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.

Dead running – and how to reduce it

The Human Transit blog has a good post about “dead running”, which effectively is the time buses spend not in service. Jarrett notes the two general circumstances that create dead running:

All transit vehicles must travel between their operating bases, where they are stored and maintained, and the beginning and endpoints of service. Rail services usually have bases directly on the rail line, but may still have to dead-run through the rail system to reach their trip’s starting point. Bus bases can be anywhere. The location of bases (called depots in Britain/Australia, often divisions in the US) is a major issue. It’s often worth spending capital money to save operating money, and careful investments in bases, reducing dead running, can do that.

Transit agencies that run extensive one-way express incur massive amounts of dead running. Brisbane, for example, is a very, very centralized city, with a downtown far out of scale to anything else. That means a huge demand for one-way trips into downtown in the morning and out in the evening. All those services that are needed in only one direction usually have to get back in the other direction so that the driver’s shift can end where it began. (The other alternative is to pay the driver to hang around downtown all day, which is even more expensive.)

The first of these causes is pretty unavoidable. The clever location of bus (or train) depots can reduce the percentage of time the vehicles spend getting from the depot to the start of their run. For example, the investment in stabling facilities for trains at Henderson, central Auckland and Papakura is likely to pay off incredibly quickly – as all Auckland’s trains no longer need to be stored centrally at Otahuhu and then driven ages each morning to start their runs at Waitakere, Swanson, Papakura or Pukekohe.

The second reason for dead running is less unavoidable – or at least with a more clever running of services it could probably be reduced. Human transit says this about ways of potentially reducing the time services spend ‘dead running:

Can dead running be better addressed by a rigorous review of whether these one-way peak services can be combined, replaced by links to rail, or otherwise made more efficient? Given the higher cost of dead running for one-way peaked service, could some of it be converted into two-way, all-day service at less expense than it would first appear?

One big advantage of the kind of feeder bus based service pattern that I discussed in this recent blog post is that the amount of dead running should be avoided, because in general the buses would be operating much shorter routes. Generally this is likely to mean that they’re closer to their depot for most of their run (as depots are generally located in outer parts of the city), plus the time taken for peak time services to ‘return to base’ would also be greatly reduced.

Another way you can reduce dead running is by operating services with patronage attractors at each end, so that you have good two-way flows at peak times and therefore can keep your buses (or trains) in service for a greater proportion of the time. My hope is that the Manukau Station could potentially operate in this manner – with the shopping area and the tertiary education centre acting as big patronage attractions for southbound rail passengers during the morning peak – utilising the existing resources more effectively. It’s also why many of my suggested routes for improving bus services to Mangere didn’t end in random places – they all terminated at Onehunga, Otahuhu or Manukau City.

There are many ways we can improve the efficiency of Auckland’s public transport network. Structuring the routes so that the amount of dead running is minimised is an important part of that process.

Auckland v Toronto: comparing networks

As I noted in this post a couple of days ago, there are some really useful pieces of technology that are starting to be developed that can aid us in understanding how our PT networks work, and where their strengths and weaknesses are. Let’s compare this video of Auckland’s public transport network, with a similar one of Toronto’s network:

Toronto’s video has the useful addition of distinguishing between the subway lines and the surface level transit (buses and trams). It also shows us how many vehicles are on the road at any particular hour of the day – interesting to see the pretty high level of all-night service that’s offered, and also the fact that there remains well over 1000 vehicles in operation until after 7pm in the evenings. It’s also a lot less CBD-focused – meaning that the PT system is useful for people other than those working downtown, while also operating efficiently by avoiding expensive long-haul services.

But perhaps the most obvious thing that comes through is the logic you can see with Toronto’s network. It’s not a bunch of ants crawling all over the place – as the Auckland network looks like. Instead, there’s a clear gridded network – something easy to understand, easy to intuitively know where your bus is going to take you and easy to connect to both other bus routes, and also to the subway system. This just reinforces the importance of getting our street patterns right when designing new urban areas.

How can we improve Mangere buses?

My post a few days ago on feeder buses highlighted a really interesting issue – how terribly slow buses are from Onehunga to the city centre, and therefore what a massive difference the Onehunga railway line has made to the trip times of people within walking distance of Onehunga and Te Papapa stations. The fact that the train is more than twice as fast as the bus really stood out in a comparison with other potential transfer points around Auckland: While we will obviously still have buses between Onehunga and downtown, because Manukau Road is a very important bus route (bus lanes along it might be a good idea too), the opportunity of having many more buses that pass through Onehunga from the south to become feeder buses seems like a possibility too good to ignore. The current timetable indicates that not only are there very few buses from Mangere to the city centre, but that they take an extraordinarily long time to get there – up to an hour and 20 minutes (update: they are supplemented by these buses so it’s not quite as bad as I had originally thought): Not only are the buses exceptionally slow, the bus network is also incredibly complicated and difficult to understand:
Now I don’t know the way these routes work in practice, because I think I’ve only ever caught one bus in this corner of Auckland, but it would seem that we could quite easily both simplify and significantly improve the speed of trips. Looking at the area in general, it would seem as though there are a number of obvious node points that we could build the bus network around: Mangere town centre, Onehunga (and its train station), the Airport, Otahuhu (and its train station), Papatoetoe and Manukau City. These are shown in the map below: Two routes seem pretty obvious as forming the backbone of the network in this area – as Manukau to Onehunga routes via the Airport and via Papatoetoe: The green route would be a useful precursor to Airport rail, slowly building patronage over time and offering good options for airport employees and for travellers who can transfer onto the rail system at Onehunga or Manukau. It might be worthwhile to send the route via Mangere Town Centre, although that’s something to be balanced against the additional time such a detour would add. The blue route acts as probably the core route for people living within the parts of Mangere it travels through who want access to employment areas on the isthmus (through a transfer at Onehunga) or at Manukau. Transfers to the rail system as possible in a number of locations: Onehunga, Papatoetoe and at the future Manukau station.

Overlaid on this map you could add a crosstown link between Onehunga and Otahuhu via Mangere – giving people along the route the option of going to either place for further transfers onto either the rail network or onto other bus services. Mangere Bridge and Mangere East probably need some bus services, so a further route could be added – although it does have some level of duplication with the blue route – so some further work might be necessary there: There are still holes in the network, around Montgomerie Road, Favona Road and parts of Mangere East – though once again of course there’s always a tension between making the route get closer to where people live and making the route quicker and therefore more attractive. Another frustratingly disconnected road network doesn’t help here.

What do other people think? Is there huge potential to improve the buses in this part of Auckland? Should we run buses from here right into the city or is it OK for people to transfer at Onehunga and Otahuhu? Have I gone too far in terms of simplification (leaving holes without a particularly nearby service) or have I not gone far enough in the simplification process?

I really don’t know the right answer here – other than it’s certainly not what we have now.


I think we’re only just beginning to recognise the useful ways in which technology can be combined with public transport to both make the trip nicer and to also analyse the PT system and work out ways in which to improve it. Much of this work is going on outside official agencies – which seem stuck in the dark age when it comes to such matters (try using the MAXX journey planner on a mobile phone, a painful process!)

Back in January we saw Auckland’s entire PT network simulated over the course of a day, in this fantastic video put together by Sciblogs.

An animated map of Auckland’s public transport network from Chris McDowall on Vimeo.

Now there’s a new piece of software, known as “Mapnificent“, that provides an incredibly useful resource: the extent of a city that’s accessible within a certain timeframe via public transport at various different hours of the day. This video explains how it works:

Mapnificent from Stefan Wehrmeyer on Vimeo.

Some of the functions are incredibly useful, I suspect particularly for those searching for houses or working out whether a particular job will be accessible for them via public transport in a feasible way or not. It would be interesting to see, over time, whether real estate agents reckon this is a helpful tool in trying to sell places – it’ll be particularly obvious the parts of the city within say a half-hour PT commute from downtown. If you worked across the road from Britomart train station, and accepted up to a 15 minute walk, you can see in the image below how much of the city would be within 30 minutes of travel time: It’s a surprisingly small portion of the city really, although I guess that’s because of walking times to and from the bus stop or train station. Interesting how effective the Northern Busway is at creating points on the North Shore that are dramatically more accessible than what’s around them. It’s crazy that most of the catchment of Akoranga Station is a golf driving range, and most of Smales Farm’s catchment is a golf course and a massive parking building. If there were ever parts of the city appropriate and attractive for intensification, these are those point. The fantastic speed of trains on the Eastern Line, and I assume the good speed of buses along Remuera Road and Tamaki Drive give that part of the city a surprisingly good score.

Push the time limit out to 60 minutes, and we start to see which parts of the city have particularly bad public transport – in that they can’t even get a peak time trip to Britomart in less than an hour: If you ever wanted a visual representation of why it’s stupid to have focused so much of Auckland’s urban development in Flat Bush, Botany Downs, Dannemora and so forth – then this is that proof. Heck even Beachlands and parts of Waiheke Island are more accessible to the CBD than a vast swathe of southeast Auckland. But there are interesting holes too – Te Atatu Peninsula and Massey are suprisingly excluded, a good argument for the Northwest Busway perhaps?

But Britomart is a really accessible point of downtown. How about if we shifted the focus point to somewhere outside easy walking distance of the current rail network – like the Auckland Town Hall. What impact does that have on what’s accessible in an hour long PT trip or less: Accessibility from the south and west is reduced quite significantly, while that southeast area is now well outside the 60 minute accessibility area (indicating that it would probably take people a lot longer than an hour to get to the town hall from these places. One big advantage of the City Rail Link project is that it will bring much more of the city within a reasonable commute of all the CBD, not just the area around Britomart.

However, if we think public transport to the CBD is bad, remember that only 13% of Auckland’s jobs are in the CBD. Other large employment hubs include around Greenlane/Ellerslie, in East Tamaki, Albany and at the Airport. The 60 minute accessibility zones for these are are pretty terrible (and remember that this is for an hour each way, probably the very limit of acceptability):

I wonder if such maps might make our planner reconsider the merits of decentralising employment. I would also think twice about shifting to Flat Bush any time soon – remembering that the map shows areas within a one hour commute:

The potential uses for this tool are endless. What a fantastic resource!

Rail feeder buses

One of the main differences between the calculated benefits of the Ministry of Transport’s review of the City Rail Link project and the revised analysis undertaken by Auckland Council and Auckland Transport of the project depends on the extent to which many of the current “long-haul” bus services are turned into rail feeder buses. There’s a clear logic behind this: the more bus routes you curtail into feeding the rail system the more rail passengers you generate and therefore the greater pressure you put on the rail system (hence the greater need for the rail tunnel). This is not rocket science, or a unique proposition: around 70% of riders on the Toronto Subway arrive at their station on the bus.

However, historically we have been utterly pathetic at co-ordinating buses with trains: not only in terms of ticketing (which is finally being sorted out) but also in terms of timing, the physical ease of transfering between the two and so forth. This has led to multiple stupid situations where we’re subsidising buses and trains to complete basically the same journey – the public purse paying for parallel routes. Incredibly stupid, incredibly inefficient. Furthermore, by making it nigh on impossible to transfer, we actually leave many in the outer suburbs with stupidly long bus trips to take.

Let’s take a comparison of peak time train and bus trips between four obvious transfer points around Auckland – New Lynn, Panmure, Onehunga and Manukau City (well, Manukau from February next year when the station opens): You can see for many of these trips the train is enormously faster than the bus – taking less than half the time in the case of an Onehunga to Britomart trip (no wonder the Onehunga Line’s so popular!) Now while we will obviously need to continue to run buses between downtown and these various points – to pick people up in between and deliver them to intermediary locations, it seems utterly crazy that (for example) we run buses from Howick to town, which pass right by Panmure station. Surely if every bus from east of the Tamaki River terminated at either Panmure or Ellerslie, with their passengers transfering onto the train we would be able to vastly improve frequencies of buses using the same resources (shorter trips means more trips per hour), while at the same time giving people a much faster trip to where they’re going. It just seems so obvious. Cut every bus serving the Mangere area at Onehunga so people transfer onto the train there for the much faster ride. The shorter bus trips mean that the same resources can go into much higher frequency feeder services, so people don’t have to wait as long for the bus. Do the same with all buses west of New Lynn – and possibly for buses west of Henderson you could have a further transfer point. Some of the more recent changes to Green Bay buses incorporated elements of this – although until we have integrated ticketing there will probably be a relatively limited market for it: You can do the same south of Manukau (as well as having either Otahuhu or Westfield being a further transfer station for areas around the Southern Line north of Manukau). Through this process not only do we end up with a far more efficient transport system, much faster trips for passengers, but the booming rail patronage will make it more and more obvious to Central Government how essential the City Rail Link project is. It’s a win-win all around.

But what’s the bet Auckland Transport’s too scared and disorganised to actually implement any of this?

What happened to “B-Line”?

Back in the middle of last year two “B-Line” routes were launched in Auckland, along Dominion Road and Mt Eden Road. I was a bit ambivalent about them at the time, mainly because they “undersold” the actual quality of those two bus routes. But I could see the point: raising the quality (or at least the perception of quality, which is equally important) of bus travel along high frequency bus corridors. One of the main reasons why the “quality guarantee” of a bus every 15 minutes, 7am-7pm Monday to Friday was set so comparatively low – Mt Eden Road buses operate at least every 10 minutes, Dominion Road buses at least every 5 minutes) was to enable further routes to be added as “B-Lines”, without the need to undertake impossibly expensive service frequency improvements.

By all accounts, the B-Line initiative has been reasonably successful. Mt Eden Road and Dominion Road buses are busier than ever – to the point that extra services needed to be added in recent times. However, nearly a year after the rollout of the first two B-Line routes – what’s happened to the rest of them? Not only have there not been any further B-Line routes, all of Auckland Transport’s reports seem to indicate that there aren’t any further ones planned for in the short to medium term future. Why not?

The particularly bizarre thing about the lack of progress on implementing more B-Line routes is that a number of routes would appear to have sufficient frequencies (with only mild alterations) to fit the criteria of being a B-Line. All Auckland Transport would need to do is even out a few of the intervals between buses, publish a few new timetables, get some fancy yellow signs on the buses and it’d be done!

So where could a few of the additional B-Line routes be?

Remuera Road:

By simply combining the, 655, 635 and 625 into a single route, and aligning the timetable so the buses ran every 15 minutes rather than at 10, 20, 10, 20 minute gaps, a B-Line service could be initiated along Remuera Road between the city and Glen Innes: In fact, in the not too distant past Remuera Road effectively did have a B-Line service: the good old “Remuera Rider”.

Onewa Road:

By aligning timetables of Beach Haven and Glenfield buses so they spaced the buses down Onewa Road more evenly, a B-Line quality service could easily be provided along Onewa Road, at least as far at Highbury Shops. Even the Beach Haven buses alone aren’t too far off providing B-Line frequencies. T3 lanes heading up Onewa Road in the PM peak would be a necessary improvement to accompany this route becoming a B-Line, but that’s an absolute no-brainer in any case.

Sandringham Road:

This is another fairly easy one, with just minor alterations to the timetable (as a result of the 233 being ruined by St Lukes’s stupid location) required to bring it up to a 15 minute frequency. It already has decent bus lanes along most of the route that would become part of the B-Line. I probably wouldn’t add in New North Road for now, even though it does have decent enough frequencies. The Western Line on the rail network mirrors New North Road’s bus service to a fairly significant degree, plus there is no existing bus priority measures west of Kingsland that would make a B-Line problematic.

Great North Road:

However, Great North Road on the other hand I think would be very suitable for becoming a B-Line route – between New Lynn and the CBD. This will particularly become possible when the Waterview Connection project creates a bus lane along a fairly critical section of Great North Road and hopefully eases a bit of the congestion along the “Waterview Straight”. A huge number of bus routes currently trundle along Great North Road from all parts of West Auckland. I’d probably chop everything at New Lynn, giving people the choice of transfering onto the train or onto a high-frequency B-Line service that serves quite a separate corridor to the railway line between New Lynn and town. It could even be called the “100 route” to make life extra simple: There’s even an existing dedicated timetable for the services.

Other possible B-Lines include Great South Road between Otahuhu and town, and the Ellerslie-Panmure Highway as well. The point being that there are plenty of fairly easy B-line routes to implement. So what have you been doing Auckland Transport? Or don’t you like the B-Line concept anymore?

Stupid urban planning

As a planner by profession, I can quite honestly say that more often than not we do urban planning in Auckland utterly terribly. We focus enormously on silly details: recession planes, consistency with minutely detailed assessment criteria, road-widths, numbers of parking spaces per unit, number of units coming off driveways and so forth – but we miss the really obvious stuff. Like the following:

  • Will it actually be feasible to operate a bus service through this area?
  • Can people walk to the local shops?
  • How can we create vibrant and interesting neighbourhoods?

One particularly important part of urban planning that tends to get completely overlooked – or tossed over to the road engineers, is the fundamental question of “where will the streets go?” As I noted in Friday’s blog post, street patterns have an enormous ability to influence the viability of public transport – with a grid of arterial routes (like Vancouver has) making life far far easier when it comes to serving an area with a decent bus network.

One thing that’s extremely depressing is to see how some of the most recent parts of Auckland are actually the most utterly hopeless at providing a decent street network. In fact, there are areas of the city built in the past few years that are actually nigh on impossible to serve with any form or public transport at all.

An extreme example of planning stupidity is down Schnapper Rock Road near Albany. There are probably hundreds of houses down this road and the various streets that come off it – all developed within the past few years. Potentially well over a thousand people might live down this road – but look at how massively disconnected from the rest of the city they are: By my analysis of the aerial photographs, and a couple of visits to the area, there are no shops at all down Schnapper Rock Road, meaning that your options for doing anything without driving at almost non-existent. How about the public transport – well that’s an interesting route option to try and ask MAXX about: a peak time trip from Dove Place to town gives some interesting options: It takes me an hour and a half, costs me nearly $10 and requires a trip on a freaking school bus! Talk about designing for auto-dependency.

Just down the road things are arguably even worse – thanks to the failure to connect up the two ends of Kyle Road, which should have been an absolute requirement before any development took place around Upper Harbour Primary School: Quite bizarrely, some planner made the decision that William Gamble Drive shouldn’t connect with Huntington Park Drive – which means that the two residential areas located right next to each other are hugely isolated from one another. Furthermore, the one road connecting the William Gamble Drive area with the rest of the world doesn’t even have a footpath along most of its length – meaning that to get anywhere else without driving is pretty much a suicide mission. Fortunately there is a pedestrian connection between the two ends of Kyle Road, which means that it’s only a 1.5 kilometre walk from William Gamble Drive to the nearest bus stop.

Moving further south, the new developments on the Hingaia Peninsula near Papakura aren’t much better, once again having exceedingly poor connectivity to the rest of the road network: This is another place that has some rather amusing public transport options: So I get to walk for two and a half kilometres in order to have the pleasure of a 90 minute bus trip into town. Gee that sounds fantastic!

Even in more inner areas, new developments have often seemed to design their street networks with the expressed purpose of being as useless for public transport as possible – Stonefields near Mt Wellington is a classic example of this: While Stonefields has quite a nice grid, the fact that no effort was ever made to connect up the street network with its southern and western edges means that every future bus route through the area will need to be a pointless loop. While I obviously realise this is a former quarry site and there are some pretty big stone walls making the connection difficult, I am sure if a southern street connection had been a condition of allowing any development in the quarry, it would have happened.

The poor street connectivity means that the new residents of Stonefields need to take a 1.5 km trek to access a bus service: Now I hear there’s an entire “land-use transport integration team” at Auckland Transport these days. Let’s hope that their primary job is to ensure that nothing as stupid as the various recent subdivisions I’ve shown above ever happen again.

Bus route planning – a challenging balancing act

The significant changes proposed to buses in central Auckland, plus my recent blog posts about how to improve bus flow through the city centre have highlighted to me what a challenging balancing act it must be for people whose job it is to improve the bus route network. That said, it’s also an incredibly important job, as Auckland’s current network has a huge number of inefficiencies, areas of duplication, areas of poor service, areas of overly long routes and so forth – all put together they produce a bus network map that does look like someone’s thrown spaghetti at a wall.

But this is not just an Auckland problem. Large parts of Sydney’s bus network are pretty difficult to make sense out of too:

That red route – the 473 – could hardly take a more indirect and slow route through Bardwell Park and Turrella if it tried. This is an example of a somewhat unbalanced approach to bus network planning, where all the emphasis is on getting the most people within a few minutes walk of the bus route – at the sacrifice of the speed and attractiveness of the route for people who have a choice between catching the bus and driving.

I suppose this is the most obvious balancing act when it comes to planning bus networks: the trade-off between speed and accessibility. You obviously want as many people to have access to the bus as possible, but at the same time you also obviously want to ensure the bus ride is not painfully slow. An example of something at the other end of the scale might be the Northern Express bus route in Auckland – it’s about as direct and fast as possible, but aside from around Sunnynook station, relatively few people live in close proximity to the route – meaning that there’s a reliance on park and ride stations, plus feeder buses.

A second trade-off is between network complexity and simplicity. How many different routes and route variations do you want? On the positive side of complexity is the ability to offer targeted products to what the demand might be: a slower and less direct route serving more places in the off-peak, express routes, peak direction only routes and so forth. But on the down side of that, the map and system can become very difficult to make sense out of – and public transport just becomes “too hard” to bother with. Not that I have much experience of it, but the bus network to Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs does seem to have a particularly high level of complexity to it:
You have a bunch of normal routes, some routes beginning with X, some routes highlighted as pre-pay only, some routes beginning with L. And even then within the “normal routes” you have a bunch of very similar routes (for example the 372, 373, 374, 376 and 377) that by in large follow the same route – except for slight variations near their terminus.

That’s not to say you can’t go too far in the other direction as well – over-simplifying the network. While I would generally consider Auckland’s bus network to be over-complicated, some of that complexity has a useful purpose – like express and short-running buses on Dominion Road, or peak services that do extend to parts of the city (for example, Chatswood on the North Shore) that wouldn’t have the ridership to justify an all-day service. While I generally support the simplification process proposed in the changes to buses in the central city – I do wonder whether there’s the opportunity to overlay some peak-time express services (particularly on the 020 route) to give people what they really want at peak times: a fast and reliable service. I’m not quite sure that the 020 will provide that with its detour through Freemans Bay:

A good bus network is largely dependent upon the street network that it has to work around. Possibly the best bus and most effective bus network that I’ve seen is that in Vancouver – enormously aided by its gridded street pattern:

The gridded system enables so many “win-win” outcomes. By running buses along the major corridors (both north-south and east-west) all the routes generally operate in the fastest possible way, but they’re close enough together to ensure that everyone’s within a few minutes walk of a bus stop. So we solve that speed versus accessibility issue. We also solve the complexity issue because the routes are simple and easy to understand – they go along a particular road for most of their journey. Even if there are variations (express services or some variation from branching close to the route’s terminus) these are fairly easy to understand because the vast majority of the route is simple.

It’s not surprising that Auckland’s bus system seems most successful and effective in parts of the city with a street pattern that most clearly follows what’s in Vancouver. By contrast, the street pattern in the eastern isthmus makes a legible bus network nigh on impossible (although I’m sure we can improve on the incomprehensible mess that’s currently there.

There are of course many other issues to balance. Do we have stops further apart (faster journeys) or closer together (shorter walk to the bus stop)? Do we have long routes (allowing a lot of trip possibilities on the one route), or shorter routes (probably improved reliability)? And of course the big question – do we design a system that seeks to avoid transfers, or do we design a system that takes advantage of the benefits offered by transfers? Each has their pros and cons.

Clearly there’s no single best way to design a bus network in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly improve on what we’ve got in Auckland. If you look at Auckland’s bus network it generally doesn’t seem to have got the balance right: it’s overly and unnecessarily complex – seemingly a relic of 1970s thinking which was “the more routes the better”. Furthermore, I tend to think that Auckland’s bus network doesn’t get the balance right when it comes to speed versus accessibility either – with a few exceptions such as the Northern Express route, it seems as though the bus network has been designed with the assumption that it’s only there to serve people who can’t afford to drive or aren’t able to. It puts accessibility too far ahead of speed – meaning that we end up with a huge number of very very slow and windy bus routes.

A lot of the problems with Auckland’s network are historic – based on assumptions that buses are only there to serve those with no choice, based on extremely poor integration with the rail system and generally based on a desire to avoid transfers at all costs. While we must be careful not to go the other way too far – and I think many routes could handle increased stopping pattern complexity (i.e. more express services and short-runners rather than all buses having the same stopping pattern) – overall to give the network a better balance we should be aiming to simplify and to speed things up.