Rodney Hide’s opinion piece in the Herald on Sunday highlighted an issue that’s been bugging me for some time – whether those opposing the City Rail Link on the grounds that “buses can do the job fine” are really interested in improving Auckland’s bus system or not. Here’s what he says about his preference for buses:
It’s not obvious to me that a heavy train having to stop and start and be confined to tracks is the best way to ferry people around Auckland. Buses along roads strike me intuitively as a cheaper and more flexible form of public transport.
Many more people live closer to a bus stop than a train station. That’s because buses go along roads that people live on. Buses can also pass one another. Trains can’t do that.
Because of the flexibility and convenience, more people travel into the city centre by bus than train. That will stay true even if Auckland spends billions on trains at the expense of better roads and better bus services.
John Roughan made a similar cry in favour of buses in the Saturday Herald:
The crossing would have to be under water and probably it would be connected to the northern busway that one day conceivably could be converted to a railway, but that, too, is a solution looking for a problem.
The busway, like the bridge, is fine.
The problem lies in roads closer to home. By car it can take as long to get on to the motorway as it takes for the rest of the journey. By bus it takes too long to get to a busway station. Once on the busway, you can be in the city in eight minutes.
In fact, the North Shore is probably better served by the busway than the rest of Auckland is by its railways, which also have to be reached by bus or car from most people’s homes.
The only reason the mayor invokes rail for the Shore is to answer its ratepayers when they ask why they should help pay for a project that isn’t coming their way. It’s a silly answer to a silly question but this is election year.
Russell Brown from Public Address notes the great irony of John Roughan now being a huge fan of the busway when he absolutely hated the idea back in 2007. I guess we chalk that up as someone won over – or should we?
The simple fact is that all these supposed bus fans have done diddly squat to actually encourage the improvement of Auckland’s bus system. I can’t exactly remember Rodney Hide out there campaigning to save the Remuera Road bus lane from turning back into a T3 lane. Or John Roughan supporting the implementation of the HOP Card – he pumped for Snapper back in 2009 and didn’t that end well?
As for the cabal of local councillors, Cameron Brewer, Dick Quax and George Wood. They frequently like to grandstand against the CRL claiming it is sucking up all of the money for PT, like in this article from 6 months ago.
Mr Quax said the rail project made little sense because it would gobble up 80 per cent of the public transport capital budget over the next 10 years when much-needed bus lanes and ferry terminals received a “paltry” 20 per cent.
They use this line quite frequently these days, despite their numbers actually being wrong – the PT capex budget for the next decade is ~$4b and the inflated CRL price is $2.86b, or 72% of the budget. Despite this, I haven’t exactly seen George Wood talking much about the stalled progress of extending the Northern Busway to Albany, or Dick Quax wanting to see the AMETI busway’s construction schedule sped up. In fact I don’t think I have seen any one of them suggest where a single metre of bus lane should be added or where they think new ferry services should operate from. Yesterday in response to the alternative funding proposals, they once again made vague comments without giving any detail.
I have a nasty feeling that when rail opponents say they support buses they’re actually not quite telling the truth. They realise it’s not viable for them politically (or practically) to dismiss public transport out of hand anymore – so they pretend to support buses on the spurious grounds of “buses need roads too” – when in actual fact they’re just mainly interested in spending as little as possible on public transport so all the money can go back into roads.
So next time someone plays the “buses are better than trains” card, I suggest asking them “so what have YOU specifically done to try and improve Auckland’s bus system recently?” Or “I look forward to your support for introducing bus lanes along desperately needed routes like Great North Road in Waterview, Manukau Road, Pakuranga Road, Onewa Road (uphill) and in many other places”. Then let’s see how deep their love affair with the bus really is.
We get a lot of conversations in our comments that boil down to expressions of preference for particular Transit modes depending on people’s experiences and values. Those who are most concerned about the cost of infrastructure tend to favour buses, and those who value the qualities that rail offers feel the generally higher capital costs are justified. Often these exchanges do little to shift people from their starting positions because it’s a matter of two different issues talking passed each other; it’s all: ‘but look at the savings’ versus ‘but look at the quality’.
And as it is generally agreed that Auckland needs to upgrade its Transit capabilities substantially I thought it might be a good time to pull back from the ‘mode wars’ with a little cool headed analysis. Because, as we shall see, it really isn’t that simple. It is possible to achieve almost all of what rail fans value with a bus, but only if you are willing to spend a rail-sized amount on building the route. Or alternatively you can build a system that has many of the disadvantages of buses in traffic but with a vehicle that runs on rails.
It’s all about the corridor. Let’s see how….
Above is a chart from chapter 8 of Jarret Walker’s book Human Transit and illustrates Professor Vukan Vuchic’s classification of Transit ‘Running Ways’ or Right Of Way [ROW].
Class A ROW means that the vehicles are separate from any interruptions in their movement so are only delayed when stopping at their own stations as part of their service. In Auckland this is type of infrastructure is classified as the Rapid Transit Network [RTN], and currently is only available to the rail system plus the Northern Busway. So the speed of this service is only limited by the spacing and number of the stops, the dwell time at each stop, and the performance capabilities of the vehicle and system [especially acceleration].
Class B is a system where the vehicle is not strictly on its own ROW but does have forms of privilege compared to the other traffic, such as special lanes and priority at signals. Buses in buslanes are our local example. AT are currently building an ambitious city wide Class B network called the Frequent Transit Network FTN.
Class C is just any Transit vehicle in general traffic. In Auckland that means most buses and the Wynyard Quarter Tram. The buses on the Local Transit Network LTN are our Class C service.
And of course in terms of cost to build these classes it also goes bottom to top; lower to higher cost. And in general it costs more to lay track and buy trains than not, so also left to right, lower to higher. There can be an exception to these rules as with regard to Class A, especially if tunnels and bridges are required as rail uses a narrower corridor and require less ventilation than buses in these environments. Also it should be noted that a bigger electric vehicles on high volume routes are cheaper to operate too, so rail at higher volumes can be cheaper to run than buses over time because of lower fuel costs and fewer staff.
There are also subtleties within these classifications, some of the things that slow down Class C services provide advantages that the greater speed of Class A design doesn’t. Class C typically offers more coverage, stopping more frequently taking riders right to the front door of their destinations. Class B often tries to achieve something in between the convenience of C while still getting closer to the speed of A. Sometimes however, especially if the priority is intermittent or the route planning poor, Class B can simply achieve the worst of both worlds!
There are other considerations too, frequency is really a great asset to a service, as is provides real flexibility and freedom for the customer to arrange their affairs without ever having to fit in with the Transit provider’s plans. And as a rule the closer the classification is to the beginning of the alphabet the higher the frequency should be. Essentially a service isn’t really Class A if it doesn’t have a high frequency.
Then there are other issues of comfort, design, and culture as expressed in the vehicles but also in the whole network that are not insignificant, although will generally do little to make up for poor service design no mater how high these values may be. And these can be fairly subjective too. For example I have a preference for museum pieces to be in, well, museums, but there are plenty of others who like their trams for example to be 50 years old. Design anyway is a holistic discipline, it is not just about appearance; a brilliantly efficient and well performing system is a beautiful thing.
Other concerns include environmental factors, especially emissions and propulsion systems. On these counts currently in Auckland the trains and the buses are generally as bad as each other, both being largely old and worn out carcinogen producing diesel units. This is the one point that the little heritage tourist tram at Wynyard is a head of the pack. The newer buses are an improvement, I’m sure this fact has much to do with the success of the Link services, despite them remaining fairly poor Class C services.
We are only getting new Double Deckers because better corridors for existing buses grew the demand
So in summary the extent to which a Transit service is free from other traffic has a huge influence on its appeal whatever the kit. A highly separated service is likely to be faster than alternatives, is more able to keep to its schedule reliably, and offer a smoother ride. These factors in turn lead to higher demand so the route will be able able to justify higher frequency, upgraded stations, newer vehicles and so on. This one factor, all else being equal, will lead to positive feedbacks for the service and network as a whole.
Currently Auckland has a core RTN service of the Rail Network and the Northern Busway forming our only Class A services. So how do they stack up? The trains only run at RTN frequency on the week day peaks, and even then aspects of the route, especially on the Western Line undermine this classification. The Newmarket deviation and the closeness of the stations out West make this route a very dubious candidate for Class A. At least like all rail services is doesn’t ever give way to other traffic. The Onehunga line needs doubling or at least a passing section to improve frequencies.
Unlike the Northern Busway services, which are as we know only on Class A ROW 41% of the time. So while the frequency is much better on the busway than the trains they drop right down to Class C on the bridge and in the city.
Of course over the next couple of years the trains are going to improve in an enormous leap and importantly not just in appearance, comfort, noise and fumes [plus lower running cost], but importantly in frequency and reliability. A real Class A service pattern of 10 min frequencies all day all week is planned [except the O-Line].
Hand won improvements to the network and service were built on the back of the brave plan to run second hand old trains on the existing network and have led directly to AK getting these beauties soon.
But how about the rest of the RTN; the Northern Busway? Shouldn’t it be a matter of urgency to extend Class A properties to the rest of this already highly successful service?
-permanent buslanes on Fanshaw and Customs Streets- this is being worked on I believe
-permanent buslanes on the bridge- NZTA won’t consider this
-extend the busway north with new stations- that’s planned.
-improve the vehicles in order to up the capacity, appeal, and efficiency- that’s happening too with double deckers.
I will turn to looking at where we can most effectively expand the Class A RTN network to in a following post.
But now I just want to return briefly to look at what these classifications help us understand about other things we may want for our city. Below is an image produced by the Council of a possible future for Queen St. Much reaction to this image, positive and negative, has been focussed on the vehicle in the middle. The Tram, or Light Rail Transit. Beautiful thing or frightening cost; either way the improvement to the place is not dependant on this bit of kit.
My view is that we should focus on the corridor instead, work towards making Queen St work first as a dedicated Transit and pedestrian place with our existing technology, buses, which will then build the need, or desirability, of upgrading the machines to something better. Why? because it is the quality of the corridor that provides the greater movement benefit, and with that benefit banked we will then have the demand to focus more urgently on other choices for this route. Furthermore, because of the significantly higher cost of adding a new transit system by postponing that option we able be able to get the first part done sooner or at all.
And because we are now getting auto-dependency proponents claiming to support more investment in buses [yes Cameron Brewer* that's you] we have an opportunity to call their bluff and get funding for some great Transit corridors by using their disingenuous mode focus. And thereby greatly improve the city.
So it is best that we don’t focus so much on the number of humps on the beast, but rather on the route it will use. The flasher animal will follow.
* These types don’t really support buses at all; they just pretend to support buses because when they say bus they mean road and when they mean road they mean car. How can we know this? Because they attack bus priority measures. But it is very encouraging that they now find themselves having to even pretend to see the need for Transit in Auckland. This is new.
Brian Rudman has hit the nail on the head with his piece this morning and raised many of the same points we frequently do:
But let’s not allow the authorities to persuade us that last Thursday’s logjam was a one-off event, and to pin the blame on the drivers involved in the motorway pile-up.
When I read of motorists woes in Friday’s paper, my first thought was, well, welcome to the club. On Monday, I had waited in Albert St for my 5.05pm bus, and when it failed to show, caught an Inner Link at 5.20pm, which then took 45 minutes to crawl up the short trip to Three Lamps, Ponsonby.
The journey wasn’t helped, by a New Zealand Bus car, parked illegally as usual, by a clipboard wielding “inspector”, slap bang in the middle of the bus lane outside the Victoria Park Markets. By week’s end, someone must have talked to her. I last spotted it parked illegally on the footpath in front of the bus shelters instead.
My planning guru, one of the “seen it all before” school, assures me everything will settle down in a week or so, as students start either sharing cars, find the parking problems are too great, or sleep in and start missing early lectures, that sort of thing. Here’s hoping.
Of course in a city with better separated public transport pathways, gridlock on the roads would be manna from heaven. What better promotion for the merits of public transport than a stalled and steamy motorist, trapped in their car, while a bus or train speeds past in their dedicated bus way or rail track.
In a year or three, when the new electric train service finally arrives, a part of this dream will become reality, and start luring commuters out of their cars. But for buses – the main form of public transport here – a network of separated bus lanes remains a pipe dream. Especially when even the bus operators treat what fragments of bus lanes that do exist – such as the one outside the Victoria Park Market – as a joke.
While Thursdays traffic problems were certainly larger than normal, they were by no means the only day that there are issues. The NZTA reports of accidents happening across the motorway network almost daily on their twitter stream, like this one from today.
Not all incidents create major problems but invariably there can be significant local congestion, this is especially the case when roads are near capacity. When that happens it doesn’t take much for traffic jams to form and even someone braking or changing lanes can send a shockwave of congestion back down the the roading network, as this video made by Japanese researchers shows.
The reality is we simply can’t build our way out of congestion, and no city has been able to do so. As Patrick described the other day, one of the big benefits of investing in better public transport is that it can take the edge off the roading network. Its not about each mode competing against each other but them working together to get the best outcome for everyone. But for PT to do its share and help take that edge off, it needs to be a better option in all situations, not just in the peak but also off peak, weekends and for events. One of the biggest things needed is much more extensive priority measures to at least keep the higher capacity PT network flowing.
He comes to the conclusion:
After several years of steady growth, public transport usage is starting to decline. At the last Auckland Transport board meeting, the bureaucrats presented plans for a marketing programme, complete with billboards telling us to “get training” and “get moving”.
Now I’m no marketing whizz kid, but I am a frequent passenger, and my instant response to being told to “get moving” is, chance would be a fine thing. I would, if I could find a regular bus service to move me.
Before fancy double decker buses, we need buses that turn up on time – or at all. We need electronic indicator boards that don’t lie and frustrate. And we need dedicated bus lanes in and out of the city so that be it Mad March or the depth of winter, buses can actually flow.
I agree, the best way to market PT services is not fancy marketing campaigns, or double decker buses but to get services working as people expect them to and having them run on dedicated bus lanes, especially on the parts through the centre of the city. I’m not aware of a single metre of new bus lane that has been added in the last few years, although some of the existing lanes have definitely been downgraded. So come on AT, lets get serious about getting these bus priority measures sorted.
The following is a guest post by regular reader and tram and heritage aficionado; the always analogue Geoff Houtman.
Last February, the Western Bays Community Group was asked to come with a “Ponsonby Road Plan”. We have received hundreds of suggestions to the deliberately open questions,- “What would you like more of?”, “Less of?”, and “None of?”. This is the first in a series of posts based on the answers received.
Ponsonby Rd Lane Uses
Three options are presented below, incorporating those ideas relating to the Roadway. Firstly though, let’s look at what we currently have.
Ponsonby Rd is a little over a mile long (1724m) running basically North-South. The Roadway is generally 18-19 metres wide and divided into 6 or 7 lanes; the two outermost being parallel street parking, with two general traffic lanes each North and South bound and a central median designed to facilitate right hand turning at nearly every side street and intersection. There is no cycling priority at any point. And very scant bus privilege at the southern end plus the mostly mid block bus stops. Clearways operates to speed peak traffic on the section between Williamson and Crummer Rds. At its northern Three Lamps end Ponsonby Rd is one-way, just before it meets Jervois and Crummer Rds. Redmond St and the top of Pompallier Tce have also been one-wayed to handle all of Ponsonby road’s north bound traffic movements for this section.
Can we make it better? Here are three possibilities based on community suggestions.
Traffic cut to one lane each way, Cycleway runs beside the footpath with vehicle parking between it and the traffic lane, Light Rail or buses use dedicated centre lanes.
Footpaths are pushed out a lane on each side, bike lane, then parking and one lane general traffic each way, PT lanes removed, painted median/turning lanes retained.
Parking lanes contain spaced trees, one general traffic lane each way, Cycleway brackets PT lanes.
Do any of these choices seem like an improvement? Do you have any better ideas?
UPDATE: Thanks to all the commenters, based on your helpful advice an Option D has been created. The cycles lanes are now buffered from moving traffic by footpaths and combined parking/ tree lanes. A bus has been added in the PT lanes to indicate their continued viability until the next oil price rise and the possible return of light rail/ trams. On a technical note the parking lanes are now only 2m wide instead of the previous 2.5.
It’s now almost two and a half years since Auckland Transport came into existence: joining together the transport functions of ARTA and all the old Councils into one organisation. There was a lot of angst around Auckland Transport’s creation – why should something as political and as debated as transport be pushed away into a separate organisation from the Council? Would Auckland Transport follow the direction of the Council or that of Central Government? What benefits of having an operationally focused organisation that’s independent from the day to day politics of Council really bring?
While it hasn’t been an easy first couple of years (the mess of Rugby World Cup opening night being the absolute low-point for the organisation in my opinion) it seems that most people are reasonably happy with how Auckland Transport has gone over this time. However, with the next local government elections happening later this year and public transport patronage seeming to be in a fairly lengthy stalling phase, I think the next few months will really become a true test for the whole concept of having Auckland Transport as a separate organisation to the Council.
It’s clear that the patronage issue is starting to filter through to Auckland Transport, with the new Chair Lester Levy laying down the law pretty harshly at the December board meeting:
The Chairman noted this is not a new problem and simply restating the problem will not solve it. In his view, the rail patronage had not effectively grown since October 2011 and overall public transport patronage has not really increased since January 2012. More understanding about the root causes of this is needed and must be addressed in management’s comprehensive plan due to be present to the Board in February next year. The paper needs to address not only what will be done but most importantly how actions will be undertaken and why it is believed they will work. He re-emphasised that AT needs to be a customer led organisation which will require a mindset change within the organisation. Increasing public transport patronage needs to be elevated to the number one issue for AT.
Rail patronage not growing since October 2011. Gee I wonder what might have put people off.
The response to these comments, going to the Board today, sounds a bit like 25 pages of excuses and most of the ideas around improving patronage seem to be related to marketing (not that I’m opposed to marketing) instead of actually trying to make the system better. Some quick wins like better weekend rail frequencies still seem to be ignored yet again – for example, need I remind Auckland Transport that Saturday rail frequencies on the Western Line remain unchanged from 1994?
I’m genuinely hopeful that things will improved under the new Chair, who seems to have an extremely low tolerance of the normal excuses dished out by Auckland Transport management and who seems much more interested in telling a “genuine” story about how things are, rather than the typical Auckland Transport PR strategy of pretending everything’s hunky-dory no matter how bad they’re going. I guess I’m impatient for change though.
Another Board Paper reminded me of an issue that I think cuts to the heart of testing whether it’s worth having Auckland Transport as a separate organisation or not – the issue of bus lanes. Seeing a paper on bus and transit lanes going to the Board I was excited that there might be some discussion around future additional bus lanes – what are useful trigger points for them being necessary, which routes would benefit from bus lanes, what’s the timetable for the widespread expansion of Auckland’s bus lane system over the next few years and so forth. Instead, the paper discusses just about every other possible element of bus lanes except for the most important issue – where the next ones will be.
As well as bus lanes being something of a pet issue for me, I think they’re a good test of Auckland Transport’s usefulness for a number of reasons:
- They make a lot of logical sense and provide significant benefit for low cost – but can be unpopular. Separating operation of the transport network from day to day politics through having a CCO is designed to enable sensible but potentially unpopular projects to occur where they contribute to the strategic direction the Council wants to go (i.e. improving public transport).
- They assist other parts of Auckland Transport’s responsibility – most obviously in managing the public transport network. Before amalgamation it was ARTA who benefitted from the bus lanes but the city councils that needed to put them in, so there was little incentive to see bus lanes go in and probably a lot of arguing was necessary. I would have thought having a single organisation would increase the likelihood of bus lanes for this reason – but seemingly not.
There’s a lot that the public gives up in having Auckland Transport as a CCO – less direct oversight through elected members, probably less democracy in decision-making, certainly less information made publicly available. For that loss to be worth it, Auckland Transport needs to start delivering – delivering public transport patronage growth and delivering necessary but politically challenging improvements, like bus lanes. Otherwise we might as well just fold them back into the Council so at least we know what they’re doing.
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 …
I ended my last post by imploring that one of the most important ways of improving public transport is through building “A WHOLE HEAP MORE BUS LANES!” This assertion was questioned, so perhaps it’s useful to explain in more detail why I’m such a fan of bus lanes and what I mean by bus lanes.
In most situations across Auckland buses currently run in what’s called “mixed traffic”. This means they’re treated just the same as any other vehicle on the road – meaning they wait for the same lights, drive in the same lanes, get stuck in the same traffic jams and so forth. Because buses have to stop off to pick up and drop off passengers and because they’re generally slower and more lumbering beasts to manoeuvre than a car, we find ourselves with an initial “golden rule of buses”: (although to be properly mode neutral, this same thing applies to trams. Many tram routes in Melbourne run in mixed traffic – as does sections of the Wynyard Quarter tramway)
A bus (or tram) in mixed traffic will always be slower than a car doing the same trip.
If we’re trying to attract people onto public transport in situations where our buses (or trams) are running in mixed traffic we’re pretty much playing catch up right from the start. The trip will be slower than driving (unless you need to circle for ages to find a parking space when you drive), the question is only how much slower?
For public transport to start competing (or at least getting close) with the car in terms of speed, in its broad sense, we need some sort of infrastructure beyond just travelling along the road. There’s an enormous variety of different interventions which can be undertaken – generally providing ever more separation from other traffic at ever greater costs. These might include:
- Bus advance signals at intersections
- Painted bus lanes during peak times only
- 24 hour painted bus lanes
- Dedicated on street busway (median or along one side of the road) or light rail line
- Busway/BRT/LRT system with grade separation at intersections
- Heavy rail with some level crossings sharing tracks with freight trains
- Fully dedicated passenger metro rail
In a comprehensive public transport system there are likely to be different levels of infrastructure provided to suit the demands and characteristics of the particular transport corridor they’re located in. Along very high demand corridors you’re obviously going to need a higher standard of infrastructure to provide the speed/capacity/reliability of service at high levels of demand. But clearly that will come at a cost.
For a city like Auckland, where we still have relatively low public transport usage and where we don’t have tens of billions of dollars to splash out on major infrastructure improvements everywhere, we need to be smart about targeting our infrastructural responses to the demands and characteristics of the corridors we have. And for most corridors, at least in the short to medium term, bus lanes along arterial roads are going to work really well. By bus lanes I really just mean what we have along many streets at the moment (Dominion Road, Sandringham Road, Fanshawe Street, Symonds Street etc.) – the side lanes painted green with signs up indicating they’re for buses only. In some situations bus lanes are needed/appropriate during peak times only while in other situations they’re needed/appropriate all the time – once again the demands and characteristics of the corridor will determine that.
So what’s really great about these lanes – which seem to annoy Herald editors and writers more than anything else in the world? Well let’s explore that a little:
- Bus lanes are pretty damn cheap to install. Just a lick of green pain and some signs is probably a slight over-simplification but generally we’re working within the existing road width and simply reallocating a lane which is either currently used by vehicles or used by parked cars.
- Bus lanes are very quick to install. Linked to the above, compared to building large (but obviously essential) rail projects which can take around a decade from initial investigation to completion, bus lanes can go from an idea to a finished product in a matter of weeks or months if there’s the support and desire to see them happen.
- Bus lanes make bus trips much faster and more reliable, meaning that the “golden rule” referred to above can be broken and actually it might be faster to catch the bus than to drive along certain routes – like into town along Dominion Road in the morning peak or up Symonds Street in the afternoon peak. Furthermore as the buses are now separated from general traffic they are less likely to get stuck in congestion and therefore the trip times are much more reliable.
The speed and reliability benefits outlined in the final point above are critical – but perhaps for more reasons than you might think. Let’s start with speed, which obviously makes catching the bus more attractive if you’re able to travel faster than cars – therefore generating additional patronage and revenue. The other fantastic thing about increasing speed is that it reduces operating costs because fewer buses are required to maintain a certain frequency of service. Let’s say a route takes an hour from end to end before a bus lane goes in and we want to run buses every 10 minutes along this route – we’re likely to need at least 12 buses to operate the service, paying 12 drivers, owning 12 buses (or paying the bus company for the privilege) and so forth. If a bus lane reduces the trip time to 40 minutes each way then all of a sudden you only need 8-9 buses to run that same frequency – simply because the buses can turn around and do another run much quicker than before.
In essence we have the following outcome:
- No bus lane: slow and unattractive/unreliable service puts people off using the bus and drives up operating costs by having very lengthy routes (in terms of time) to run. This equals the requirement for big public subsidies.
- Bus lane: faster and more reliable/attractive service generates patronage and revenue and reduces operating costs by shortening the time it takes for buses to complete a full return journey. By both increasing revenue and reducing costs the requirement for a public subsidy potentially decreases dramatically.
Hopefully in this post I have outlined why bus lanes have a critical role to play in improving Auckland’s public transport system. Although rail patronage has grown much faster than bus patronage in the past few years, the vast bulk of public transport trips in Auckland are still taken on the bus – something that will continue even after electrification and even after the City Rail Link is constructed. The sad part of this story is that more than two years after coming into existence, and despite having a massive financial incentive to introduce bus lanes (to reduce the amount of subsidy they need to pay the bus operators and to grow patronage) Auckland Transport hasn’t added any new bus lanes anywhere in Auckland. Goodness knows why they’ve been so hopeless on this issue.
There’s a lot I agree with in Stu’s post yesterday about being careful how we look to grow the public transport market and focusing on low-hanging fruit before trying to convince rich people to give up the BMW’s by building super-expensive light-rail lines everywhere. However, there’s an interesting area where I’m not sure I do agree with Stu – and that is in relation to what emphasis we should place on making public transport faster. Here’s what Stu says:
Before wrapping this up, I think it’s also worth mentioning that some aspects of this discussion are related to an earlier post on generational differences. That is, because most of our transport decision makers (including myself) fall into the 19-65 age-group there is a natural tendency for us to propose solutions that address our needs, rather than the needs of our users. This can result, for example, in a undue focus on high-speed services. For their part, PT users seem to not value speed – or more accurately “travel-time” – as much as other attributes, such as frequency, reliability, simplicity, and affordability.
There are some really important discussions and debates which fall out of this issue and come down to the fundamental reasons why people choose either one mode of transport or another. Should we focus on improving speed of service if it comes at the cost of reduced convenience of stops (such as spacing bus stops further apart)? How important are fast services compared to simplicity – like the debate over whether there should be express bus services or not? How important is increasing speed, if it comes at quite a high cost and therefore might require an increase in fares to reflect that investment (or an increase in rates or petrol taxes or foregone investment elsewhere)?
Stu’s arguments are very similar to those made by Jarrett Walker in the book Human Transit.In Human Transit Jarrett critiques much of the focus on speed on the ground that it’s generally people who mainly drive (and therefore understand the concept of improving speed) thinking that public transport works exactly the same way. Of course public transport is more complex in the sense that other issues like reliability and frequency matter a lot as well. Along with other, more difficult to quantify matters such as simplicity and ease of understanding of a PT network, quality of waiting facilities and so forth.
Perhaps what’s really key here is to focus on improving public transport speed as actually meaning improving the time it takes to get from your door to where you’re going, including wait times, including transfer times, including how long it takes you to walk to the stop and so on. In this sense, the actual speed your vehicle goes is going to have a fairly tiny influence on the speed of your entire trip (i.e. how long it takes to get from A to B). What’s going to matter a lot more are things like:
- How frequently does the service come? (i.e. if I turn up randomly how long am I likely to have to wait)
- How long does it take for people to board the service? (this matters a lot for buses when they’re stopping to pick up passengers all the time)
- Does the service get stuck in traffic congestion or does it have a dedicated lane?
- Does the service have to wait at traffic lights all the time or is there a clever pre-emptive phasing system?
- Does the service take a straight line from A to B or does it go all over the place down every back street imaginable?
At risk of falling into the trap that Stu outlines above, it is the excruciatingly long time that public transport takes for most non-commuting trips which puts me off using it for pretty much anything other than getting to work. Even for getting to work, catching the bus is far slower than driving would be (probably at least twice the time), but as I don’t want to shell out for parking each day I catch the bus.
By contrast, in cities where public transport seems to be used for a wide variety of trips every little piece of the system seems dedicated to making your trip time as short as possible. Frequencies are high, dedicated infrastructure is provided to separate the service from congestion (whether that be bus lanes or rail infrastructure), routes are straight, traffic lights turn green when the bus/tram approach them and – yes – the services are fast. In a successful PT system the weighting given to all these competing factors (frequency vs speed, simplicity vs speed etc.) varies by the area being looked at. In inner suburbs frequency and simplicity are perhaps more important than sheer physical speed because a greater proportion of the trip is likely to be waiting for the bus/train to turn up. For longer trips speed becomes more important because you’re on the service for much longer.
I’m guessing that perhaps Stu’s position is not as different to mine as you might think – because it comes down to defining what is actually meant by “speed”. In my mind we do need to make public transport a lot faster. However the most important ways to do that in the vast majority of cases won’t be through making the vehicles travel quicker when they’re at top speed – instead it’ll be things like better frequencies, straighter bus routes, faster boarding times and the most important of all…
…A WHOLE HEAP MORE BUS LANES!
A week or so ago I wrote a post about how I think we can make sense out of ferries in the mix of Auckland’s public transport system. I think my key conclusion was that ferries do make sense in certain locations and we should try to take advantage of where they do make sense rather than pushing new routes all the time. Another piece of the public transport jigsaw puzzle is light-rail (or trams). In a number of ways light-rail is actually quite similar to ferries – it has its ardent supporters, it’s pretty expensive (although more in terms of capex while ferries are expensive in terms of opex) yet it also probably makes sense in some circumstances.
Let’s look at those circumstances, firstly by seeing what light-rail’s general advantages and disadvantages are compared to other modes. This is reasonably well summarised in a useful Australian Transport Study that highlights the importance of mode-neutrality when assessing transport projects (in other words, finding the best solution and recognising that all modes have a role to play in the right circumstances):Definitions of different modes is a much debated area, particularly when we’re discussing the “in between” modes of bus rapid transit and light-rail. In my mind there’s effectively a gradation of different types of both technologies – ranging from both buses and trams running in mixed traffic right through to Northern Busway style style bus operations or completed grade separated light-rail.
My general opinion is that in mixed traffic there’s little, if any, advantage to be had from running a tram or light-rail vehicle compared to a bus – as the capacity of the corridor is not determined by the vehicle itself but by the amount of congestion in that lane. At the other end of the scale once we’re talking about full grade separation it seems that light-rail once again doesn’t offer too many advantages over either a busway (which will be a cheaper) or heavy rail (which may be of similar cost but will have much higher capacity). Vancouver Skytrain style light-metro systems are a different issue entirely and have been covered extensively previously in posts that I’ve made.
The most obvious improvement to make as bus patronage grows along a route (or where there’s potential for fairly high bus patronage) is to install a bus lane. By separating the buses from general traffic, the capacity of the lane increases pretty dramatically while reliability and speeds of the bus services also improve a lot. With bus lanes being cheap and quick to implement, in the vast majority of situations probably the most important thing we can do to improve our public transport infrastructure is through extended, new and improved bus lanes.
However bus lanes only suffice up to a certain level of use – something which in many ways was the key finding of the City Centre Future Access Study’s Deficiency Analysis. In terms of buses per hour this is shown below:
Once you start to push the limit of a bus lane the results are fairly ugly:Before I go on to discuss the different options for what to do when a bus lane hits capacity I think it’s worth noting the difference between high frequency bus corridors where a large number of buses converge on a particular street (think Symonds Street or Fanshawe Street) compared to a high frequency bus corridor where frequencies are high of a single route (think Dominion Road north of Mt Roskill). Analysis tends to suggest that simply adding more and more buses in the latter situation hits a limit where it’s not really adding much value anymore as the buses tend to get in each other’s way as they’re all trying to do the same thing but not achieving it particularly well. Of course you can run local/express splits to reduce this problem but once again eventually you’ll hit a wall.
Now moving on, once a basic bus lane no longer has sufficient capacity there are a few options for what you can do about it – and the right solution is likely to depend on the circumstance:
- Upgrade to a higher-quality BRT bus based system. This could involve median bus lanes, a semi-grade separated median busway (like proposed for AMETI) or a full grade separated busway (like the Northern Busway between Akoranga and Constellation).
- Build heavy rail. This could involve a new line completely or extensions to existing lines. It could be underground, at grade or elevated.
- Build light-rail. In this scenario I’m thinking about something that runs at street level in its own lanes but isn’t grade separated at intersections.
What’s probably going to make or break which of the three solutions above is most appropriate will be a number of criteria – the most important in my mind being the level of additional capacity required, the nature of existing infrastructure and the land-use impacts of the option. Oh, and of course the cost. Let’s explore this with a few case studies.
In the case of the City Rail Link project, future growth in public transport demand to the city centre effectively overwhelms the bus network (and the rail network at a later date) requiring something to happen in order to retain high quality access to Auckland’s city centre and around the region. Enhanced bus solutions don’t really work because our existing infrastructure only has a busway to the north whereas railway lines spread out west, east and south – as well as not working due to the capacity required (which would take away too much road space to provide for with buses alone) and also the land-use impact (widened approach roads throughout the isthmus). Light-rail doesn’t really work either as it’s of insufficient capacity and doesn’t integrate with the existing infrastructure.
In the case of the AMETI busway corridor, heavy rail is probably cost-prohibitive due to the need to get across the Tamaki River, while light-rail gets stuck between the need for a lot of feeder buses into Botany and then heavy rail connections at Panmure and Ellerslie at the route’s potential other end. In this situation the busway makes pretty good sense.
In the case of Dominion Road’s long term future, things start to get interesting. Because of the corridor’s significant heritage and character value, large-scale widening for a massively upgraded bus solution is unlikely to ever be feasible. Even widening the existing bus lanes outside the retail centres along the route proved to be impossible to make ‘stack up’. Heavy rail is clearly infeasible at street level or elevated and is almost certainly cost prohibitive underground – so light rail starts to look like it could be worth exploring further. Further potential aspects in favour of light-rail on Dominion Road include its huge potential as a high-intensity mixed-use corridor where amenity of the street environment is important as a shaper of land-use patterns. Plus the route is potentially well anchored at the city end by putting the tracks down Queen Street (probably via Ian McKinnon Drive) and at the southern end by a future rail station/bus hub – so it’s likely to be a single route without any deviations or branches.
Perhaps in summary we can try to distill a clear rationale behind situations where light-rail might make sense for Auckland. I think it’s in situations where demand along a single corridor (rather than where a number of corridors come together) can no longer be efficiently provided for by standard bus lanes and where land-use factors make either enhanced bus priority options or heavy rail infeasible or cost-prohibitive.
In my mind this is a fairly difficult test to pass and I don’t actually think any corridor in Auckland at the moment (perhaps except for Queen Street) would fit the criteria. This will probably annoy some, who want to run trams everywhere and anywhere, including seemingly with mixed traffic along Ponsonby Road. It might annoy others who think that light-rail is an expensive folly which doesn’t make any sense in Auckland. If I annoy both sides of the debate then I’ve probably got it just about right.
Next year will have a lot of really important milestones for Auckland’s public transport system. Let’s take a look at the biggies:
- The first electric trains are scheduled to arrive in the second half of 2013, although they’re not likely to be put into revenue service until early 2014.
- Integrated ticketing will finally be implemented across all buses, trains and ferries in the first half of 2013.
- The notice of requirement to secure route protection for the City Rail Link project should progress significantly throughout 2013, which will mean the project advances further than it has before in its many iterations over the past 90 years.
- We should start to see the first steps of implementing the exciting new bus network across Auckland.
My main hopes are that all of these momentous events are able to take place in a timely and successful manner. The history of integrated ticketing means that this is the one I’m most sceptical of seeing further delays over (has the Hop Card equipment even been ordered yet for the buses I wonder?) so I think we’ll need to keep an eye on that. Most things seem on track with construction of the EMUs, the CRL is likely to go through the standard consenting process which – unlike many projects where this is a scary hurdle – actually almost seems like it can be an opportunity to highlight and reinforce the benefits of the project. There will necessarily be a lot of information about things like station design that will need to be released as part of the consenting process so it’ll be interesting to comment on things like the location of station entrances and the like.
As well as these big headline projects, I also hope that Auckland Transport can do a better job at some of the small things – like actually getting in place a bus lane or two, sorting out the Outer Link bus, ensuring that the Fanshawe Street bus lane is reopened by early February, not putting up public transport fares for a while yet and having better real-time information available.
The other really interesting thing to come out in 2013 will be the Council’s Draft Unitary Plan. As the document with the statutory powers to regulate pretty much every bit of land-use development, the Unitary Plan will be critical in deciding whether the vision of the Auckland Plan can be achieved or not. Things like what the Plan’s approach to parking minimums will be and the extent to which clever intensification is enabled and encouraged will be something to keep a really close eye on – and I’m hoping the Council has the guts to be bold in changing the planning rulebook where it’s painfully obvious the old approaches simply don’t work.
It’ll be an interesting year, that’s for sure.