Tauranga bus violence: Regional council restricts free fares for students after youth assaults

Free student fares have been curtailed after the worst behavioral incidents a worker has seen in years. Photo/NZME

KEY POINTS:

  • Teenage girls “sell out at night”.
  • Violence on buses is the worst in 22 years.
  • Parents too busy or reluctant to supervise children.
  • Young people use the computers in the library to organize fights.
  • Free bus travel for students is limited.

Free bus fares for students have been reduced in a bid to tackle escalating violence and anti-social behavior on Tauranga’s bus routes – but the installation of driver cages has been rejected.

A bus company boss told a summit today that the abuse of drivers in Tauranga was the worst he had seen and a senior police official said parents were too disengaged or busy working to supervise young troublemakers.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council met with representatives from its contractor NZ Bus, Tauranga City Council, the police and transport agency Waka Kotahi NZ.

Bus drivers reported being racially abused and threatened – prompting a partial boycott of three stops – along with recent reports of street fights, vandalism, underage drinking and assaults on passers-by.

Youths were arrested for allegedly carrying weapons at the Willow St interchange. Another was charged with wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm after allegedly attacking a worker near a major Farm stop St, seriously injuring his eye.

The regional council added extra security at city bus stops on Monday, adding $200,000 to the annual cost of $660,000. Waka Kotahi contributes 51%.

Today it decided to cut free 24/7 fares for school-aged children through peak commuting times after the policy allegedly allowed bad behavior.

Former security guard Chimmyma Kiora Williams said guarding bus stops was more like “social work” than “normal security work”.

While the police were “very good”, they were “understaffed” and often couldn’t come quickly or at all.

“If the police couldn’t come, our security had to try to defuse and manage and try to control it to a certain extent and make those who felt unsafe feel safe. That’ is a lot to do mentally.”

Many of the young people causing trouble were looking to make a connection but found it with older people – including transients – which led them to “drink” and “do drugs”.

Williams said girls aged 15 or 16 “went to school by day and sold themselves by night”. One tearfully confided to Williams that her mother was mentally ill and her father was sexually abusing a vulnerable family member.

“She’s not an isolated problem. I used to come home and say ‘how do we do that’?” said Williams.

Asked about quick fixes, Williams said equipping security guards more with protective vests would help, as would body cameras.

“You don’t need a whole army of people, but whoever you need skills and a place to [youth] can go out [safely].”

Williams said there was a core group of around 15 youngsters causing trouble.

Tauranga’s free buses were part of the problem. Groups of young people used the library’s computers to stage fights at other stops and then took the bus there, she said.

“The free fares have been good for other young people returning home, but there are more who misuse these free fares than those who take advantage of them wisely.”

Support for the city’s “awesome” bus drivers was also needed. “They get so much trash.”

Councilor Matemoana McDonald said Williams’ insight was “worrying” and the situation had evolved into “a period of festering for us”.

“We’re entering a phase where it’s going to get worse if we don’t do anything about it.”

Bay of Plenty Regional Councilor Matemoana McDonald.  Photo/NZME
Bay of Plenty Regional Councilor Matemoana McDonald. Photo/NZME

NZ Bus chief operating officer Jay Zmijewski told the council that in his 22 years of driving and working in the bus industry in New Zealand and Australia he had not seen such regular levels of abuse and violence directed at drivers and buses.

Zmijewski said bus routes often had to be canceled because the driver was still traumatized by an incident days before. There was a risk that some would quit.

“I still remember the effects of anti-social behavior when I was a bus driver. It makes your stomach sick.”

Vandalism happened daily with cut and burnt seats, melted window laminates and graffiti “inside and out”.

Regional council chairman Doug Leeder said Zmijewski’s comments were a “sad indictment” of Tauranga’s situation.

Councilor Jane Nees asked Zmijewski for her views on potential interim responses such as safety cages for drivers, random police checks for troublemakers or incognito guards to help if a situation escalates.

Regional Council President Doug Leeder.  Photo/NZME
Regional Council President Doug Leeder. Photo/NZME

Zmijewski replied, “At the end of the day, our drivers don’t want to be in cages – all of that ‘we’ll put our driver in a jail cell because we can’t handle what’s happening on the other side of the closing “. I hope I think that would be a very last resort.”

He supported the other suggestions.

Western Bay of Plenty Police Area Commander Inspector Clifford Paxton said council parents were a key part of the problem.

“[A] thing that seems to be driving this is the parents having to work long hours to pay the rent, put food on the table. They [the youths] just don’t get the supervision they should get.

“Some parents have abdicated that responsibility.”

Paxton supported the reduction in free hours, which he said had an impact on bad behavior. He cited key assembly times of around 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Western Bay of Plenty Police Area Commander Inspector Clifford Paxton.  Photo/NZME
Western Bay of Plenty Police Area Commander Inspector Clifford Paxton. Photo/NZME

A long-term plan was also needed, he said.

“I have no doubt that this group can be pressured and slowed down but there will be another one that will prevail.”

Paxton said responsibility for anti-social behavior at bus stops was shared by parents, the community, councils and the police.

The council’s chief infrastructure officer, Nic Johanson, said he was adding safety features such as lighting to the new CBD bus interchange on Durham St.

But he would not commit to sharing the regional council’s security costs – a decision the regional council will formally ask the city council to reconsider.

The city council is responsible for bus infrastructure and the regional council is responsible for bus services.

Johanson said, “Many of our employees are passionate about this and we will do everything we can. We strive to explain all the initiatives we are taking to make it safe for the traveling public.”

Leeder told Paxton he had the backing of the regional council to get greater resources from the New Zealand Police if he needed them.

Free tariff restrictions are a “tragedy”

Tauranga’s free 24/7 bus trial for school-aged children has been limited to a few hours a day after reports it allowed violent and anti-social behavior on buses and at stops.

It started in 2019 after lobbying by parents and as a congestion relief measure.

Today, the regional council voted to allow free travel only between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. every day.

The changes will come into effect from June 4.

Councilor Jane Nees suggested contingencies include a review after three months and exploring ways to support schools and families who may struggle with new bus costs.

“Because we haven’t consulted on this, as far as the public is concerned, it’s going to be a big shock to those who have come to rely on this…because of a small number of young people, there has families and their children who are going to be disadvantaged.”

In March 2021, 157,107 children used the Tauranga bus network. In March 2022, that number was 122,086.

Advisers described the restriction as a “tragedy” and a sad, unintended consequence of a well-meaning lawsuit.

The regional council has also agreed to enter into discussions with the agencies regarding long-term solutions.

Elna M. Lemons