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Guest Post: March Madness Marches On

This is a guest post from reader Stephen Davis and was originally posted here.

Regular readers of TransportBlog will be familiar with March Madness. With workers, students and kids all trying to use public transport simultaneously, it’s the busiest month of the year. In rush hour, trips can take an hour longer. People stand helplessly at bus stops as bus after bus sails by packed to the gunwales, with their headsigns proclaiming “BUS FULL”.

Once you do get on the bus, scenes like this are fairly common. The “no standing” line is completely ignored, and it’s your turn to watch from inside as your bus now leaves other people behind.

Now, Auckland Transport treat this as a temporary, transient thing. It’s a problem for a few weeks, but we can’t afford to run enough buses to solve the problem when we’d only use them for a few weeks of the year. To quote an AT spokesman, “The numbers travelling on buses and trains does increase but settles back again as students work out their schedules. The best advice is to plan ahead and try to travel outside peak times.”

Now you can debate whether that attitude is justified. Our friends at Generation Zero compiled a rather nice report on the issues people reported, and it’s been ignored by Auckland Transport. But at least it’s over now, and those of us who haven’t given up on public transport entirely can at least get on our buses.

Except for one thing: these pictures aren’t from March. They’re not even from peak time. All of them were taken between May and July, this year, after 10am and before 4:30pm.

Welcome to New North Road.

I live in Kingsland, and study at the University of Auckland. I head in and out at all times, peak, interpeak, and evening. So this gives me a good chance to see how the buses are getting used, all day. There’s a lot of students, but the crowds aren’t just timed on the hour as people try to get to lectures. There’s also lots of non-students on the buses, too – judging by the number of beeps on their Hop cards.

The last week is typical. I’ve travelled in during the peak once, and interpeak four times. Of those four, twice I was left behind by a full bus, with the next at least ten minutes behind. Three of the four times it was standing room only. Twice the standing room was in front of the line saying “no standing in front of this line”. And this is at Kingsland, not even the end of the run – so as we go through Eden Terrace, those buses are no longer picking anyone up.

On a personal level, it doesn’t matter too much being a little late. I aim to get in well before lectures so that I’ve got time to do some work. I’m also young and not travelling too far, so standing doesn’t bother me.

But none of this is helping anyone else. Auckland is trying to grow public transport use, but in order to do so it needs to actually have some capacity for growth. We’re also trying to improve the reputation of public transport, and this sort of unreliability isn’t going to convince new people to try it.

So why is the crowding so bad? Have a look at the frequency of buses between Saint Lukes and the city. The hours are the times they arrive at Victoria Park at the end of their routes.

The frequencies are fairly high in the peak from 8-9, naturally, and are still high as late as 11am. But during the middle of the day they drop as low as 3-4 buses per hour. All that needs doing is to extend the frequency of buses throughout the day to be closer to the level during peak: 6 buses per hour or more. That’s what we run on Dominion Road, and less than what runs on Mount Eden Road. Some of the services can also keep running as expresses during the day, for example the 224 which starts all the way in Henderson. If it’s not going to stop in Kingsland anyway, it might as well be called an express.

You can also see that we need to extend bus lane hours and lengths. The few bus lanes along the route end at 9am – but the second-busiest hour, by the number of buses, is 9-10am.

The most infuriating part is that overcrowding off-peak is actually a good problem to have and a relatively easy one to solve. Full buses make money. Adding a new bus is expensive, but we already have them – there’s extra buses running during the peak hours, so all that’s needed is to run them at higher frequency a little longer. That’s good for business. It’s good for drivers, who can avoid split shifts or short shifts. And it’s good for passengers, current and potential.

Increasing frequency off-peak also helps with peak crowding. If the service is more attractive, more people will try to move their travel to avoid the peak.

Solving the overcrowding during the peak and in March is harder. There’s issues with the buses bunching once they get too frequent, for example. It’s going to take double decker buses, more frequency, more bus lanes, and maybe even light rail. But crowding in the interpeak? We could fix that right now, and it’ll make money, not cost money.

79 comments to Guest Post: March Madness Marches On

  • helgaarlington

    I was on a bus from Sandringham to town on Tuesday about 12.30pm and it had a full standing load before Eden Park.

  • Early Commuter

    “I live in Kingsland”
    30 minutes by Shank’s Pony to uni

    • It’s about 40 from where I live, and that’s the solution I use for exams, when you cannot afford any risk of being late. Other than that, I’m lazy, just like everyone else.

      • 40 minutes on foot translates to 10 to 15 minutes on a bicycle. Which probably beats the bus at any time of the day. Are there a lot of people cycling to town over there? I’ve always found cycling a lot more practical than taking the bus for short distances.

        • The last numbers I can find are from 2012 (pre-Grafton Gully) but then the student mode share for cycling to UoA and AUT was around 2%, compared to over 50% for public transport.

          For me personally I have a bike and use it sometimes, particularly in summer, during the real March Madness, and if I need to go in on a Sunday. But unless I want to ride on New North Road and Symonds Street and get crushed into a thin red paste by a motor vehicle, the route for cycling is considerably more roundabout than walking. There’s also much more up-and-down than should really be necessary. There’s also a lot of faffing around at each end. A couple of minutes to get the bike out from its lair at home, and a bit of a tiki-tour to get to a parking space at the city end.

          So between those two effects it ends up taking about 30 minutes, longer than the bus and only barely better than walking.

          The other major problem with biking is similar to a car – it means you’re not flexible to change your plans later. Once you’ve left the house with a bike you’re stuck making sure you can park it until you get home, and you have to make all the intervening trips by bike as well, rain or shine, cycle lane or traffic sewers. If cycling were a reasonable option everywhere in the city that would be fine, or if I had secure parking that I could leave the bike at overnight that would work too.

    • Lindsey

      I too live in Kingsland and go into the city after 9am. I am 66 and walking into town to do my JP thing at the Help desk at the District Court is not practical. The full buses go past me regularly, and I often get the last seat or somone gives me one. The bus is full standing by Symonds St. Coming home – the Patiki Rd bus was full at the Uni at 1.30pm. There is no such thing as “off peak” on Symonds St these days.

    • bjfoe

      Turns out it’s the exactly the same trip time by hobby horse

  • Alex B

    Build those damn Light Rails already (or atleast more bus lanes with extended times). Enough with the the talk and more actual doing stuff. It would increase capacity and reliability!!!

  • kelvin

    I agreed the interpeak need to have more frequency. Sometime when I travel at 10am the train are just too infrequent not to miss

  • Sailor Boy

    This isn’t difficult AT, more interpeak services at the very least should be achievable.

  • Brendan

    Do the real time boards and data feeds at https://api.at.govt.nz/ at least warn you that the bus is full, or do you wait around for ages and then find out the bus is full when you can read the front of it.

    • fab

      No – it’s only when the bus goes past without stopping (some drivers do a little ‘sorry’ wave, others don’t bother) that you know the bus is full.
      Some might have signs but others don’t (Birkenhead T. don’t).

    • There’s no information, but even if there were I’m not sure how far in advance you’d be able to warn anyone. You can’t know which buses are going to be full until they are actually full, which might happen just a few minutes before they get to you.

      • Also the bus driver would also need to remember to turn the bus full sign off as it empties out, which often they don’t. I see inbound Mt Eden buses go past my work on lower Symonds St with Bus Full signs even though they are nearly empty.

        • Often they do actually stop and let people on with the BUS FULL sign on, though, which is fairly confusing too.

          • Steve Cable

            quite possibly the driver stopped to let someone off and had to accept boarding passengers, happens frequently on a full NEX bus at Smales Farm

        • BBC

          Should be easy to automate since everyone is tagging on, shouldn’t require any bus driver input at all.

        • When catching Isthmus buses I often see “bus full” and the drivers go slightly past the stop to let people off to avoid anyone else boarding… I don’t really understand the logic if you are letting people off surely there would be room for at least some of the people waiting at the stop?

  • kris_b

    There are plenty of things AT could fix right now, but they are plainly uninterested. For the last few years, their answer is “the new network is coming!”. It’s bullshit.

  • John Polkinghorne

    Really good post Stephen. More capacity please, AT!

  • kris_b

    Speaking off terrible off-peak service, I’m trying to plan a trip from Te Atatu Pen to New Lynn and back on Sat night. Turns out, that there are no buses from Te Atatu Pen to Henderson (where I would then take the train to New Lynn) after 6 on a Sat. Well, there is, but it requires taking one bus to Pt Chev, then another back from Pt Chev to Henderson. At which point I might as well not bother and just transfer to a New Lynn bound bus at Pt Chev, which is what AT want me to do in the first place.

    There are trains running citybound from HSN to NL every half hour until 8:30, then they stop, while they apparently keep running west bound until the last one at about 12:20am. Not that it does me any good, because of course, there are no buses at 12:30 from Henderson to Te Atatu Pen, and that late I doubt there are even any cabs, so another 2 bus ride home via Pt Chev it is!

    Hopeless.

  • mfwic

    If it was a rail service they would have one long seat down either side so they could squeeze more people in.

    • Sailor Boy

      I think I’d rather stand on a bus going to my destination than in a bus stop.

      • flet1201

        That’s the point of standing to get somewhere. Standing on the bus not at the stop is what life is all about. Please AT organise it. Also organise the 24 hour bus lanes now.

    • Stranded on the North Shore

      I agree. I’d rather stand on a moving bus, than watch a bus go past with “bus full” on it. The double deckers actually aren’t solving this issue either. Why is our metro network designed for sitting passengers? Is it because we don’t have sufficient bus lanes to make the buses fast, so that long journeys require seats? Seriously, remove the double seats, make more space for standing passengers in every bus we have on our network. Peak, offpeak, interpeak, single, double decker, whatever… AT are you listening?

      • fab

        I suspect that for people who travel 40mns+, having a seat (at least most of the time) is pretty important . For short journeys it’s probably a minor thing.
        If we want to entice more people to try the bus (which means more crowding…so maybe I don’t…) then we need to offer frequency AND reasonable comfort.

        • That’s why a mix of seating and standing is useful. The seats fill up with people at the start of a run making long journeys, but there’s still room to squeeze in a few more standees making shorter trips.

          But standing on a bus is way more unpleasant than on a train – it requires more balance, and it can hugely slow down loading and unloading on a bus with just two doors. It’s also relevant that public transport competes with driving, which has various of its own unpleasant aspects but at least guarantees that you will get a seat.

          • Matthew W

            Wider doors and more continuous bus lanes should help with those issues. If buses aren’t in traffic they can be driven more smoothly.

      • bjfoe

        It’s believe it’s called the john-ston effect

      • tall nick

        It hasn’t come up yet as I rarely catch a bus serviced by the double deckers so I haven’t experienced them when full and I don’t know how they handle it but I don’t fit standing upright in them. Any journey standing would be most uncomfortable 🙁

  • Bryan

    Surely AT should be using the HOP data to highlight every route and stop where a bus is at capacity, and using that data for route and timetable planning, and passing it on to the bus company for fleet allocation?

  • The Real Matthew

    This is an interesting topic because last Friday I was having a few ales with my regular Friday drinking buddies. Naturally Auckland transport is not a topic of choice but one party to our conversation made an interesting comment. “Don’t all those double decker buses going by 1/4 full look awful”.

    I must say I hadn’t noticed but since that comment I have been tracking the double deckers going by and the commenter was right. I’d estimated only 10-15% are any more than half full.

    I’m speaking here from a Newmarket perspective where I would expect most passengers would already be on the bus.

    So my question is in light of the evidence presented in the post are we getting the right allocation of double decker buses to the route’s that need them? Anecdotally I suggest there is room for improvement.

  • Hopping mad

    Great post.
    One of the most frustrating issues is no bus lane through Kingsland shopping centre.
    One peak time morning it took 20 minutes to get from New north at Morningside Drive to crawl to Kingsland. Walking would have taken 8 minutes because I did it the next morning in disgust.
    It’s time there was a real commitment to continuous bus lanes.

    • Thanks!

      Yes, through Kingsland is horrible. In peak time often you get to wait for several minutes watching as a bus crawls towards you, wondering if it’s full or not. It must be worse being on the bus if that’s your stop.

  • ben

    Do AT staff follow this site? It is really good and could say offers pretty good policy advice. Do staff ever respond to your posts or get involved in conversations?

  • Ak-Sam

    Great post.. Simple and effective.

    AT are just slow to react, but the comment from their spokesperson is a bit ridiculous.

    Cheaper than double deckers would be a metro bus layout with a row seats down each side, plus a ‘leaning bar’ down the centre (some trains and buses overseas have leaning bars). This means 4 rows of passengers.
    Of course, getting people out of their cars isn’t going to be as easy if we expect them to lean rather than sit.

    Also, some shelters are too small for 50+ people who often wait at them. I’m noticing this in winter. Man, it’s cold!

  • Anthony McBride

    Any chances we can also get Modern Articulated buses to help with the overcrowding as well?

    • BBC

      Think NZ law doesn’t allow them due to their length, which is the reason we only have the ancient ones still (barely) running and no new ones.

      • Anthony McBride

        You’re kidding me?! Wouldn’t having both double deckers and articulated buses improve capacity for everyone? :/

      • Bruce

        How did the law change?
        Have seen quite a lot of used imports come in Bayes buses have a lot of them.
        In most cases DD are better but for shorter trips with lots of stops bendy buses are useful.
        Have seen double bendy buses in Sweden that are really long! Some countries even have DD bendy buses.

      • Waspman

        Are you sure BBC? There’s some extremely long trucks out there that far exceed any bus ever and Bayes Coachelines operates a number of quite new Chinese models of bendy buses.

        • Waspman

          From Bayes website – “Our large articulated city buses are modern, safe and reliable vehicles. They have a huge 81 seat capacity and are perfect for a wide range of group events. Special features: Air conditioning, Twin door entry, Economical”

    • Sam B

      Bendy buses and cyclists just don’t mix well – bendy buses were removed from London in the early 2010s for this reason fulfilling a mayoral campaign promise per http://web.archive.org/web/20121022090128/http://www.standard.co.uk/news/scrap-the-bendy-bus-and-bring-back-routemasters-says-boris-6642674.html
      Auckland and London (London of 2010 anyway) have in common: a lot of bus routes in narrow lanes / lots of corners on routes / buses sharing space with cyclists going around these corners in narrow lanes. Bendy buses have their place (eg a route exclusively on a busway) but in my view are not suited for many Auckland routes.

      • Mike (the longstanding one)

        As Britain and Europe have since found out, it pays not to believe anything Boris Johnson says. His replacement of the artics was a populist electoral stunt, backed up by little (if any) factual reasoning.

      • Bigted

        Sam is more likely they are to expensive to run with the extra RUCs alone costing more than what any extra passengers they can fit in the back half, with the new double deck buses there is no loner a need for the old style bendy buses.

        • Waspman

          Which in itself Bigted, makes Road User Charges a mockery on public service buses. They should be excluded to make PT cheaper to run.

    • Horrible things, we used to have them, a nightmare for every other road user and pedestrians. DDs are the answer, then Light Rail, then proper trains on grade separate right of ways.

  • Jonski

    The 881 recently was upgraded to a double decker for capacity reasons… Went past me at Akoranga this afternoon with a Bus Full sign on. Le sigh.

  • Waspman

    If buses originated in Kingsland, St Lukes or even the Mt Albert shops over crowding would not be an issue but chances are they originate in the depths of West Auckland just to roll 15 routes into one. To overcome this peak services should be split between two buses, the usual services ceases picking up passengers where the second relay bus originates, and from that point it only drops passengers off. It would speed up trip times as well.

    And peak buses must seat a minimum of 50 plus standing rather than those tiny Dennis buses which are good for a Sunday evening.

    • Having an all-stops bus rolling in all the way from Henderson (the 224) is not a recipe for quick trips or reliable buses. But a lot of buses do start at Saint Lukes already, the 220. Those short runners are definitely helpful, but not enough.

  • Anna

    I agree about the bus lanes needing to be extended till after 9am. I occasionally catch a bus to work after a school drop-off (when not riding). If I’m a bit late it takes forever going up Dominion Road as the bus lanes finish at 9 and revert to car parks / loading zones. Often the bus is packed but slowed down massively by a few cars and vans parked in the bus lanes. It’s crazy.

  • Lindsey

    It would help to separate the Uni/Unitec passengers from the CBD pasengers by having some New North Rd/ SandringhamRd buses that don’t go to Symonds St – ie they hook off just past Mostyn St and go direct to the CBD by way of Ian McKinnon Drive. That solves some of the Symonds St snarl up and leaves space on the Symonds St buses for those who need to go there.

  • Matthew

    In most places around the world, overcrowding on public transport is to be expected, and pretty much accepted as unavoidable. With the population of Auckland increasing this is not something that will disappear. The full bus issue, however does need urgent attention. It is rather cold at the moment and I for one do not appreciate spending any longer than necessary awaiting a bus!

    • Sailor Boy

      +1, overcrowding on rail corridors is understandable, it is often difficult to add new capacity as most systems operate as many vehicles as possible in peak hour. On buses, where the interpeak frequency is 1/3 of peak, this is unacceptable.

    • Yes, peak-time crowding is a real thorny issue. But interpeak crowding is not just easy to solve but a good problem to have. Much cheaper to run a moderate number of buses all day than loads of buses but only at peak.

  • Dave Goodyear

    the nature of Auckland Transport which is an organised shambles to be polite. Each department conflicts each other, PT conflicts with the traffic operations department, the NZTA entrenched traffic signal network operations team, favours cars than any other mode (the sooner traffic modelling engineers 1970’s style are considered extinct the better.)

    walking & cycling is pretty much over ruled on every occasion and the non-existent road safety team projects appears to avoid the much needed projects and focus on low hanging fruits to reach their annual spend, most of which does not improve safety at all.

    The Warburtons, and Edmonds all drive single occupancy vehicles, with dedicated parking spaces free of charge at down town car parks both have been responsible for the shambles of the bus service which is not improving but getting worse.

    Perhaps these leaders, could lead by example and use either buses or walk or cycle to works? could these culprits be held accountable by an independent performance audit group? having complained about the lack of service as a regular PT user every day for the last 10 years, AT does not even respond now as they do not have the capability to improve this worsening performance.

    Genzero has had to step in to demonstrate how bad the level of service is, how come in 2016 we can still have an issues like this is the modernised, civilised world, the genzero survey probably only captured a fraction of the demograph the real truth is probably far worse.

    Time for the Mayor and his lackies to start holding these people to account

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