‘Take it easy – take the train’

Auckland commuters arrive at the Britomart Transport Centre during the morning rush hour

Auckland commuters arrive at the Britomart Transport Centre during the morning rush hour

Record growth in the number of commuters using public transport in Auckland highlights how quickly information and trends can change – a challenge for any encyclopedia. Te Ara’s entries on Public Transport and Railways aren’t that old; they were published in the Economy and the City theme in 2010, and acknowledged that public transport patronage had rallied since the 1990s and early 2000s. Over the last decade, though, that revival has become a revolution – especially in a city most assumed was as car-crazy as Los Angeles, and always would be.

In August 2015 Auckland Transport reported that the city’s rail journeys over the previous 12 months had reached 14 million – the highest total ever recorded and 21% up on the previous year. Since the early 1990s, when barely a million Aucklanders rode a run-down, neglected suburban rail system, growth has been spectacular: the 2014/15 total was more than double the 2007/08 figure of 6.8 million, which was itself more than twice the 3.2 million recorded in 2002/03. As this chart illustrates, the surge in Auckland commuter numbers means that more New Zealanders are taking the train today than at any time since the early 1960s.

While the most dramatic recent growth has been on the rails, more people are also travelling on Auckland’s much more extensive bus network, with 57 million journeys in the year to March 2015, an 8.5% increase over the previous year. Numbers using the Northern Express busway were up 17%. Even ferry services recorded a 5% increase, with a total of 5.4 million trips. Overall, Auckland’s public transport journeys to March 2015 totalled 78 million, an increase of 10% on the year before.

Rather than just being an exercise in updating statistics, significant changes like this invite us to reassess the way we think about our cities. As Te Ara’s Public Transport and Railways entries explain, all major New Zealand cities experienced a significant decline in public transport patronage during the second half of the 20th century, an era when the car was king. As a result, in the 1990s and early 2000s New Zealand, and Auckland especially, had one of the lowest rates of public transport use in the world. Most people still commute by car of course, and we shouldn’t overstate the rise of public transit. But the recent turnaround is historically significant, and is one of a number of trends that are reshaping New Zealand’s largest city.

Similarly, for decades we’ve thought of Wellington as New Zealand’s rail-commuter capital. Patronage there has also grown since the early 2000s, and with more than 12 million rail journeys in 2014/15 it’s still well ahead on a per capita basis. But in absolute terms Wellington’s commuter numbers are unlikely to top Auckland’s again. With 55% of all New Zealand’s public transport journeys happening there, we need to recognise Auckland as the country’s new commuter hub.

Like most revolutions, this one has a variety of causes. Public transport patronage jumped around 2008 as petrol prices rose, but has accelerated even as pump prices have fallen Traffic congestion, travel times and parking costs are all major influences; for some, concern over fossil fuels and climate change is a factor. New migrants may be more used to public transport and rail travel has also benefited from our growing dependence on smartphones, tablets and laptops, which allow commuters to work or play during their journey. Arguably the primary driver has been long-overdue investment in infrastructure and improvements to the quality and frequency of services, which have clearly unlocked significant latent demand for public transport.

The opening of the downtown Britomart Transport Centre in 2003 was a key first step, and over the last decade central government has invested heavily in upgrading and electrifying the network, duplicating tracks, building new stations, reopening the Onehunga branch line (closed since 1973) and purchasing new Spanish-built electric multiple units, the first of which entered service in April 2014. With main construction work on the 3.4-km underground Auckland City Rail Link due to start in 2018, further growth is expected.

Public transport is a fast moving environment, especially in New Zealand’s largest and most dynamic city. On current trends, 20 million rail journeys will be taken in Auckland in 2016. We may need to revisit these entries sooner rather than later.

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