Free public transport in Auckland is viable, according to a new report from supporters, but would also benefit from major reforms, such as returning bus and ferry operators to public ownership.
The report proposes a gradual introduction of free travel, starting at traditionally low-traffic times of the year, and gradually before attendance returns to pre-Covid levels.
The 40-page document says eliminating fares reduces emissions, congestion and “helps recast public transport as a true public service for everyone, regardless of income”.
The report was written for the PSA and First Union unions, by former Aucklander Dr Jenny McArthur, now associate professor of urban infrastructure and policy at University College London.
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He is backed by Auckland mayoral candidate Efeso Collins, whose key policy for the Oct. 8 election is free public transport.
The report highlighted the cost of public transport for low-income Aucklanders, saying a year of monthly passes would cost $2,580, or 17% of a Jobseeker’s Allowance for adults.
High housing costs in the city have added further pressure on strained incomes.
“Many households are struggling to afford transportation costs because more of their income is spent on rising rents or paying off mortgages,” he said.
The study looked at the experience of different variants of free travel, in Luxembourg, the Estonian capital Tallinn, as well as Boston and Kansas City in the United States.
Boston’s approach had been to remove fares from targeted routes through vulnerable communities, with ridership up 23% year-on-year.
The report said there would be economic and health benefits, and that it would contribute to Auckland’s climate targets of tripling PT’s share of travel to 25%.
McArthur said the policy did not mean a trade-off against better service because “Boston, Tallinn and Kansas City have all made substantial improvements to their service and network coverage while introducing free rates”.
The report says the cost of the free trips could be covered by redirecting council funding, a boost from the National Land Transport Fund, contributions from government health and climate change budgets or congestion charges.
Auckland Transport’s most recent estimate of the cost of previous fares was $382 million a year, but after the peak of Covid-19 ridership plummeted and fares in March only covered 20% of the costs of the PT.
The report calls for an end to contracting out bus and ferry services to private companies, and says the savings have diminished over time and have worsened working conditions for drivers and staff.
“Re-municipalisation, or bringing services back under public control, has become more popular in recent years as cities reverse privatization or outsourcing decisions that were made in the late 1980s and 1990s,” said said McArthur.
The idea has divided candidates for mayor of Auckland.
“Free public transport, alongside improving the network and frequency of services, is a key commitment of my campaign to become mayor and I look forward to further discussions on this based on this excellent research. “, said Efeso Collins.
Viv Beck preferred to invest in services, while Leo Molloy proposed a one-year trial, funded by the regional fuel tax, which he would then scrap.