An idea that crops up quite often is whether we can get rid of all the buses in the city centre. This idea is normally backed up with the suggestion that buses are dirty, smelly, noise loathesome things that have no place in a civilised city.
Now right up front I don’t agree with that suggestion. Modern buses are actually pretty clean and quiet, especially new hybrid and battery electric models. If we design our bus routes and infrastructure properly they can be very low impact and contribute nicely to the urban environment, but where we treat them like poor cousins or try and “paint the bus routes on afterwards” they can be horrendous.
But let’s ignore that reality for now and run with the premise: what would it take to get rid of buses from the city centre. I can see four general options:
- Stop all buses at the edge of town and make everyone walk in. I think this is a non starter, Auckland Central is just too big for this to work. Some people would be happy to walk a kilometre or two to get where they are going, but most want to get a lot closer than that. This idea also kills off any chance of connecting between buses to get across town.
- Stop all buses at the edge of town and transfer everyone to a light rail shuttle, tram loop or monorail circulator, etc. This I think is also a non starter. It overcomes the walk issue above but simply trades it for the inconvenience of a forced transfer on every trip. That’s not just unnecessarily inconvenient, it also requires some pretty massive terminus infrastructure to turn around hundreds of buses an hour at various points on the city fringe and get everyone over to some sort of shuttle thing. It also makes transfers across town awkward, although not impossible.
- Feed all buses into rail or busway tunnels and only have underground train/bus stations in the city. This is feasible, but would be very expensive. Given the current and projected bus patronage we would require two or three city rail links, or bus equivalents, to move the numbers. It also means you lose the easy street level access for more local trips, and would need to divert lots of local isthmus buses quite out of the way to link to connecting stations or bus tunnel portals. So without building something comprehensive, and expensive, like an underground metro network it’s hard to see how this could work, and indeed all the cities with the busiest metros still have masses of buses and trams running at street level.
- Convert all city bus routes to light rail, and only have light rail trams on city streets. This is the question I want to explore today, is it feasible to reinstall the Auckland isthmus tram system and only have light rail vehicles running on city streets?
Having only light rail on the streets is an appealing idea, people seem very fond of trams and the idea of an extensive tram network has little push back from architects and urban designers who are concerned with the look, feel and experience of the city. It’s hard to argue that trams aren’t nice to ride on, or that they don’t look cool. If done properly it would mean dedicated lanes for every transit route reaching the city, nice station style stops and permanent and legible ‘proper transit’ for a proper big city.
Light rail on street would have a few unique advantages too. One is that the corridors can be quite narrow given that the vehicles are stuck to their rails. The trams they use in Adelaide and Madrid, for example, are only 2.4m wide. This means a double tramway can fit in only 5m of road width, between stops at least. That could be very useful for our fairly narrow arterial roads, streets like Dominion Rd or Mt Eden Rd which are only 20m wide in total and where even basic bus lanes are difficult. Putting narrow trams in the middle might buy us enough space for cycle lanes, or a row of parking.
So if we put aside the fact you can actually do much the same with buses, if you give them the same level of investment and attention, why wouldn’t we want this?
Well the simple answer is that it would cost a lot of money, money that might be better spent improving frequencies and adding new services rather than changing the existing ones from rubber tyres to steel wheels. So the question is how much would it actually cost, so let’s see. To work out this cost, I have taken the bus network published in the Regional Public Transport Plan and identified all of the routes that end in or pass through the city centre. I then grouped those together into bunches that run on the same corridor in town, giving six groups:
- Quay St: Tamaki Dr to Jervois Rd/Pt Chevalier, plus the Inner Link loop
- Symonds St: routes from Remuera Rd, Great South Rd and Manukau Rd
- Queen St: Mt Eden Rd, Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd, New North Rd
- Albert St: Great North Rd, and Richmond Rd
- The Northwestern Motorway
- The Northern Busway
One thing to note here, I tried to be conservative with the track and make stuff as small as possible. To that end I’ve not replace some of the smaller bus routes that enter the city at all, I guess the idea is they would terminate at somewhere like Newmarket, Ponsonby or Parnell and people would have to swap to the trams. This might not be the best way to run things for the network, but it seems to be a simple way to do it.
Adding these corridors up, we arrive at the following figures for the total track required (the total route length is longer because the routes share tracks near the City Centre).
For the city routes I’ve applied a cost of $12m per kilometre for track, power and roadway reconstruction. That’s a mid range estimate taken from review of recent light rail projects in Australia. I’ve also allowed for one pair of platform style stops for every 500m of track, costed at $500k each. On the Northern and Northwestern routes I’ve allowed for the addition of tracks to busway and motorway shoulders, and in the case of the Northwestern, some new stations at $10m each. This does assume that we can simply run light rail tracks on the busway, motorway shoulders and over the general lanes of the harbour bridge, probably in mixed traffic. Again that might not be the best way to do it, but it’s the cheapest. In addition, we’d need a maintenance depot and some stabling yards, total of $100m allowed there.
Finally, I worked out what would be required for a peak frequency of one tram every five minutes on each street level route (giving better frequency where they overlap), while I allowed for one every three minutes on the Northern and Northwestern corridors. Overall that requires 94 light rail vehicles, each costed at $5m.
All together that adds up to 152 route-kilometres operating on 119.7 kilometres of double track electrified tramway, with 119 stations served by 94 vehicles running every five minutes at peak times. That would leave Auckland in a sort of Melbourne like position. Heavy rail for the main trunk routes from most of the region, light rail filling in some other radial corridors, the inner suburbs covered in street level tram lines and buses relegated to feeder and crosstown routes well away from the City Centre.
So, what is the magic number to get rid of buses by building a light rail network covering all routes entering the City Centre? Add it all up and we get an estimate of $2.36 billion dollars (I actually think that is a bit light, not for the street level stuff but I fear the Northern and Northwestern motorway based ones could in practice get very expensive indeed).
The question is, is it worth it? Could we do better with that money?
Well at a service level it’s really no better than what we will have with the New Network buses, at least in terms of frequency and accessibility. Spending that money would buy us a lot of reliability, assuming that the tram tracks would be closed to traffic for the most part and the trams could run without interference at any time of day. However we could do the same with an aggressive programme of bus lanes for a lot cheaper. Likewise with the new station style stops, the corresponding street upgrades, the modern cool looking and comfortable vehicles. We’d get all that, but the question remains could we not do the same with our bus stops and save a whole lot of money in the process. Another point is this would deliver a multi-billion dollar transit boost to the isthmus and the North Shore… which are, excluding the CBD and parts of Glen Innes, precisely those areas that see the least allowance for development in the Unitary Plan.
I’d love it if some minister turned up with two and half billion for such a project, and I do believe Auckland would be an amazing place if this were done. But is it really something to aim for, or can we do better with our money?
Let us know what you think, I hope to see lots of juicy debate on this one!