I’ve been a user of the busway on and off since it opened, and recently I’ve been passing through Constellation station on a daily basis. This post is just a collection of my thoughts on how the station stacks up in my mind, particularly with regard to access to and from the station itself. I’d like to know what other people think.
Pedestrian access: What pedestrian access? Well there is some, admittedly. If you walk across the bus access roads, and down through the Park and Ride lot you eventually get to a footpath where you can make a ninety degree turn next to a retaining wall and gradually make your way to Constellation Drive. So it’s there, but not necessarily legible or at all easy to find out where to go. Clearly people walking any further than the carpark were the last thing on the designers’ minds, despite the fact it is actually pretty close to a fair number of houses and jobs.
Pick up and drop off: Every time I get off at Constellation, which is just about every day, I see more people waiting to get picked up than those who walk down to cars in the parking lot. I’d love to see a proper survey, but from my observation far more people get dropped off and collected than use the Park and Ride.
The whole pick up / drop off access is something greatly missing in the station design. There are a handful of parking spots with five minute time limits for “Kiss and Ride”, but to get near them you have to stand in the middle of the carpark to get near them. Every day I see a dozen or so people milling around on an exposed section of kerbside footpath waiting where they can be seen by their drivers coming in to the carpark to collect them. In the wind and rain there is little to do but stand in the elements with an umbrella or coat. There is a series of canopies that provide a sheltered path from the station down into the parking lot , yet crucially there is nothing at the point where the Kiss and Ride access is. No shelter, let alone a bench or anything else to make life easy. I think that is a big design flaw and something that needs to be addressed.
A further issue is the route drivers must take in and out of the station to pick someone up, in through the same cattle run lanes as Park n Riders, and out via a circuitous tour of the carpark itself. Quite frankly it seems that such movements were simply not considered in the design. Nevertheless there are two bus only roads accessing the station from which you can’t get to the carpark, and vice versa. These come together just between the station and the carpark which I would say is the perfect place to have pick up and drop of bays, it would just be a case of allowing drivers to use those two bus only roads. Given that you can’t actually get anywhere else on those bus roads there is little chance of them becoming congested or cars getting in the way of buses, so why not open them up for non-parkers? There is even room to add some shelters for people waiting.
Park and Ride: This is full before 8am, which suggests that it needs to be priced to manage access and use. On the surface that sounds a little draconian, why slug bus users to park at the station, aren’t we trying to encourage people onto the busway? Well yes and no. For a start we don’t know how many people would otherwise just catch a connector bus, something that is fairly easy (at peak times at least) now Hop is in place. Is free parking at Constellation station just a subsidy to some drivers? Does it just encourage more driving? I’ve seen surveys that show that most parkers at Constellation are simply coming from nearby suburbs like Unsworth and Mairangi Bay, places that have good bus feeders already. The sorts of residents who really need Park and Ride, say those who live out the back of Albany of Schnapper Rock that are never going to get good bus connections, are a small minority. How do we prioritise these people over those who live in nearby suburbs with good bus links? Well the simplest way I can see is pricing. Set the price a bit too high to be good value compared to catching a quick feeder bus from nearby suburbs, but still low enough that it is better value that driving the whole way if you are commuting from Paremoremo or Kaukapakapa.
Another issue is that a full parking lot is one that nobody else can use, which is a stickler if you’ve got an urgent meeting or last minute appointment. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be willing to pay quite a bit to park there, if there were some still available during the day.
It is obviously designed for boom gates to be added, so let’s do it already. For fairness we should charge at least the same as a single stage bus trip to the station to park at the station, or really just charge it as high as you can until it hits about 95% utilised. That way the people who really need to Park and Ride can do so when they need to, and for everyone else that last minute convenience is available… at a fair price.
There have recently been some ludicrous suggestions that 70% of busway users are park n riders. But if you use the station yourself you’ll quickly realise that is a physical impossibility given the numbers of people moving through. There are about 1,500 parking spaces on the Busway, all gone before the morning peak really kicks off. All day there are some 7,000 trips a day on the Northern Express alone and about 20,000 across the whole busway system. So you do the math on that one. I don’t know how anyone could calculate that actually, perhaps they surveyed people arriving at the station entrance from the carpark during one peak hour, and divided that by the patronage of just the Northern Express? Who knows?
Taxis: A simple question, why are there not taxis lined up at Constellation Station, particularly later in the evening? The NEX runs till about three in the morning on weekends but all it does is drop you at a station in the middle of nowhere. There would be plenty of folks who would be happy to spend ten bucks to get dropped home from the station by taxi, it would make a good alternative to the $60 or $70 taxi all the way from town to the East Coast Bays (or stumbling down back streets for an hour, which is my usual tactic). Taxis could meet each arrival of the NEX and shuttle people a few minutes home and be back to meet the next. They might do three or four runs an hour. That has to be more profitable than taxis waiting around for hours to get a single fare out of town, then dead running all the way back in.
The funny thing is that North Harbour Taxis have their depot a few hundred metres away just off Constellation Drive. Why not base some of their drivers at the station carpark instead? How about it AT, wouldn’t take much more than a phone call and a chat to set it up.
Bus connectivity: For the most part the busway currently runs like our train lines. Some buses come near the station, but basically you have to get yourself to or from the station some other way to connect the ‘mainline’ service. Despite always having an excellent paper integrated ticketing product and now with Hop fully rolled out, the network design just didn’t allow it to happen particularly easily. The main feeder route to Constellation is the 880, a two way loop that runs direct to Mairangi Bay, Rothesay Bay and Browns Bay on one side, and over to Unsworth and Rosedale on the other. The route is about as direct as possible between these suburbs and the station. It’s perfect, except for the fact it comes once every half hour at best, and hourly off peak and all weekend.
The very worst thing however is that it runs half hourly on weekday evenings, I’m frequently not back at the station by 7pm and if you miss that bus there is a thirty minute wait until the next with no other options for getting to the East Coast Bays. How many commuters could rely on such a service to get home? What good is the busway rapid transit running every five or ten minutes at that time, if you might have to wait 29 minutes to leave the station? Because of that, people are mostly stuck either taking a direct express bus, or driving or walking to the station.
My guess is that the focus on Park and Ride has meant that connecting buses were not a priority. Perhaps if we cared less about storing cars and more about moving people, they could have run the collector loops twice as frequently? Fifteen minute feeders would work wonders.
Personally I prefer to take the 86X express through the station from downtown straight to my neighbourhood, and most evenings more people get on at Constellation than get off. Yes, people get on an outbound afternoon express in the suburbs to head further out. This is actually a good sign for the value of Hop and the likely success of the New Network. Not long ago I would catch the 86X from Constellation outbound in the afternoons, and the driver and other passengers would look at me like I was insane. These days there are usually half a dozen other people doing the same (normal people too, not just transit nerds whose idea of fun is making funny connections).
Given the lack of frequency on the 880 feeder route it seems some folks have learned that they 86X follows the same route, so you can simply wait at the one stop and take whichever arrives first. A beautiful efficiency of hop. Bring on the New Network where every single route works this way.
This leads me to one other gripe. Of all the reviews of patronage and how people use the busway, they all seem to exclude all the patrons that arrive and depart on the same direct bus. They appear to count Park n Ride, Kiss n Ride and walk up (but how well?), and the few passengers transferring from a true feeder service to the NEX. But they seem to ignore all the patronage on through buses when assessing the relative use of the station. That’s a problem, because it overstates the proportion of Park n Ride users to total passenger numbers, and greatly downplays the value of connector buses. If you simply ignore most of the passengers that catch the bus to Constellation because they happen to leave on the same bus again, then you have a very poor picture of how willing people are to catch a bus to the station.
So in summary all of these points indicate a clear picture: people are absolutely drawn to the frequent, fast and reliable service of the Northern Express on the busway. However, there is currently a big lack of effective connecting and feeding services. Now I’m not too concerned here because the New Network will change all of that and make the busway a leading example of how to do it right. Nonetheless, a little attention to walking, cycling, kiss and ride and taxi access would be a good thing. It looks like the gold plated the stations in terms of their amenity for waiting passengers and park and riders, but overlooked some pretty fundamental aspects of station accessibility. It wouldn’t take too much to fix that.