Timaruvians reconsider what public transport looks like

After a two-month engagement study, Environment Canterbury says the response from the Timaru public to the possible introduction of an on-demand public transport service has been cautiously optimistic.

The project has progressed to its prototype testing stage, where aspects of the service such as functionality, hours, cost of operation and service coverage are being tested with individuals and focus groups, recruited from across Timaru, and validated with on demand technology provider Via.

This prototype testing phase takes a robust, community focused approach to ensure the technology and the service is easy to understand and to use. At the same time, the project team is preparing a business case for NZTA funding, which will ultimately determine whether the service can be introduced.

Environment Canterbury’s senior manager public transport Stewart Gibbon says the survey demonstrated that many people understood that the current service is not sustainable.

"The reality is that things need to change, because ratepayers and taxpayers cannot keep subsidising a public transport system that is poorly utilised," he said.

"Introducing on demand public transport requires a different way of thinking about travel, and Timaru is well-positioned to explore this. Instead of going where the bus goes, when the bus goes, an on-demand service is a corner to corner service, booked in advance to take people where they want to go."

Community feedback

Environment Canterbury heard from a wide cross section of 211 people in Timaru, 50% of whom were positive or neutral about the proposal for on-demand public transport, while 25 respondents did not agree with the proposal.

More than half of those surveyed said that they would like to be able to use public transport during the day in the weekends, and around a quarter would use the service in the evenings, enabling easier access to work or social activities. Around half of the people in the survey said that price was "fairly" or "very" important to them.

Gibbon says that while fares have not yet been set, it is likely that an on-demand service would need to cost slightly more than the bus. Off peak travel will remain free for SuperGold Card holders.

"The reality is that the trade-off for a more convenient, on demand service that takes you where you need to go, may be that it will cost you a little more, because the gold coin cost of the Timaru bus service is not sustainable. We're looking to work with NZTA to ensure that fares can be set at a realistic level, so that the service works well and is a viable and convenient travel choice."

Gibbon says that if the on-demand service does not go ahead, funding restrictions are likely to lead to an overhaul of the Timaru bus service, resulting in reductions to frequency and coverage.

"It would be irresponsible of us to continue to run regular bus services around a community when there are only a few hundred regular users. We're looking to introduce a service that appeals to new users as well as working for current bus users. For this to be successful, people will need to work with us to give it a go, because if there is no appetite for it, it's unlikely to go ahead. However, if it is successful, we believe that this is a model that could work well in Timaru and possibly in many smaller centres around the country."

The current testing phase is likely to run until the middle of the year. Depending on the findings of this stage, and on funding, Timaru's public transport could progressively migrate to the on-demand service later this year, eventually replacing the existing service, with the exclusion of the Temuka service, and ensuring that school services remain available.

Environment Canterbury and NZTA would like to engage with the business community and recruitment agencies to establish future workforce needs. Business owners wishing to discuss on-demand public transport opportunities are requested to contact public transport community engagement advisor Isabelle Bromham on 027 275 1966.

Survey background

The objective of the research was to determine whether there is appetite in Timaru for an on-demand public transport system to replace the unsustainable existing bus service.

During the engagement period (1 December-15 January), Environment Canterbury worked with the NZTA and Timaru District Council to visit community, senior citizen and disability advocacy groups, and ran focus groups, pop up consultation booths, and an online survey.