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.

Mapnificent

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.

Improving buses in Auckland’s city centre – part II

There was so much interesting discussion on my blog post a couple of days ago about how to make Auckland’s bus network operate better in the city centre that I thought it was necessary to do a secondary blog post to discuss some of the issues raised. In particular, there were two matters that probably require a bit of extra thought:

  1. Where and how to turn around the North Shore services that I propose should go via Wellesley Street to the university.
  2. Whether North Shore buses should use the Fanshawe/Customs street corridor instead of Wellesley Street.

There was also some discussion about whether there might be sense in having some buses bypass the city centre completely – particularly once the Victoria Park Tunnel project means that spaghetti junction is not quite so clogged up with cars. That’s probably a separate issue to discuss in a future post – as I really don’t know as much as I should about the impacts of the Victoria Park Tunnel project on traffic flows in and around the city centre.

With regards to where the buses should go around the university, I agree we don’t want to stuff Alfred Street up with too many buses as in an ideal world it should be closed off completely an absorbed into the University as a general area of open space. But on the other hand it is a really really handy spot for students to get on and off the bus: being right in the heart of the university. Possibly some routes could go via Alfred Street with others disgorging passengers down on Wellesley Street – it’s something that could be worked out in more detail at a later stage.

In terms of analysing the bigger question, whether North Shore buses should go via Wellesley Street or Fanshawe/Customs Street, one thing that’s probably useful to look at before we go too much further into drawing lines on maps (which I love doing) is to analyse what the current situation is – in particular looking at the morning peak bus flows into the city. This work was kindly compiled as part of NZTA’s analysis of North Shore rail options:

The big flows into the city come from three locations – down Symonds Street (fed by southern buses and isthmus buses), northwards along Albert Street (generally fed by west Auckland buses) and in along Fanshawe Street for North Shore buses. You can see the potential for problems along Albert Street with heavy bus flows in each direction – a particularly severe problem as the bus lanes along Albert Street are very stop-start and generally inadequate in my opinion.

By 2041, even with the CBD Rail Tunnel built, the study showed significant increases in the number of buses entering the CBD – though the impact of the rail tunnel is evident in the reduction of buses from the south (64 current reduced to 50): Indeed, without the tunnel the result is completely mental.

Along with the Albert Street problem, I see real problems with providing sufficient bus capacity along Customs Street and past Britomart in the future. Especially if we are going to continue to run buses down Symonds Street and Anzac Ave towards Britomart, we’re going to end up in the situation where just about every bus in the city descends on this spot in Lower Queen Street. While that’s handy from an interchange point of view, in terms of its sheer practicality I can see massive problems in concentrating so many buses through that part of the city centre. Sure, we could build something along the lines of the Sturdee Street busway that I proposed a few months ago, but even then I worry we’re concentrating too many bus services in one part of the CBD.

That said, I think there are some smart suggestions that came out of the comments (in particular this one by Stu Donovan). It does make sense to have more through-running buses, as long as we can ensure they remain reliable and median bus lanes (or some other form of very high quality bus priority) would be a good idea along Customs Street and Fanshawe Street. But would it alleviate the need to shift more buses away from the Fanshawe/Customs corridor onto the Wellesley corridor? I don’t necessarily agree. Furthermore, when comparing the two corridors as possible “through-town” options, the Wellesley corridor is both shorter (1.52 km km compared to 2.53 km between the Fanshawe/Halsey intersection and the Symonds/Wellesley intersection) and has fewer signalised intersections. A comparison of the two is shown below: Of course the Customs Street option has advantages of linking with Britomart and the Ferry terminal, but then in the future the Wellesley corridor will run right past Aotea train station. Furthermore, if Quay Street is ever pedestrianised then that’s going to put a huge amount of extra pressure on Customs Street as the only crosstown route in the northern part of the city centre. And we must think about whether we really do want a massive number of buses clogging up QEII square and its surrounding streets.

In the shorter term though, I think getting most of the North Shore buses out of Albert Street and away from the mess that is Customs Street and some parts of Fanshawe Street (it’s fine between Nelson and Beaumont Streets but gets snarled in the evening peak before that point) will have huge benefits to the efficiency of how buses work in central Auckland. It will require more bus lanes to implement, but Wellesley Street seems like a road that can handle that – as from my experience it never seems to be one of the busier cross-town arterials.

Improving buses in Auckland’s city centre

It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that as the number of public transport users increases in Auckland there’s a growing need to sort out how we handle buses in the CBD. The Auckland city centre contains approximately 81,000 employees, 21,000 residents and 50,000 students. Around 71,000 people enter Auckland’s city centre between 7am and 9am each weekday morning. Over 23,000 of those do so on the bus. By 2026, approximately 100,000 people are anticipated to enter the city centre during the weekday peak. Those are all pretty big numbers.

Over the past few years there has been a pretty dramatic increase in the number of people using public transport to access the city centre during peak times – meaning that the number of private vehicles (which is effectively capped due to road capacity constraints) has held steady or even declined – as shown in the graph below:

It’s reasonable to assume that these trends have continued over the past couple of years, with more people using public transport to get into the CBD than there are vehicles entering during peak times. But with significant growth for the city centre likely over the next 10-20 years, and our road capacity pretty impossible to increase, even with the CBD rail tunnel built I think it will be necessary to significantly increase the number of buses the city can handle. In the short term, as Britomart’s capacity is maxed out it will be essential to get more out of the bus system to support and enable the CBD to grow.

Auckland City Council looked at a number of ideas for improving CBD buses not long before the Super City came along, but aside from Auckland Transport’s current proposal to change around the Link route, introduce an “Outer Loop” and shift many Western Bays bus routes from Queen Street onto Albert Street it seems that little has come from the work they did. This is a huge opportunity as buses in central Auckland are currently highly inefficient, very slow, damaging to the image of the CBD through their noise and pollution and are generally confusing for people trying to use them. The changes currently underway will improve things to an extent – although in other ways they may just make things worse. An example of where the changes are likely to make things worse is by putting more buses onto Albert Street, which already has bus lanes that can’t cope with what’s being asked of them (largely because they’re pathetically incomplete).

A few weeks back I talked a bit about one of the main ways in which I think we can operate buses in the CBD better: by re-routing many of the North Shore buses (in fact, all of them except for the Northern Express) away from Albert and Fanshawe streets (which handle far too many buses at the moment) and onto Wellesley Street. Combined with having buses from the west using Albert Street and Vincent Street, and buses from the south (including the isthmus) using the Central Connector corridor along Symonds Street, the fundamental structure of the bus network could look a bit like this: Obviously there will be additional services like the Link bus, buses from the Western Bays, buses from Tamaki Drive and so forth – but at least theoretically the majority of buses in Auckland could run along the routes highlighted above in the city. This removes the conflict between North Shore and West Auckland buses along Albert Street, it provides direct university (and potentially onto the Hospital and Newmarket for some services) access for almost all North Shore buses and it creates a legible bus network that’s relatively easy to understand.

What it does involve is the concentration of buses in the city centre onto fewer roads than we see at the moment – which obviously means there’s increased potential for bus congestion. Furthermore, I don’t know where we will find room for all the stops around Britomart. So there would obviously be greater complexity when it comes to the exact details of where to turn around many of the buses. One thing that the above plan would clearly require is the complete bus laning of all the roads highlighted as bus routes above, and the systematic changing of traffic signals to give greater priority to buses (for example at the corner of Pitt Street and Vincent Street). Particularly important would be putting bus lanes along Halsey Street, Customs Street, Wellesley Street and Vincent Street (outbound).

If we look a bit further into the future, we could easily overlay onto this map a light-rail line running from Dominion Road, through Upper Queen Street, then down Queen Street and out to Wynyard Quarter: Once the CBD Rail Tunnel is in place then we have the opportunity to fundamentally rethink the operation of the bus network through the city centre. Would we still really want all our buses to travel right down to Britomart from the west and south, or could we transfer them onto the rail system at the K Road station? Could we link up our North Shore buses with those serving the southern isthmus area, while giving people the opportunity to transfer onto the rail system at Aotea/Midtown station? The opportunities are pretty endless: Those are obviously longer term ideas, but what’s outlined in the first map could be achieved pretty quickly: just re-route some buses, paint in some bus lanes, change around a few stop locations and you’d be done. A massive improvement for public transport users in the CBD at next to no cost.

Better bus signs

A good post on Human Transit highlights the usefulness of improving bus signage – and in particular the importance of naming routes by the main road they pass along, rather than by their destiation. A good example of an effective bus sign (by that I mean the signage on the front of the bus) is the 38 Geary Boulevard service in San Francisco:

As Jarrett says in his post, this signage is great because it lets you know the bus runs along Geary Boulevard, while also saying that somewhere near the end of the route is V.A. Hospital. This compared to in many other cities (like Auckland) where it seems most of the signage relates to the place where the bus ends up:

Many other cities, including Sydney and Seattle, habitually turn it upside down, so on the 38 above they might have said “38 VA HOSPITAL via Geary.”  A Sydney sign might read “380 DOVER BCH via Oxford St.”  I find that less intuitive, because the path the bus follows is usually more useful than the final destination in determining if the service is useful to you.  Still, it’s understandable in Sydney where street names change so frequently that it’s hard to associate bus routes with them, as “38 GEARY” does.

Auckland is a classic example of the latter situation. The 267 bus has “Lynfield” all over its signs, while the 258 says “Blockhouse Bay” loud and clear. If you didn’t know Auckland’s bus system well, you might be somewhat unlikely to think that they predominantly follow the same route – as they pass along Dominion Road. Same with New North Road buses – we have buses that say “Rosebank Road”, “Patiki Road” and “Henderson” – even though for all these services they actually only spend a tiny fraction of their time along the parts highlighted in big bold letters on the front of the bus.

One of the biggest complaints I have about Auckland’s bus system is that it’s overly complex and difficult to understand. Changing the way we name routes, so that we sell all the New North Road buses as “New North Road – to Rosebank” (for the 211) or “New North Road – to Patiki Rd” (for the 212) seems like an obvious way to at least make the system seem a lot simpler and easier to understand. It wouldn’t cost a thing to do either – just a bit of reprogramming on the buses and on the real time information signs.

What is Auckland’s silliest bus route?

The Auckland bus network is best described as resembling what happens when you throw spaghetti at a wall. Complex, confusing, counter-intuitive and very difficult to understand. Furthermore, there are some incredibly bizarre anomalies in the bus system that I simply can’t make sense out of.

Like what’s up with the 018 bus?

It runs just once a day, from Herne Bay of all places to Otahuhu – of all places. It only runs in the morning – at the lovely hour of 5.45am and there’s no return trip, so too bad if you wanted to get home! I wonder if anyone ever uses this bus, maybe I should do a LGOIMA request of Auckland Transport to find out.

Another candidate must surely be the 550 bus. It must be Auckland’s shortest route – running from Otahuhu to Otahuhu in about five minutes. The map below shows its route: It doesn’t even connect to the train station, and at weekends operates at the brilliant frequencies of around one bus every two hours!

Knowing the efficiency (or lack thereof) of Auckland’s bus system, I can almost imagine that the bus operating this route would do its five minute run, then sit in the same place for almost two hours before doing another five minute run.

What other silly bus routes are out there? And how can we eliminate much of the stupidity of Auckland’s bus network so it operates more efficiently? Surely that second question must be at the top of Auckland Transport’s mind, as they’re in a situation of rising patronage without rising funding.