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It is hard to feel a great deal of sympathy for Aucklanders creeping along yet again in slow-moving traffic during the morning rush hours or stuck totally in a jam on one of the city’s major motorways.
Fortunately, in the South, we do not experience those volumes of traffic and, while hold-ups in central Dunedin can be somewhat time-consuming and frustrating, they rarely add more than a few minutes to the overall journey.
What makes it even harder to be too empathetic to our northern neighbours’ transport woes is they generally have far more options for travel than South Islanders do.
Public transport systems, particularly in Auckland and Wellington, are, in the eyes of southerners, to die for.
Their bus services are more regular and cover more ground than they do here. The capital has an enviable commuter rail network with frequent trains to many parts of the city which are not only comfortable and enjoyable to travel on, but also punctual.
Aucklanders, despite all their grumblings, also have an extensive, growing and efficient train network and — how good must this be? — regular ferries across the harbour to and from the North Shore and many of the islands.
Before the rise in popularity of personal motor vehicles in the 1950s and 1960s, Dunedin also had a public transport system to be proud of with cable cars, trams and buses that enjoyed good patronage and provided services to most parts of the city across difficult terrain.
In recent years — because most people want a car and to be able to travel precisely when it suits them — it has become increasingly difficult to encourage residents either to get on to buses or stay on them.
There have also been some appalling botch-ups during the past couple of years with unpopular route changes and jaw-dropping intractability from the Otago Regional Council when it came to listening to what paying passengers actually wanted.
Little wonder, then, that the Dunedin City Council — the other partner in the public transport derby — is now considering cutting bus fares to make services more appealing and even wants to explore the possibility of a commuter rail service between the city and Mosgiel.
At a meeting recently, city councillors added $600,000 for bus subsidies to the pre-draft annual plan for 2020-21.
Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins said the city faced specific transport challenges, largely from the growing number of cars and looming disruptions due to the Dunedin Hospital rebuild, and he was impressed by the success of the Queenstown-Lakes District’s $2 fare initiative.
However, Cr Carmen Houlahan, one of three who voted against the money for subsidies, wondered why the city council, not the regional council, was overseeing the reduction. Rather tellingly, Mr Hawkins said “the appetite of the ORC doesn’t match the ambition the city has”.
If this shows there are still tensions between the two councils over public transport, they need to be parked right away to ensure the best outcomes for existing and future passengers. There can be no question that any and every avenue needs to be explored to make Dunedin’s bus services more attractive for residents.
A commuter rail link from Mosgiel is also an excellent idea, although that will face stiff opposition even at the feasibility study stage, as have efforts to do the same in Christchurch.
There are unfortunate signs, when it comes to taxpayer funding for transport, of a growing disparity between North and South. It is only fair that cities and regions with a larger population get proportionately more money from the central coffers, but the Government’s recent $5.3billion roading splurge for the North Island, compared with just $249million in the South Island, sets alarm bells ringing.
In the meantime, it is right that the Dunedin City Council takes a look at options to help the bus services here thrive.
A healthy public transport system is a sign of a healthy city. Could we fairly say that about Dunedin at present?