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Bus route planning – a challenging balancing act

The significant changes proposed to buses in central Auckland, plus my recent blog posts about how to improve bus flow through the city centre have highlighted to me what a challenging balancing act it must be for people whose job it is to improve the bus route network. That said, it’s also an incredibly important job, as Auckland’s current network has a huge number of inefficiencies, areas of duplication, areas of poor service, areas of overly long routes and so forth – all put together they produce a bus network map that does look like someone’s thrown spaghetti at a wall.

But this is not just an Auckland problem. Large parts of Sydney’s bus network are pretty difficult to make sense out of too:

That red route – the 473 – could hardly take a more indirect and slow route through Bardwell Park and Turrella if it tried. This is an example of a somewhat unbalanced approach to bus network planning, where all the emphasis is on getting the most people within a few minutes walk of the bus route – at the sacrifice of the speed and attractiveness of the route for people who have a choice between catching the bus and driving.

I suppose this is the most obvious balancing act when it comes to planning bus networks: the trade-off between speed and accessibility. You obviously want as many people to have access to the bus as possible, but at the same time you also obviously want to ensure the bus ride is not painfully slow. An example of something at the other end of the scale might be the Northern Express bus route in Auckland – it’s about as direct and fast as possible, but aside from around Sunnynook station, relatively few people live in close proximity to the route – meaning that there’s a reliance on park and ride stations, plus feeder buses.

A second trade-off is between network complexity and simplicity. How many different routes and route variations do you want? On the positive side of complexity is the ability to offer targeted products to what the demand might be: a slower and less direct route serving more places in the off-peak, express routes, peak direction only routes and so forth. But on the down side of that, the map and system can become very difficult to make sense out of – and public transport just becomes “too hard” to bother with. Not that I have much experience of it, but the bus network to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs does seem to have a particularly high level of complexity to it:
You have a bunch of normal routes, some routes beginning with X, some routes highlighted as pre-pay only, some routes beginning with L. And even then within the “normal routes” you have a bunch of very similar routes (for example the 372, 373, 374, 376 and 377) that by in large follow the same route – except for slight variations near their terminus.

That’s not to say you can’t go too far in the other direction as well – over-simplifying the network. While I would generally consider Auckland’s bus network to be over-complicated, some of that complexity has a useful purpose – like express and short-running buses on Dominion Road, or peak services that do extend to parts of the city (for example, Chatswood on the North Shore) that wouldn’t have the ridership to justify an all-day service. While I generally support the simplification process proposed in the changes to buses in the central city – I do wonder whether there’s the opportunity to overlay some peak-time express services (particularly on the 020 route) to give people what they really want at peak times: a fast and reliable service. I’m not quite sure that the 020 will provide that with its detour through Freemans Bay:

A good bus network is largely dependent upon the street network that it has to work around. Possibly the best bus and most effective bus network that I’ve seen is that in Vancouver – enormously aided by its gridded street pattern:


The gridded system enables so many “win-win” outcomes. By running buses along the major corridors (both north-south and east-west) all the routes generally operate in the fastest possible way, but they’re close enough together to ensure that everyone’s within a few minutes walk of a bus stop. So we solve that speed versus accessibility issue. We also solve the complexity issue because the routes are simple and easy to understand – they go along a particular road for most of their journey. Even if there are variations (express services or some variation from branching close to the route’s terminus) these are fairly easy to understand because the vast majority of the route is simple.

It’s not surprising that Auckland’s bus system seems most successful and effective in parts of the city with a street pattern that most clearly follows what’s in Vancouver. By contrast, the street pattern in the eastern isthmus makes a legible bus network nigh on impossible (although I’m sure we can improve on the incomprehensible mess that’s currently there.

There are of course many other issues to balance. Do we have stops further apart (faster journeys) or closer together (shorter walk to the bus stop)? Do we have long routes (allowing a lot of trip possibilities on the one route), or shorter routes (probably improved reliability)? And of course the big question – do we design a system that seeks to avoid transfers, or do we design a system that takes advantage of the benefits offered by transfers? Each has their pros and cons.

Clearly there’s no single best way to design a bus network in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly improve on what we’ve got in Auckland. If you look at Auckland’s bus network it generally doesn’t seem to have got the balance right: it’s overly and unnecessarily complex – seemingly a relic of 1970s thinking which was “the more routes the better”. Furthermore, I tend to think that Auckland’s bus network doesn’t get the balance right when it comes to speed versus accessibility either – with a few exceptions such as the Northern Express route, it seems as though the bus network has been designed with the assumption that it’s only there to serve people who can’t afford to drive or aren’t able to. It puts accessibility too far ahead of speed – meaning that we end up with a huge number of very very slow and windy bus routes.

A lot of the problems with Auckland’s network are historic – based on assumptions that buses are only there to serve those with no choice, based on extremely poor integration with the rail system and generally based on a desire to avoid transfers at all costs. While we must be careful not to go the other way too far – and I think many routes could handle increased stopping pattern complexity (i.e. more express services and short-runners rather than all buses having the same stopping pattern) – overall to give the network a better balance we should be aiming to simplify and to speed things up.

13 comments to Bus route planning – a challenging balancing act

  • Rich

    -In the Vancouver case, another way to put it is that “the “bus arteries” are placed in an accessible way”. The first Sydney problem could be “solved” by simply decreeing (!) that a more direct route (e.g. a route along Darley Rd, John St etc) have more busses on it.

    The obvious issue is that the people cannot be moved to live along certain streets, but busses can.

    -Perhaps even busses need a hierarchy.

  • Stranded on the North Shore

    A quick look at the map appears to me that 473 is a rail feeder bus. I don’t see any problem with this. Once we have integrated ticket with integrated transfers (eg. one that doesn’t penalise people for transferring), then we will need more buses like this. AT will need to setup a “spine” network (NEX, rail, B-lines), and then rest of the buses should be simply feeding into the “spine”. Interesting that Rich mentions Vancouver, as that’s exactly how it’s done there!!!

  • I would be happy, for starters, if all buses who share the same destination all stop at the same bus stops en-route so there would not be the incomprehensible madness that is the K Road bus stop configuration if you want to hop on a bus to Britomart.

  • My ideal route for the inbound 020 (which I will be using) would be to turn right onto Ponsonby from Richmond, then left onto Hopetoun (with stops outside Auckland Girls Grammar and near the old ARC) and through to Vincent / Albert. Theres the least amount of traffic that way. If Hopetoun can’t be done, carry on down K Rd and turn left into Pitt St. This will be a good connector between K Rd and Downtown when combined with 030 services.

    Under no circumstances should it follow the current 028 route and go through the tedious Union / Nelson intersection.

  • DF

    There’s no reason why the 020 shouldn’t be routed through Hopetoun — that’s the same route that the 45 express takes now.

  • Miggle

    Most of Auckland’s bus maps would be far simplied (and more useful) if all of the peak only routes were shifted to a seperate map.

  • Ross Clark

    One thing that Auckland does get right, compared with even Wellington? Consistent bus route numbering.

    This is a small point in the scheme of things, but it does help, when you are learning a bus system, that 100-buses are Ponsonby and points west, 200 are Mt Albert, and so on.

    In time you could have integrated route numbering, which I have seen in one European city:

    * single-digit for the core lines of the system, such as the rail links and the Busway

    * two-digit for the main bus services

    *three-digit for everything else.

    Views?

    • Matt L

      Thats similar to something I have mentioned before. I think the core high frequency routes like Dominion Rd Mt Eden Rd etc should have just a 2 digit number

      • This is definitely the plan in the longer term. Just look at the numbers of some of the newer routes to be introduced: 080, 090, 020 and 030. They have huge potential to be shortened in the future.

        • rtc

          Looking at the map above for central area buses, pretty much all have 2 digit numbering so could be shorted. I wouldn’t be suprised if they’re sticking to 3 digits at the moment because of legacy computing systems which are set up with 3 digits (just a guess).

          I do agree that for many areas between Pt Chev and Ponsonby that rely on the 020, people won’t be so chuffed about its wiggly detour through Wellington street, but I do on the otherhand feel there needs to be a bus route servicing that area.

          • rtc

            by ‘that area’ I mean Freemans Bay/Wellington street etc – it’s an area with A LOT of high density terraced and low rise buildings so would generate a lot of patronage with a frequent bus service in the area.

  • DON FRASER

    My wife collects our grandson every day from preschool, using the Outer Link from Jervios Road to Surrey Crs. The new Outer Link / Metro Link connection at the end of Westmere shops worked well (off one bus onto the one waiting in front).

    We understand local residents have complained (too many buses) so the system has changed. My wife and 4 year old grandson now have to walk 392 meters to the next stop towards Grey lynn to catch the connecting 020. This is a real treat if is raining!

    This to me seems to be a madness – Presumably an empty bus (it stops 392 meters from the shops) that turns around and goes back the route it came!

    It would be interesting to know how many complaints it took to change the system that worked well for the first 2 weeks?

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