Thinking transport, boldly

How can public transport be reinvented as the true people mover in Dunedin? Phillip Cole calls for a brave approach to some hard decisions.

Reading "Hard decisions on buses loom" (ODT 19/11/10) one cannot help but be filled with a sense of foreboding about the future of public transport in Dunedin.

At least two Otago Regional Councillors appear prepared to fight the corner for a public transport service in Dunedin - Councillors Deaker and Scott - but the ORC is at a crossroads regarding which direction to take.

The dreaded phrase ... "council needed to make sure it achieved efficient services for its investment", has been spoken by the chairman.

Therein lays the thinking behind the attitude to public transport.

As long as public transport is looked on in such a way then it is doomed.

Transport, in all its forms is a social process, especially using public transport.

You meet other people waiting for a bus, you travel with other people on the bus and you inevitably use the bus because you either are going to meet someone (work colleagues, friends, and relatives) or are going somewhere.

How can you then quantify efficient services for its investment? You can't put a price on visiting friends or relatives.

However, you can always apply a benefit value to getting a person to work (productive hours for that person's employer), or of getting a person from their home to the shops where they spend money and therefore create employment for other people and support local businesses, to name just a few.

Applied to public transport the investment is returned in spades.

So what currently do we have? Consistently declining patronage figures for the past two years (and beyond?); passenger figures not meeting council-imposed targets; fare revenue down; empty or near-empty buses driving around wasting ratepayers' money (although it can be equally argued that ratepayers' monies have been wasted on other certain projects ... ) and all summed up by ... some hard decisions for bus services in the next few years.

Unfortunately we do not have a few years we had yesterday.

The so-called Hard Decisions should have been made several years ago before a certain issue took hold and affected the long-term planning of this city.

This makes the correct Hard Decisions even more difficult to make but it is vitally important they are made now.

The easy decision which is probably the hard decision in the regional council's eyes is to carry on with business as usual, putting as little money as required into a transport model that continually fails, being based on similar models that fail elsewhere.

Then, if patronage numbers slightly increase after the next petrol price spike it can be claimed a success, for a few months at least.

The Hard Decisions can be broken into five main ones.

The first hard decision is to start with a blank canvas, both in terms of policy and planning.

If not, then the inherent problems of existing and past policies, combined with the historic bus routes will continue the downward trend of declining patronage figures.

The next decision is to analyse what it is that is being provided.

Instead of a service based on established timetables, fare revenue targets and threshold numbers of passengers, the service should be one that actually invites the public to use it by making it accessible and at times that are convenient.

If the times and frequencies do not fit in with people's work or shift times then they will continue to drive into the city centre.

The third hard decision would then be to work out the initial costs of such a scheme followed by the fourth hard decision of implementing the scheme.

The fifth hard decision: make all bus travel free.

"It will never work!", "Free bus travel? Dream on!", " I'm going to drive my car, regardless!", "Dunedin does not have enough people," are four of over a hundred excuses probably already uttered over this article.

By refusing to think outside the square, then this train of thought would normally win hands down.

However, we live in interesting times.

Fundamentally, the Dunedin public transport system must be run by one responsible authority as part of the overall transport strategy, not two.

For public transport in Dunedin to continue on its downward spiral it takes both councils to continue with the status quo.

The DCC has a central city strategy due to be released for consultation in April 2011 with a view to implementation in 2012.

On transport issues alone, it would be nice to think that the ORC will contribute to this in a positive manner, together with other interested parties.

As I say, it would be nice to think that.

If a city lacks a common vision it will only ever achieve piecemeal solutions.

The new DCC council seems to be making the right noises in addressing this and hopefully this developing state of mind can be carried to the regional council.

To invite more people to use the public transport system in Dunedin you first need to provide a service that they want.

Do this, and people will use it.

The more people using public transport the less daily storage space (parking spaces) you will need for cars by the side of the road, freeing up space for cycle lanes.

The fewer cars on the road leads to a more reliable public transport service.

People who actually want to use the current bus service frequently quote (and they are right to do so) that it actually costs me more to travel by bus than if I took my car.

So, let's make all travel within Dunedin free.

How do we pay for this?By putting it on the rates yes, frightening, isn't it! But normally, if you are paying $1.75 a day for a two-way trip (based on one zone) you will pay approximately $910 a year travelling to work (five days a week); Travelling from Zone 6 will cost you $2584.

If a general rate was applied, and this is a good argument for the DCC to provide the service so that only the ratepayers using the service will pay for it, it would be far less than the cost of the one-zone annual trip of $910.

If the costs of running the service was $10 million per year then that would equate to about $225 per household per year (not per person) about 61c a day for bus travel.

Each person registered in each house would have a free bus pass issued to them yearly.

By increasing this slightly to allow for exemptions on the rates for people over 65, Dunedin can have a public transport system that is free to use, efficient, reliable and a real asset to the city.

This is not necessarily the only way to reinvent public transport as the true people mover, and it is difficult to explain in 1200 words - but it is a way, nonetheless.

I open up the ground for further debate.

There is an old joke about a speech by a politician who dreamed dreams.

They said it couldn't be done and it couldn't.

They said it would never happen and it didn't, he tells his audience.

Anyone can be cautious.

It's those people brave enough to think new ideas who change the world, or in this case, Dunedin.

Phillip Cole is a member of Sustainable Dunedin City and a resident of Dunedin.


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