October 7, 2020

The Bee Card Phenomenon

While it’s likely not as big a deal to Manawatū commuters as the Turbos or New Zealand First, the Bee Card is absolutely the most important ad displayed on a bus – from the perspective of the buses that the ads are displayed on, at least.

From 20 July, the Horizons Regional Council (a reskin of the old Manawatū-Whanganui council) adopted the Bee Card as its premier fare collection system. Regional councils up and down both islands are hopping on to the Bee Card scheme – Northland, Bay of Plenty, Otago and several more, and expect that list to grow in the coming years. It’s almost always cheaper than cash, and you’ll be able to use your one card in any of the participating districts, no questions asked. It’s the hottest thing in the national public transit scene since Auckland got their sleek new AM class electric multiple unit trains. It’s a big deal, in short.

It’s been a rough run for the New Zealand public transit nerd. There are no bus schedules, only bus suggestions. Passenger rail, in those cities lucky enough to have it, are basic and currently stuck in governmental limbo. The proud tram has been reduced to a tourist trap. There is only one cable car in the whole country. The ancient London Underground and convoluted New York Subway feels like futuristic, sci-fi, utopian infrastructure to those of us still living in the past – quite literally; I’m writing this sentence as I wait for my bus that should have been here half an hour ago.

And even if the buses ran on atomic clocks, it’s not like they’d instantly become efficient. Palmerston North’s network of circular bus routes means they never come at nice, even intervals; swimmers at the Lido Aquatic Centre can see two buses pass by in five minutes and then none for the next hour. And, even though we students love our free fares, do we love them enough to make use of the 70-plus buses that leave campus every single weekday? It’s just so strange.

For example, let’s pretend you live out in Highbury and you have just missed your 7:55 bus from Pembroke Street going into town. It’s crazy to believe, but you would get to work quicker if you walked, instead of waiting for the next bus arriving 20 minutes later. Google Maps estimates it would take you around 35 minutes to walk to the Square – you could grab a coffee and watch what would have been your bus roll into the Main Street Terminal at 8:35. And this isn’t cherry picking either; this is at peak times on weekday mornings. If it were later that afternoon, you’d be waiting twice as long for your next bus!

But the Bee Card is hopefully one small improvement for our darling shared vehicles. Whenever you scan your card on the bus, data is electronically recorded regarding where and when you get on and off. Margaret Parfitt, of the Nelson Regional Council, explains; “Previously the data we collected told us how far patrons travelled but not from where and to where. This will assist us in planning and provision of better public transport in the future.” Councils will have a better understanding of where their bus passengers actually go, and where to put those buses to get them there.

To see how the experience of catching the bus had changed forever, I ordered my own Bee Card to see how it all works. For an as-yet-undefined time period, they’re free to grab online or from your bus driver, or even from the Horizons Regional Council building on Victoria Avenue.

I visited the Main Street Terminal where all our buses start and end their route. This is a glorious piece of transport infrastructure – a few stops, tens of passengers at any one time, and plenty of good Palmerston North townsfolk all deeply concerned about the huge adjustment to their commutes. This is what they had to say.

“It’s not affecting too much, is it? The card’s just a different colour.” – Sarah.

“It’s a little cheaper. That’s about it.” – Jackson.

“I’m a student, so I haven’t bothered to get the new card just yet because it’s still free.” – Ashleigh.

“I don’t care.” – Matt.

The people who organised the changeover are even more invested than the buzzing citizens. Kelly Curry, senior transport planner at Horizons explains that “our ticketing systems were coming to end of life. This joint project provided an opportunity to join together with other councils who were facing the same problem and save costs for the rate payers while providing a solution that would work for our customers. For Horizons, it provides operational efficiencies through faster loading times and reduction in cash handling requirements.”

So, what actually changes for the bus rider? You hold your card up to the reader, you ride the bus, you put the card on the reader again as you leave. No need to talk to the bus driver (although you should always thank them on your way out), no coins, no tickets, no mess. It’s simple, but it’s strangely satisfying.

And if you somehow aren’t keen on the Bee Card yet, just paying in cash still works too.