Sunday’s launch of the Hobsonville/Beach Haven ferry seems to have got some, such as the perennial mischief-maker Cameron Brewer, excited about ferries and thinking that they can fix all of Auckland’s Transport problems. On the plus side, he also seems to have become a fan of bus lanes which is something to store away in the memory banks:
“Yesterday’s opening of the new ferry terminals for Beach Haven and Hobsonville Point was a great day for Auckland, but the claim that ferries would play a much greater role in Auckland’s transport future was a bit disingenuous. The rhetoric simply does not match the reality of what’s being planned and budgeted.”…
…”These two new ferry terminals are great but the sad reality is the council won’t be able to pour a heap into new or improved ferry infrastructure simply because of the Mayor’s central city rail obsession which is set to soak up most of the public transport capital expenditure budget this coming decade.
“Spending approximately 80 percent of the 10-year budget on the City Rail Link is not a balanced approach, and will not deliver a strong and mixed integrated transport system.
“This is not good news for ferry and bus users who want serious investment in their infrastructure and services. The Mayor tells everyone he’s going to do everything, but the budget clearly points to one CBD project soaking up most of the money”
“In 2013/14 alone we’re set to spend $180m on the City Rail Link. That’s a lot of ferry terminals or tarmac for new bus-lanes,” says Cameron Brewer.
While the support for bus lanes is great (a pity it comes too late to save the Remuera Road bus lanes from being turned back into T3 tractor lanes) I think Brewer, along with a lot of other people, often miss the point when they state that ferries should do much more of the transport task by building a whole pile of new terminals and opening up a whole pile of new routes. Put simply, the point is that while ferries have an important role to play in Auckland’s PT system, they only work in certain situations.
So what are those situations? Obviously for a start they need to be on the coast – which has the somewhat unfortunate outcome of half a ferry terminal’s walking catchment being water (much more than that if a long wharf is required). The prime waterfront location of ferry terminals also makes park and ride facilities either incredibly expensive to provide in terms of land acquisition or incredibly ugly. Or both. So there’s quite a reliance on good feeder buses, or having the ferry route offer such a significant time savings that it’s worth going out of your way to make the ferry work.
And on that last point there are some situations in Auckland where ferries really do offer a compelling advantage over anything else. Waiheke is the obvious example because there really isn’t an alternative, while Devonport comes to mind as the other immediately obvious location where ferries will always make sense – simply because of this:
These two locations really dominate ferry patronage, as shown in the screenline survey for trips to the CBD in the AM peak period, making up nearly half of trips:
The relatively slow growth since 2006 seems to indicate that we’ve probably squeezed close to as much out of those two routes as possible.
So how can we make the most out of the potential of the ferry system? I guess there are a few different options:
- Add more routes from new locations – Te Atatu, Mission Bay, Browns Bay, Howick, Takapuna and various other points around the harbour (including a cross Manukau service) are often mentioned.
- Build more park and ride spots so that more people can drive to ferry terminals.
- Continue to invest in current services by offering better frequencies and bringing ferries into the proposed zone based ticketing system so that fares (at least for regular users are cheaper).
- Improve bus/ferry integration (fares being a critical part of this) so that ferries are used in a similar way to trains and the busway: as a fairly rapid part of the PT network which avoids congestion on the road system completely.
There are possibly other ways in which we can improve ferries, but generally I think the last two bullet points above are what we should focus on – particularly ahead of continuing to look for new routes – no matter how attractive that seems to local politicians.
Let’s take the new Hobsonville/Beach Haven ferry for example – while there’s much excitement about this at the end of the day the service provided is pretty rubbish: barely a handful of sailings and only on weekdays. No off-peak service, no weekend service, eye-wateringly high fares. Too bad if you want to use the ferry to check out Hobsonville on a sunny Saturday – the ferries don’t run. Too bad if you’re a university student living in Hobsonville and want to stay late – the ferries don’t run after a 6:10pm sailing. Too bad if you don’t want to live your life around a timetable: even at peak times it’s over an hour between sailings and 8.05am is the last sailing from Hobsonville to get you into the city in the morning.
Many other ferry timetables are similar. The Gulf Harbour Ferry also only runs a couple of trips a day – though at least it also has a middle of the day service for day-trippers up to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. Tickets are only again pretty steep at $27 return for an adult. The Half Moon Bay ferry, which I think has huge potential as it bypasses a hugely congested stretch of Auckland’s transport network, similarly has rubbish frequencies with one service every two hour outside the peak (I guess at least there are off-peak services?)
In terms of improving access to the ferries, I think we’d do well to think of them as being somewhat similar to the rapid transit network. A fairly sparse (in terms of walk up catchment) but pleasant and (theoretically) fast and reliable service because it avoids traffic congestion on the roading network. So bus integration, including free transfers between buses and ferries, becomes absolutely critical here in opening up the catchment of the ferries far wider than otherwise possible. If Half Moon Bay ferries were far more frequent we could have most buses from Bucklands Beach and that northern portion of “southeast Auckland” feeding into the ferry network as much as it feeds into Panmure station and the rail network or Botany town centre and the future busway along Ti Rakau Drive. Park and ride will always be difficult to provide for at ferry terminals – due to their inherent location in high amenity waterfront areas.
So perhaps next time someone comes up with a “we should add this ferry route” argument we might also think about whether that’s really the best use of funds or whether we should focus on improving what we already have – because it seems like there’s a lot of untapped potential in the routes that already exist. But I guess that’s just not quite as sexy as pushing for new routes – regardless of the quality of service which ends up being provided and the rather high capital cost in providing for just a handful of trips every weekday.