All Buses Stay Half-Price as Services Slashed By 30%

All Buses Stay Half-Price as Services Slashed By 30%

This sounds like a grim Briscoes ad

Bus fares in Ōtepoti Dunedin will remain at a dollar until January 31 next year, thanks to the Government extending their half-price public transport scheme. A more urgent problem is emerging, however: a driver shortage that is leading to sweeping service cancellations, causing grief for student commuters. 

Minister of Finance Grant Robertson announced last Sunday that, along with the fuel tax cut, half-price public transport would be extended until January 31st 2023. Some student commuters were thrilled. Law student Megan told Critic Te Arohi: “I’m stoked, it’s going to save me a bunch of money in the long run.” Another student quipped that “That’d be handy if I used the bus,” while another said that they were “not convinced” and that “the buses in Dunedin are still shit.”

Not helping this perception of “shit” buses was an announcement from the Otago Regional Council (ORC) on the 12th of July that weekday bus timetables would be slashed, beginning last week. Citing a shortage of bus drivers, the ORC cut services by around 30%, with many half-hourly routes being cut to hourly. Initially, the earliest run times were cut entirely, meaning most bus commuters wouldn’t be able to get to work or Uni before 8am. A backlash from these early-birds led to a partial backtrack from the ORC, who reinstated early start times on 16 local routes just two days after the initial announcement. Transport manager Doug Rodgers told the Otago Daily Times that the reduced timetable would be in place for “at least a month.”

Mayor Aaron Hawkins, a regular bus commuter himself, said that the changes were “unhelpful at a time when we're trying to talk to our community about making improvements to the service”, but added that he didn’t blame the bus drivers or the ORC for the disappointing situation. The Otago Disabled Students Association (ODSA) was one such disappointed party; they told Critic Te Arohi that it was “tough, as for some members of the disabled community there aren’t other options for travel.”

So what’s behind this critical shortage of bus drivers? Qualified drivers were in demand even before the pandemic, and post-Covid labour shortages have meant this problem has only gotten worse. Bus drivers have also been badly hit by germs, with spiking levels of Covid-19, flu and other illnesses. Pay and work conditions may also be a factor in the driver shortage, as it was in Wellington last year, when drivers went on strike while conditions and pay were renegotiated. According to the ODT, with the tourism industry slowly recovering, many drivers are ditching public transport and returning to private jobs in the tourism industry for “better pay and better hours”. 

The ORC failed to respond to Critic Te Arohi for this piece, but have said previously that they are actively recruiting new bus drivers, in a longer-term effort to alleviate the shortage. Could be a better side hustle than trying to hawk off those “designer sneakers” on Marketplace, anyway. 

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2022.
Posted 6:02pm Monday 25th July 2022 by Elliot Weir.