Several recent posts have extolled the merits of “better buses” for Auckland. These posts have generally focused on the following issues:
- Corridor infrastructure – as discussed in this post, there are strong arguments in favour of expanding Auckland’s bus lane network so as to improve bus speeds/reliability.
- Network structure – as discussed in this post, Auckland Transport’s draft RPTP has proposed a network of frequent bus lines which are designed to support the rail and busway networks.
- Vehicle technology - as discussed in this post, bus operators in Auckland are just about to trial double-decker buses, while this earlier post discussed rapid developments in hybrid/electric bus technologies.
Improved corridor infrastructure, a better network, and newer/larger vehicles should all drive bus patronage higher. Complementing these bus improvements will be a vastly improved rail network – sporting fast, new trains that operate at high frequencies – and integrated ticketing/fares – enabling people to travel seamlessly across the network irrespective of mode or operator.
The “take-away message”, as they say, is that many more people are likely to be using Auckland’s buses in 10 years time compared to now. And we’ll also be using buses in subtly different ways: Rather than staying on the bus for long trips, more people will be catching the bus for a short distance and then connecting to a faster rail or busway service. On the surface this all sounds like good news.
But hold on a second – all this seems to be overlooking something. More specifically, if we have more people using buses and they are using them for shorter trips, then does this not mean that the rate of passenger movements per bus-kilometre traveled will increase by a disproportionate amount? This in turn means, holding other factors constant, the time buses spend dwelling at stops will also increase. The irony here is that all of the aforementioned initiatives, which are designed to improve the attractiveness of the bus system, will – if they are successful at attracting passengers – tend to place inexorable downward pressure on bus operating speeds.
That’s the vicious cycle on which I think we should focus our collective attention.
In the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of residing in a number of cities. Two of these stand-out for the way they have treated their buses with dignity, namely Brisbane (pop ~2 million) and Edinburgh (pop ~600,000). Both of these cities have bus networks that carry over 110 million trips per year, i.e. twice as many bus passengers as Auckland. And for this reason both Brisbane and Edinburgh have had to grapple with gnarly issues that Auckland may need to confront in the future.
In Brisbane they’ve gone for what could charitably be described as “infrastructure intensive” solutions. This has seen them spend not considerable sums of money on extremely high quality grade-separated bus infrastructure in the city centre. One of the most recent shining (if spending money is to be applauded) examples of this infrastructure is King George Square Station, which is illustrated below. This underground bus station connects via a tunnel to Roma Street and Queen Street Stations to the north and south respectively. KGS apparently has a design capacity of about 300 buses per hour, or 20,000 passengers per hour, however achieving this through-put would require modifications to the approaches and platforms.
Edinburgh, for their part, have opted for slightly less infrastructure. Their main trick has been to develop a network of on-street bus lanes on major arterial roads leading into the city, which converge on Princes Street. The latter then becomes a bus/taxi only mall at peak periods, as illustrated below. Edinburgh has in turn developed a network structure that enables them to “through-route” almost all services (NB: It’s worth mentioning that this kind of network structure, which results in relatively long routes, is aided and abetted by Edinburgh’s relatively compact and symmetric urban form and not necessarily something that can be replicated in cities like Brisbane and Auckland).
In terms of what’s best for Auckland, my gut feeling is that our bus sweet spot lies somewhere between Brisbane and Edinburgh. That is, as a relatively large and rapidly growing city we will need some high-quality, possibly even underground, bus infrastructure in our city centre. It’s notable that the two major bus corridor initiatives implemented in Auckland in the last decade, namely the Northern Busway and the Central Connector have piked out completely as they approach the City Centre. Right where you need the priority treatment the most is where we have waved the white flag.
And unfortunately the consequence of failing to provide adequate bus infrastructure has not been pretty: It has exacerbated bus congestion in the core central city area which in turn further detracts from urban amenity. Ironically, the congestion arising from inadequate bus infrastructure in Auckland has prompted some people to (naively) call for banishing buses from the city centre altogether. While our historical reluctance to provide appropriate facilities for buses says a lot about our collective unwillingness to recognise the contribution buses make to the city centre, it now creates an opportunity for us to develop something better – something that can support our existing bus corridors while accommodating those that we expect to develop in the future, as per the new bus network.
But enough about infrastructure! The primary point of this post was actually to identify a range of “softer” initiatives that have been implemented in cities overseas, which Auckland could adopt to maintain bus speeds as patronage grows, namely:
- Wider stop spacing – Brisbane’s high-frequency routes tend to follow a limited stopping pattern, which sees them stopping every 800m or so. Stop spacing is even longer on the the City Glider services, which provide an inner-city cross-town function. This typically means that you sometimes have to be prepared to walk a bit further, but when you do you have access to services that are frequent and fast. Moreover, these services are complemented by all-stop services operating underneath, which typically focus on providing local access and coverage. By way of comparison, light rail lines often tend to have stop spacings approaching 1km.
- Managing cash payment – Many services in Brisbane are “pre-pay only”, which simply means you have to have a smart card in order to board. Edinburgh has taken a slightly different approach: Passengers can still pay with cash on all services, but if you do then you don’t get any change. Instead, passengers paying by cash simply have to throw the money in an automatic cash counter, which then automatically tells the bus driver whether they have paid enough for the fare that they have requested. Again, this drastically reduces dwell times (customers paying by cash board almost as fast as those using a smart card) and also increases revenues.
- Vehicle configuration – This has multiple dimensions, but generally involves vehicle designs that enable much quicker loading and unloading. Key features include double-door entry/exit, so that passengers paying by cash do not block other passengers that are paying by smartcard. Similarly, double-door exit at the back enables quicker unloading of passengers, which is especially crucial when operating a tag-off system – as Auckland is doing. Another common aspect of buses in both Brisbane and Edinburgh is wider aisles, especially towards the front, which enables speedies loading – particularly for people with wheelchairs and prams.
Given that buses have a lifetime of 12-15 years Auckland Transport and the bus operators would ideally be thinking about these issues now, so that they can be incorporated into vehicle procurement and contracting policies from at an early stage. Some of this is happening already – as per the double-decker bus trial noted above. But on the other hand I do wonder if Auckland Transport should develop some form of operational plan (i.e. non-infrastructure) that analyses our current bus system, identifies where time is being lost, and identifies/prioritises some the issues that will need to be tackled to accommodate up to 120 million bus trips per year. Of course, there may be things that Auckland can implement now in anticipation of higher patronage.
As an aside, Auckland really needs to take a leaf out of Brisbane and Edinburgh’s bus book. As these cities have shown, appropriately sized and designed bus infrastructure will reduce the impact of buses on the city centre. Sure, some negative impacts remain, but that’s more the result of the eternal tension that exists in urban environments between mobility and accessibility, between movement and exchange, than something that is intrinsic to buses per se.
Be interested to hear what other initiatives people think could be used to make Auckland’s buses better …