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.

Central bus changes finalised

Auckland Transport have today released the final version of the bus changes to many central buses that was consulted on a few months back. Here’s the final version (click here for a PDF version): Below we have the original version that was put out for consultation: There seem to be a number of changes:

  • The Link and the Outer Loop (called the Inner and Outer Link in the new system respectively) have swapped their path through the northern part of the city centre. This has the result of the Inner Link now serving Britomart, but not the University; while the Outer Link no longer serves Britomart, but does serve the University. I think this is a good change, as it brings a lot of people along that Outer Link within a one-trip ride of the University and also mean the Inner Link is more balanced in how it serves the city centre.
  • There have been some minor changes around the 011 route and how Selwyn Village is served – basically meaning that the status quo bus routes are kept. I don’t really have much of an opinion on this.
  • The 020 route has inexplicably been lengthened to now operate the most indirect and complex route imaginable between Grey Lynn and the city centre. I look forward to the masses of complaints from people about how long it takes for the route to get from the Ponsonby end of Richmond Road to Albert Street. I think the basic service should be supplemented by a peak time 020X route that travels via Hopetoun Street, to give people a fast trip.
  • The Outer Link route now stupidly doubles back on itself in Epsom, going all the way down to Greenlane West rather than via Stokes Road and Epsom Ave. Apparently this is because the left turn from Mt Eden Road to Stokes Road couldn’t be made easily.

Overall, the result is a mixture. I like the changes to the routes that the Inner and Outer Link will take through the city centre. I also like the fact that we’re going to see three branded Link Bus routes now – playing off the reputation that the “Green Link” has created (although personally I hate the Link Bus and its endless delays at Victoria Park).

However, the other two big changes are really stupid in my opinion. The 020 route is now going to be horribly slow and indirect for people, and we have lost the bus connection between Westmere/Grey Lynn and Karangahape Road. The latter was probably unavoidable, but as I said above the new 020 route is going to be so slow at peak times that I really think it needs to be supplemented by an “020X” express route that would work something like what’s shown below: The route change to the Outer Link service is equally stupid, with the route being lengthened enormously as a result of the decision from Auckland Transport that the buses supposedly can’t turn left from Mt Eden Road into Stokes Road. Now I can understand that’s a pretty sharp left turn, but I doubt it’s sharper than the left turn from Symonds Street into Grafton Bridge – and issue that was solved quite simply by pushing back the ‘limit line’ for vehicles on Grafton Bridge so that there was adequate room for the buses to swing around while making the left turn. It seems like we end up with a big chunk of the Outer Link ruined just because Auckland Transport couldn’t be bothered changing a few road markings.

Other questions I had about the initial proposal still seem to be unanswered. Will there be traffic lights at the corner of Valley Road and Mt Eden Road, to ensure buses making a right turn out of Valley Road aren’t stuck there forever waiting? What measures will be put in place to ensure that Outer Link buses don’t bunch? My ‘normal link’ bus this morning waited at Victoria Park for around seven minutes while it ‘caught up’ to its timetable. Let’s hope Auckland Transport come up with a slightly better idea for keeping their buses to time than this. On a brighter note, it was confirmed that all of Pt Chevalier will now be within the “two stage” fare boundary, and that the maximum fare for a trip on the Outer Link will be two stages (although shorter trips will obviously just be one stage).

I the reason why I’m so frustrated about the 020 issue and the Stokes Road issue is because the rest of the changes are generally very good (presuming that the Outer Link is reliable and the Valley Road intersection is signalised). It’s just annoying when Auckland Transport do 90% of the job exceptionally well, but then stuff things up in a couple of areas to really take the gloss off things. Let’s hope that they review these two matters pretty quickly after implementation so that the changes can be a completely good thing for Auckland’s bus network.

Marketing PT better

Generally I feel that Auckland Transport (and ARTA before them) does a pretty poor job of marketing public transport in Auckland. They’re obviously not helped by key factors such as the vast variety of different bus companies, or the general lack of funding and neglect for the PT system up until recently, but there are clearly ways in which we could do things better. This article on “The Dirt” highlights the need for PT to be marketed better, if it’s to compete effectively against the vast amount of marketing undertaken by car manufacturers:

Worldwide advertising and marketing efforts among the automobile sector as a whole total $21 billion. General Motors alone spent $3.2 billion in one year. All these investments aimed at attracting new customers help increase car sales, but also boost congestion, carbon dioxide emissions, and air pollution, while working against broader public transportation use and more sustainable urban transportation systems. This is especially true in developing countries: Growing middle classes in these countries are increasingly drawn to car ownership. In Brazil, the number of privately-owned vehicles doubled to 2.6 million in 2010, and in India, there’s been a 20-fold increase.

To fight these trends, …public transportation systems must not forget about branding, marketing, and advertising and using smart, creative, cost-efficient campaigns targeted at increasing and maintaining ridership. Transit agencies must focus their efforts on how to “attract new users that currently use private transport, such as cars and motorcycles; retain existing public transport users who might feel compelled to buy a private vehicle; and secure political and financial support from government officials.”

The article is based around an excellent report prepared by EMBARQ, a transportation think tank. It makes some suggestions for how PT can be marketed better:

Transit agencies must focus their efforts on how to “attract new users that currently use private transport, such as cars and motorcycles; retain existing public transport users who might feel compelled to buy a private vehicle; and secure political and financial support from government officials.” EMBARQ’s report covers how to use tactics widely used in the private and non-profit sectors to focus on brand and identity; user education, information systems, and feedback tools, including online engagement; marketing campaigns; public relations; and internal and external communications. While public transport users determine whether to use a system based on its “reliability, frequent service, safety and cleanliness, service hours, and costs and structures,” public transport systems still need to do branding, marketing, and communications to increase and maintain ridership.

On branding, EMBARQ says “to create a successful brand, then, a public transport system should start by defining its core values. Most public transport systems strive for a brand that clearly presents their services as modern, efficient, rapid, reliable, convenient, comfortable and safe.” The report further differentiates between different types of branding issues, from creating a new service to remedying issues with a highly unpopular service to unifying disparate services under one banner. They also advise against using some loaded, unpopular words: “Another way of avoiding the stigma often associated with traditional bus transport is to not use the term ‘bus’ in the new system’s name.”

It is extremely difficult to create an effective brand for public transport in Auckland. This is predominantly because all the buses are painted different colours – according to the company that operates them. It does not have to be this way, even if the buses are privately owned and operated. In London all the buses are red, even though a variety of different companies operate them and I think this is something that should be looked at once we have integrated ticketing up and running, when it no longer matters which company operates your bus. The branding of b.line bus services seemed to work quite well – promoting the service as ‘superior’ to your normal bus route – in terms of frequency, reliability and speed. That’s why it’s so surprising Auckland Transport hasn’t bothered to unroll any further b.line services since Mt Eden and Dominion Road routes went live this time last year.

Perhaps one of the most important elements of marketing a PT system is showing how easy it is to use. Our current bus maps scream “the system is too complicated for you to even consider using unless you’re a poor sucker without a car”. Compare that to the simple network map of Wellington – which helpfully distinguishes between all-day routes and peak-only ones and creates the look of a system that makes sense. Similarly, in Los Angeles there has been a real effort to highlight that the bus rapid transit service is more like a rail service than a typical bus route: It seems like a missed opportunity to not have the Northern Express service combined with the rail system in a “Rapid Transit Network” map – much as what’s shown in LA’s map above.

So, here are my ideas for ways in which Auckland could market its PT better:

  • Simplify the bus route maps so that infrequent services are shown as dotted lines, to distinguish them from ‘core services’.
  • Create a uniform look for all buses and trains in the region, with the only distinction being whether it’s part of the Rapid Transit Network (trains and Northern Busway), Quality Transit Network (b.line and Link bus route) or other services.
  • Put the Northern Busway on the rail map and call it an RTN map.
  • Highlight the speed of various bus/rail options where they are faster than driving (Eastern Line, Northern Busway, Dominion Road etc.) and market that.
  • Use the HOP brand more – could it potentially be a replacement for MAXX?

What other ways could we market PT better in Auckland?

Sylvia Park: PT success or missed opportunity?

When I think of the Sylvia Park shopping centre in Auckland, from a transport perspective, it seems to tick a lot more boxes than many other shopping centres around Auckland (particularly St Lukes). The primary reason for this is that Sylvia Park has a train station right next to it – a station that seems fairly popular, especially on weekends. An interesting research piece into the integration of land-use and transport at Sylvia Park delves a bit deeper into analysing the effectiveness of the various transport modes accessing the mall. A lot of the research article focuses on things like parking policies – pointing out the absolutely giant cost of building carparks – but it also provides some useful figures for further analysis when it comes to malls.

Starting off by looking at the mode-split for people accessing Sylvia Park, the figures for public transport are actually surprisingly low: What really stands out here is how low the mode share for buses is. From memory St Lukes – hardly a model of a public transport friendly mall – attracts between 5 and 10% of its visitors by bus.

I’ve often had debates with people over whether we really should be focusing on improving PT modeshare to shopping centres or not. The argument that is most often presented against focusing too much on shopping centres is that they seem particularly difficult ‘nuts to crack’. In fact, the decision on the St Lukes plan change made particular reference to the difficulty of attracting people to shopping centres via public transport:

While the reference to Sylvia Park is interesting, given the context of this post, what I think is most revealing is the “second” reason traffic issues were a major consideration – the assumption of the commissioners that public transport by nature is unlikely to be attractive to shoppers.

Strange how the same rule doesn’t seem to apply to Australian malls – particularly a series of shopping centres in Brisbane that the Sylvia Park study examined: The article explains that the Brisbane shopping centres tend to act as sub-regional hubs for the bus network – much in the same way as happens around New Lynn (and it would be interesting to see a modeshare for Lynn Mall shoppers). It seems to me that while Sylvia Park is doing reasonably well in terms of having a train station next to it, a lot of that good work has been completely undone by having it so poorly served by buses.

To make matters worse, the layout of Sylvia Park means that it’s pretty difficult to serve the centre well with buses. There’s an obvious north-south corridor serving the centre along Mt Wellington Highway – so why is the mall set back hugely from the highway creating a barren pedestrian wasteland between the bus route and the shopping centre (which forces buses to waste huge amounts of time by diving into the carpark). In terms of serving east-west flows, why doesn’t the road-bridge from Carbine Road connect all the way through to Mt Wellington Highway? This would allow east-west bus flows and could potentially create a fairly nice street for shops to line (general traffic may have to be excluded from through-movements to ensure it’s not a massive rat-run, but that’s easy enough).

What we really needed is shown in the map below (in terms of the two obvious bus routes to pass through the area):

Interestingly, a table in the research article shows that improving buses would be one of the most cost-efficient ways of the mall attracting more customers, largely because its capital costs and operating costs are pretty damn low compared to other modes . It’s pretty incredible that over $136 million was spent on  spending related to getting cars in and out of the mall. If we compare the costs with the revenue generated per user, we find that buses actually have a vastly higher “revenue cost ratio” than any other mode: So if I’m to go back to the original question of whether Sylvia Park is a public transport success story or a missed opportunity I would probably lean towards the latter: simply because its bus services are so terrible and its design makes improving bus services pretty damn difficult. While the train station is certainly good (and really every shopping mall should have to be within 400m of a rapid transit station, it’s just logical) it can distract us from how poorly served the mall is in other ways.

Interestingly though, it seems that the biggest loser out of this has been Sylvia Park itself. Because it’s so poorly served by bus-based public transport and because it was designed in such a way as to make it almost impossible for buses to serve the place well, the developers of the shopping centre had to spend an incredibly huge amount of money on making it easy for cars to get in and out of the place – most obviously through providing an insanely massive number of parking spaces. I guess this is why I can never understand shopping centres not being huge fans of efforts to improve public transport infrastructure to encourage more of their shoppers to arrive on the bus, rather than to have to build them an incredibly expensive parking space. Overseas cities get it, why don’t we?

Auckland’s stupidly complex bus system

Over the past week I’ve sat at the bus stop outside the hospital waiting for a fair few buses – either to head into town or to catch the Link bus back to Ponsonby. Park Road is part of the Central Connector and therefore forms one of the most core parts of the Auckland bus network. By my calculations 510 buses a day pass through Park Road in the inbound direction (and I assume a similar number head the other way). There seem to be a huge plethora of buses passing through the area – often with the unnecessary complexity of their route numbering and their CBD departure point that I mentioned in this previous blog post.

Using the MAXX website’s timetable tool, it’s relatively straightforward to work out the different routes that pass by the hospital on any given weekday – plus it’s also possible to work out how many times a day (and at what times) each of the routes passes that stop. Putting this altogether highlights the extreme (and unnecessary in my opinion) complexity of the bus system – or at least of the parts of it that pass by the hospital. This is put together in the table below: The excel worksheet is here if you want to play around with it. I’ve put an X next to the two express routes and a start next to routes that appear to have the same route number, same beginning and same end, yet are somehow different enough to warrant a separate entry in the MAXX system – it seems generally because they miss a particular stop.

It’s interesting to see the vast number of different bus routings through here – with many of them seeming nearly identical. For example, let’s group together all the services from Manukau to Britomart: It seems truly bizarre that we have three variations of the 328 route, we also have a 327 route which has two variations and seems pretty similar to the 328. Plus the 347, 348 and their variations. Perhaps this is a reminder about how dire Mangere’s buses are and how in need they are of a dramatic overhaul.

The 500 series bus routes also seem overly complex, with relatively few services spread out among a comparatively large number of routes. There are two main services (the 502 and the 595) but then we have four routes (or variations on routes) that only operate once a day. Does the 502 really need to be different to the 512? Does the 511 need to be distinct from the 532? While I haven’t had a good look at the route timetable maps to understand the reason behind the variations, there does seem a lot of unnecessary complication here.

We could achieve a lot by vastly simplifying the table at the beginning of this post. Clearly we’re running a lot of buses between Manukau and Britomart (as an aside, will that be necessary once the rail station is open?) but do they really need to have so many different routings, and so many small variations on their routes? If many of these services were grouped together into a single and obvious service (much like how the 625 works) then their timetables could be structured in a logical way and the system would be more intuitive and simple to use. For others, obviously some level of complexity will need to remain, but I’m sure what we see now is massive over-complexity.

The usefulness of stop grouping

Spending most of my days at Auckland hospital in recent times (and the likelihood of continuing to do so for a few more days) has provided me with a fairly interesting insight into the operations of public transport in another corner of the city. First things first, I really wish the proposed changes to the Link Bus route were operational already so my bus trip from Ponsonby to Grafton (and back) didn’t include an enormous detour. But that’s not the main point of this post – which relates to the Central Connector bus corridor between Newmarket and the city centre via Grafton and Symonds Street.

I had to zip into town from the hospital today to briefly catch up with what had been going on, and to check that I hadn’t missed anything coming in to my emails or in the post over the past few days. Heading into town this was an incredibly easy task – no more than 30 seconds after I arrived at the bus stop outside the hospital there was a bus ready to take me down into town. I didn’t even have to check the route number, as I knew that pretty much every bus would end up taking me to roughly the same area. It was easy.

However, in the reverse direction (coming out of the city) many of the advantages of the Central Connector are lost – simply because the departure points for services using the Central Connector are spread out all over the place. A further annoyance is obviously the fact that Howick and Eastern buses do not yet accept HOP cards, so my options are further reduced. The map below shows the varying departure points for services using the Central Connector as far as Newmarket (the ones with red boxes around them): Most of the south Auckland buses depart from stop 7019 (which is where I made the gamble of waiting at because I thought the most buses would leave from there). Most Mt Wellington buses depart from stop 7012, most Remuera Road buses from stop 7018 and most Howick & Eastern buses from stop 7026.

What this means is that someone travelling on the bus from the CBD to anywhere along the Central Connector, or potentially further afield (like along Great South Road between Newmarket and Greenlane) needs to pick a stop where only a portion of their potential buses will leave from. Chances are they will unnecessarily have to wait a longer time than would happen if all those buses were grouped together to leave from one or two stops.

While I certainly recognise that we can’t have every bus leaving from the same bus stop (particularly during the PM peak when we have a LOT of buses) it seems obvious to me that we could do this smarter. Why not make the northern (left in the above diagram) side of Customs Street the real focus for buses heading to the southern and eastern parts of Auckland? Shift the Mt Eden Road services from stop 7020 to being outside Britomart and free that stop up to handle the services that currently use stop 7019 across the road. Then perhaps shift the routes that use stop 7012 (Mt Wellington buses, of which there aren’t a huge number) to share with the Remuera Road buses on stop 7018. By doing that you would pretty much have most regular bus routes that service the Central Connector beginning very close to each other – enabling people to simply wander along that side of Customs Street and work out from the real-time signs which bus is due to depart next. That’d make their life a whole heap easier and make bus catching more attractive at almost no cost.