How long will my bus trip take?

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I’m no particular fan of the Outer Link bus. While I think the concept is really nice, and the regular off-peak frequencies also are a great step up from what most of Auckland gets, the service has a number of significant flaws that have actually put me right off from catching it in recent months.

I was thinking about what has put me off catching the Outer Link in a bit more detail the other day, and I realised that perhaps its biggest flaw is that we simply never know how long the trip is going to take. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The lack of a timetable not only means that it’s difficult to plan when to turn up at the bus stop, but also we lose the other useful piece of information from a timetable: the likely arrival time. The MAXX website journey planner is worse than useless so this is quite a problem.
  • Even if the Outer Link buses are scheduled to operate at 15 minute frequencies, almost more often than not this turns into having “two buses every half hour” as they follow each other around the circuit.
  • Perhaps as an attempt to minimise the bus bunching (although it never seems to work) sometimes a bus will continually stop at all these hold points along the journey. Waiting on Meola Road for 5 minutes while a stream of cars zip past you is about the most demoralising feeling one can get as a bus user. It’s almost like NZ Bus and Auckland Transport are trying to tell us to get back in our cars.
  • On other occasions, the bus will just zip along its whole route – completing the trip incredibly quickly. While this is nice, it’s also completely impossible to predict and therefore I’ve usually budgeted for the worst case scenario and find myself a whole heap early (which isn’t necessarily a problem, unless it means I could have slept in a bit longer).

I think that most of these problems arise from the Outer Link being a circuit/loop route. Most bus routes have recovery times at the ends of their journeys which means that if a bus does run a bit late it’s still able to start its next journey on time. Furthermore, if the bus runs on time or early, then the passengers don’t need to sit around going absolutely nowhere so the timetable can “catch up”. I think the other problem with the Outer Link is that along its route there are hardly any bus lanes and hardly any infrastructure improvements were undertaken when the route was introduced. So there are many points where you can get significant delays from tricky right-turns or where occasionally the traffic is incredibly slow (but not always), leading to significant reliability problems.

While there are things that probably could be done to the Outer Link in the short-term to improve how it works (bus lanes, new traffic signals, more services on to reduce the chance of giant timetable gaps, better management of frequencies and perhaps even a published timetable), ultimately I think that the route needs to go. The Inner Link really is about the maximum length for a “loop route”.

At the end of the day, I want to know how long my bus trip will take – door to door. And using the Outer Link is utterly hopeless in performing this task.

Is this Auckland’s worst footpath?

Time for a quick gripe, could this possibly be the worst footpath in Auckland? Eyeball the left hand side, there the ‘footpath’ is a slip lane entrance to a carparking building being used for parking by courier vans. And the right hand side, the narrowest footpath I have ever seen!

No footpaths either side, but two apartment buildings and plenty of foot traffic…

 

Here is another view, those buildings on the right are a historic apartment building, next to a modern apartment hotel. They have six carparks between them so obviously most of the residents walk to this buildings. Just out of shot to the right is the headquarters of Fonterra, one of the largest dairy companies in the world. This street sits on the main walking route between these buildings and Queen St. Notice just how ridiculously narrow that footpath is. It’s probably less than a foot wide.

Worlds skinniest footpath?

Yep, closer inspection reveals that this footpath is less wide than my foot. The funny thing is to take this photo I had to put my satchel down to handle the camera. I actually had to align my bag lengthwise to fit it on the footpath.

 

A footpath less that a foot wide…

 

So why do we do these things, just a complete historic disregard for pedestrians? I realise it is a pretty tight lane, but surely our traffic engineers and urban designers can do better than this.

What makes open spaces work

Thanks to John from my post the other day on shared spaces for providing the link for this video. It is just under 60 minutes long but well worth watching. It is described as:

Small fragment of William H. Whyte’s witty and original film about the open spaces of cities and why some of them work for people while others do not.

Showing Changes in Property Values

The Herald have published this really interesting map showing what kind of changes occurred to the capital values as a result of the revaluations that occurred last year. While this does show changes in capital value, for the majority of properties the change will mainly be a reflection of movement in the value of the land that the houses sit on. The map itself is able to be zoomed in to look at individual properties but at a high level there are some interesting but not surprising trends. The biggest of these is that the areas that saw the most increase in value were the inner suburbs, particularly the inner western ones.

It is probably safe to assume that part of the reason these central suburbs have increased so much in value is that there has been a huge increase in demand to live in those areas. We tend to see that most of the news reports about housing affordability will talk to some buyers struggling to buy a property which almost always tends to be in these central areas. Personally I think this is just the continuation of a trend we have been seeing of people wanting to live closer to the city once again. For the last 60 years we have seen the suburbs sprawl out into the countryside and while that dream still exists for lots, many young Aucklanders are wanting a more urban lifestyle closer to their friends, family and the central city without having a complete reliance on cars.

Of course Auckland is not unique in this, a similar trend is occurring all over the world. It is about time that political masters, both locally and nationally, woke up and realised that people want to live closer to the city, not flung out on the edge of the city

Telecom to “hook into” the AT HOP card

Another article that almost passed me by. This was in Wednesday’s NZ Herald:

Telecom is hitching up to Auckland’s $110 million transport ticketing project by turning smartphones into wallets for use on buses, trains and ferries.

The company yesterday showed the technology in action at its testing laboratory in expectation of making it available late next year for payments to retailers as well as public transport.

Smartphones loaded with an electronic version of Auckland Transport’s new Hop card alongside a Westpac MasterCard and Telecom payment account were used to open replicas of passenger gates already installed at key railway stations, with electronic monitors showing credit balances.

I know that waving your phone in front of the smartcard reader is the way of the future, so it’s good that Auckland won’t be left behind on any of these developments. However, I’m also glad that Auckland Transport has got its priorities right and is making sure that the core system is in place as soon as possible, rather than tinkering around with add-on extras like linking into mobile phones:

But Auckland Transport says its priority is to ensure an updated version of the plastic Hop card is ready for travel on trains from October 28 before allowing a smartphone trial.

“We want to make sure the core system working the cards is 100 per cent ready to go before we open it up,” chief operating officer Greg Edmonds told the Herald.

It’s exactly a month until the new AT Hop Card becomes available for use on the rail system. Auckland Transport have also sorted out a good way of transitioning those who already have Snapper Hop Cards. This was explained at the September Board Meeting of AT: 
I still think it’s going to be pretty messy during the transition period – with two HOP cards in place – some being able to be used on some services but not others, some services not accepting HOP at all. And so on. But at least we’re seeing progress.

Thinking about rail to the Airport

The one transport project we tend to follow on this blog more than any other is the City Rail Link. That project is now ticking along and Auckland Transport are proceeding with the designation but another important project has also been going on fairly silently in the background, rail to the airport. It is currently being investigated as part of a whole package of works that includes what roading upgrades are needed and used to be known by the awkward to pronounce acronym SWAMMCP which stood for South Western Airport Multi Modal Corridor Plan. It has had a change of name which I believe was largely focused on making it easier to pronounce so is now called SMART or South-western Multi-modal Airport Rapid Transit. Acronyms aside, we haven’t heard a lot lately about what is happening so here is what the latest board report said about it:

Work continues on route alignment and station options for the rapid transit elements of SMART as well as the roading (including cycling and walking) alignments. Phase 2 is scheduled for completion in December/January 2012/13.

The last few reports have actually said the same thing and I suspect that it might not be for a few months after that we actually see what is proposed however we can probably make a bit of a guess. Unless the current study has come up with a new outcome we will probably see a refinement of the option that came out of a 2008 study on the issue. At that time it recommended a loop that was built from Onehunga south to the airport then heading east to Puhinui to connect with the existing southern line, as is shown below in blue.

Now while it would be nice to build the thing all in one go, I think the reality is that even with a supportive council and government we will only be able to build one of the links so for this post I thought I would look at some of the pros and cons of each.

Onehunga

This would see the Onehunga line extended south over the Manukau harbour on the way to the airport.

Pros

  • The line would effectively be just an extension of the Onehunga line (which is due to be duplicated as part of the works for the CRL). This means that effectively services could be run without putting any additional pressure on the existing rail network.
  • The suggested route from Onehunga passes through a number of potential locations for stations on its way to the airport. These are Mangere Bridge, Mangere and the industrial area around Montgomerie Rd. Stations in these locations would help to provide additional patronage on top of those that are just going to the airport. Stats NZ suggest that by 2040 there will be about 40,000 people living in within a short distance of the rail line. This makes it much more a line for the south west of the city rather than just an airport line.
  • Once the line got across the harbour there is the ability for it to be staged so that some of the benefits of the line could start being achieved earlier or construction could be stopped until we had the funds to complete the line i.e.  we could build the line to Mangere town centre then hold there for a few years until more funds became available. This could be crucial, especially if funding is tight.
  • As the route is slightly more direct, it would be a little bit faster than the Puhinui option for a trip to town.

Cons

  • The biggest issue with building a line from Onehunga is the cost. The 2008 report suggested it would cost $707 million vs a link from the east at $471m
  • The recently build additional harbour crossing has been future proofed to have rail lines on it but there would likely still be quite a cost to actually put it in. There is also quite a bit of development near the previously suggested corridor which means there may be a need for substantial property purchases.

Puhinui

This would see a branch line heading west from the area around Puhinui all the way to the airport. It may or may not be linked up directly to Manukau.

Pros

  • The biggest thing in the favour of this option is the cost. The figures in the 2008 document suggest it would cost around $470 million, around 1/3 cheaper than the Onehunga link option.
  • The route is largely over green field land so much less impact to any communities and businesses.
  • It also provides rail access to the airport for those from the southern suburbs.

Cons

  • While it is cheaper to build, it also has much less patronage potential as there are no other stops other than the airport.
  • It is unlikely that trips by travellers to/from airport alone will be able to support enough passenger trips alone to make building the line worthwhile.
  • Perhaps the biggest problem with linking only to Puhinui only is that it forces yet another line on to the tracks between Puhinui and the Westfield Junction. That line is already pretty busy with lots of passenger and freight trains so trying to squeeze more trains on would really affect the capacity of the other lines.

Ideally I think we need to consider building the whole line so that we can get the most benefits out of it. If we had to pick one option then I think it needs to be the from the north simply due to the greater potential that it provides . This is of course just my opinion but if we were to be faced with a one or the other decision, I’m keen to hear what you think?

Policy of appeasement: How to engage with transport engineers

This post has been brewing for a while. The reason being that threads on this blog are littered with comments along the lines of “I spoke to the transport/traffic engineers at Auckland Transport about issue XYZ but they simply fobbed me off.

In the last few months I’ve also been approached by people who are trying to engage with transport engineers about various things, so it’s obviously a recurring problem. So here goes with a policy of appeasement should you find yourself needing to engage with transport engineers.

Let’s start by observing some general caveats that should be observed before anyone tries to engage with a transport engineer:

  1. Transport engineers operate in a complex world of standards and liability. If they are to diverge from these standards, then they’d better feel secure and able to stand up and defend their decision. In some situations their professional credibility/career will be on the line if they make a call to do something differently. Many engineers are quite understandably cautious when confronted by this risk.
  2. Transport is but one of the issues that influences decisions. Quite often there’s divergent views on exactly the same issue, e.g. shop owners that want more on-street parking versus local residents that want wider footpaths. And of course solutions are almost always constrained by political expectations before you even consider how much money is available (usually none).
  3. To not put too fine a point on it, members of the public frequently underestimate the complexity of the problem. Sometimes this is because they don’t understand the complexities of the wider network or details such as turning circles. Because engineers are exposed to this all the time it makes it harder for them to identify when people do have legitimate concerns.

One thing is very important: If you’re going to be prepared to raise an issue then at least be prepared to accept that sometimes you will be wrong. That’s not a reason to not raise it in the first place, but it’s a plea to leave the ego at the door. Easier said than done …

That said, there are numerous examples of situations where engineers, in conjunction with their political masters, seem to have “fobbed off” legitimate concerns all too quickly. The most tragic example I can think of is on Tamaki Drive, where a cyclist was killed recently. Apparently the former Auckland City Council had been informed about that particular cycle safety black-spot several years earlier and yet nothing was done. Until, that is, some poor cyclist was killed, after which it took only one week before the required changes to the road layout were made.

 

Incidences like provide the motivation to all of us to speak out a little more about our transport corridors. It’s potentially very very useful for AT to have feedback from the public on where something is not quite right. I think it’s fair to suggest that there’s a real opportunity for the community to communicate better with engineers, and vice versa.

So how should members of the general public engage more constructively with engineers? Well, based on my experience if you ever have the pleasure of sitting down with an engineer to discuss a particular issue then I’d suggest  that you have:

  • Photos - from the pedestrian/drivers perspective and also aerials from Google Earth if useful. The best photos are those that demonstrate how people are using the transport infrastructure and what the implications are for transport safety and/or efficiency. Photos that show safety issues are particularly compelling, like this one.
  • Data/diagrams – information on vehicle count data can be found here here. Make sure you understand what the trends are on the street you’re interested in and in the wider area. Is vehicle traffic growing or decreasing (it is in many central areas). But note that these counts only relate to vehicles, so if you have a pedestrian or public transport issue then you may need to collect data of your own.
  • Knowledge of the network – Think about the wider network. Sit down in front of Google Earth and work through in your head what would happen if a particular street/intersection had less capacity and/or more restricted movement function. This may influence whether a localised solution is sufficient, or whether a more comprehensive approach is required.
  • Survey local opinions - Record the views of other people in the community about your particular issue. Make sure you talk to a variety of stakeholders: Residents, businesses, community board members (first port of call). Make sure you speak to the wider community before badgering AT/AC.
  • Identify options, not solutions – with all this information in hand it’s tempting to jump to a particular solution that you think is best. Usually, however, it’s better to identify a range of options (of which “do nothing” is always one) and think about their relative strengths and weaknesses. But leave some room for the engineers to make up their own mind, especially at initial meetings.

Basically, I think that people who raise issues with transport engineers would get much further ahead if they did some relatively basic groundwork. As an example of how some simple groundword can yield dividends, I’ve downloaded and plotted the vehicle count data for Park Rd (which was brought up on another thread with regards to a missing pedestrian crossing), as shown below:

 

This graph tells you lots of interesting things:

  • First, it suggests that vehicle volumes on Park Road grew from 2006-07, but subsequently fell back from 2007-08 (familiar story)
  • Second it tells you that the latest count data for Park Road is now more than 4 years old. So if you’re sitting down to talk with AT about Park Rd and they’re relying on count data that is 4 years old, then you have a strong case for suggesting that they should arrange another count – before you even need to start talking about potential solutions to your issue (although there is likely to be other more recent counts available for nearby streets that you could use as a “control”, i.e. indicator of trends).
  • Third, we the large spikes in counts around 2007, which was probably associated with construction of the Central Connector. Subsequent spikes may have been related to the construction of the new Grafton Train Station down the road. All this only reinforces the need to think about what’s going on in the wider network, especially in the future, when proposing changes to individual streets now. It may be, for example, that works proposed elsewhere requires your particular street to divert traffic onto at some point in the future.

Personally I think that there’s an opportunity for more constructive engagement between professional transport engineers and the wider community. This relies on the latter doing a little more groundwork, whereas the former needs to respect that local communities can, in the right context, make useful and non-parochial contributions to transport priorities.

Auckland Council and Auckland Transport could help drive some of this engagement.

One possible way AT/AC could facilitate constructive engagement on transport issues would be to publish a succinct guide about how people should go about investigating and documenting transport issues in their community. Such a guide could even be integrated with an expanded online form run through Auckland Transport’s website (the current one, which is good but a little limited, is here). These “online transport issue ” profiles could provide a platform for ongoing engagement with the community on this issue.

To finish, can I just observe that:

  1. We all fob other people off from time to time. So if you encounter an engineer who is obviously flustered then don’t push. Instead, just back off and talk in very general terms about what you should do to strengthen your case. Place the emphasis for action on yourself, rather than them, and don’t force the issue too much …
  2. On the other hand, if you do encounter an engineer who is genuinely obstructive and not willing to engage with issues then it may be best to go back to your local community board, if you can, and suggest that they elevate it to a managerial level. If all else fails then feel to email me and I might do a blog post about it (no guarantees, but even if I disagree I might still let you do a guest post!).

But the main takeaway message I wanted to convey is that both sides need to lift their game: More engineers need to respect the role of the community in transport issues (it’s NOT just a technical issue); on the other hand the general public should stop moaning, accept that issues are normally more complicated than they first appear, and try to work constructively with engineers to prove the case for change.

I’m be the first to admit that I myself am sometimes too quick to moan, so aspiring to do better is a job for all concerned. I think Auckland deserves it. Now ye shall go forth and engage!

Pedestrian Improvements: traffic signals

One thing that really really annoys me about how Auckland treats its pedestrians relates to what happens at signalised intersections. We all know the situation:

  1. We turn up at an intersection, knowing that we will get the green man at the same time as the traffic travelling in the same direction as us gets a green light.
  2. Ah damn, the green phase for the direction we want to travel started about two seconds before we hit the “beg button”. When we push the button all we get is a solid red man.
  3. We need to wait ages for the traffic light in the direction we’re travelling to turn orange, then red, and then we need to wait for all the other phases to go through before we finally get the green man.
  4. Ah stuff it, just run across the road on the red man anyway.

I think I probably cross roads on a red man just about every single day (generally many more times than once) because of this issue.

Now at the very occasional intersection if the green phase has already started for vehicles and you push the button, you get the green man straight away. This shows that it is possible – just clearly our traffic engineers hate pedestrians enough to not bother doing this any more than extremely occasionally.

Solving the horrific way Auckland treats its pedestrians doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to take a long time to roll out. It just requires those in positions to influence things like traffic signals to actually care about more than just shifting vehicles. Why is it so hard to get things like this to happen?

I think I might make this a regular “column” in this blog – just little ideas around how we can improve life for the poor neglected pedestrian. Maye that will make Auckland Transport notice.

A visit to Penrose

Along with visiting Onehunga yesterday, I also made a stop off at Penrose to have a look at the work going on there. There is a general station upgrade going on to bring the facilities up to an acceptable standard so here are some photos of where things are at. The main station building is being trimmed back which I believe is to give more space at the end of the access ramp.

Yellow dots going down on the platform instead of just a line and in the distance you can make out the poles for a standard style platform shelter.

I’m not sure what is planned to happen to the station building but but hopefully a use can be found for it other than just shelter. Its great that we are ticking these upgrades off and most stations should be fully upgraded before the first electric trains start rolling around the network late next year. My only real complaint is that many stations only have a tiny shelter which simply isn’t enough on rainy days when there are 60+ people hanging around waiting for a train.

Onehunga is now ready for Electric Trains

A few years ago there was a lot of noise an complaining about Onehunga. At first it was because almost a year after it had originally promised to be operating, the station hadn’t even been started. Then once it was built the issue was that the platforms were built at only 55m long, too short for our future electric trains which we already knew would be around 70m long.  Of course there was a lot of jumping up and down by many saying how it was another example of poor planning in Auckland however there actually turned out to be a fairly logical explanation for it. The simple version of it was that get all of the consents and agreements to build it right the first time would have taken months, if not years longer so the decision was made to build what they could and start the services sooner.

Well now the consents and other issue have been sorted out so AT have lengthened the platforms so that they can handle our new trains. I took a trip out there yesterday to have a look and it appears the job is all finished so here are some photos.

And at the other end of the station

But that wasn’t the only addition to the station, there are also some public toilets being installed which is something needed at more stations

While on the topic of Onehunga, it is probably worth pointing out another thing mentioned a few years ago about it, its patronage forecasts. The forecasts most likely come from the same models that are used to predict how well things like the CRL will be use. Here is what ARTA said in July 3020 about patronage at Onehunga:

ARTA’s spokesperson, Sharon Hunter said, “Passenger travel shows patronage on the line from September 2010 for the two hours at morning peak, from 7am to 9am, is estimated to be approximately 100 people boarding at Onehunga. This compares with 3,600 people alighting at Britomart during the morning peak period.

Now I don’t know exactly how many board during the morning peak but I have heard stories of up around 50-60 on some trains alone. It would be really interesting to see how those previous estimates have worked out in reality as I would suspect they way underestimate what is happening in reality. That is something that seems to be a common feature with Public Transport yet the opposite is true for vehicle traffic which is constantly overestimated.

Edit: Sharon got in touch with me and provided this information:

The most recent survey counted 170 passengers boarding at Onehunga in the morning two-hour peak with 60+ boarding the most popular service (7:45am departure).  For a full weekday about 400 passenger were counted using Onehunga to board trains.  In overall rankings that is about the same as Orakei and Meadowbank (i.e. ranked about 30th out of 42 stations).

Interestingly in terms of projections, Te Papapa is exceeding expectations with more than 100 boardings counted in the morning 2-hour peak period.  The combined effect of Onehunga + Te Papapa is generating around 280 passengers per day in the morning two-hour peak versus the 2016 modelled 360 so it is heading in the right direction.