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Teetering on the public transport tipping point

The announcement that half-price public transport will continue for the foreseeable is a welcome one. It’s a pragmatic government gesture in the general direction of households doing it hard in the current cost of living crisis. And, unlike extending relief on the fuel tax for a fourth time, it doesn’t come with a serving of climate change-related cognitive dissonance.

It remains to be seen how much the ongoing discount will encourage people not already using buses and trains to give these transport modes a go, though.

I used public transport a great deal during the 26 years I lived in Auckland, partly due to often having no car, thanks to one theft and two write-offs [both due to other drivers, I hasten to add].

But it was mainly because I absolutely accept the argument that using buses and trains is A Good Thing, in terms of both environmental efficiency [more people being moved about at the cost of relatively fewer emissions, plus less congestion] and stress management [being trapped in a traffic jam is much less aggravating when you can read a book instead of being permanently poised at the steering wheel for any opportunity to inch your vehicle forward].

Convenience is key, though, and the nation’s public transport system fails to deliver in this respect with anything approaching reliability.

Mileage varies depending on where you live but, in general, it’s optimistic to the point of stupidity to rely on a bus or train to get to an important appointment on time.

From what I gather, the hit and miss nature of public transport scheduling is largely due to too few regular patrons to justify splashing out on more frequent services.

Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to attract the new punters required to trigger more investment while the services continue to be somewhat shambolic.

It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum – one that’s currently exacerbated by drivers being in as short supply as poultry produce.

It surely doesn’t help – despite it being touted as a public good – that local and central authorities apparently prefer having private companies operating much of the public transport network, something I cynically put down to a desire to dodge accountability for less than stellar services.

Because these companies are understandably focused on making a profit [it is, after all, the primary purpose of their existence], the services they provide will continue to be patchy as long as we continue to teeter on the current tipping point.

Something’s got to give.

If we’re serious about getting more of the population out of private cars and onto buses and trains, we need an upfront injection of capital to get the system up to scratch.

But for whatever reason, there’s an apparent reluctance on the Government’s part to stump up the cash needed to make public transport attractive. Instead, there seem to be moves afoot to ensure using personal vehicles is increasingly unattractive, by making it “slightly less convenient to drive and to park” – as advocated by a visiting UK ‘healthy streets’ consultant several years ago.

So best to buckle up in expectation of a bumpier ride over the next few years.

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