Bus cancellations bite

It was an unfortunate juxtaposition. News the Otago Regional Council is calling for proposals for a business case for improving the bus service to boost commuter patronage came at a time when the service is facing a slew of cancellations daily.

A shortage of drivers, because of Covid-19 and seasonal illness, is the issue, and on Tuesday it resulted in 140 cancellations.

It will be no comfort to affected passengers to know Dunedin is not alone in this situation as services in other parts of the country also wrestle with driver shortages in this illness-laden winter.

If the situation continues to a publicly unspecified threshold, the ORC has a plan to offer a reduced timetable which would prioritise peak times and school hours.

Since reliability is essential for any form of public transport, the sooner passengers can have more certainty over what is available, the better.

Reports of some bus users returning to their cars and pupils left stranded because of the current unreliability of the service will not be inspiring those wedded to their cars to try buses any time soon. It should not be forgotten, either, that many passengers will not have cars or be able to afford taxis.

According to the ORC, patronage of the buses has been growing since 2018, and although the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic affected that, before this current spate of cancellations, patronage was close to where it was before the pandemic. Rising fuel prices are likely to have played a part in that.

Cars dominate transport to work or education in Dunedin. At the time of the 2018 census, almost three-quarters of commuters drove their own or company cars to work and back.

Passengers waiting at the Dunedin bus hub. PHOTO:PETER MCINTOSH
Passengers waiting at the Dunedin bus hub. PHOTO:PETER MCINTOSH
A mere 3.4% of Dunedin commuters said they used public transport to travel to work or education, lower than the national average of 4.2% and also well below the 10% who walked or jogged (higher than the 5.2% nationally). At that time, cyclists comprised 2.1% of commuters, similar to the national average.

Part of the Shaping Future Dunedin Transport programme’s aim is to shift that bus usage to 8% by 2030.

Among the aspects of the service those putting forward proposals for the business case have been asked to consider are what changes are needed to the current timetable to better accommodate work and school start and finish times, removing gaps and standardising frequency, and which routes would benefit from increased frequency in peak times.

The fare structure is in the mix too, with options including flat fares, discounts for frequent travel, organisations’ bulk purchasing travel, and an inner-city free-fare zone.

Prospective tenderers for the business case are also being asked to consider other possible ways of funding the service, which up until now has been covered by the ORC’s Dunedin ratepayers, bus users and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency.

Although it is not in the scope of this business case, what must not be overlooked in the planning process is the issue of driver recruitment. Current driver shortages will not have been helped by the fact bus drivers have struggled to get decent pay and conditions in recent years and, in a time of high employment, attracting people to the job will be challenging.

If we are to reduce our carbon emissions from transport in Dunedin, a bus service offering a reliable, affordable, convenient and comfortable alternative to private car use will be increasingly important.

It would be a shame if the current difficulties set back any progress which has been made to attract bus passengers. In the days ahead, if it is to retain wavering passengers’ loyalty, the ORC will need to ensure any necessary rationing of services is as fair as it can be, and that any communication with passengers about changes is top notch.

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter