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Don’t forget the public transport users

We are heading for an interesting situation in the next few months along Dominion Road, as plans to improve the bus system along that road are further developed. As I noted in a fairly recent post, Auckland Council’s transport committee has specifically requested that median bus lanes be analysed as the potential solution for providing far better public transport along the road. At the same time, the council is also worried about effects of the road upgrade on businesses and residents in the area – quite justifiably so. To refresh our memories, here’s the resolution the council passed at last month’s transport committee meeting: I guess one of the inherent problems with improving public transport at the street level (rather than building super-expensive underground rail systems which probably isn’t the best solution for this corridor even if money wasn’t a problem) is that you’re always going go have competing interests for the road space. For every winner there will be a loser, as you increase the amount of roadspace dedicated to public transport you will have to decrease the space available for general traffic – or remove parking spaces or you will have to take more land. If you also want to provide cycle lanes then that’s further land you need to take or further parking you need to remove or further general road space you need to reallocate away from cars.

Probably the most helpful first thing to do in such a situation is recognise the conflicts between the different groups who want to use the space for their purposes. There’s not really much point trying to please everyone as that’s simply impossible – the goal should be to prioritise what you really want to prioritise and try to ensure effects on everyone else are minimised to as great an extent possible. Where there are “win-win” options available, you should take them – but I think it’s unrealistic in the case of Dominion Road to think the upgrade will provide better public transport priority, cycle lanes, on-street parking and more roadspace for cars. Without bulldozing a 60 metre wide corridor through the heart of the Auckland isthmus such an outcome is simply not possible. So we need to prioritise and ask ourselves a few tricky questions:

  1. How important is improving public transport priority against maintaining or increasing the existing number of general traffic lanes?
  2. Where do we really need on-street parking to support local businesses? Where does on-street parking rarely get used? Where are there good alternatives?
  3. Is Dominion Road the best route for a north-south cycleway connection across the Auckland isthmus? If Dominion Road simply isn’t possible as the main route, what other nearby routes could act as a reasonable replacement?
  4. What parts of the road can widening be undertaken without tremendous cost and/or community effects? What parts of the road are much more sensitive to any widening and need to be retained at their current width?

As you can probably guess, in such situations clearly not everyone is going to be happy with the outcome. If it’s decided that Dominion Road simply doesn’t have enough room for cycle lanes along with everything else, then cycling advocates will be grumpy with the outcome and quite legitimately so too. If on-street parking needs to be removed in some places then business owners will probably not like that. If public transport priority needs to be cut back in certain areas then that will have an impact on bus travel times, which needs to be recognised as well.

Auckland’s not the only city in the world struggling with situations like these. The “K Street Transitway” in Washington DC that I blogged about the other day has been delayed for many years and remains highly controversial. Efforts to build a similar (though not identical as the transitway is on one side of the road rather than down the middle) project for buses along 34th Street in New York City have also been difficult to implement. I guess if the upside of bus projects like these is their far lower cost compared to rail projects, the down side is the difficulty in making them become a reality as for some reason community opposition often tends to be quite significant.

The excellent “Second Avenue Sagas” blog has a recent post on the difficulties faced in implementing the 34th Street Transitway. In particular the blog post focuses on the (often irrational) opposition the project faces. To get our bearings, here’s an image of what the Transitway is proposed to look like: The buses that use 34th street in New York City carry over 40,000 riders a day and the current lack of bus priority measures mean that these crosstown buses are amongst the slowest anywhere in the city. So there’s clearly a need for the project in terms of speeding travel up for a vast number of people. But that hasn’t  stopped there being some huge opposition to the transitway project, as the blog post explains:

In reality, improving bus service — a laudable goal in New York City where buses are known not for speed but for their snail’s pace — riles up a vocal minority of residents who feel threatened by improvements to what they view as a second-class means of transportation. It brings out the worst in NIMBYism and leaves planners struggling to defend clear improvements they shouldn’t have to struggle to defend.

Over the last few years, Community Board members have come up with every excuse in the book to bemoan the Transitway. The underlying complaint — one that doesn’t come out much anymore — involves direct car access to buildings. Originally, residents complained that taxis wouldn’t be able to provide door-to-door service if the Transitway removed two lanes of traffic. When that sounded selfish, residents started talking about the blight a row of buses would cause (as opposed to, say, bumper-to-bumper traffic). They talked about how the Transitway would be bad for trees, how emergency vehicles would get stuck on 34th St., how unsupervised children would stray into the path of an oncoming bus. You name it; they said it.

While I have more sympathy for local businesses along Dominion Road and their complaints than I do for those along 34th Street in NYC, there are similarities in terms of how difficult it can be to give effect to projects like this (it remains to be seen to what extent the huge community opposition to the previous iteration of the Dominion Road upgrade was as a result of the stupid decision to make the bus lanes T2 lanes).

I don’t have a problem with people raising objections to big transport projects. In fact, it has often been the silencing of those objectors which has led to some of the worst transport decisions being made (like all of the freeways Robert Moses bulldozed through New York or the bulldozing of many Auckland suburbs to build vast motorway junctions). However, in the case of public transport improvements there tends to be a voice completely missing from the debate – and it’s actually a very important voice.

The public transport users.

In the case of the 34th Street Transitway, many potential users come from outside Manhattan but it would seem they’ve largely been ignored in the debate over whether the project should proceed. This issue is picked up on in another New York based transport blog – this time Cap’n Transit:

If you read pro-transit blogs and tweets, you would know that the buses contain thousands of bus riders: about 33,000 trips per day. Apparently there has been some representation of these riders by the Straphangers Campaign, but the meetings seem to be completely dominated by people who identify as either drivers or taxi riders.

Other than the Department of Transportation staff themselves, no one has acknowledged that the majority of these riders don’t even live in Manhattan. There are more than twenty express bus routes from central and eastern Queens, and a little bit of southern Brooklyn, that bring thousands of riders into Midtown every day. They travel down the Long Island Expressway through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, west on 34th Street, north on Third or Sixth Avenue, east on 57th Street, back across the Queensboro Bridge, and down Queens Boulevard…

…There have been at least five meetings about this project in Midtown Manhattan, but to my knowledge there have been no meetings in Queens. There is a Community Advisory Committee for the project, but are there any representatives from Fresh Meadows or Bayside? I certainly haven’t heard from them in the news, the blogs or the Twitter feeds.

In the debate over Dominion Road, once again the quietest voice seemed to be that of the bus rider. I’ve heard that at peak times over half the number of people travelling along the Dominion Road corridor are on the bus – and these people are the ones who will benefit most from the public transport improvements. But where is their voice? Who is asking the bus riders what they think of various options to improve public transport along Auckland’s busiest bus route? When Auckland City Council made the decision to prefer T2 lanes rather than bus lanes along Dominion Road, did they ask any bus riders what they might think?

In the middle of the debate last year, a few fellow public transport advocates and myself handed out flyers at the bus stop in the CBD where Dominion Road buses leave, encouraging bus users to write in and “save the bus lanes”. A number of people were very interested in the whole thing once I’d explained it to them, but in general I realised that the demographic that catches buses along Dominion Road: highly ethnically diverse, often students, sometimes with relatively poor English, hardly seemed the type to make their voice heard loudest on such an issue.

So, bringing this all together, my point is that in all transport debates (and when it comes to bus improvements that inevitably take road space away from others there will be loud debates) it would seem that a very important voice often gets ignored – or is barely heard. That voice belongs to the bus rider, the person who often puts up with exceedingly slow and long trips to work or university because of a lack of PT priority. They probably don’t have hundreds of dollars to print off leaflets, the time to organise petitions, the confidence or language skills to stand up at council meetings and put forward their case. But they are a very important player in the transport debate and we should make sure their voice is heard. We must not forget the public transport users.

8 comments to Don’t forget the public transport users

  • Matt L

    I agree, PT users often seem to be completely forgotten about and those excuses used by opponents in New York are all to common over here as well.

  • Glen K

    A focus on the residents (or commercial tenants) seems to be a perennial problem everywhere when an arterial road project is being considered that may potentially advantage motorists, bus passengers, or cyclists who use the route. It’s easier for a Council to deliver information and seek feedback from those who live in the area affected, but of course many of the users of the route come from much further afield. I’ve even seen Community Board meetings focus very strongly on where project submitters came from, with an underlying insinuation that those who don’t actually live in the area are “less valid” (well, perhaps their votes are less valid in the eyes of the local politician…).

    When it comes to an arterial route however, I think the rules (unwritten or otherwise) need to change. You chose to live or have your shop on an arterial road and so (in an ideal world at least) you are accepting that the priority of the corridor is for movement, not access, e.g. on-street parking is a privilege not a right there. Unfortunately in NZ we still have far too many mixed-hierarchy corridors, and wonder why we can never resolve this movement-access conflict.

    One point about the statement that (if necessary) you could shift a cycleway connection to a parallel street. That only works for those longer-distance riders who don’t have an origin/destination along Dominion Rd. So if you make Dom Rd virtually impossible to cycle on, you’re disenfranchising those who wish to access its houses and shops by bike, except for the hardiest urban road warrior. Although that may seem to contradict my previous paragraph, I’m assuming that (regardless of the solution chosen) motorists will still be able to access places on Dom Rd (with off-st parking at least). Bikes should be able to as well.

  • Yes, there are sticky issues here. However, didn’t Auckland previously have an extensive tram network? The sky didn’t fall in then, why should it fall in now.
    The problem people seem to have are:

    1. The construction
    2. They dominance of their car on their road is suddenly taken away by a bigger, larger, more prioritised, more obvious vehicle, the car user has been put down one rung on the
    transport hierarchy.

  • I would like to see a bigger exploration of the parking issue. Is car parking the best use of space on an arterial road. Why dos car parking have priority over all other users? Donald Shoup on Radio NZ (Sunday 30th) seems to have plenty to say on it.

  • The mind boggles to think we have situations where storing a dozen or so empty vehicles is the best use of road space in a congested corridor.

  • We need to park our cars on the road, immediately outside our destination, because we seem to be losing our ability to walk…?

  • LucyJH

    Am glad to hear you say that we simply can’t fit it all on one road. I keep on talking to people who tell me “Oh yes, we will balance everybody’s interests and provide for all” and I keep being like “WEll, that sounds great but you’re not going to do it without knocking over houses”

  • john

    On lost on street parking: surely there must be research on how important this really is to traders in areas like this. What proportion of their customers are lucky enough to get a park in front of the shop? Pretty small, I would guess.

    The same argument occurs with proposals for clearways through strip shopping centres which carry tramlines in Melbourne.

    On the political voice of winners and losers: the potential losers are concentrated, the potential winners are dispersed. Everything follows from that.

    On where is the voice of the public transport user: a recent example from Sydney is the environmental assessment of the Planned Dulwich Hill light rail line (using a disused goods railway). See http://majorprojects.planning.nsw.gov.au/index.pl?action=view_job&job_id=4097

    Of the 200 odd submissions, hardly any opposed it, but almost all were written from the point of view ‘how can we tweak the details to minimise feared side-effects on the amenity of our local area?’ There were no more than a handful of submissions that had the slightest interest in ‘how can we maximise its usefulness as a public transport service?’

    The major organisations that should have been batting for the public transport user – Sydney Buses and Sydney Cityrail – were missing in action: they wrote perfunctory one page submissions on the lines of ‘jolly good show, keep us informed.’ Pathetic.

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