Public transport passenger numbers: why are they still low?

This is the latest in PTCBR’s series on passenger numbers across buses and light rail in Canberra. See here and here for earlier entries.

We have some more patronage data from Transport Canberra. Below is an updated graph of “average weekday boardings” on buses and light rail since 1 July 2019. As you can see, there are three separate ‘plateaus’, where numbers were relatively stable:

  • pre-COVID, it was around 85,000
  • during 2021, before the Delta lockdown, it was around 70,000
  • now the Delta and Omicron waves have passed, we’re closer to 60,000.

Allowing for transfers, this means there are around 10,000 fewer people catching public transport each day than in 2019. Why?

Here are a few possibilities:

Travel patterns have changed

While the office closures of 2020 and 2021 hopefully remain in the past, work from home arrangements are here to stay. Workers who were previously in the office 5 days a week are now working 1, 2 or 3 days at home. This reduces the number of commuter trips, and PT usage in turn.

Separately, transport habits are sticky. When people gave up the bus during the lockdowns, it’s likely some of them changed habits by riding, buying a car, or just driving more.

There’s still a lot of virus going round

ACT authorities are still recording over a 1,000 COVID-19 cases a day. While for most, catching the virus is relatively mild event, there are still a good number of people, who, not unreasonably, wish to minimise the risks of transmission in the confined environment of a bus or tram. Mandatory facemasks help reduce some of these perceived risks, but it is likely that some people are forgoing PT altogether while transmission remains high.

Service levels aren’t back to normal

PTCBR has been quite vocal about the fact that Transport Canberra buses are still operating on the COVID-19 timetable with reduced peak hour frequencies. While Transport Canberra has given PTCBR some assurances there is sufficient capacity, waiting half an hour between buses, instead of 15 or 20 minutes, means that for some people PT is a less attractive option.

Reduced services aren’t the whole story, as numbers are also down on light rail, which is still running a full timetable. But good, frequent and reliable services remain the best way to encourage people onto PT. As an example, Hobart recently had 5 weeks of free public transport: passenger numbers were up 15%, but there were significant complaints of cancellations and poor services, raising the question of whether those passengers would stay when fares returned to normal. Transport Canberra’s original 7 day timetable in 2019 had a lot of promise, and PTCBR continues to urge them to do everything they can to restore services to that level.