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Is the Outer Link fundamentally flawed?

In the past few weeks either myself, or people I know well have had the following experiences with the Outer Link bus:

  • Waiting 50 minutes for a bus between 5.05pm and 5.55pm from the city
  • Turning up at the Outer Link bus stop and seeing the “real time” sign say the bus is 10 minutes away, ducking quickly into the nearby dairy for something and coming out two minutes later to see the bus driving past
  • Persistent late buses and bunching of buses
  • Getting kicked off one bus and onto another at Victoria Park when the bus you’re on is full
  • Seeing regular driver changes being made in the middle of the evening peak period (once again at Victoria Park, one of the busiest sections of the route)
  • Did I mention late buses? And the bunching of buses?
  • Having buses turn up at the bus stop 10 minutes late only to say they’re actually a “special” service and won’t be picking up passengers, only to change their mind 5 minutes later after sitting there doing nothing.

Ultimately, I think the route is broken beyond repair. While in theory the idea of a huge loop is great and everyone can see how it’s a good idea, operationally it seems as though the Outer Link is an absolute nightmare. The buses bunch, there are rage-inducing waits at seemingly every second stop, you regularly get turfed off one bus and onto another, the buses are late, they’re unreliable, they’re often jam-packed. It’s just hopeless.

Fundamentally this all comes back to it being a loop route. With a loop route there are no “dead times” at each end of a bus service so no time to act as a buffer in case a service is running late. Instead we see the problems compound over and over and over and over again. But the worst thing is that measures to alleviate these problems are actually almost worse than the problems in the first place – you get giant waits at timed “hold points” so that the timetable can catch up to the bus. You get turfed off one bus and onto another regularly. In short, you get treated like absolute crap.

So there’s no easy fix to this – which means that fundamentally the Outer Link needs to go. Or at least it needs to go in an operational sense. So here’s my proposal:

  1. Effectively split the route into an inner and outer section and run them operationally independent of each other.
  2. Ensure that transfers between buses at key locations (say St Lukes and Newmarket) are co-ordinated so people just need to hop off one bus and onto the other – and they expect to have to change buses here.
  3. Ramp up the frequency a bit on the inner section due to its higher loadings.
  4. Find the areas where there are significant delays and put some bloody bus lanes in.

As noted above, I’d probably split the service at St Lukes and Newmarket – on the basis that relatively few people are likely to be travelling “through” these locations rather than “to” them. So something like this:

 

Oh and the route also needs some simplification, desperately.

38 comments to Is the Outer Link fundamentally flawed?

  • Tochigi jr

    Does anyone know why the outer link goes back to Balmoral road after Mt Eden shops.

    • bbc

      That detour is to capture people going to the UOA College of Education, in time this campus will be shut and incorporated into the main site somewhere once the Newmarket site is developed, so we could remove that deviation at the same time.

      • That’s at least five years away. The deal to buy the Lion Breweries site can’t even be approved until the next University Council meeting in April, and it’ll only be after that’s sorted that full architectural and engineering planning can commence. If we use the Owen G Glenn Building that the School of Business moved into as a guide it’ll take at least two years to actually do the construction and fit-out once something has been designed. The migration to the site will not be a big-bang affair, either, it’ll take place over several years as new buildings are completed and become available. Then there’s the question of whether they’ll start with closing the Grafton or Tamaki campus first.

        We cannot wait the thick end of a decade to fix a bus route!

    • Charles

      The reason why the buses go back to Balmoral Road is because the Mt Eden Road / Stokes Road corner is to tight for a standard size bus to make a left turn from the left lane.

    • Dunc

      So that it skirts close by to Greenlane Hospital? Please don’t change it, I use OL to get there!

  • bbc

    I agree I have given up on catching the Outer Loop and always stick to the inner even on routes where they overlap, as the outer is invariably late and every time I have caught it we’ve ended up sitting for 5-10 minutes opposite the Civic on Wellesley Street.

    • bbc

      I think if the entire loop had bus lanes installed we’d probably solve a lot of the problems. However, there has been almost no bus lanes installed in recent years. I am hoping they plan to install a lot when they implement the new bus system….

      • luke C

        Yes the bus lane work has been disappointing. Really need some bus priority around the major interchanges planned at New Lynn, Otahuhu and Manukau to start with. So cheap and easy, but bet that crazy herald campaign from last year scared the council off adding more.

        • SteveC

          having worked on bus lane planning and implementation, I can assure you that it is NOT easy and not necessarily cheap

          • Feijoa

            Even if tricky, it is frustrating bus lane progress seems to have slowed so much recently.

            There is low hanging fruit, like preventing straight ahead from left lane at traffic lights where a bus lane is about to begin (New North and Bond, Mayoral over Wellesley as it turns to Albert). Surely these can be done cheaply?

          • Peter M

            I think a big problem is that supporters of bus lanes aren’t as noisy as opponents. So they get knocked back.

          • Matt Clouds

            Completing the bus lane on GSR leading up to Broadway, so that buses don’t get stuck in the traffic queues, would be very cheap and a quick win for the morning peak. Just paint a lane through to the centre lane of the three at the Alpers Ave/GSR/Broadway intersection. Bam, problem solved.

          • Peter M

            Maybe we need a “bus lane supporters society” or something to push for projects like this. As you say they’re dirt cheap but politicians seem terrified of them. I would of thought one bonus of having AT as an unaccountable CCO would have been greater ease of rolling out bus lanes but they seem even more unwilling than the former councils.

      • Svartmetall

        I am not 100% sure that bus lanes would assist too much. The circle line on the London Underground (as well as other circular lines around the world, even the much vaunted Yamanote line) often suffer from bunching simply due to the nature of loops. Without “dead time” at termini there is simply no way to recuperate any lost time due to the plethora of events that can occur to cause delays. If even trains on dedicated tracks are affected, one would imagine that buses that are slaves to stop/start traffic lights (even when they have bus lanes) as well as other problems such as the lack of guarantees of wait times at stops due to passenger loading delays as it does take a bus longer to load than even the busiest of trains.

        Loops are a tricky thing indeed and they are very, very difficult to run effectively.

  • Luke C

    Yes loops are difficult to work well, and 15 min frequency makes it especially hopeless. I think just having a strict timing point at Newmarket, effectively cutting the route here. Having on at St Lueks too will put off Unitec patronage from the inner southern suburbs.
    Those wanting to go on to Parnell in a hurry can change to the Inner Link, and if frequency was 10 minutes could try make it so have Newmarket Parnell bus every 5 minutes.
    More legible transfer points along Dominion Mt Eden and Manuaku Roads will help increase patronage on the southern half.
    Thanks brings up a point, why o why do all buses not have stop names and announcements. This make such a huge difference in legibility, especially at night, but makes bus travel sooo much easier for those familiar. Announcing on Dominion Road services that they can change here for St Lukes and Newmarket very easily advertises these other services and will build patronage.

  • Have we got rid of the stupid Nuffield St loop on the Inner and (I think) Outer Links yet?

    That should help a little.

    Getting rid of wait times would help too. From a patron’s perspective there are no schedules for Link buses- so why stick to an invisible bureaucratic one?

    • Buses in Nuffield St? That’s nuts. It’s screaming out to be a people centric place but is hindered by rat running motorists.

      • jonno1

        While Nuffield St is indeed a rat-run, it also happens to be the direct route between the Gillies Ave MW exit and lower Remuera Rd. So what alternative do you propose? St Marks Rd is a long way round and there’s no right turn into Remuera Rd (despite what my GPS tells me).

        • OrangeKiwi

          The no right turn from Broadway into Remuera plus having Mortimer Pass as a traffic sewer for the motorway indeed help turning Nuffield St into a rat run. And the former causes problems on a smaller scale too, for example the many illegal right turns into Khyber Pass from York St and Osborne St – as it is by far the shortest route from there if you’re heading out east.

          Would’ve been good if we had a street like Eden St running right up to Broadway/Remuera Rd, allowing it to be a four-way intersection (with a barnes dance!). Much easier to concentrate traffic around this one intersection and it would’ve meant surrounding streets could be turned into people-friendlier environments – including Nuffield.

          • Luke C

            St Marks road is only an extra 300m, and then theres Market Road exit that serves most people just as well. So yes we should push people onto other roads. The may feel inconvenienced as route more indirect but the reality is that it is only by a very small margin.
            On the other hand congested rat runs can actually be good for pedestrian amenity, as long as it isn’t heavily phased so those with a green can floor it and race down the street.

  • Harry

    Interestingly, if you split it at St Lukes and Newmarket, the southern part would be very similar to the 006, which the Outer Loop replaced. If the routes were split, would it be better for connections if the southern part ran to either Mt Albert Station, or perhaps (to cater for tourists) to MOTAT/The zoo?

  • Stranded on the North Shore

    So how do circular loop trains make it work overseas? Forget about “traffic”. There are still delays with circular trains too. I think the key is that they don’t work to timetable, instead they’re work to even out the “spacing” between the vehicles. Now that all vehicles are GPS monitored, how about ensuring that they’re spaced evenly, and telling the bus drivers whether to drive normal, slower, or to simply stop at the next bus stop, to ensure the spacing is even between services. If the drivers were monitored to follow these instructions, that would completely eliminate bunching up, would provide much more reliable service at any point in the system, as well as remove the frustration of the too frequent waiting on a bus stop for no apparent reason. Regarding the timings, I recently found out (on my Android MAXX app) that the outer link buses are not showing their “due” time, instead they’re only “scheduled”, which makes me think that the real-time boards are showing scheduled time instead. Also, driver changes shouldn’t be a problem, except too complicated procedure imposed on the drivers by NZBus. Way to go.

    • Pim

      I agree with this 100%, all it needs is a bit of better organisation and communication between buses to make it work.

    • LX...

      How do circular loop trains overseas make it work? In the case of the London Circle line well they couldn’t really get it to work reliably and it was unlooped in 2009. It now has two end points where it takes layovers between journeys.

      Other metro systems with loops generally operate to the usual method of building in some slack into the timetable so the train has the ability to speed up after a delay to get back on schedule, and short dwells at major stations which allow the opportunity for further recovery from delays.

      Behind the scenes they all work to an operational timetable even if it isn’t visible to the public. Otherwise there is no way to efficiently ensure the correct number of trains are drivers are on duty to maintain a given level of service or organise essential matters like and crew changovers at predesignated locations and breaks in line with labor contracts.

      True pure headway services are a nice idea but in practice are hell to keep evenly spaced even with the best GPS systems. There is a wave effect that starts rippling through a line of vehicles just like a line of traffic on a road where everyone bunches up and grinds to a halt and then all unbunch again and speed up before bunching up again. It’s a well studied effect.

  • ak-Sam

    From anywhere on the back half of the Outer Link loop, you’re looking at regularly 1hr+ commute times to the CBD, more if it’s running late. … This is a journey that can 10 mins by car. So, yes, it’s fundamentally a flawed option. Link bus has improved since GPS, but is still not reliable enough to get to work on time. I used to go between Ponsonby and Auckland Uni, and it was often quicker to walk.
    What we ultimately need is a rapid underground rail line encircling the CBD, and a lot of bus spurs feeding it’s stations.

  • Er, isn’t this a moot point, since the Outer Link clearly has been split up into two one-way services on the full network redesign map?

    I’ve been using the Outer Link a lot in the last week, and I think that it has its good points, but none that wouldn’t be equally served by splitting it in two.

    • Peter M

      I guess the question is whether we should continue to run a service with so many flaws for the next 3-4 years.

      • Luke C

        I understand the first parts of the review will be implemented next year, so we could argue that this service should be first up.
        However although the Balmoral Road East West service looks pretty on paper its much harder in reality due to the dreadful road environment of Balmoral road. Needs to be lots of work on new bus stops and improved pedestrian amenity to get people transferring at those intersections, and believe on bus announcements required along the ‘tramline’ buses so make the transfer legible.
        However you are much to charitable to NZ bus, in theory they are a brilliant private sector operator, why else would they run a majority of the buses in Auckland. However it seems they are hopeless are doing anything innovative or running any sort of complex service. I really hope the network redesign will be an opportunity for some retendering, and Ritchies, Urban Express/Pavlovich and Tranzit to take over some routes.

  • AC

    This is a shame. I used it a few times when I was last home and quite enjoyed it. Lord knows Auckland needs bus services that join our town centres together. It was the first time I could get easily from Epsom south to Mt Eden on the bus! I hope the problems can be ironed out.

    • Peter M

      Yes I agree it is a shame that the route suffers from these horrific reliability and slowness problems, because in theory it’s a fantastic route. It looks great on paper, it connects up a whole heap of different destination and it does something really useful.

      It’s just impossible to operate, Either that or NZ Bus just suck at operating it and I don’t think it’s the latter.

  • David O

    If it’s to be split doesn’t it make more sense for the split to cut it (more or less) in half? Like Pt Chev and Newmarket, or CBD and St Lukes? I don’t really understand the ‘theory’ that would underpin a decision like that, so interested to hear an expert opinion.

    • Stu Donovan

      When you chop it up you simply want to create a distinct and direct route with reasonably equivalent loadings along it’s length. In this case, I’d suggest cutting the western end at Mt Albert and taking the eastern end from Newmarket to Glen Innes via Remuera Rd.

  • Ari

    It looks like at half of those traffic lights the buses are competing with the main flow of traffic, so it’s not suprising that the buses are late a lot and that you get bunching.

  • Harvey Specter

    Why not stop the ‘Outer Loop’ and change it to an ‘Outer run’. starting and ending at Newmarket and Ponsonby. You then use the inner loop to connect to the city.

    That gives a distinct start and stop and reduces the number of buses going into the city which may enable the inner loop to increase in frequency.

  • I agree with the need to replace the Outer LINK. I never thought it was a very good route, and the reliability is just too poor for a decent service.

  • Dunc

    When I first discovered the OL it was great. It was running straight off the back of the RWC and was seamless. Then last November I tried to catch it home, from Ponsonberry to Port Chevs. It never arrived, but fortunately a 005 did so I jumped on that. Helpfully, the driver was pulling over at every stop and telling the fuming passengers waiting that they better hop on or they’ll have a heck of a wait! She also told every passenger that OL numbers had recently been cut and that we should all email or call up and complain.

    I personally don’t mind the scheduled waits, once one arrives, they’re a bloody good service and I find the route useful too. Wish the wifi always worked.

    Oh, one last thing: how far does the ‘last’ bus go? It’s around 11pm from the CBD, but I’ve always wondered when/where it terminates! Does it do almost a complete loop? Or just stop when there are no more passengers?

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