AT responds quickly to bus overcrowding

I do spend a reasonable amount of my time on this blog hassling Auckland Transport for not doing better at improving Auckland’s transport system, so it’s nice to see a situation where they have responded quickly to issues of bus and train overcrowding in the past few months.

Bus and Train Service Upgrades Announced

The Mayor has announced a variety of upgrades of bus and train services across Auckland.

Len Brown has been working with Auckland Transport on the issue in the wake of figures showing public transport patronage at its highest level in 60 years.

The Mayor says when demand for public transport is increasing at the rate it is at the moment, providing enough trains and buses is obviously an issue.

“I’m pleased with the speed at which Auckland Transport and the operators have responded to the issue, and I encourage people to continue to let us know when they see potential issues.”

Transport Committee chair Mike Lee says, “Aucklanders are using public transport in record numbers. It’s no longer correct to say people will only take their car to work.

“We need to cater for more people using buses and trains and that is why we need projects like the inner-city rail loop to increase services to the west and south, unclog our roads and deliver economic growth.”

So what do the improvements entail?

• On Hibiscus Coast bus routes including 893, 895 and 897 buses are reaching capacity at peak. Larger vehicles have been moved to areas of greatest need. Phase One of the Silverdale Park and Ride will be complete by the middle of the year. Increased frequency is also being considered.

• On route 881 from Long Bay to Newmarket, two additional services will be added to cope with peak hour capacity issues.

• On East Coast Bays and Sunnynook Express routes 863x and 874x and on Sandringham Road, complaints about peak hour capacity issues are being investigated in association with NZ Bus.

• On the Northern Express route peak capacity issues will be dealt with by increasing frequency and sourcing extra buses.

• On Onewa Road and on the route to Botany, extra capacity has been provided on a temporary basis while a permanent solution is investigated.

• On Mt Eden Road and Dominion Road, extras buses are being brought on to those routes to deal with capacity issues in the morning and afternoon peaks.

• On the Southern and Eastern train lines, four additional carriages are being brought on and five car trains will operate from the end of next month.

These seem like very clever and well thought out improvements, targeted to the routes most in need of service improvements. It’s good to really be able to say “great work Auckland Transport”.

Improving North Shore buses

Overcrowding on various North Shore bus services, but most particularly the Northern Express, led the Auckland Council Transport Committee to make a number of recommendations at their meeting last week on suggestions to Auckland Transport on ways to alleviate these issues. Here’s an excerpt from the minutes of that meeting:

There are a number of very useful suggestions here (although expansion of the Albany Park & Ride, no matter how worthy a project, seems only likely to increase overcrowding on the Northern Express service). We absolutely could use the Northern Express bus stops in town a lot more efficiently (I’ve talked about that previously) while incentivising off-peak travel would be greater for ‘spreading the load‘ and avoiding the worst overcrowding during peak times.

But one thing in particular caught my attention, and that is number 3 – the promotion of alternative bus services to the North Shore. A very large number of buses currently use the Northern Busway – shown in the map below as a good illustration: While I personally think the busway is exceedingly underused during off-peak times, during the peak all those 76X, 85X, 86X, 87X and other express buses use extensive portions of the busway to speed up their travel. I assume that in the mornings the bus loadings end up relatively well spread because people just jump on the first (non-full) bus that comes along. The problem is that in the city these buses spread out all over the place: all the Onewa Road buses stopping way up near the corner of Victoria Street and Albert Street, the express buses stopping somewhere else, the non-express buses probably stopping in a third place and so forth. This probably means that in the afternoon/evening peak, working out which stop to go to ends up just being a bit too complex – so everyone heads to the obvious one where you know the buses run at high frequencies: the Northern Express stop.

To get around this issue, and properly encourage the use of other North Shore bus routes so we can make most efficient use of our resources (rather than having heaps of people stuffing themselves onto some buses while others run with empty seats) what we really need to do is making the catching of those other buses simpler. Ideally, all the non Northern Express services (with the exclusion of the 962 and 966) could follow the same route – most probably being Wellesley Street (with excellent bus lanes obviously). We could then end up with a much simplified network of North Shore buses in the city centre as shown in the map below. The dotted lines indicate possible extensions of some services to Newmarket and the possible additional Northern Express services in the rather more distant future when the CBD Rail Tunnel is completed and the service could link to Aotea Station as well as Britomart Station: Clearly a large number of buses would be operating along this red route – so you’d need all-day bus lanes plus other bus priority measures at the intersections. For turning around the buses, it may not be that desirable to have them all running through Alfred Street in the heart of the university – but a number of options could be looked at, including potentially storing the buses down on that random piece of empty land next to Stanley Street ready for their return journey. You would also need pretty massive bus stations – but this could be provided on Wellesley Street fairly easily I think at various points. Halsey Street would also need a bus lane, but this seems feasible from what I’ve looked at in the past.

Another big advantage of this proposal is that it would remove a huge number of buses from Albert Street, which is already struggling to cope with its traffic plus its buses (a situation only likely to get worse as most of the Queen Street buses will shift onto Albert Street under the current proposed changes). We would also see a significant improvement to the bus connection between the university and the North Shore – a pretty massive patronage generator at the moment.

I wonder if there’s a hope of making this the next big job for Auckland Transport once they’ve got through implementing the Outer Loop and its associated changes.

Submit on central city bus changes by Friday

Consultation on the changes proposed to bus routes around Auckland’s city centre – including the introduction of a large “Outer Loop” – close this Friday. You can make your submission here. Remember, this is what we’re commenting on:

To give you a few ideas about what to say (based on this previous post), I’ve outlined a few of my answers below. The feedback isn’t in the form of “here’s a big box, fill in your thoughts”, but rather a series of questions – with the ability to comment further on various parts of the changes provided later in the survey.

One thing the survey does quite well is allow you to comment on what you perceive the positives and negatives of each of the changes to be (as long as you select that you’re interested in commenting on that particular route change). This is good because pretty much all the changes do create benefits, but at some sort of cost. The final form of the route changes will involve weighing up the positives and negatives of each of the proposed changes.

As I have said before, overall I generally support the changes (I think part of that comes from a feeling of “at least they’re doing something to try to improve buses!) However, I have a few massive caveats on the proposed changes – and in particular with relation to the proposed Outer Loop because I am seriously concerned about its reliability (being such a long route, the current Link bus in unreliable enough!)

So in my feedback on the proposed Outer Loop I said:

On the positive side, that it will help linking together a number of important town centres and should encourage cross-town travel (something our current system fails to do well at all). However, without a number of infrastructure improvements I am highly concerned that the Outer Loop buses will be very unreliable. Link buses currently struggle to maintain even gaps between services, leading to long delays and general unreliability. The prospect of another ‘looped’ service, around three times the length of the Link, not experiencing severe reliability issues, is fanciful. The most likely way such problems could be avoided is by instigating a series of infrastructure upgrades to eliminate/minimise potential delay points. Some suggestions are:

- Bus lanes along Customs and Fanshawe Streets (where not already in existence)
- Signalised intersection of Valley Road and Mt Eden Road (with bus priority lane)
- Bus priority improvements along Carrington Road and around Pt Chevalier and Mt Albert shops.
- Bus priority improvements around St Lukes shopping centre. Better pedestrian access to bus stops on southern side of St Lukes road (across the road from the mall).

Integrating infrastructure upgrades with bus service improvements should be a good test of how well Auckland Transport can operate across its silos of infrastructure and operations. After all, saying you’re an ‘integrated agency’ is pretty easy, actually acting in an integrated manner can be a lot more difficult.

In terms of my feedback on the proposed changes to the existing Link service, which seem to be aimed at making it faster by taking it off Queen Street and removing the detour it used to make as its southern end) I said the following:

On the positive side, this should help make the Link Bus more reliable and faster for passengers. However, this needs to be balanced against some losses – including a reduction in the visibility/accessibility of the Link route by taking it off Queen Street. Overall, I think the Link route is too focused on the southern part of the city centre and therefore misses serving the city centre as well as it could. I would propose shifting the Link from Wellesley Street to Victoria Street to enable it to better serve a greater part of the city centre. To go from Victoria Street to the university could follow Bowen Ave, much like the current City Circuit bus does.

I suppose I have a little bit of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” worry about the Link. While it certainly has its problems (especially with reliability), the Link bus is pretty damn popular and I worry that changing it around too much might lead to unintended consequences – most particularly a loss in patronage. It is difficult to know for sure, but I’m probably inclined to minimise the changes to the Link route to a greater extent, because by in large it serves passengers fairly well at the moment.

Regarding the 020 and 030 services, generally I supported them as a necessary simplification of an overly complex set of existing routes. However, I noted my concern about the low frequencies being proposed. These two route effectively replace four existing routes: the 015, 025, 035 and 045 (and their myriad of variations) so we should see some significant increases in frequencies as a result of combining those four routes down to two – and I’m not sure whether we’re seeing that in what’s proposed. The “Q & A” section on the changes – recently added by Auckland Transport – notes that the 020 will run at 10-15 minute frequencies at peak times. I think that 10 minute frequencies would be necessary myself.

I didn’t have much to say on changes to the 010 and 011 routes. Extending the 010 to Wynyard Quarter seems to make good sense, while sending the 011 to Selwyn Village also seems logical – this will probably be mainly a service connecting the elderly with various shopping centres. One does wonder whether some sort of “dial-a-ride” service might be able to provide for what the 011 does at both a cheaper cost and in a more convenient way for its passengers. But that’s probably a discussion for another day.

Finally, I commented that the 005 (which will only operate at peak times in the peak direction) should only travel as far as Westmere. The Outer Loop, the 030 and the 007 will all serve Pt Chevalier pretty damn well, so it seems pointless adding unreliability to the 005 by sending it all the way along Meola Road (a pretty congested road during peak hour).

The last page of the feedback form asks for any further (or overall) comments that people might have. This is what I sent:

It is essential that Auckland Transport integrates these improvements with infrastructure upgrades to support them. In particular, the “Outer Loop” service may become exceedingly unreliable unless supported by various upgrades – particularly the introduction of bus lanes along congested parts of its route.

The proper introduction of free-transfer integrated ticketing is also necessary to support the route changes. In particular, the loss of the city circuit free service between Britomart and the University could easily be compensated for if the Mt Eden b.line service could be transfered onto for free by those arriving at Britomart on the train or ferry (or by other bus).

Finally, shifting many of the existing Queen Street bus routes onto Albert Street needs to be recognised as a gamble. While there will be benefits from making these routes faster (through utilising the Albert Street bus lanes), this needs to be balanced against the reduction in visibility that will result from the routes no longer being on Queen Street – plus the ‘off-putting’ effect that having to climb the hill up to Albert Street might have. To ’tilt the balance’ of this gamble in favour of Albert Street, improvements to the continuity of its bus lanes should be made.

Essentially, as I said above these changes are a good test to see whether Auckland Transport is an integrated agency that can connect up changes to the bus network with infrastructure improvements to support that. Whether or not we get a signalised intersection at Valley Road and Mt Eden Road will tell us something useful about how Auckland Transport operates. Whether or not we get bus lanes along Customs Street (or even a Sturdee Street busway) will tell us whether Auckland Transport has the guts to implement necessary bus priority improvements in the city centre to support changes to its bus routes. Whether Auckland Transport can make it easy for rail users to transfer onto a bus up to the university will be a good test of integrated ticketing. Finally, whether or not the Outer Loop can stay reliable will be a good test of Auckland Transport’s ability to bring together a number of parts of its organisation to actually make something work well.

I’m looking forward to seeing where things go on these improvements. Make sure you get your feedback sent in by Friday to ensure any thoughts you might have get a good hearing.

Pressure on to improve buses

Booming public transport patronage is clearly a good thing – for the cost-effectiveness of the system, for increasing the pressure on government to lift its cap on public transport funding and for reducing congestion. However, unless it is accompanied by improving services and greater capacity, booming patronage will lead to inevitable problems of overcrowding, unreliable services and an overall degradation of the PT-catching experience. Over time, if these symptoms of overcrowding are not addressed, it’s likely that people will give up on catching the bus or train and revert to driving – a massive missed opportunity.

An article in the NZ Herald today highlights some growing symptoms of public transport overcrowding:

Passengers angry with overcrowding and delays on buses to the city centre reacted angrily to Brown’s statement last week that full services were a “hell of good problem to have”.

The Mayor’s office insisted the comment referred to a welcome increase in public transport patronage. But many passengers said Brown had ignored letters about their concerns.

Student Filipo Alefosio said his bus to Auckland from Papakura was always full and it was hard to get a seat.

Takapuna woman Robyn Trayes said high patronage was “not a good problem”.

She hosts international students and the quality of public transport was “ridiculous”.

Len Brown made improving public transport a key election pledge. I would suggest to him that giving effect to that pledge goes beyond promising fancy new rail projects (no matter how critical they are to Auckland’s future) and also means the nitty-gritty of making PT work better – in particular a renewed focus on improving the bus system.

Later in the story, we hear a story about an incredibly frustrating commute someone had along the Mt Eden “b.line” route recently:

Graphic designer Nicki Whitham spent an hour travelling 6.3km from the city centre to Mt Eden on Wednesday evening.

It normally takes her 10 minutes to drive or 50 minutes to walk.

The 23-year-old left Queen St at 7.30pm and walked to a stop near the Presbyterian Church in Symonds St. The electronic sign said her bus would arrive in 10 minutes.

It didn’t and the service disappeared from the sign.

The next bus was due in 12 minutes so she decided to walk a couple of stops to AUT.

The bus came five minutes later. “It was ridiculously full and there were probably 20 of us waiting to get on.”

Next she walked past the end of Karangahape Rd to the stop near the Southern Motorway on-ramp.

“By the time one actually came along, it had gone 8.10pm.”

The one-stage trip took 10 minutes and her walk home took 10 minutes more.

“I left work at 7.30pm and got home just after 8.30pm. I could have walked home in 50 minutes.”

She was left “incredibly frustrated”.

“I was really tired and had just been at the gym. I had been at work all day and just wanted to get home.

“It’s so annoying when the sign says the buses are coming and they don’t.”

It is interesting that a lot of the stories about overcrowded services are during the off-peak period. Off-peak crowding is completely avoidable, as there will be sufficient drivers and buses available to operate higher frequencies – if only Auckland Transport could be bothered to get around to providing them. Mt Eden Road buses run at 5 minute frequencies between 3pm and 6.15pm, before lowering down to 10 minute frequencies until 7.10pm – and then to 15 minute frequencies after then (until 9.10 after which the buses are half-hourly). Perhaps it might be necessary to keep frequencies to a bus every 10 minutes until around 8.30pm at night, before stepping them down after then.

The frustrating thing is that there are a number of bus improvements on the horizon – but they are months away from implementation in many cases. I wonder whether Auckland Transport needs to better time the implementation of its improvements, so they kick in every February, have a month to ‘bed in’ before the usual ‘March madness’ – the highest month for PT patronage pretty much every year.

In other words, a lot of these problems could be avoided simply by Auckland Transport being a bit smarter about how it manages the bus network in particular. Overcrowding during peak periods can obviously only be alleviated by adding capacity (which is expensive) or by incentivising off-peak travel. But solving problems outside the peak should be relatively simple, and being smarter about the timing of bus service improvements so that they coincide with the busiest times of the year should also be relatively simple. Let’s hope the mayor and the Council puts the pressure on to get some improvements to the system – a lot of people are clearly trying out public transport at the moment, let’s not put them off using it in the future more regularly.

My thoughts on the proposed bus changes

The NZ Herald, both in the form of a general article and an opinion piece by Brian Rudman, have picked up on the proposed changes to bus routes in inner Auckland. Rudman in particular provides some useful feedback on the changes – supporting parts of them while having concerns about other bits.

In particular, he notes the need for bus lanes along Customs Street and Fanshawe Street: between Queen Street and Nelson Street.

The new Western Bay services will travel along Fanshawe St to Beaumont St then up College Hill. We’re told they will be able to “take advantage of the bus lanes” along Fanshawe St to provide a faster service.

This piece of wishful thinking was obviously written by someone who hasn’t been stuck in an 004 or 005 bus in the evening rush hour crawling along traffic-jammed Custom St and Fanshawe St to the Nelson St intersection, where the bus lanes begin.

As an expert passenger, I predict the only way this route will provide a “faster service” is if the Fanshawe St bus lane out of the city begins at the bus stop in Customs St.

Essentially, it would mean a bus lane along the following section of road:


What Rudman highlights is the need to consider route service changes and infrastructure changes in an integrated way. If we’re going to put more buses along a certain section of road that gets congested, then we need to provide a bus lane to ensure the bus can operate quickly and (perhaps more importantly) reliably. With the “Outer Loop” bus having such a long route, and therefore so many opportunities for delay, targeting congested areas with infrastructure upgrades is going to be critical in whether that route works or not.

Fortunately, we finally have a transport agency in Auckland that is responsible for both bus routes and the implementation of infrastructure upgrades like bus lanes, additional traffic lights and other potentially necessary measures to make their bus system work. In the past there have often been stupid situations where ARTA wanted to improve the bus system in a certain area but the local council was unwilling to upgrade the infrastructure – and therefore nothing happened. This is the chance for Auckland Transport to show us whether they’re really an improvement on the ‘old days’ and whether all their talk about integration actually means anything.

With that background, I have started to form some suggestions on how I think the bus changes could be tweaked – both through infrastructure improvements and through amendments to the proposed routes – to provide an even better outcome. It is worth saying right at the start that I’m generally supportive of what is being proposed here, with a few big question marks:

  • how will the outer loop stay reliable?
  • will Auckland Transport be able to provide sufficient frequencies on some of the simplified routes at peak time (like the 020 and the 030)?
  • will Auckland Transport be able to ‘integrate’ the service changes with necessary infrastructure upgrades?

If I start with a few suggested alterations to the proposed routes, in general these are fairly minor. I include the map below of what is being proposed: The first thing that comes to my mind is the question of why the 005 route continues all the way out to Pt Chevalier beach. My understanding of the 005′s point – now that it essentially duplicates part of the ‘outer loop’ – is that it adds capacity and reliability in this area during the peak times. This is potentially important, as some of the current 005 buses can get extremely busy with school children while I very much worry about the reliability of such a long, loopy, route. Personally, I think I’m likely to continue to catch the 005 unless the outer loop bus just happens to come along first. However, extending the route to Pt Chevalier Beach seems to achieve very little (most people would catch the 030 as the Great North Road bus lanes means it’s likely to be faster than the 005) but come at the cost of what the 005s entire purpose is: reliability and capacity for the Westmere to CBD corridor. So I’d probably keep the 005 as it is now.

The second matter, one that Cam Pitches raised in this comment, is the silly detour that 005 buses currently make down Jervois Road from West End Road before turning back on themselves. This silly detour doesn’t really bring the bus closer to many people at all, yet adds around 5 minutes to journey times. It is difficult to see whether this is retained – let’s hope not.

The third routing issue that I question is whether the Link Bus (not the outer loop, the current Link bus) should travel via Victoria Street rather than Wellesley Street. I understand that Wellesley is probably a bit more bus friendly and it means a simpler path up to the university, but I worry that it’s not quite central enough to the CBD. In my mind, the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street is the real centre of Auckland’s CBD, and it just seems a bit strange to have the entire link route to the south of that centre. With the Link not travelling along Queen Street at all it may lose quite a lot of ‘visibility’ and therefore I think it’s necessary to ensure it runs right through the very heart of the CBD.

For now those are the main “route based” suggestions that I have in terms of how this could be further improved. I like many parts of the proposed routes, especially the simplified nature of the outer loop across the isthmus – always following main roads rather than the backstreet tiki-tour that the current 006 bus does.

In terms of frequencies on the 020 and 030, there was a comment identifying concern about the proposed frequencies not being enough to handle peak time passenger loadings. Well I am informed by Auckland Transport that while the map above says “every 20 minutes” for the 020, that only refers to ‘inter-peak’ and Saturday frequencies. Peak frequencies are likely to be a bus every 10-15 minutes. This is good to hear. I imagine/hope the same situation might be true for the 030 – essentially it should retain the same frequencies at the existing 045 bus (or better if resources are available).

The final two issues: integrating infrastructure upgrades and ensuring reliability of the “outer loop” service are intricately connected. 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. Already in this post I’ve pointed out (along with Brian Rudman) the massive delay point along Customs Street. I would suggest that bus lanes on both sides of Customs Street, between Beach Road to the east and Nelson Street to the west, is essential in providing reliability to this service.

The second area where I think infrastructure upgrades will be necessary is at the corner of Valley Road and Mt Eden Road – near the Mt Eden Village. Here buses travelling east will be expected to right-turn out of Valley Road and into Mt Eden Road, a very tricky proposition at the best of times and a source of major delay during peak times. The situation is shown in below (the red line indicating the route of the outer loop): I’m not sure what the impact of having two sets of traffic lights in Mt Eden Village so close to each other would be, but I worry unless these lights are put in place you will have enormous delays for buses trying to get out of Valley Road (or buses sitting behind cars trying to get out of Valley Road).

Probably the final thing I think is necessary is some improvement to the Albert Street bus lanes, which at the moment are very poorly patrolled and very stop-start. While I understand it’s a tricky street to have continuous bus lanes along, if we are going to put so many buses on this particular arterial it really does need to provide better priority and faster trips. Losing buses from Queen Street does have a negative impact – in terms of their loss of visibility and the requirement that more people “climb the hill” up to Albert Street. If buses along Albert can be fast enough, then I think the benefits will outweigh the costs. If Albert Street isn’t fast enough, then I’m not so sure.

I’m keen to keep hearing what other people think. I’m also keen to learn whether Auckland Transport really is the integrated transport agency it keeps saying it is – and can make infrastructure improvements to support public transport operation changes. This will be a good test of that organisation.

Feedback should be sent to Auckland Transport here.

Big changes to city buses proposed

Auckland Transport has announced some pretty big changes to the central city buses – consultation on the changes runs from now until April 15th. The changes affect a whole pile of different routes:

  • The LINK
  • City Circuit
  • 004 or 005 – (Herne Bay, Westmere
  • 006 – (Newmarket – St Lukes – Unitec)
  • 007 – (Pt Chevalier – St Heliers)
  • 010 or 011 – (Ponsonby – Onehunga)
  • 015 to 018 – (Ponsonby, Herne Bay, Westmere)
  • 024 to 028 – (Richmond Rd, Westmere)
  • 034 or 035 – (Westmere, Williamson Avenue)
  • 042 to 045 – (Pt Chevalier, Unitec, Mt Albert)

Here’s a map showing how the new routes will work (a bigger map is here): There’s a lot to like about most of the proposed changes. We’re going to see a big simplification of the Western Bays bus services, cutting a huge number of routes down to the 020 and the 030. The 010 and 011 services are also simplified and improved. The extension of the 005 to Pt Chevalier is also a good thing, although that service will only run during peak times.

Many of the changes to the Link Bus are likely to be good too – with the detour at the southern end of the route no longer doing a long detour and now quickly connecting Grafton Bridge with Karangahape Road. In fact, there’s really only one aspect of the change that I have some doubts about – and that is the “Outer Loop”. On a piece of paper it looks great: I could catch a bus from the top of my street to all sorts of places: Pt Chevalier, Unitec, St Lukes, Eden Park/Kingsland, Mt Eden Village and Newmarket – as well as the city. However, when you think about how the service would actually operate, this is when I get worried.

Essentially, my concerns were discussed in the post I did on “loops” a while back. The Link Bus already suffers from bus “bunching”, long delays at Victoria Park, unreliability of services and so forth. One would imagine that with an “Outer Loop” being three times the length, it’s quite possible we could end up with three times as many problems unless more bus priority is introduced. Another potential problem with the route is at the intersection of Valley Road and Mt Eden Road, where a bus will need to turn right out of Valley Road and into Mt Eden Road – that manoeuvre is always a nightmare and I think signalising that intersection is essential in order to implement this route.

I guess it would be fair to say that I support about 90% of what’s proposed here. The western bays simplification, the shift of western bays buses onto Albert Street and off Queen Street to improve travel times (although I think Albert Street’s bus lanes need some work to improve their continuity), the new Queen Street shuttle service – which promises to be of more use than the city circuit and the Link Bus changes are generally good. I just really worry about reliability of the Outer Loop – such a long route, so much potential for delay, so many opportunities for the buses to bunch and so forth.

That matter aside, it’s good to see Auckland Transport finally undertaking some bus route changes that actually have a bit of courage and make a big difference. It will be interesting to see what feedback there is.

General thoughts on transport in Sydney

I’m writing this post on the plane coming back from Sydney to Auckland (will obviously post it later than this though). It gives me a bit of an opportunity to put together some thoughts on Sydney’s transport system. Many people say that Sydney is like Auckland’s big brother: there are many similarities like the harbour, the bridge, the tower, the natural beauty and so forth. In that sense, Sydney could offer something of a guide to how Auckland could be in the future – if the estimates of Auckland’s rapidly growing population prove true (although I’m not sure whether Auckland’s ever likely to end up with a population of 4 million or more).

I certainly caught a large number of buses and trains over the past week, and a ferry to Taronga Zoo and back. Interestingly, I must say that the bus system impressed me more than the rail system. Obviously Sydney’s rail system is extensive and makes many of the outer suburbs logical places to live – but the rail system felt a bit tired, neglected and over-used. In some respects I was frequently reminded of the New York subway system when catching the train in Sydney – particularly Town Hall and Wynyard Stations have a distinctly similar design – that the system is incredibly well used, very extensive and very effective, but struggles to stay still let alone continually improve itself in the way a rail system really does need to.

I suppose that the problem with upgrading a rail system is the cost, and the time it takes. As comments on a previous post suggested, Sydney has an incredible history of rail projects that were scaled back or didn’t go ahead. There seems to be a growing acceptance that Sydney will need to dramatically increase its rail capacity to the city centre in the future – and it will be interesting to see if that happens, how much it costs, and what the timeframes for rolling it out are.

By contrast, improvements to the bus system can often be made very cheaply and quickly – through measures such as enabling faster boarding, improving bus priority, having legible routes and operating decent frequencies outside the peak hours. In general, I was pretty impressed by what Sydney has done when it comes to its buses – generally through measures that would be fairly inexpensive and quick to implement. Here are some things that particularly impressed me:

  • Fast boarding. Sydney has done a lot to make boarding buses quick – with the most obvious being your ability to validate your ticket without having to interact with the driver. 20 people could often load onto a bus in barely a minute, streaming on in two lines and using both the “green boxes” to quickly validate their tickets. Auckland should benefit from this when smart-card ticketing is rolled out over the next year. Further to this, many of the busiest inner-city stops operate as “pre-pay only” during busy times, meaning that everyone needs to only validate their ticket and the bus isn’t held up by people paying cash. Over time it may be useful to roll something similar out in Auckland – although obviously only when boarding via the smart-gate creates a significant time advantage: often paying by cash at the moment is faster than the exceedingly slow-loading go-rider passes!
  • Bus priority. I must say I was very impressed by the extensiveness of the bus lanes that operate in Sydney, and the hours of operation for them. Main bus thoroughfares like George Street and Elizabeth Street seemed to have bus lanes of very high quality, both in terms of their length and their hours of operation. This made a massive difference to bus travel times. As I have said many times before, extending bus lanes is the quickest and cheapest way of vastly improving public transport, we need to challenge politicians who say they support public transport to get in behind significantly improving our system of bus lanes: nothing else can quickly and cheaply improve Auckland’s PT system so dramatically.
  • Route legibility. In terms of making it simple for people to find their bus in the city centre, I thought Sydney scored reasonably well. Buses beginning with a “4” seemed to run up George Street before heading to western suburbs. Buses beginning with a “3” ran up Elizabeth Street before heading to eastern suburbs. Instead of having very few inner city stops, with most people getting on at one or two places (like Auckland does, causing massive bus congestion) the main streets in Sydney’s city centre seemed to have a large number of stops and therefore the boarding/alighting is more spread out and the buses don’t seem to congest as much. Where Sydney possibly doesn’t perform quite so well is on the general route legibility, with a number of bus routes seeming to take a fairly long-winded and confusing path to their destination. Both routes I caught regularly (the 343 and the 301 for anyone that knows) seemed to be fairly higgledy-piggledy – at least in part.
  • Decent off-peak frequencies. While of course I’m sure there are many bus routes in Sydney that suffer from the same problems as Auckland – extremely poor off-peak frequencies, I was impressed by the level of bus provision inter-peak, and during weekends (something I commented on earlier). There’s always a bit of “chicken and egg” when it comes to providing off-peak frequencies: the demand is unlikely to exist until you provide a decent enough service.

Overall, I think what I will take away from the trip (and I was only there for a few days and didn’t have too many opportunities to look at things in much detail) is that focusing on small and relatively cheap things – like measures to speed up boarding, measures to improve bus priority and measures to ensure an easy understanding of where to catch the bus – can make a big difference. In a decently run public transport system all these little things are constantly fine-tuned and improved. It doesn’t cost much money, it just takes some effort on behalf of the agency running the transport system.

Sydney Buses – not just for commuting

Well we arrived in Sydney yesterday, and because the weather was so fantastic we headed to Coogee Beach for a bit of relaxation and to enjoy the weather. While we were in a friend’s car, it was interesting on the way back to see how many people were using the bus network to get from the beach to wherever they live. Buses seemed to be passing by at extremely regular intervals, and then when we were leaving I noticed a large number of people waiting for the bus. Finally, as we drove away from the beach we passed a bus that was doing the same and was absolutely packed with people.

While yesterday was a particularly nice and sunny day, and as a Sunday it was a day that one could expect an enormous number of people to go to the beach – it was interesting to see how well the bus service catered for them. I remember quite a number of years ago when I caught buses to and from Bondi and Coogee beaches that they were also generally very busy. In short: it’s pretty normal to use public transport to get to the beach.

Like Sydney, Auckland has a number of urban beaches that can get pretty popular on summer weekends: I’m especially thinking of places like Mission Bay, St Heliers, Takapuna, Milford and Long Bay. While there are bus services to most, if not all, of these places – the frequency on weekends follows the normal Auckland tradition: shocking.

This seems like a missed opportunity, as it means two things. Firstly, off-peak patronage is pretty “cheap” to provide for, as you don’t need to buy any additional buses compared to what you need to run during peak times. Therefore, any measures to boost PT use to recreational hubs (like beaches) at weekends are likely to make good financial sense. Secondly, with public transport so bad (and especially with it perceived to be so bad) it can end up seeming necessary to dominate the beach area with a million carparks – so that it’s relatively ‘easy’ to access and enjoy these areas.

Loop routes: great connectivity or just loopy?

I was having a trawl through recent changes to the London Underground network and noticed one change that had somewhat slipped past my attention – the adjustment of the Circle Line to something that’s now more of a “spiral route”, with the addition of a section from Hammersmith to Paddington. One of the reasons for making such a change could obviously have been the desire to get more services to Paddington, but through reading up on the change it also seems that there was a desire to shift away from the “loop” route patterns of the Circle Line.

The diagram below shows what the “Circle” Line looks like today: The difficulties in operating an orbital/loop route are noted in the Circle Line’s Wikipedia page as a reason for the change:

Orbital routes have an intrinsic problem of timetabling robustness. The trains are constantly in service and so there is little scope for “recovery time” if they are delayed. A single delay can have long-lasting knock-on effects and be much more disruptive than on a non-orbital railway. Recovery time can be created by timetabling longer stops at some stations, but this increases journey times. The current spiral route supposedly removed this problem because of the recovery time at both ends of the route.

That got me thinking about loop routes in general, and particularly Auckland’s best known example of a “loop”, the Link Bus service. I don’t catch Link buses particularly often, but when I do it is fairly plainly obvious that the buses suffer from what’s outlined above, probably to a greater degree than happened on the Circle Line because buses, when operating in mixed traffic, have many more possible causes of delay.

Link buses have an unfortunate tendency to “bunch”, because slow boarding times and unreliable traffic conditions mean that the first bus gets slowed down, while the bus behind it slowly catches up because it doesn’t have to pick up passengers and can therefore travel quite quickly. The longer the route gets, the more bunching you end up with – the end result quite often being three Link buses travelling one after the other, and then a huge gap to the next one.

Now this kind of thing can happen on any bus route, but the difference with non “loop” routes is that you generally have the opportunity to schedule a bit of “buffer” at the start and end of each run, meaning that if a bus is late (or early) there can be a re-timing of the service through the buffer, to give the best chance of starting its next run on time and therefore minimising the potential for bunching and unreliability. With the Link route (or any loop route for that matter), you are likely to have passengers travelling along each part of the Loop, (after all that’s one of their great strengths) which means that every time you have a “delay point” you annoy the heck out of passengers who have to sit at a bus stop for a few minutes twiddling their thumbs for seemingly no reason. I’m sure many readers would have experienced the “Victoria Park wait” on the Link bus over the years – to their great frustration (particularly as the bus drivers never seem to tell you how long it’s going to be).

When you’re trying to make public transport a more attractive option compared to driving, by improving its speed, reliability, convenience and so forth, having bunching buses or hugely long waits for seemingly no reason at Victoria Park don’t really help. I know of a lot of people who’ll avoid the Link bus for these reasons.

Yet I have to balance this against the advantages of “loop” routes. They do offer a connection between such a great number of places – particularly when it comes to the Link bus. Ponsonby to Newmarket: sorted; Parnell to downtown: sorted; Grafton to Ponsonby: sorted. If there are ways to minimise the unreliability, bunching and annoying waits associated with loop routes, they certainly have their many advantages.

So what might be a way forward on the issue of loops? I’m certainly not advocating for getting rid of the Link bus anytime soon – as it has been a significant success, despite its flaws. The high frequency and good connectivity of the Link has clearly struck a chord with the Auckland public right from when it was first introduced in the late 1990s. But how might we reduce the problems associated with the Link? Can we put in better bus priority measures at key points along the Link’s route where it experiences delays? Will faster boarding associated with integrated ticketing help reduce the ‘bunching’ caused by slow boarding? Can bus drivers be made aware of how far behind them, or in front of them, the other Link buses are – and adjust their driving accordingly? Is there a better place for the Link bus to pause than Victoria Park – which seems a very bus part of the route’s operation? It would be interesting to know the answers to these questions.

Furthermore, I also think that we should be wary of introducing further ‘loop’ bus routes – particularly if those routes are going to be longer than the current Link. The longer the route, the more opportunities for delays in mixed traffic, the more opportunity for bunching due to slow boarding and the more difficult it becomes to keep the route ‘on-time’ without having to introduce extraordinarily long waits at various points along the route – guaranteed to annoy the hell out of bus catchers.

So I suppose in summary I think loop routes are best if they’re kept short and if we can get as good bus priority along the route as possible. This minimises the opportunity for unreliable services and the opportunity for bunching. Furthermore, in the case of the Link perhaps we should look at having a number of “waiting points” around the route, in places where patronage is at its lowest, to allow the buses to keep on time without making passengers wait forever – as currently happens on occasion around Victoria Park.

I am curious what others think though – are Loop routes great, or are they a loopy idea (please excuse the terrible pun)?

A Beach-Haven to Greenhithe bridge?

I don’t often propose new roads on this blog, but there are a couple of possible new bridge connections around Auckland that I think could be very useful additions to our roading network and would potentially be more useful ways of spending our roading budget than on forever widening motorways. The first is the possible Whau River bridge between Te Atatu South and the Rosebank peninsula that I discussed last month. The second possibly useful additional bridge is one between Beach Haven and Greenhithe on Auckland’s North Shore. Effectively, the idea would be to build a bridge somewhere along the blue line’s alignment below, which would mean that vehicles and people (including buses, cars, cyclists and pedestrians) wouldn’t need to take the very long way around any more (indicated in red): The stretch of water the bridge would go over is only around 500 metres wide, and as I don’t think there are particularly many boats which head up this arm of the Waitemata Harbour, the bridge wouldn’t necessarily have to be that high. So I don’t see it as being a massively expensive project.

In terms of its benefits, probably the main one is the reduced travel times (real time savings benefits!) Of not having to go the very long way around via Glenfield. This would save around 15 minutes off each car journey and obviously more for pedestrians (not that there would be any at the moment) and cyclists. It would also bring Greenhithe much more obviously into the North Shore and provide better access for those in Beach Haven to areas like Albany, Westgate and west Auckland in general. The map below shows how long a trip from Beach Haven to Greenhithe currently takes, according to Google Maps (probably on a day without any congestion):You need to drive almost 11 kilometres as a detour just to go in a straight line what is well short of one kilometre. That’s pretty inefficient.

There would also potentially be many public transport benefits arising from such a bridge too. Making the trip shown above on public transport is nigh on impossible:


It seems crazy that it would take so long for a trip that’s barely a kilometre as the crow flies. Now obviously there aren’t too many employment opportunities in either Beach Haven or Greenhithe so getting exactly between the two places isn’t a massive concern. However, there are employment hubs like Albany, Westgate and Henderson that people living in the Beach Haven/Birkdale corner of the North Shore may want to have somewhat reasonable access to – and a bridge like this, with a bus transfer point at Greenhithe onto the 130 route (which would hopefully be straightened up a bit) would provide the kind of connection sorely lacking at the moment. You could end up with something like this: The blue line indicates the current 973/974 buses, which run fairly frequently between Beach Haven and the CBD. The red shows part of the 130 route that potentially offers a great cross-town connection (though I have straightened it up in line with a discussion in this blog post).

There would obviously be some negative effects of the proposal. There would be a street in Beach Haven that’s very quiet at the moment which would become very busy. There may be difficulties in “landing” the bridge at its northern end. There may be environmental effects as this seems like a fairly sensitive corner of the harbour and there would obviously be the cost of the proposal. But at the same time I think there would be quite major benefits: for all type of potential users (drivers, bus riders, cyclists and pedestrians). Perhaps most useful it could link Beach Haven and Greenhithe better with each other and better with Auckland as a whole as they’re two quite strangely isolated parts of the city at the moment.