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by Greta Yeoman

The next stage of transforming Timaru’s public transport system is under way, but the full roll-out of any new services may still be two years away, Environment Canterbury representatives say.

Last Thursday, Environment Canterbury (ECan) announced it had selected a provider to undertake a feasibility study into proposed “on-demand” transport services in Timaru.

This would be undertaken by New York-based ride-sharing app company Via.

ECan public transport senior manager Stewart Gibbon

The suggested change would shift the town’s public transport services away from large buses on fixed routes and timetables to a more flexible service, using smaller, wheelchair-accessible vans, which people could book via phone or an app, ECan’s public transport senior manager Stewart Gibbon said.

But he was quick to clarify that any modified transportation system would not affect school bus services in the district.

It was hoped the change to the town’s public transport system would increase patronage, as the number of bus users had been steadily declining over the years, he said. However, any changes needed to be made with the support of current bus users, as well as new passengers.

“[Our next step is about] how do we design a service to capture more of the community?”

While most cities use Via as one option for transport around town – such as services offered in New York, Singapore, Berlin, Los Angeles and Sydney – other cities, including the town of Arlington in Texas, in the United States, have chosen Via as the city’s sole bus-style transport provider.

Community consultation to come

ECan’s public transport senior manager Stewart Gibbon expects the first community consultation phase could start in November and be completed by March next year. However, the format of the consultation process is still unclear.

A “key point” of the consultation would be what people were prepared to pay for different levels of service, but ECan would make sure – as public transport was a public operation, not a commercial one – that prices were affordable, he said.

The wider research phase will include a two-day visit to Australia next month by a delegation of ECan and Timaru District Council staff.

The group will travel to Newcastle and Sydney, in New South Wales, to observe how on-demand services operate there.

The ride-share service was also adopted in Queenstown, under the name Savy, last year.

The scheme, which is a partnership between Via and nationwide bus company Go Bus, offers an alternative to the Otago Regional Council-subsidised Orbus public transport system, managed by Ritchies.

South Canterbury ECan councillor Peter Scott said the council expected the full implementation of a new service – following research and consultation and a trial phase of any proposed service – would not happen for about two years.

The Timaru-focused consultation follows on from ECan’s Canterbury-wide request for submissions on its regional public transport plan last month, which mentioned proposed changes for Timaru.

However, Mr Gibbon said he did not know how many submissions had been received from Timaru residents or the contents of the local submissions regarding the plan.

Mr Scott said he expected plenty of interest in the process from across New Zealand, because it would make Timaru the first New Zealand town to solely rely on ride-sharing for public transportation.

“I think there will be a lot of people looking at what we’re doing here.”

ECan’s South Canterbury manager Justin McLauchlan agreed.

“[It is] a very exciting time for South Canterbury.”