I have noted in previous posts how many of our long-haul bus routes duplicate the rail network, leading to needlessly wasted money on subsidising buses and trains that compete with each other for passengers. Running all those Howick and Eastern buses right past Panmure station, Ellerslie Station, Greenlane Station, Remuera Station, Newmarket Station, Grafton Station to terminate right next to Britomart station seems a rather pointless exercise in my opinion.
The bus network itself has a large number of inefficiencies – generally resulting from its “branching” structure. A good example of this is to look at buses that pass through Newmarket – fed from a number of parts of Auckland: red being south (4xx routes generally), blue being the southeast (5xx routes for NZ Bus and all Howick & Eastern services), green from Manukau Road (3xx services) and orange from Remuera Road (6xx routes): The overlapping of routes over one another means extremely high frequencies – although often not in a way that’s aligned at all. So you might have no buses for 15 minutes then have seven come along one after the other. It seems that the main cause of this ‘branched’ network is the design of Auckland’s street network , which funnels one road after the next into bottlenecks like Newmarket (or the Harbour Bridge), rather than providing a series of parallel streets on a grid, where routes could be distributed more evenly. You sort of see more of a grid in the western part of the isthmus, but even those parallel roads (Manukau, Mt Eden, Dominion, Sandringham, New North & Great North) come together in bottlenecks of their own – like the top end of Symonds Street.
To get an idea about the number of routes and services that converge along this section of Great South Road and Broadway, I had a dig through MAXX timetable information to come up with the following: I’m not really sure whether Great South Road between Greenlane and Manukau Road generates demand in and of itself to justify a bus every 2 minutes at peak times, or that Khyber Pass generates demand to justify a bus every 40 seconds. I also think the fact that more than 50 different routes pass through these points in a given day is likely to mean there’s little co-ordination between timetables to avoid the vast platooning of buses. And remember, this is in a part of Auckland that’s pretty well served by rail too. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Remuera and Greenlane are two of the least used stations on the network.
In short, the branched route system leads to vast over-provision of services in inner areas, because of the overlapping of so many routes. Now this is great if you’re travelling between town and the hospital for example, but is it really the wisest spend of our transport dollar to be providing such an extremely high number of buses (most of which aren’t express services, and parts of the route have poor priority measures like through Newmarket, so this is no Northern Busway) here? Would we prefer to see that money spent on a high-frequency cross-town services? Cheaper fares? A higher farebox recovery rate so less reliance on subsidy? The low seat utilisation of buses crossing Grafton Bridge seems to reinforce my thinking on this matter.
Of course the main reason why we have so many buses travelling along the inner part of the routes shown above is for capacity (notwithstanding the low seat utilisation). A pretty large chunk of Auckland is served by these routes, which means a lot of people rely on them. But at such high levels of demand, one would think that shifting more people onto trains starts to be a more logical thing to do – especially if the train trip can be much faster for the traveller. For Howick and Eastern passengers headed for the city, transfering to the train at Panmure is going to cut a massive chunk off their travel time, even if they need to wait 5-10 minutes for the train and even if they then need to walk 5-10 minutes from Britomart to their destination. If we can make better use of the capacity that the rail network has (especially post electrification), then we shouldn’t need to run anywhere near this many buses between Greenlane and Grafton Bridge.
So how might we do things differently? As a basic structure, I’ve often thought about the following being a useful start:
- Cut every route south of Manukau City at Manukau, turning them into feeders to the new railway station and a “400” route b.line between Manukau and midtown (not Britomart as the train goes there). Frequency could be something like once every 10 or 15 minutes during the day, perhaps a bit more at peak and a bit less in the evenings and at weekends. This would be a reduction from the “bus every 5 minutes” service level we have now along Great South Road south of Greenlane, but would still offer a nice level of frequency along Great South Road all the time (for trips to and from places not easily served by rail), with excess demand in the south being soaked up by rail services from Manukau.
- Cut every route south of Onehunga (from Mangere) at Onehunga, turning them into feeders to Onehunga station and a new “300” route b.line service along Manukau Road between Onehunga and midtown (once again, not Britomart as the train goes there). Frequency could probably be every 10 minutes most of the time, perhaps every 5 minutes during peak as the Manukau Road corridor doesn’t duplicate the rail network (unlike Great South Road). This would be a reduction from the 37 buses in the AM peak, with Onehunga rail services probably needing to go to every 15 minutes (so therefore post City Rail Link for full implementation) to soak up extra demand. It would be interesting to do an ‘origin-destination’ study for trips from Mangere, as I’ve heard that only a tiny fraction are to the CBD.
- Cut all Howick and Eastern services at either Panmure or Ellerslie station, turning them into feeders. I need to have a bit more of a think about whether it’s best to cut these at Panmure then run a “500” b.line between Panmure and midtown along Ellerslie-Panmure Highway or whether to continue all Howick and Eastern buses to Ellerslie, allowing transfers to the southern line and Great South Road buses. Any Panmure to midtown b.line route would probably have similar frequencies to the 400 Great South Road b.line, as it would only be the Ellerlise-Panmure Highway section that didn’t either duplicate the rail network (and the 400 route) or was relieved by transfers to rail at Panmure.
- Remuera Road buses need a drastic simplification – probably combining a great number of routes into a simple ‘600’ b.line service. This would be a good route to run through the city to Wynyard Quarter or even to the North Shore, as it “joins” our system too late for transfers to be attractive.
I’m pretty sure by implementing this plan we would save money (nowhere near as many duplicating services in our inner sections), give faster travel times (thanks to rail being much quicker than buses from Panmure, Manukau and Onehunga stations), provide a more easily understood bus network (based around the 300, 400, 500 and 600 b.line routes compared to the 61 routes that current serve the area) and a bus network that offers more regular services during weekends and off-peak (money saved on cutting back duplicative peak time services could be reinvested in better frequencies at other times).
Downsides are obviously a much greater reliance on transfers – both bus to train and bus to bus. We would need integrated ticketing and zone-based fares for this to truly work. We would also need good timetable alignment and excellent infrastructure at key transfer nodes like Manukau, Onehunga and Panmure. I’m guessing that many people would choose to take advantage of the faster travel speeds offered by rail, meaning that increased pressure would be placed on the rail network. Perhaps for this reason more than any other, a shift to this type of bus network would need to be implemented incrementally – particularly built around the introduction of our electric trains (and later the City Rail Link, particularly to allow more trains to serve Onehunga).
I think overall the positives significantly outweigh the negative though.