Less than 3% of New Zealanders Use Public Transport

New Zealand is struggling to get its citizens to use public transport.

This is a significant cause for concern for the country grappling with two major problems

  1. Traffic Congestion
  2. Generation of Greenhouse Emissions.

There is good reason to be worried based on a worrying statistic: Less than 3% of New Zealanders use public transport.

This is drawn from a research report titled: The Rise and Decline of Public Transport in New Zealand and Some Lessons for its Recovery authored by Vince Dravitzki and Tiffany Lester, both consultants in this field.

As per the report, greenhouse gas emissions from transport have continued to increase by roughly 3% year on year since 1990, which offsets gains made in other sectors of the economy.

Public transport service improvements and advertising over the last five to ten years have increased patronage, but historical comparisons show that this patronage is barely one-third of pre-1950s levels even though the population has more than doubled.

Report: The Rise and Decline of Public Transport in New Zealand and Some Lessons for its Recovery

To solve this problem, New Zealand has often looked at other countries with working public transport systems and assessed them to see whether that could be replicated back home.

But could the answer be lying back home? A look at New Zealand’s public transport history is the first step in understanding the causes of the country’s low uptake of public transport.

The 1950s

The report notes that public transport in New Zealand was excellent and sustainable before the 1950s until regulations that constrained car uptake over the previous two decades were lifted.

Then the 1950s was, briefly, a period of great wealth in New Zealand, and private car ownership and use increased rapidly. By the end of the decade the goal of British and US carmakers for the Western World of “a car for every household” was in New Zealand close to being achieved.

REPORT: The Rise and Decline of Public Transport in New Zealand and Some Lessons for its Recovery

At around this time, there were significant changes to the country’s public transport systems. All cities except Wellington ditched their tram systems in favour of buses. At first, the cities displayed a preference for trolleybuses which were then replaced by motor buses.

The paper points out failing to reinvest in the tram systems, which were approximately 50 years old, was a poor choice because the cities were outgrowing the existing lines.

The lower costs of operating buses as a public means of transport is cited as a reason the authorities decided against reinventing the tram systems that worked so well for New Zealand before the 1920s.

In short, failure to invest in its public transport systems to match the cities’ growth rates and the emergence of the private car are some of the main reasons why New Zealand’s public transport started to decline.

Tech as a Solution

The New Zealand government recognizes the low uptake of public transport is a problem.

Peter Mersi, the Chief Executive of New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport in a report titled: Public Transport 2045: A Working Paper on Urban Transport in The Shared Mobility Era notes that public transport accounts for less than 5% of trips, including short trips (2km or less).

The report notes;

  • Private cars are the dominant means of transport in New Zealand cities and towns.
  • Over 90% of households in the country own at least one car while the majority own two or three.

This puts pressure on infrastructure in urban areas because 85% of New Zealand’s population resides in cities.

However, the government observes that it expects technology to play a huge role in cutting overdependence on private cars based on technological trends in the transport sector over the last decade.

The report further notes;

  • Emerging transport technologies will open up new avenues for New Zealand citizens travelling in the nation’s cities in the future.
  • These technologies, the paper foreshadows, will present a wide range of options and make public transport in urban areas more convenient to suit various needs, preferences and budgets.

Social Exclusion

The fact that many New Zealand citizens can afford their own cars is breeding social exclusion, as captured by a report titled Transport Related Social Exclusion in New Zealand: Evidence and Challenges authored by Emily Rose, Karen Witten and Timothy McCreanor.

The paper finds that the trickle effect of this is that alternative means of transport do not meet the needs of the people creating barriers in education, work, sports, social activities and leisure, and accessing essential goods and services in New Zealand.

With this background in mind, let us look at the different modes of public transport in New Zealand.

Modes of Public Transport

Despite the low uptake of public transport in New Zealand, a substantial population still depends on public transport, especially in urban areas.

Those who depend on public transport the most include citizens who are not gainfully employed, students, low earners and environment-conscious citizens.

The main modes of public transport include buses, taxis, trains and ferries.


Bus transport is the most popular form of public transit across New Zealand. Buses are often the major or only means of transport in cities like Christchurch, Dunedin and Hamilton.

A unique aspect of bus transport in New Zealand is that this service is contracted to private companies. The largest of such companies is NZ Bus which operates under different names in Auckland and Wellington.

Single tickets and multiple-ride passes can be bought at train stations or online.

Auckland accepts smartcard payments for bus services through the AT Hop Card, which is integrated to be acceptable across various modes of public transport in the city.

Intercity, a state-owned company, is the only firm that offers long-distance travel to all the major New Zealand cities.

An important thing to note is that New Zealand is split into two islands which means travelling on intercity routes implies an interisland ferry ride. However, the ticket cost is inclusive of the ferry ride when a traveller rides with Intercity (the bus company).

Bus transport is recommended for long-distance travel in New Zealand because rail takes much longer.

Data Corner

According to Roger Jones, the CTO for Auckland Transport, New Zealand, the organization is looking to use Big Data to gamify its public transport, including buses.

Gamification is simply the use of game elements in a non-gaming context to achieve a specific goal. In the case of New Zealand, this includes incentivizing commuters to schedule their journeys in advance so that planning can be done and potential traffic jams are reduced.

The gaming aspect can also be used to encourage commuters not to litter when travelling in buses

The plan also includes exploring how citizens can be connected to allow for real-time monitoring such that friends can know where their pals are.

Gamifying will help us with this…but it’s also about new data sources. If you’re going to get to AI and start making automated decisions, you need more information.

Roger Jones, the CTO for Auckland Transport, New Zealand


The state-owned Kiwi Rail runs both passenger and freight trains in New Zealand.

The company offers long-distance services across the North Island and the upper section of the South Island.

Tickets for these train services are bought at train stations or online.

Single tickets can be purchased when a passenger is boarding a train, except in Auckland, where the policy is that tickets must be bought in advance.

Conversely, Auckland also offers the AT Hop smart card for rail services.

Auckland and Wellington are the only cities with suburban rail systems that have attracted patronage and substantial investment in previous years.

Data Corner

According to Roger Jones, the CTO for Auckland Transport in Auckland, New Zealand, the organization is tapping Big Data Analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) to enhance safety in public train transport.

In an interview with 7 Data, Mr Jones observed that all trains are equipped with Closed Circuit Television Cameras (CCTV) to help meet this objective but stressed that data is useless if not vetted and used appropriately.

There’s about a terabyte of data that comes off all of those trains every month. It’s a lot of data to go through and work out what you need to keep and what you don’t.



Different taxi companies operate in various New Zealand cities and towns.

For traditional taxi transport, cabs are readily available on the street, mostly at taxi stands from where commuters can hail them.

Some operators also offer taxi services that commuters can book online or through a hotline.

Digital ride-hailing apps are widely used in urban areas in New Zealand.

The apps with the biggest presence include Zoomy, Ola and Uber.

Data Corner

According to an article dubbed The Distinct Impact of Big Data Analytics in Transport & Logistics published by Monsterlab, Big Data plays a huge role in taxi transport to predict demand at a time when matching the right vehicle supply to supposedly erratic demand surges is a major challenge.

But with the aid of rich data and analytics, service providers can take a look at historical customer data accumulated over years of operations, dissect and process it, and eventually be able to predict the exact time frames for commuter surges even including the most frequented passenger hotspots. Thus, enabling the deployment of enough vehicles on the ground to fully satisfy demand without sacrificing serviceability in other areas of coverage.

ARTICLE: The Distinct Impact of Big Data Analytics in Transport & Logistics


KiwiRail, the state-owned agency, operates three vessels that make trips regularly across the Cook Strait between Picton on the South Island and Wellington on the North Island.

Strait Shipping Limited, a private company, also offers ferry services through Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry.

Riding on a ferry in New Zealand takes approximately three hours. The ferries transport all manner of goods, including cars, cattle and equipment.

The ferries have improved their onboard services to include WiFi connectivity, play areas for children and restaurants.

Data Corner

A report titled Developing a National Measure for Predictable Public Transport: Bus, Rail and Ferry authored by S Rashidi, L Schmitt, P Ranjitkar et al. explains how Big Data is being deployed to improve ferry transport in New Zealand.

The ferry operator noted the use of automatic identification system (AIS) which uses GPS-based broadcasting for marine traffic.

Report: Developing a National Measure for Predictable Public Transport: Bus, Rail and Ferry

Closer to Home

It is always good to look at what other countries are doing right and adopt that to work for you.

As noted by Vince Dravitzki and Tiffany Lester, the best solutions to combat traffic congestion and environmental pollution likely lie much closer to home.

For starters, the history and evolution of public transport in the country ought to be analyzed. That would be step one.

Step two would be to look at current data, which will also offer great insight into the problem and how best to work around it.

The two-step solution will set New Zealand on the right path.