buses linking Logan Park High School with Wakari, Maori Hill and Port Chalmers. A school service to Pine Hill will end in a year or two.
The lower fares and better service on public buses have also affected some "commercial" school bus routes. Due to a widespread perception that all buses are some sort of public service, any company that ceases operating a commercial school route will come under fire. This is unfair: how is an unsubsidised bus to run if costs exceed the fares? A lack of knowledge of the bus industry among parents is understandable but when the regional council joins in the pillorying it is a tad harsh, given its own actions have made commercial school routes less viable. A loss of $70,000 was mentioned at a recent regional council meeting, but it hasn’t occurred to anyone to thank Go Bus Transport’s owners, the Ngai Tahu and Tainui iwi authorities, for their largesse.
The regional council has scrambled to find a temporary solution, and it looks like several Dunedin routes will run for at least another term with some public funding support. But a planned 10% fare increase will make them even less competitive with the public buses. The decline in passenger numbers will accelerate. The sad outcome will be that those most reliant on the service — those least able to use an alternative public bus — will have the most to lose should the services cease altogether.
Our third type of school bus, run by the Ministry of Education, looks like becoming the third casualty of improved public transport. The Queenstown public transport upgrade planned for later this year with a flat $1.50 child fare has prompted the Ministry of Education to consider ceasing its school bus services. While many would find $1.50 quite reasonable, it is a big increase from the zero paid at the moment, and that is the blunt outcome of the ministry’s winner-takes-all approach whereby services are withdrawn as public transport expands. Wakatipu is just the latest district to feel this effect: as public transport expanded, ministry runs were pulled from many outer parts of Dunedin, such as Brighton, Port Chalmers and Portobello; indeed many of the commercial runs discussed above evolved from discontinued ministry services.
Decisions are being made in isolation by bus companies, the regional council and the ministry. Broader goals of reducing traffic congestion and access to education are being ignored in decision making on school transport in Otago. The regional council and ministry should work together and consider the community benefits a region-wide, high-quality, specialist school bus service could provide.
- Peter Dowden occasionally works as a Go Bus Transport Ltd driver but opinions expressed above are his own.