Zone 0

We all loved the free central city Shuttle, didn’t we? It was introduced in 1998 and ceased operating with the February 2011 earthquake. Shall we have it back? Yes?

The free Shuttle that ran from 1998 until 2011

I have an even better idea: free travel on all buses within the Four Avenues when you use your Metrocard. That way, there are way more buses, and it’s less of a burden on the ratepayer. A true win-win. Let’s call the proposal “Zone 0” (zone zero).

How do you pay for buses?

Most people using buses pay using their Metrocard as it’s much cheaper than paying cash. You pre-load your Metrocard with cash, tag on when you board and that’s it. In zone 1, for example, it’s $4.20 cash for adults, or $2.65 when you use Metrocard.

New designs for the Metrocard

Let’s look at the Christchurch fare structure. It’s a very simple system, with most passengers on public transport never leaving zone 1. Crossing the city boundaries, you get into zone 2 north of the Waimakariri, but out west you are a long way into Selwyn District (i.e. just short of Lincoln) before you enter zone 2. And if you pay cash going to or from the airport, you really get stung; it’s $8.50 cash versus the normal zone 1 fare of $2.65 with a Metrocard. Beyond that, there’s a recently introduced bus to and from Leeston for which ECan has introduced zone 3 charges; same with the service to Darfield. The Diamond Harbour ferry also uses the zone 3 charges. The map below shows the fare zone, but the zone 1&2 boundary out west is out by nearly 3 km (route 80 enters zone 2 when crossing Tancreds Road).

Greater Christchurch public transport fare zones in 2019

Most passengers simply tag on when they enter the bus. Only those passengers who cross a zone boundary need to tell the driver which zone they are travelling to (or their destination; the driver will know the zone that corresponds to) before they tag on.

Zone 0 proposal

So why not just reintroduce the Shuttle? It’s been considered by the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Joint Committee (a committee of district, city and regional councils) and rejected as “too expensive” The committee received three reports during 2016 and 2017. And what that committee discussed wasn’t the shuttle route as it was pre-earthquake, but something much smaller serving the area west of the Avon River. ECan, which organises public transport, does not have the funds but would be happy to organise the service if Christchurch City Council paid for it. ECan consulted on the Shuttle as part of its Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan 2018–2028, stating an annual cost of $1.0m per year for a service that runs every 10 minutes, and got good support for the initiative. Later reports, based on a slightly longer route, had an annual cost of $1.5m.

Let’s do something quite different; I’ll call it Zone 0:

Free public transport on all buses for Metrocard holders if you get on and off within the Four Avenues.

Axel Wilke

Let’s look at the details of this proposal.

Firstly, you get a much more comprehensive coverage of the central city. The map below compares the final Shuttle route (red dashed line) with the current bus routes.

Secondly, on many of the corridors, buses are much more frequent than every 10 minutes, so this is another service level improvement.

Thirdly, this is a very cheap initiative. There are two main components that will cost something. One is that we will lose some revenue. It won’t be much because I suspect that very few people travel on buses just within the Four Avenues at present. We don’t know how much that will be because we only measure where people board a bus (by them tagging on with their Metrocard or paying the driver) but we do not record when and where they leave the bus. The other costs that we may incur is related to the Purple and Orange lines being beyond capacity. More on that below. The conclusion with regards to cost is that it costs a fraction of what we would spend on getting the Shuttle back.

Fourthly, and most importantly, we would turn users of this system into public transport users. We never did this with the previous Shuttle; it was a standalone system operated for and financed by the city council that had nothing to do with the paid bus services operated by ECan. With Zone 0, you need to own a Metrocard to be able to get the free trips. A separate policy is to reverse the 2011 decision by the commissioners to charge for the initial Metrocard. A person’s first Metrocard must come free of charge. By owning a Metrocard, you’ve made the first step towards using the Christchurch bus system. The other component is that there are many routes that traverse the central city. Zone 0 users must familiarise themselves with the bus network, understand that there are different services using different routes, to get to where they want to go. They therefore undertake a core task of a bus user in learning about the network and the timetables.

Hence, Zone 0 users are well on their way of using the paid bus service outside of the Four Avenues. That’s how you gain more bus users; you give people something for free and they in turn familiarise themselves with how the system works.

City councillor Mike Davidson also understands the benefits of this initiative, having raised a similar concept himself. Having like-minded councillors on both the city and regional councils will lead to better public transport outcomes.

Implementation problems

So what’s holding us back from introducing Zone 0? The biggest concern that staff have is that the Purple and Orange lines are beyond capacity during the morning peaks. Some buses sail past bus stops without stopping as the buses are physically full. Passengers who want to pay for the service are being left standing on the side of the road. Staff therefore don’t want to make the bus system any more attractive.

Excuse me, please! The old saying goes that it is easy to organise public transport if it wasn’t for the passengers. If there are capacity problems, our duty is to address those, independent of any Zone 0 proposals. We cannot possibly have a lottery going as to whether or not the next bus will stop for you. That’s totally unacceptable. We therefore have to increase the capacity during the morning peak on those routes. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is by introducing double deckers, which is a separate policy.

When The Press reported about this proposal and interviewed ECan staff, they raised the ‘problem’ that we don’t have a tag-off system. Therefore, apparently we can’t do this. Which begs the question, how does it work at the moment without a tag-off system? You can already travel beyond Zone 1 and the only way to make sure that you pay the correct amount is that you tell the driver before you tag on. So what exactly is different to Zone 0? It baffles me when people focus on perceived problems (which are there, but they already exist) instead of seeing the massive opportunities. My task, should I be elected, will be to achieve a change in attitude. From “we can’t do this because…” to “that’s a great idea; how can we make it happen?”.

Conclusions

Zone 0 has many advantages over reintroducing the Shuttle. It gives users much better geographic coverage. It provides much more frequent service on some routes than the Shuttle could provide. The cost to operate the system is tiny. Importantly, it will turn many Zone 0 users into paying bus users outside of the Four Avenues; something that the Shuttle never did. It’s an important step in growing our public transport usage.