Taking a ride are ECan MyWay Timaru transport advisor Isabelle Bromham, ECan public transport business services and improvement manager Jeremy Dickson, TDC land transport manager Andrew Dixon, Ritchies corporate services manager Richard O’Keefe, Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon, Labour MP Jo Luxton, ECan public transport senior manager Stewart Gibbon, and Timaru mayor Nigel Bowen.
All eyes are on Timaru as it launches a trial of New Zealand’s first on-demand public transport service.
Environment Canterbury councillor Peter Scott said if successful, the 12-month trial of MyWay by Metro – officially launched when Timaru mayor Nigel Bowen cut the ribbon at an event at the Caroline Bay Hill Piazza on Monday – could see other towns and cities across the country replacing public transport systems with an on-demand model.
“This has a lot of significance for the rest of the country,” Scott said.
“Timaru isn’t the only place where public transport, with big buses rattling around on fixed routes, doesn’t work.
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“The data we can mine from this is just fantastic.”
Public transport is 50 per cent funded by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, 25 per cent through council rates, and the remainder is covered by fares.
But with fares only bringing a 19 per cent return in the South Canterbury town “there wasn’t enough to hold up that end of the bargain”, Scott said.
The new system, which was brought out of its pilot period early to aid those needing public transport for essential travel during lockdown, had seen patronage jump about 40 percent in June.
Scott said the MyWay vans were non-intrusive and useful to a wider range of people, including those needing to get to Timaru Hospital; those travelling to and from restaurants; and school children who usually relied on parents to take them to after-school activities.
“The possibilities are pretty big.”
ECan public transport senior manager Stewart Gibbon said the old and new systems cost about the same to run, but “we’re carrying more people so the benefit is higher for the community”.
ECan public transport business services and improvement manager Jeremy Dickson said the number of people using the vans continued to increase, with 450 people hopping on during its busiest day.
“This is a trial for New Zealand as much as it is for Timaru,” Dickson said.
“We’re stoked with the community’s response. Timaru seems quite forward-thinking and willing to engage with something new, so that makes it a great place to trial something like this.”
Dickson said changes would be made to service throughout the trial.
“Two key things we will be looking at is, are people engaging and can we make it financially viable?”
An issue which had already been identified and fixed was the doors being too heavy for older patrons.
The inability to pre-book had also been raised as an issue. Dickson said people could now book 30 minutes ahead, compared to 10 or 15 minutes previously, but further increases in time would make the service less efficient and cost-effective.
“We’ve had great feedback, though for some people it doesn’t work.”
The system could one day replace school routes and the Timaru Link service, he said.
Timaru District councillor Sally Parker said the new system was “exactly the sort of innovative, effective response we were looking for” when the council “challenged” ECan to address Timaru’s declining use of public transport.
“MyWay by Metro is about connecting our community and I can see from its accelerating patronage numbers, our community understands this too,” Parker said.
“The on-demand service offers more flexibility and reaches a greater geographical area of Timaru, and public transport is now available seven days a week.
“I encourage our community to embrace the change, use public transport, and enjoy the ride.”
Parker said despite the Covid-19 pandemic interrupting the pilot in its fourth of nine weeks, “a lot of learnings had already been gained”.
“The service’s responsiveness was very clear when it was used for essential travel during the lockdown period. Introducing the service and removing the need to run a fleet of large buses to meet the lower demand during the lockdown was a logical move.”
There are five vans operating at all times with an extra one hitting the streets during peak times.