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Outer Link – further refinements necessary

I was going to put much of this in a comment on Matt’s post of a few days ago asking how people get to work, but I think it raises issues that will be of general interesting to quite a few readers, so I’m making a post out of it. I catch the bus to work, from Pt Chevalier to the university – which means that my logical route is that of the Outer Link: it’s not too far away from offering me a ‘door-to-door’ service, at regular frequencies, across a vast span of service. About as good as I could ask for right? Well, in theory yes. But in practice unfortunately the Outer Link doesn’t seem to work as well as it should. Let’s run through the issues briefly:

  • It’s painfully slow. Especially outside the peak hours (when you’d think it would be faster) the trip can take almost an hour from door to door, which really drives you nuts and has pushed me back onto other Great North Road buses in recent times (even though they leave me with a much longer walk)
  • Related to the above, but it’s incredibly annoying that the buses keep stopping to “keep to their timetable” over and over and over again. I’ve been on a bus that took stopped along Meola Road to catch up to its timetable, then stopped in Westmere, then stopped in Ponsonby, then stopped at Queen Street for an age. There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting on a bus going nowhere when there’s really no reason for it to go nowhere. (I know this helps avoid bunching, but there surely must be better ways of doing this than having your bus stand still for half its trip continually needing to wait for the timetable to catch up to it.)
  • The service span in the evening is actually fairly poor, with the last bus leaving the city to Pt Chev at 11pm. This is at least half an hour earlier than most other “last buses”, without any particularly logical reason for such an early finish.

So those are the issues with my regular trip. I think most of the issue is with the regular stopping to catch up to its timetable – as this along with a lack of bus lanes along key parts of the route (going up College Hill towards the Ponsonby Rd intersection, going along Jervois Road between Ponsonby Rd & Curran Street) contributes to the slowness.

The other ways in which I think the Outer Link needs further refinement is on the section I don’t use as frequently: between Pt Chev and Newmarket along the ‘southern leg’. I’ve done this a few times (although not all the way) and once again it is a pretty painfully slow trip – largely due to those annoying stops, but also due to the bizarre route the bus takes. In particular, the section of the route highlighted in orange below is just plain daft: A route that’s meant to be going ‘east-west’ is pretty dumb if it spends most of its time traveling north, then south and then north again (or the reverse). The Mt Eden Road section is particularly counter-intuitive as if you want to head towards Newmarket and Parnell you actually need to be catching a bus heading in the complete opposite direction away from them. All this slow running must also add a huge amount on to the operating costs of the route – particularly pointlessly as the Balmoral Road section just duplicates the 007 route.

There seem to be two possible ways of fixing this issue – the first is pretty simple and from memory is what was originally meant to happen: a simple ‘cut through’ by the College of Education. This is shown below and makes pretty good sense: The bus spends much more of its time going east-west and much less of its time going north-south, which means more efficient operation, a more logical route and, most importantly, much faster travel times for passengers. We could take this one step further though: We make a few tradeoffs here. We serve Kingsland instead of Balmoral and we put the bus along Sandringham Road instead of Dominion Road. It also travels along Walters Road instead of Balmoral Road. Advantages are servicing Eden Park, a connection to rail at Kingsland (so potentially a useful rail feeder service from the Walters Rd/Valley Rd area) and less duplication of the 007 route along Balmoral Road. There’s also a fairly logical east-west route all the way from Kingsland to Manukau Road that the service would take.

Don’t get me wrong, the Outer Link route is definitely a step in the right direction and it seems like its model of a bus every 15 minutes, any time, is catching on. But that’s not to say it’s perfect as I think the route could and should be improved further in a number of ways – as suggested by this post.

19 comments to Outer Link – further refinements necessary

  • Doloras

    But that’s defeating the purpose of the Outer LINK. The purpose is in the name: to LINK the various shopping centres. When I lived in Mt Eden, I would have dreamed of a bus that could take me to Newmarket, Dom Rd, Balmoral shops, Epsom shops, Mt Albert and Pt Chev. You want to cut out three out of those stops because you think the purpose should be to make your trip faster, rather than connect them.

    You must have missed that there is also a problem with full-sized buses turning left out of Stokes Road, hence the “dog leg” through Epsom. And I really don’t like commenters saying that PT decisions they don’t like are “stupid” or “dumb”. It’s a juvenile put-down method which aims to bully readers into agreeing.

    • AC

      I agree.A major purpose is to link the town centres together, not just speed. My whole life I’ve never had an efficient PT way to get MT Eden or Parnell, for example. The Outer Link does this job pretty well. Chopping out the area around Epsom would make it much harder for me to get home, for example, to Greenwoods Corner. Unless of course the fares system is changed and we don’t get penalised for transfers anymore.

      • Doloras

        When I first moved to Auckland I lived in Mt Eden and I was shocked and appalled that there were only half-hourly “minibus” services to Newmarket, the next suburb east, or to the Dom Rd shops or St Lukes in the west. The Outer Link as it stands is not “stupid”, it’s eminently sensible for connecting the inner suburbs to one another rather than just to downtown.

  • David

    I agree that the stopping to stick to its timetable business is annoying, although I generally only use the route in peak times, when this is much less of an issue. There must be other best practice experience from overseas on how to handle this issue. It seems at the very least questionable on a route where there is no real timetable expectation from users apart from “there will be one along in minute” – I doubt if many users are showing up at the time published for their stop. In fact, the MAXX website says wrt the LINK buses, “There is no need for a timetable as each service operates on such a frequent basis. Simply head to the appropriate bus stop and wait for the right coloured bus.”

    The Kingsland re-routing looks OTT to me. The route already intersects the train at Mt Albert, so I don’t buy that part of the argument. The less radical re-routing through the Inst Ed looks more defensible although I’m sure anyone losing out would disagree!

    Whether the route is intended for ‘hopping’ between local shopping centres or as a longer-range commuter bus is not clear to me. If they every get integrated fares working, the point would be moot, since the exact route would matter less than the frequency of alternative services in the streets affected. For now, it matters a great deal…

  • Icebird

    I don’t actually find the lack of bus lanes on College Hill or Jervois Road much of an issue. As a regular user of the 005 bus to get home, I’d say a much more acute problem is the lack of bus lane on Victoria St between Albert Street and Les Mills. You can really grind along that stretch pretty slowly (since you’ve got both western suburbs and bridge traffic using the road).

    Another issue I’ve noticed is around 8 AM in the mornings on Jervois Road, when you get the St Marys, Ponsonby Primary and Ponsonby Intermediate kids all using the buses and both the Outer Link and 005 can get really crowded. I think there’s probably a good case to run an extra 005 around that time to relieve demand.

    I think NZ Bus is aware of the timing complaints, but who knows when we’ll see some action. Apparently changing the timing impacts driver shifts so its not as simple to solve as might first think.

    I’m not familiar enough with the southern part of the route to comment on your proposed modifications.

  • Simon Lyall

    I am wondering are the waits are because each bus is supposed to be at a place at a specific time?

    If this is the case then the buses are having to match (random values here) 1h 15m route in peak by stopping for 30 minutes during offpeak on what would normally be a 45 minutes peak. So every bus on the whole route could be stopped at the same time to prevent getting ahead of the timetable!

    I really hope this isn’t the case but if it is then alternatives could be:

    (a) Have a shorter timetable during oddpeak to reflect actual travel times
    (b) Have some sort of technology to allow drivers to see the actual “gap” back to the previous vehicle (this might not be realistic).

  • The waiting would be less of an issue if the number of buses was increased I think. Frequency needs to be more than one every 15 minutes. Still needs active monitoring though. On Saturday for example at Cox’s Bay the indicator board said the next bus was 20 minutes away, followed by another at 26 minutes.

  • On most NZ buses there is a GPS box that tells the driver how many minutes they are in front of or behind the schedule. But I’m not sure if there is a protocol in place if they get a long way behind or in front.

    At one stage I know the Link bus frequency was actively being managaged via GPS. Clearly that isn’t happening now.

    It would be a bit of an overhead to employ someone to do this, but now we have the City Link, Inner Link and Outer Link on a frequency based service you would think it would be worth it. If you advertise a service as being every 15 minutes it should be.

  • Kadin

    I believe the original route was modified because buses can’t turn from Mt. Eden onto Stokes.

    • Peter

      Surely that can be fixed though? The turn from Symonds Street into Grafton Bridge is pretty damn sharp and that’s been solved by shifting back the traffic on Grafton Bridge so that vehicles can swing across in front of them.

  • LX...

    The regular waits at time points are a pretty common outcome of having a loop bus route. Having actually written timetables for a large loop route myself in the past I can assure you they are awful things to try and schedule to provide a reliable service.

    Regular bus routes have an end point where a late running bus can make up time to start its return trip on time. On a loop route this layover or recovery time has to be spread along the route as there is no end point. The alternative is to schedule the buses to run at the minimum travel time which guarantees the buses will bunch up with no way to recover.

    The other factor on a loop route is if the buses run every 15 minutes the route travel time won’t fit exactly into a multiple of 15 minutes (i.e. 45, 60, 75 etc) So if the bus takes say 64 minutes get around the loop there is an extra 11 minutes of time leftover each cycle at a 15 minute headway. This tends to get spread between the timepoints along the route rather than having one stop where the buses sit for 11 minutes.

    Best way to avoid the issue is not run routes as loops.

    • David

      Not running this as a loop would require changing the outer loop to two services, Pt Chev to Parnell via CBD and Pt Chev to Parnell via Mt Albert – Balmoral – Mt Eden – Newmarket? But then why not just have them be two CBD services and one across town. Beginning to sound very like the old network…

      If we had integrated fares and frequent services a lot of these issues go away… but that’s a very big if (that could be a new acronym for this blog: BTAVBI)

      I have to say that the argument that loops can’t be made to run on time while linear routes can doesn’t find much support from the rest of the Auckland bus network which provides woefully unreliable service on all routes regardless of their topological characteristics.

      • LX...

        Fair call call regarding regular redial bus routes in Auckland. If the operator hasn’t allowed enough layover/recovery time, the running times are too tight or the traffic delays are just to variable to schedule around then they will be unreliable. Clearly just because a radial route is more straight forward to schedule reliably doesn’t mean that it will be. Also fair to say that loops can be made to work with some level of reliability but usually at the cost of the regular pauses noted here regarding the Outer Link.

  • Phil

    Yeah I like the look of connecting the route to Kingsland. I think it is something that Kingsland needs more than Balmoral because of the nightlife culture there and associated dinning and drinking — this connection means potentially less driving home therefore making it easier.

    Balmoral doesn’t particularly strike me as a place I’d like catch a bus to for any reason; but that is my own individual perception…

    Plus I play touch at Gribblehirst Park (Sandringham Rd) so I’m a bit biased ;)

  • Stu Donovan

    Loops are an operational nightmare.

    For anyone who’s vaguely interested, my colleague Jarrett Walker has a nice post on the virtues and pitfalls of loops over at HumanTransit.org (www.humantransit.org/2009/11/london-the-circle-line-reaches-an-end.html). The main conclusion is that small downtown loops, such as the Inner Link, can work well – but as loops get larger they more they struggle operationally.

    The value of the Outer Link is that it provides a direct cross town connection from western to eastern suburbs. But of course you could achieve a similar effect by running a through-route from Pt Chev to Newmarket. And as noted above, lines don’t have the annoying waits that plague loops. In some respects I feel like the best thing the Outer Link did was to prove that there is demand for crosstown travel.

  • DanC

    Increase the number of buses and have the bus carry up Balmoral and not the loop through Mt Eden. You can transfer to another bus if you need to get into Mt Eden and don’t feel like walking.

  • Gian

    they could just let people jump on the bus in front at the stops. The problem is not that the buses have to wait but that passengers have.

    • Ingolfson

      Having to change buses is a major practical disincentive. Unpleasant, you could lose your seat, you have to shift your gear, shopping etc…

      Also, even with HOP there might be issues with changing the bus w/o fare implications.

  • I’ve noticed several times now, as I cycle into the CBD up Gt Sth Rd, that I find a bus repeatedly parked in bus stops with its hazard lights on.
    A few mins later it passes me again, and then I find it a few KM up the road stopped again.

    It especially occurs in the early morning when there is not many passengers (like 6am). I think they have a schedule – they will be at bus stop “a” at 05:45, “h” at 06:15 and end of route at 06:45 or what ever. So if there are not many passengers they have points that they stop at (it seems like it is always the same stops).
    If I caught a bus, I want to know when it is coming, and when I can expect it to arrive. Timetables need some sort of certainty. It would be a bummer if you had to wait 15 minutes for another bus and were late for work, just because the earlier one had an easy run

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