Covid-19: Public transport slump a 'structural shift', with work from home to stay

RYAN ANDERSON/STUFF
Auckland Transport says mask use on trains at Britomart was more than 90 per cent (Video first published in November 2020)

A Covid-19-driven slump of more than 40 per cent in public transport use in Auckland may not fully recover for years, with analysis showing the impact of changing habits such as working from home.

Auckland Transport (AT) said the city was experiencing not a blip but a “significant structural change” to demand for public transport, including a small shift back to cars.

Many regular users were boarding public transport less frequently, and most planned to stick with their new pattern.

The number of AT HOP cardholders using public transport every weekday had in November 2020 fallen by 55 per cent compared to a year earlier, from 36,000 to 16,000.

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That equated to 1.2 million fewer trips that month.

Mandatory mask-wearing is the visible change in public transport use. (File photo)
RYAN ANDERSON/Stuff
Mandatory mask-wearing is the visible change in public transport use. (File photo)

The number of moderate users who had previously travelled on public transport between 11-20 days in a month declined by 28,500, accounting for the loss of a further 1.1 million trips.

A separate survey found 41 per cent of those who had completely given up travel on public transport cited Covid-19 public health worries as one of their top two grounds.

That survey of a regular online panel found 55 per cent said they were working from home at least part of the time.

Of those, 59 per cent of the work-from-homers expected to continue at the same level from home, while 32 per cent intended to do more of their work from home.

Nearly half a million AT HOP cards were active over the past 90 days and data generated had been analysed during December and January, giving a detailed picture of changing patterns.

Proportionately, the biggest fall among AT HOP cardholders was tertiary students, with 47 per cent fewer trips compared with November 2019.

That reflected a switch during 2020 to online study, and the absence of 28,750 international students who had traditionally been high users of public transport.

Auckland Transport chief executive Shane Ellison at the launch of the AirportLink electric bus fleet.
Stephen Forbes/Stuff
Auckland Transport chief executive Shane Ellison at the launch of the AirportLink electric bus fleet.

The student slump equated to 433,000 fewer trips a month.

The most significant fall was adult passengers who take the bulk of trips and pay the highest, un-discounted fares. In November 2020 they took 2.3 million fewer trips than 12 months earlier.

There is also believed to have been a shift from public transport to private car travel, although it is harder to quantify.

AT figures show in November 2020, the number of people entering the city centre in the morning peak fell by 7 per cent, but those in cars rose by 9 per cent, and those on public transport fell by 10 per cent.

The cumulative effect of the slump has been to pull back patronage from a recent high of more than 100 million trips a year to just below 59 million trips, a level last seen in 2009.

AT’s chief executive Shane Ellison thought some of those who had given up or reduced public transport use might not return to their previous use, while others may be lost until borders re-open and a successful roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines boosts confidence.

Data shows how much Auckland's most frequent users of public transport have reduced their travel.
Auckland Transport/Supplied
Data shows how much Auckland's most frequent users of public transport have reduced their travel.

“It is not the worst possible outcome, from a transport perspective, because working from home is not a terrible outcome in terms of emissions and road safety,” Ellison said.

However, it changed the historic path of big investment in public transport, matched by strong patronage growth, to one where there is now significant capacity and AT might have to seek out customers.

“We will be looking at marketing, but it will be very targetted. Once the rail lines (currently being upgraded) are up to full speed we might target those who we knew took rail with a special offer to come back,” he said.

“Auckland is doing better than almost all other international cities where the trends around working from home and public health and safety are the same.”

A sudden and major repair and replacement of Auckland’s worn rail tracks has been a further drag on patronage, with some lines closed for weeks, and speeds reduced.

In January, monthly rail patronage was 70 per cent lower than a year earlier, and AT estimated the work in November 2020 alone had cut patronage by 303,000.

Ellison was confident a re-surgence in public transport would come when major projects such as the $4.4 billion City Rail link are finished in 2024 and the eastern busway is finished.

The loss of fare revenue is largely covered by a government Covid-19 underwrite which has just been extended by Waka Kotahi by four months to the end of June.

A concept drawing of the City Rail Link's Aotea Station, due to open in 2024.
CRL/Supplied
A concept drawing of the City Rail Link's Aotea Station, due to open in 2024.

The underwrite had contributed $65 million to Auckland’s losses so far, with the nationwide spend by July forecast to be $155 million.

The Covid-19 hit on public transport is a global issue, with a January survey by Melbourne-based toll-road operator Transurban finding 21 per cent fewer people expected to use public transport on a daily basis compared with their pattern before the pandemic.

In Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, 5 per cent more people expected to become daily users of cars.