Half-price fares: Unclear what's behind public transport uptick in Auckland

TOOD NIALL/STUFF
Transport Minister Michael Wood speaks on the first day of half price public transport fares.

Auckland Transport is unsure whether halving public transport fares has had any impact on patronage.

The government initiative began in April and has been extended until February 2023 to ease the impact of rising inflation and provide an alternative to soaring fuel prices.

The council agency whose network delivered more than 100 million trips annually before Covid-19, said patronage is up 42% since the discount, but the cause is unclear.

“We are possibly seeing an increase in organic public transport recovery, with customers returning to work[places],” said AT in a detailed analysis of travel data.

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Halving fares had been intended to both reduce the cost for lower-income public transport users, and provide an affordable alternative to those facing higher fuel costs, which pushed past $3 a litre for 91 octane.

AT said those using public transport in Auckland had collectively saved $14.7 million by the end of June, due to halving of fares.

Wellington commuters enjoying the first day of half price fares in April (file photo)
KEVIN STENT/Stuff
Wellington commuters enjoying the first day of half price fares in April (file photo)

In addition to data analysis, AT’s regular surveying showed only 15% of non-public transport users, planned to use it more because of the government-funded discount.

Among public transport users, 54% said they would make more trips because of the lower fares.

Aucklanders’ views on whether half price public transport fares will change their habits
Auckland Transport/Supplied
Aucklanders’ views on whether half price public transport fares will change their habits

AT gathers a huge amount of data from the electronic Hop travel cards, used for most travel, and has tracked the number of trips made, the number of cards issued to new users, and the frequency of travel.

One sign of newcomers being attracted by the discount fares, was a 21% jump in card sales in the first week of scheme, a boost that continued for each of the next 12 weeks.

Patronage climbed sharply in the first weeks of half price fares but plateaued through May and faded in July, missing the 1.2 million trips a week mark for the past four weeks.

While more people are using public transport at some point, the growth in travel has been more marked among less frequent users, and dipped among bigger users, especially those who travelled between 11 and 20 days in a 31-day period.

Trends in the number of trips and active ATHOP card users in Auckland
Auckalnd Transport/Supplied
Trends in the number of trips and active ATHOP card users in Auckland

“We can infer that the customers returning to PT are travelling less often than they did before – likely due to working or studying from home a few days a week,” said AT’s analysis.

Overall patronage sits at 64% of pre-Covid levels.

Exactly where the impact of lower fares is occurring has not yet been unpicked, but in the final week of June, the highest sales of AT Hop cards occurred downtown, in the west’s New Lynn, Ferry terminals and the south’s Puhinui interchange where the main public transport service to the airport passes through.

The role of half-price fares in patronage levels is clouded by an early upward trend in use through February and March as Covid case numbers fell, and the hit in past months from a new surge.

Not only passengers were sick and staying at home, but up to 2000 services a day have been cancelled due to driver and staff illness and shortages, making the network less reliable.

Public transport patronage in Auckland remains at 64% of pre-Covid levels. (File photo)
Chris McKeen/Stuff
Public transport patronage in Auckland remains at 64% of pre-Covid levels. (File photo)

AT surveys gave an insight into how people were hit by inflation. When asked which price rises most affected their quality of life, 71% named food shopping and 57% the cost of fuel.

Half of those surveyed (51%) said they were using their cars less due to higher fuel prices, with discretionary trips such as shopping and recreation being the most reduced.