My Outer Link regret

I first heard about the bus route that has become the “Outer Link” quite a long time ago, late last year I think – as kindly some people at Auckland Transport sought my ideas on what they were proposing. My initial response was fairly mixed: positive about the fact that the route links together so many places, provides for so many trips – particularly trips that public transport doesn’t traditionally provide for, by offering decent frequencies seven days a week and through its “loop” structure. But at the same time I was also a bit sceptical about aspects of the proposal, in particular my concerns about whether it could keep to time or whether the buses would “bunch” together – like happened on the LINK bus route, though to an even greater extent because of the longer route.

This is what I said once the plan was released for consultation on that matter:

Essentially, I think that unless we have some well-targeted and necessary infrastructure upgrades along the route of the outer loop, it will not be possible for such a long, looping route to be reliable. What Auckland Transport really should be doing is driving a few buses around the route during peak times, identifying where the delay points are and investigating measures to deal with those delay points. 

I repeated this concern about reliability and bunching in my submission – as I think a number of other people said. After all, these issues are inherent to loop routes (hence why the London Circle Tube Line was changed recently to more of a spiral route).

Well so far I haven’t had any problems with the reliability of the buses, or with the bunching of buses, I am somewhat concerned about the way in which Auckland Transport is avoiding bunching becoming a problem – by providing extremely generous timings for buses to reach certain “time points” around the Outer Link’s routes, then leaving the bus to sit at these various stops for what seems like an age before continuing their journey.

From what I’ve seen so far, on the quarter of the route that I’ve used (between town and Pt Chevalier), it seems that there are three time points even on that small part of the route: at Westmere shops, at Ponsonby and in town just outside the Civic theatre. In some respects the more time-points the better, as theoretically the wait at each time point should be minimised, but what I’ve seen so far is that the waits can be pretty long. Two examples include a 6 minute wait at Westmere shops for my outbound Outer Link on Sunday and a wait this evening at the Wellesley Street stop which seemed just about as long (it was long enough for the driver to have a cigarette while he waited to catch up to his scheduled slot).

Now I understand the point of the time-points, as without them you will undoubtedly end up with buses bunching and not being at all reliable, but I wonder if Auckland Transport has taken their response to that concern a bit too far. It’s incredibly frustrating sitting there waiting for the bus to simply catch up to its scheduled time while cars zip past you. So perhaps I’m starting to regret the huge deal I made out of wondering whether the Outer Link buses would bunch and be reliable – as we’ve now gone to the opposite extreme.

But what’s the solution? Auckland Transport might be wondering why I can’t just shut up as I’m never happy – and I can perhaps see the logic in that. Ultimately though, I think this was why I found myself so concerned about such a massive loop route, because either the buses would bunch and become unreliable or we would end up having to wait huge lengths of time all throughout the route, with the timetable reflecting a very conservative speed of the bus (I mean how on earth could the bus get six minutes ahead of its time between Ponsonby and Westmere on a Sunday for example). I think that the real solution will actually require a bit of work: eliminating the bottlenecks so that we don’t have to be so conservative with our timetable (through providing bus lanes at key points of the route), having traffic lights respond to the buses so that especially if they’re running at all behind times, the lights immediately go green enabling the bus to catch up. Once again that would ensure that the timetable doesn’t have to be so conservative (leading to huge waiting times).

Those are long term things though, in the short term I hope that Auckland Transport does keep a close eye on how long the buses are sitting at the various timepoints around the route, analyse whether it’s really necessary to have the timetable being so conservative (particular during off-peak times when travel times should be pretty standard) that the buses are constantly getting ahead of their schedule. In the meanwhile, I think I’ll probably avoid the Outer Link and try to get the 005 as much as possible – speed is important.

Outer Link: first impressions

I caught a couple of “Outer Link” buses today, taking advantage of the new connection between Herne Bay and Pt Chevalier. Below are a few of my first impressions while there’s a good post over on the Campaign for Better Transport blog, outlining Cam Pitches’s first impressions of his trip between Westmere and St Lukes.

  • The buses look really great, inside and outside. It really great being able to tell by the colour of your bus what route it is – while inside the buses have a nice modern feeling that oozes quality. Catching the bus is a nice way to ride.
  • The “Loop” nature of the route means that many bus stops are likely to work differently than before, having a more even balance between being stops where people get off the bus and get on. Before the Outer Link, for example, the stops on the southern side of Jervois Road are mainly used by people getting off the bus, so don’t need much information like timetables, seats, real-time signs and so forth because they were 99% used by people getting off the bus. With there likely to be a more even split, Auckland Transport will need to look to add amenities to these stops – especially the basics like seating and shelter.
  • The bus from Herne Bay to Pt Chev stopped at Westmere for about six minutes, to ensure that it stayed to time. While I understand that this is necessary to minimise the chances of buses bunching, it’s still damn annoying to sit there going nowhere for ages. It may be necessary for the timetables to be tweaked so that the fast running times of Sunday services (and evening services I imagine) are properly taken account of – so we don’t end up with buses getting well ahead of their scheduled times and therefore sitting around going nowhere for ages.
  • I like that the buses have the same stop announcements as the old Link service, and that your progress is shown on a map on the TV screens. The Outer Link will hopefully attract people to catching the bus who normally wouldn’t, and provide for trips that people would previously drive, so making it easy to know where you are is very important.
  • As a minor issue, the stop announcements along Meola Road in Pt Chevalier when heading in the clockwise direction seem messed up and out of order – first announcing the MOTAT stop, then the Garnet Rd stop and then a stop near Kiwi Road in Pt Chevalier – by which time the bus is well past there. A minor issue to iron out I think.

All up I’m generally impressed, though the big test will be how things go tomorrow and throughout the week. I’ve been in touch with the people at Auckland Transport who are monitoring the new services and they’re keen for feedback – so anything mentioned here can be passed on.

Expanding Auckland’s bus lane network: the next steps

A few days ago I took a broad look at how Auckland benefits from its bus priority measures, as well as where we might see further bus lanes in the future. In this post I want to focus on what might be our first steps towards expanding the city’s bus priority areas. The critical areas which generally meet the requirements outlined by Auckland Transport for being a candidate for bus priority measures.

A lot becomes fairly obvious simply by looking at our existing bus lanes (or T2 lane in the case of Tamaki Drive)  – focusing on the isthmus area for now (thanks to commenter “Miggle” for doing the hard yards in compiling this): While there are quite a number of bus lanes around this area, what becomes fairly immediately obvious is their discontinuity. Dominion Road, north of Mt Albert Road, and Great North Road – between Pt Chevalier and the CBD, stand out (along with the Central Connector) as the most continuous – but even they have critical gaps. Buses along Dominion Road get held up at the various town centres along the route because the bus lanes simply run out. The same for Great North Road, where the bus lanes run out at critical points like the Grey Lynn shops and around the intersection with St Lukes Road.

For other important routes, like Mt Eden Road and Remuera Road, the gaps are bigger. While it’s likely to be a struggle even keeping the level of bus priority we have along Remuera Road (the locals get annoyed at not being able to drive little Timmy to school easily every morning), Mt Eden Road seems a pretty obvious candidate for some improvements to the extent of its bus lane system – with there being a huge gap just to the north of Mt Eden Village. Within the city centre there are also critical gaps in the bus lane system: like along Fanshawe Street between Albert and Hobson streets, or along Sturdee Street (which is supposed to be part of the Northern Busway RTN).

Then there are street which have a large number of buses, but very little priority (if any). Manukau Road is a pretty obvious example of this – having a very surprising lack of bus lanes. Customs Street in the city centre is another example: being a street that must carry hundreds of buses during peak times, but without any form of bus lanes along its entire length. Great North Road through Waterview is also a long stretch of road that really needs bus lanes (and will get them to some extent from the Waterview Connection project).

So as a first step of expanding the bus lanes network within the isthmus, the map below shows the key improvements that I think should be prioritised (the numbers don’t necessarily indicate which ones should happen first – that’s an interesting debate to be had): A brief description of the proposals are outlined below:

  1. Customs/Fanshawe/Sturdee street bus lanes – between Nelson Street in the west to Anzac Ave in the east. You probably need 24 hour bus lanes in each direction along here due to the sheer volume of buses. The western part of the route acts as an essential part of the Northern Busway connection between Britomart and the harbour bridge.
  2. Wellesley Street. Described in further detail here.
  3. Karangahape Road between Ponsonby Road and Pitt Street (and turning into Pitt Street). Over 100 inbound buses travel along this section of Karangahape Road between 7 and 9 am. Although there’s some level of priority in the lane with all the bus stops, this really isn’t good enough for a street that carries so many buses. Pitt Street has plenty of width to provide high quality bus lanes to link with Vincent Street.
  4. Great North Road through Waterview. The Waterview Connection motorway project will add some bus lanes at the northern end, but it should be a priority to extent these right back to Blockhouse Bay Road, because buses experience huge delays along this stretch of road every day. Plus there are a lot of buses using this corridor from west Auckland.
  5. A pretty short stretch of Sandringham Road, from the shops south to Mt Albert Road. This would be pretty simple to implement.
  6. This applies to the two sections of Mt Eden Road highlighted in red. As one of Auckland’s two b-line routes, the extent of bus priority along Mt Eden Road is pretty pathetic, while there is plenty of room in the road reserve to add the bus lanes without taking general traffic lanes away (particularly in the northern gap).
  7. Manukau Road. Although many Mangere bus routes should probably terminate at Onehunga rather than running all the way into town, we will always need a high frequency route along Manukau Road and it deserves quality bus lanes to support that route. I must say I was pretty damn surprised to discover that Manukau Road doesn’t already have bus lanes – at least in the same way that Mt Eden, Dominion and Sandringham roads all have.

What have I missed – and what might be priorities in other parts of Auckland?

The Outer LINK timetable

I must say I was a bit disappointed when I found out that Auckland Transport wouldn’t be publishing a timetable for the Outer Link bus service, which begins this Sunday. While not having a timetable encourages “turn up and go” use of the service, at a bus every 15 minutes I think its frequencies are somewhat pushing the limit of proper ‘turn up and go’. Things should work a bit better for the Inner Link, which will run every 10 minutes.

All the Outer Link’s timetable has is this:

And this information on the frequencies: While there’s no published timetable, if you dig through the MAXX website you do find all the arrival times for the service at each stop along its route, if you change the date to August 22nd or beyond. This has enabled me to construct the Monday-Friday timetable for the service. You can download the timetable here in Excel format, or view over the break. Continue reading The Outer LINK timetable

New LINK routes start on Sunday

A media release from Auckland Transport reminds everyone that the major central bus changes start taking effect this coming Sunday:

Auckland Transport is urging bus customers to visit the MAXX website and find their new journey plan ahead of major changes to central Auckland bus routes this weekend. When new City, Inner and Outer LINK services begin operation on Sunday, travellers will need to understand how the new routes and new bus stops impact their journeys.

Auckland Transport’s Public Transport Operations Manager, Mark Lambert says: “The new LINK services represent a significant move towards a simplified and integrated public transport network for central Auckland. Customers should plan ahead to understand the new bus routes and new bus stops.

Auckland Transport is implementing a comprehensive public information campaign to support our customers through the change. If using the journey planner, customers will need to enter the date as 21 or 22 August for journeys using the new services.”

Mayor Len Brown will officially launch the new LINK services this Friday morning at an event in the newly opened Wynyard Quarter.

“Great public transport is central to my vision of making Auckland the world’s most liveable city. It’s all about giving people choice about how they move around Auckland. The expansion of the LINK service will certainly give people more choice in the way they get around the central city and the surrounding communities.”

The existing LINK will be renamed Inner LINK and have some of its route changed to make it more direct and reliable, including shifting off Queen Street to Albert Street.

Two new services will also be introduced – City LINK, which will replace the existing City Circuit, and Outer LINK, which will provide access to city fringe suburbs like Pt. Chevalier, Mt Albert, St Lukes, Mt Eden, Epsom, Newmarket and Parnell, as well as the universities and Wellesley St in the city centre.

New high quality buses painted red, amber and green will operate on the three LINK services. The new buses will be air conditioned, wheel-chair accessible, buggy friendly and meet Euro 5+ emissions standards.

The new City LINK bus will remain free until the end of this year as part of the service introduction period. From 1 January 2012, the City LINK will remain free to HOP card users and cost 50 cents for other full-fare cash paying passengers with other concessions for school students, children and seniors.

The new Inner LINK service, which replaces the existing LINK service, will retain a flat $1.80 fare and run a revised route that provides a more direct and reliable service for customers.

For the new Outer LINK bus service, customers will pay no more than the standard two stage fare of $3.40 which will connect central suburbs including Herne Bay, Pt. Chevalier, St Lukes, Mt Eden and Newmarket.

Here’s a map of where the new/changed routes will go:
One thing that I’ve learned in the last week or so is that none of the Link services, including (somewhat surprisingly) the Outer Link, will have normal timetables. The Outer Link simply operates every 15 minutes, 7 days a week. While this “no timetable” situation seems to work for the existing Link, it will be interesting to see if the longer route and greater potential for buses to not keep a steady gap, will work for this route. I still have doubts whether this service will operate reliably.

For me personally, the bus route changes provide an interesting conundrum during the evening peak. Do I wander up to Wellesley Street to catch the more frequent Outer Link, or to Albert/Victoria street to catch the 005 – which I at least know the timetable of (but only runs once every 20 minutes)? I suppose using Journey Planner we will be able to construct an actual timetable for the Outer Link, but then do I trust its reliability?

Come Monday there will be some interesting things to look out for regarding the bus changes.

  • Can the Outer Link run reliably?
  • Can the 020 cope with the number of passengers that’ll use it?
  • Will the 020 get stuck in traffic around Union/Wellington streets, leading to unreasonable delays?
  • Will Outer Link buses be able to turn right out of Valley Road into Mt Eden Road?

It’ll be interesting to hear about the experiences of those using the new routes throughout next week.

LINK bus fare structure announced

The fares for the three LINK bus routes that we’ll have operational from August 21st was announced today by Auckland Transport:

Auckland’s newest bus services, the Outer, Inner and City LINK bus services begin operating on Sunday 21 August.

Auckland Transport’s Public Transport Operations Manager, Mark Lambert says, “Fare structures have now been finalised for all three services.

“For the new Outer LINK bus service, customers will pay no more than the standard two stage fare of $3.40 which will connect central suburbs including Herne Bay, Pt Chevalier, St Lukes, Mt Eden and Newmarket.

“The Outer Link is a cost effective and easy way to get around Auckland’s most popular city fringe suburbs.

“The new Inner LINK service, which replaces the existing LINK service, will retain a flat $1.80 fare and run a revised route that provides a more direct and reliable service for customers”.

Mr Lambert says, “The new City LINK bus will remain free until the end of this year as part of the service introduction period. From 1 January 2012, the City LINK will remain free to HOP card users and cost 50 cents for other full-fare cash paying passengers with other concessions for school students, children and seniors.

“HOP card users receive an additional discount of at least ten per cent.”

New high quality buses painted red, amber and green will operate on the three LINK services. The new buses will be air conditioned, wheel-chair accessible, buggy friendly and meet Euro 5+ emissions standards.

Full details of the new LINK services and revised CBD and Western Bays bus routes are available on the MAXX website.

There are a few good things here. I like the way that we’ll get a free trial of the City Link route, but that eventually it will be free for HOP card users – providing a useful “last leg” of trips into town but also being an incentive for people to get HOP cards. I also like the way that the Outer Link’s far structure is put together – that even though there are various stage points around the route, the most you’ll pay is a two-stage fare.

Of course the really interesting thing about the Outer Link will be whether it can run reliably. We’ll have to wait and see on that matter.

The new bus timetables

Some of the timetables for the routes of the Central Flagship Project bus changes have been uploaded to the MAXX website – they take effect from August 21. We have:

The 020 and 005 timetables.

The 030 and 005 timetables.

The 010 and 011 timetables. 

The timetable for the Outer Link route, the City Link the the changed route of the existing Link (which will be known as the Inner Link) haven’t yet been uploaded, so they’re something to look forward to seeing with some interest. I do hope that we get a proper timetable for the Outer Link, as its 15 minute frequencies are a bit beyond the “turn up and go” frequencies of the existing Link Bus (which has a pretty weird timetable).

Looking first at the 020 route – a route that I still have a number of concerns about – we see some good things, such as alignment between the inter-peak weekday times and those on Saturdays. We also see some nice simplicity to the timing of the services – with equal gaps most of the time. However, I must say I’m a tad worried that we might see some capacity issues on this route at peak times. For buses arriving in the city between 8am and 9am, there are going to be seven services:

 This compares with the current situation where there are seven or eight (depending on whether you want to be flexible about three minutes or not) peak time services arriving in town between 8am and 9am along Richmond Road alone, plus a further four 034/035 buses plus a further four 015 services. While the new 030 route will take some of the demand along Williamson Avenue, it only runs once every half an hour – even at peak times. I’m not sure how busy these services get, but there is a pretty big reduction in peak time capacity for much of this route – so it will be interesting to see how it copes.

The other thing that’s a bit disappointing about the timetable for the 020 is its slowness. One of the main reasons for the changes to Western Bays services was to speed things up by shifting them off Queen Street an onto Albert Street. Yet trips from Westmere and Richmond Road seem to now take around the same length of time to get to Britomart as they will under the new timetable. Hence the need for my proposed 020X route I think.

The other timetables seem fairly unsurprising – with the new 010 route (extended to Wynyard Quarter) operating throughout the day rather than just at peak times, as it does now. It would be nice if this bus ran at weekends too – so that it was easy for people to get to the various activities being constructed down at the Wynyard Quarter when they have the opportunity to do so – at the weekend. Frequencies for the 030 are pretty pathetic, but will be supplemented by the Outer Link and the 005 (which I think I will keep using most of the time).

I suppose the two things I will really be interested in, come implementation of these bus changes, is whether the 020 can cope with its passenger loadings at peak times and whether the Outer Link can stick to its timetable without having enormously long “holds”.

A different approach to bus routes

A few days back the Human Transit blog superbly outlined the basics of designing bus routes – using Halifax in Nova Scotia as the example. There are some excellent “basics” outlined in that post: the need to identify choke points, the need to have good “anchors” at each end of your route, the benefits of bouncing routes off at right-angles once you reach the edge of a grid system and so forth. What seemed perhaps most obvious of all is how each route is designed to achieve a number of different things – not just to drag various people from around the suburbs and take them into the city before turning around and doing the same thing. The first route the blog post looks at is perhaps the best example of this:

While the whole peninsula is fairly high density, the main patronage attractors are within the various shaded areas – education facilities, employment zones, hospitals and so forth. The red circles represent the chokepoints on entering the island and the “T” represents transfer points. What I like about this route is how – let’s say during the morning peak – there would be strong flows of passengers both ways along the route – because it doesn’t simply terminate in the middle of town and then head out again, it passes through the city. With transfer points at both ends of the route you would have a lot of passengers on the bus right to the end of the line (which is good for efficiency) and because it keeps to a very low number of streets it’s a simple and easily understood route.

You would struggle to find too many routes like this in Auckland. Most bus routes seem to very much “peter out” at their suburban terminus, while through-routes are extremely rare as well. This means that our system has huge inefficiencies, in the form of empty buses close to the end of their runs, and then by having to run many ’empties’ from the city centre terminus back to the start of the route.

When I wrote this post about the possibility of using the Wellesley Street corridor for most North Shore buses, there was a lot of interesting discussion in the comments about sending some of those North Shore buses further south. The 881 service from the North Shore to Newmarket via the University and Hospital is apparently very popular – and many have thought that it might make sense for the Northern Express to continue to Newmarket. Personally I view the NEX as part of the “Rapid Transit Network” and see no point in duplicating RTNs between Britomart and Newmarket (we have the train line of course), so I would do things another way.

My route, as shown below, basically brings two routes together: the main ‘non-busway’ QTN route on the North Shore and the future Manukau Road b.line service between Onehunga and the city.

If we start with the ends of the routes, we have two obvious major transfer points: Onehunga in the south and Constellation bus station in the north. As I outlined in my blog post about Mangere bus routes, I see most of them feeding into Onehunga in the long run – allowing transfers onto train for the fastest Onehunga-downtown trips – or onto a Manukau Road b.line for intermediary trips. Manukau Road is a major arterial that clearly requires a high frequency bus corridor in just the same way as Dominion Rd, Mt Eden Road and others do.

In the north, while the busway will obviously be used for most trips heading to or from the city, there will similarly always be the need for a service linking together all the town centres and various trip generators on the North Shore. So if we’re going to need both these routes – primarily not for fast trips to the city centre from outlying areas but for trips along the route, for trips that may occur outside the peaks, for trips in the reverse peak direction and so forth – why not join these two routes up so we offer even more options? The route above would allow one to travel from Takapuna to Epsom, or from Royal Oak to Milford – but without the inefficiency that a normal ‘everywhere-to-everywhere’ style of service pattern tends to generate. Run this route at 10 minute frequencies off-peak and you create a really strong north-south bus corridor across the whole city that can be useful for a vast number of different trips.

I suppose that on the down side it would be a fairly long route and with that comes potential for unreliability. But because there would hopefully be enough patronage generated by the route (in both directions and right to the ends of it) it should be able to support high enough frequencies that make unreliability less of an issue.

This is quite a dramatically different way to operate a bus route in Auckland. Do people think it would work? It seems critical to me that it has a fast route through the city centre – so people travelling from Takapuna to Epsom don’t spend half their lives stuck at traffic lights downtown – but it seems potentially a pretty efficient way to provide for a lot of different potential trip options.

Ensuring the City Rail Link is no “boondoggle”

There is a lot of poorly informed criticism of public transport out there. While this is frustrating, it has its advantages in that most people who critique PT – and rail especially – can have their arguments easily rebutted and dismissed. What’s more challenging, yet more interesting, is coming across someone who makes coherent critiques of public transport. A blog post by Liberty Scott (scroll down a bit to the middle of the post, this post is also on the same issue) – posted back in early June – provides a reasonably well informed critique of the City Rail Link project. While I ultimately disagree with Liberty Scott’s claim that the project is a “boondoggle”, there are some interesting points raised that require a thoughtful rebuttal – and also highlight further things we need to do to ensure the City Rail Link project is the success that I think it should be.

The post was written a few days after the Ministry of Transport released their review of the City Rail Link project, so obviously this review formed the basis for the blog post:

The Ministry of Transport and Treasury have reviewed the Auckland underground rail loop business case and found it wanting. It is hardly surprising.  Auckland rail has been a faith-based initiative from the start, primarily because the enormous cost premium to move people by rail, compared to bus is not justified by the change in behaviour it provokes.   Auckland rail advocates think because it is attracting lots of passengers (all of whom pay less in fares than the cost of operating the service, let alone the cost of capital) it is a good thing, but scrutiny about where those users are coming from indicates some pretty clear home truths.

As I explored in quite a lot of detail at the time, the MoT’s review had some fundamental flaws – their acceptance of it being possible to run 200-300 buses an hour along most of the central city’s bus routes being the most obvious.

Liberty Scott then looks at the PT mode-share for the city centre at the moment, which is supposedly quite high by international standards at around 50%. It would be interesting to compare this to various Australian cities, as I think they have much higher PT modeshares myself:

First, around half of all trips into central Auckland in the morning peak are by public transport today. This mode share is high by the standards of any new world city, and most of them are travelling by bus. Trying to increase this in the absence of any form of congestion pricing is difficult, as the current strategy is to take money from all motorists to subsidise a minority of trip. The number of trips by public transport has increased by 50% in ten years. However, 40% of that increase has been by rail, 33% by the Northern Busway alone (bear in mind this is one route that has cost around a tenth of the cost of the rail network which has 2.5 lines) and the remainder by conventional bus and ferry services. Rail has been important, but for the money spent on it, has not delivered compared to the other modes.

The notable figure is the 15% decline in car trips, which are partly a function of increased fuel prices. This will have had an effect on reducing congestion, although not as much as the figure may suggest.

The point to make here is that the number of jobs in the central city isn’t static – it is growing and it will continue to grow quite substantially over the next 20-30 years. The reason why all the increase in people travelling to the city centre in recent years has been on public transport is because there’s no more roadspace available for cars. That fundamental issue is not going to go away, and as buses need to travel on roads too, their capacity to carry further passengers is limited in the long run. The only part of the transport system with capacity to carry a vastly greater number of people is the rail network – but it needs a fundamental bottleneck removed (which of course is what the City Rail Link project does).

Liberty Scott then argues that because very little of Auckland’s employment is in the CBD, the opportunity to further increase PT patronage is quite limited:

Given only 11% of employment in Auckland is in the CBD, this modeshift is minor in the scheme of transport in Auckland.  However, the officials and politicians involved are totally CBD focused.  In short, the impact of more trips to the CBD by bus and rail is very low on congestion.

Furthermore, the scope for significant increases in public transport usage is limited, most new world cities would be thrilled to have this sort of CBD mode share.

This jumps on one of the most fundamental mistakes that has been made in the ‘sale’ of this project so far: that it’s supposedly only about finding ways to get more people into the CBD at peak times. If you read through both the original business case and (to an even greater extent) the review(s) of that document, you hear an endless amount about what different the project makes to the number of people travelling into the city centre. But that misses a huge point of the project – its ability to enable higher frequency trains throughout the network, which improves the rail system for everyone, not just people working downtown.

The shift away from calling the project the CBD Rail Loop/Tunnel/Link and towards calling it the “City Rail Link” is a good sign that Auckland Council and Auckland Transport are finally beginning to recognise that it has benefits for the whole city. Let’s hope that those benefits start being measured, and also that they are explained more fully as part of the process of building further support for the project.

After discussing the issue of whether the rail tunnel (and electrification) have business cases based on a whole heap more intensification, Liberty Scott notes the following:

In other words, it [patronage] will come only if Aucklanders choose to live in medium to high density housing near railway stations AND work in the CBD AND choose to commute by rail. A bold assumption, that is not exactly plausible. It is part of the planners’ wet dream that Aucklanders are gagging to live in London, Paris or New York style apartment conditions near railway stations in the suburbs. Yes, apartment living has appeal for some, by only typically for living near the city so one can walk. Quite why people in Auckland would want to live in such housing in the suburbs is unclear.

In essence, a fortune is being spent upgrading Auckland’s rail network based on patronage forecasts that are fanciful and difficult to believe. If they prove to be correct, then the network will be constrained without an underground loop (although the constraint will only be in the morning and evening peak – a few billion dollars for a few hours a day). If wrong, then not only will an inner city underground loop be a destruction of wealth, but so will the electrification.

It is true that Auckland’s rail network only serves a relatively small part of the city. I forget the exact percentage of Auckland’s population that would be within a 10 minute walk of a train station, but as we have a pretty small network I can’t imagine the number is particularly high. Furthermore, along parts of the rail network (especially the Southern Line between Newmarket and Middlemore) we don’t exactly have a particularly high patronage generating catchment. In the north the Southern Motorway seems to be an enormous barrier to higher numbers of people using Remuera, Greenlane and Penrose stations (Ellerslie manages to be reasonably popular though), while south of Penrose the rail network runs through a pretty horrible industrial wasteland until it reaches Middlemore.

There are certainly opportunities to significantly boost the number of people living with walking distance of the rail network – especially along the Western Line, the Eastern Line and the more southern parts of the Southern Line. The City Rail Link will make an enormous difference to trip times on the inner part of the Western Line in particular – so redeveloping areas around stations between Mt Eden and New Lynn seems a pretty obvious no-brainer. Of course we’re not going to force people to live in these areas, a seven minute train trip from Morningside to Aotea Station should prove pretty attractive – even if it means living in a terraced house or apartment building, instead of Auckland’s mythical ‘quarter acre paradise’. There are already a growing number of apartment buildings around Morningside station – even without it having planning regulations that encourage this type of transit-oriented development.

But what the obsession with “getting more intensive redevelopment around stations” misses is what I think should be in the longer run the most common way people get to a train station – and that is on the bus. It would be interesting to analyse how much of Auckland’s population is within a 10 minute bus trip of the rail network (and the Northern Express) – I suspect that number will be much larger than simply the walking catchment. In Toronto well over half of passengers using the subway system arrived at their station on the bus, in Perth it is the feeder bus system that has made rail lines through suburbia (much lower density suburbia than Auckland by the way) such a success. And, as I pointed out in a fairly recent post, by using our buses as feeders to the rail network instead of long-distance competitors to it, we can usually offer a trip time that is significantly quicker.

Ultimately I agree with Liberty Scott that there’s a risk of the City Rail Link becoming a ‘boondoggle’ that is under-utilised. The main cause of that risk is the question of whether or not we design our bus network around making the best use of the rail system or whether we continue with the current situation of having a bus network that completely ignores and generally duplicates the rail network. With the rail system having the huge capacity boosts the City Rail Link will provide, there should be no reason to operate many buses at all from west or south of the isthmus directly into the CBD. This should provide huge cost savings, while also making public transport work faster and more reliably (long bus routes are horrifically unreliable) for passengers.

Possibly the other risk is whether or not employment in the city centre grows at the rate expected by many of the background documents to the original business case. Debate on this matter was a major cause of disagreement between the positions of the government and that of Auckland Transport and Auckland Council throughout the business case review process. To ensure the CBD does grow, it is likely to be necessary to restrict office developments in auto-dependent parts of the city to a greater extent in our future planning documents. A recentralisation of employment in Auckland should bring massive benefits – through better agglomeration, through reduced auto-dependency and ultimately through the greater productivity that international studies show takes place in the city centre compared to outlying areas.

I do think we can ensure the City Rail Link is no ‘boondoggle’, as Liberty Scott puts it. But that will require us to do some things differently from the past. It will require a vastly overhauled bus system (though there’s nothing stopping us doing that now, it’s bound to improve the business case for the CRL if many more bus routes become feeder services) and it will require a greater concentration of office activity in the city centre and Newmarket. But ultimately that will benefit the city too.

So I’m not too worried, there are good counter-arguments even to a pretty well reasoned critique of this project.

The Wellesley Street corridor

One interesting part of the Central Flagship bus changes that were finalised earlier this week is the use of Wellesley Street as a major crosstown bus route corridor in the city centre. The “Outer Link” route will use Wellesley Street to get across the city, between Victoria Park in the west and the University in the east. Here’s the relevant part of the route map (the Outer Link is shown in orange):

 It’s not exactly obvious when you’re in town, but looking at the map above clearly shows Wellesley Street to be the most direct and shortest east-west link through the CBD. With the westbound Mayoral Drive to Queen Street section of the road already bus-only, it would seem an obvious candidate to become a prime crosstown bus route in Auckland’s city centre (along with Customs Street which obviously has the advantage of being located next to Britomart and the Ferry Terminal).

As I’ve explained in previous posts, one of the best ways to take advantage of Wellesley Street would be as the primary street for carrying North Shore buses (aside from the Northern Express, which needs to connect to Britomart as it’s part of the Rapid Transit Network). You would end up with the main bus routes in the city centre following the streets shown below (the purple route is a possible light-rail corridor):

Before we get into a big debate over whether so many buses should travel along Alfred Street in the heart of the University, that’s an issue that obviously requires further consideration and there are some obvious alternatives such as turning the buses around (and even storing them) on Stanley Street and the vacant land adjacent to it. There are some obvious advantages to sending all North Shore buses this way:

  • Improved access between the university and the North Shore. This should remove the need for some of the special routes that travel via the University.
  • Removal of conflict between West Auckland and North Shore buses on Albert Street.
  • Opportunity to connect to Aotea Station in the future via its proposed entrance at the corner of Albert and Wellesley streets.
  • With good bus priority this would be a really fast way for buses to get through the city centre (especially those that continue to the Hospital and Newmarket).

The last issue, that of bus priority measures, is what I find potentially quite interesting. With around 70 non-NEX buses travelling over the Harbour Bridge an hour during the AM peak, we would certainly need good priority measures. It seems to me that Wellesley Street has an almost unprecedented ability to handle high-quality bus priority measures – be they median bus lanes, curbside bus lanes with “station-style” bus stops or whatever else is chosen. There are a few reasons for this:

  • It’s a relatively quiet street at the moment (at least compared to other crosstown roads like Victoria and Customs streets).
  • There’s already an important bus priority measure between Queen Street and Mayoral Drive.
  • It’s a pretty wide street in areas – meaning that on-street parking could probably be retained even in areas where median bus lanes were provided.

Obviously bus lanes would need to be provided along Halsey Street and one of the two right-turn lanes from Fanshawe into Halsey Street would need to be made bus only (plus some improvements to the Halsey-Fanshawe left turn). But from looking at aerial photos, and knowing the area pretty well, it would seem that these changes would be relatively easy to make.

Even with the City Rail Link project constructed, we are going to need to find a way of handling a pretty large number of buses from the North Shore in the future – until such a time as we build a railway line to the North Shore. A study from NZTA suggested that there’d be close to 250 buses an hour from the North Shore in 2041, with the City Rail Link project constructed. That’s around one every 15 seconds.

I think it’s time we started taking advantage of Wellesley Street’s potential as an excellent east-west bus corridor.