Bus cancellations, reduced services and a lack of priority given to climate goals could put Auckland's emissions targets in jeopardy.
Auckland Council North Shore ward councillor Chris Darby said the current cancellations and proposals in the annual budget could put progress towards emissions reduction targets in reverse.
"We're at risk of driving people back to driving."
An RNZ analysis of bus data showed in Auckland an average of 1000 buses each weekday were cancelled during February. The cancellations were on top of timetables being slashed in late 2022.
Auckland has declared a climate emergency and set ambitious goals to reduce emissions by shifting people out of cars.
The city's climate plan aims to increase public transport use from 7.8 percent of trips to 24.5 percent by 2030 and cut all emissions by 50 percent by 2030.
With Aucklanders struggling to rely on buses, Darby was doubtful this is achievable.
"At this stage, I don't have confidence we're going to hit that unless we front up to some very fundamental issues that we're facing in public transport."
Auckland's plan to reduce emissions calls for 550 million public transport trips per year. Assuming the city's population hits two million by 2030, that's each resident using public transport 250 times a year. Before the pandemic started, Aucklanders were making about 100 million trips a year, roughly 59 trips per person.
Most recent data suggests bus patronage sits at around 80 percent of what it was prior to the pandemic's start.
'Pull every lever'
Auckland's targets for transport emissions are in the Transport Emissions Reduction Pathway (TERP) plan.
"Every single system level lever must be pulled as hard as credibly possible," the TERP says.
With 40 percent of Auckland's greenhouse gas emissions coming from transport, it says the distance travelled by cars needs to be halved by 2030. "Changing the way Aucklanders and visitors get around the region is critical."
But it's easier to spot handbrake-pulling than lever-pulling.
Projects which could speed up the bus network, like bus lanes on New North Road, have been paused. The radical changes needed to meet emission reduction targets appear to be at odds with the wishes of Auckland's new mayor Wayne Brown.
In an open letter sent to Auckland Transport, the council controlled agency responsible for operating Auckland's transport network, Brown made the case for cars.
"You appear to have been focused on changing how Aucklanders live, using transport policy and services as a tool," he wrote. "Aucklanders do not always have the choice of using an e-bike, a bus or even a train but rely on the roading and carparking networks to make their life functional."
In his later letter of expectation, which Auckland Transport is supposed to take into account when developing annual plans, he told the agency its: "decisions must be much more closely informed by how Aucklanders live their lives".
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Climate targets appear to have fallen by the wayside in an update to the Regional Public Transport plan which treated the targets in the TERP as "aspirations".
A document from a workshop for the plan says its forecast estimated only 154m annual public transport trips were achievable by 2031, well short of the 550m target. Interventions to achieve 550m were "high cost, high risk and difficult to achieve in that timeframe".
The document concluded it would leave plans on how to reach targets for the yet-to-be-completed TERP implementation plan, while the Regional Public Transport Plan update would focus "on what is fundable".
Transport commentator Matt Lowrie said Auckland Transport shouldn't treat these as separate.
"They're saying, well we're going to treat that [TERP targets] as effectively not existing. We will go on and do business as usual and then we'll look to how we can implement that later on.
"It just leaves it as addressing climate change is a nice-to-have rather than something that we need to be doing urgently."
The lack of a plan for addressing ambitious climate targets has previously resulted in legal action.
Zoe Brentnall, a board member for Lawyers for Climate Action, helped All Aboard Aotearoa take Auckland Council and Auckland Transport to court for producing a 10-year Regional Land Transport Plan which would increase, not decrease, transport greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent.
This plan was produced against a background of other plans which called for emissions reductions, including the government's policy on land transport.
"Basically every relevant policy or plan produced by the council about transport says we need to reduce emissions, yet here they are signing off on a 10-year plan which would increase emissions," she said.
The committee in charge of Auckland's transport plan was supposed to be satisfied its plan was consistent with government policy. "We said no reasonable decision makers sitting in the committee's shoes could have been satisfied, because it plainly is not consistent."
A High Court judge disagreed. He found that while the government's policy statement identified climate change as a strategic priority, it wasn't the dominant objective.
The group has appealed the decision.
Any hope for the future?
Commuters seem unlikely to be wooed from cars to buses in the near future.
Cancellations are expected to continue until the bus driver shortage is resolved.
Even with a full suite of drivers, Auckland Council's budget woes point to curbs on services.
The council's proposed annual budget for 2023/2024 suggests temporary bus timetable cuts made in late 2022 could become permanent, with Auckland Transport asked to cut $25m. Keeping to the temporary timetable, which means fewer buses for commuters, is expected to save $21m.
Commuters have also been hit with fare increases of between 4 and 40 cents a trip. The increase effective from April has been initially cushioned by half price fares, which are in place until 30 June.
The cost of parking a car in a council-managed space will not increase.
Darby said the current situation puts efforts to reduce emissions in reverse.
"Now we're at risk of seeing a trend back to driving and that cannot be Auckland's future, not when we're looking at 2030 and a 50 percent reduction in our transport emissions."