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.

Upcoming PT improvements

The Business Report from Auckland Transport’s April Board Meeting contains quite a lot of interesting information – in terms of hinting at a number of upcoming PT improvements, highlighting some real funding squeezes thanks to NZTA funding being largely dedicated to motorway building and providing some updates on infrastructure projects. This blog even gets a mention at one point.

For this post, I’m going to focus on the upcoming improvements to public transport services that are noted in the Business Report and this attachment to it. Many of the recent, and upcoming, service improvements relate to what was announced a few weeks back. Short-term service improvements that have either been implemented in the last month or two, or will be implemented very soon, are summarised below: One thing that’s slightly frustrating is to see many of these capacity boosts only happening after the busiest month of the year – March. Patronage trends show that year after year, March is by far the busiest month for public transport patronage, so a few of the proposed improvements do seem a bit “after the horse has bolted”. Perhaps Auckland Transport might try to time their capacity increases next year so they come just before the March demand spike.

Some of the proposed rail improvements over the next year or so are interesting: Once we have ten minute peak frequencies on the Western Line early next year not only will we not have any additional rolling stock until late 2013/early 2014, Britomart’s capacity will also be completely maxed out – so the electric trains can only really replace existing train paths into Britomart, rather than add extra train capacity. We’ll need the CBD Tunnel for that.

The suggestions of fare differentiation for peak and off-peak travel, or service patterns that avoid Britomart (although I can’t see where the rolling stock is to run such services) seem like sensible and necessary options to handle continued patronage growth in the future. I caught a Western Line train into the city this morning and it seemed close to 40% of passengers disembarked at Grafton and Newmarket stations – so west to south trains could be helpful in providing supplementary capacity for those trips.

Finally, the report provides an update on how the integrated ticketing project is progressing: This month’s business report seems a whole heap more detailed and interesting than what we saw in previous months. That’s a good sign as it means we have a better understanding about what Auckland Transport is up to.

Central bus changes – an alternative option

Submissions closed last week on the proposed changes to bus routes in inner Auckland. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of the consultation and whether Auckland Transport still proceed with the proposed changes – I do hope so, as long as the changes are accompanied by necessary infrastructure works to ensure the “Outer Loop” route is reliable. In the comments thread of one of the posts I made on the changes, a representative of the Eden Terrace business association suggested an interesting alternative to the routes – that I think is worth sharing and discussing: For a comparison, this is what’s being proposed by Auckland Transport: As far as I can see, the ETBA propose three changes:

  • Extending the Inner City service southwards from Karangahape Road to Newton Road in Eden Terrace.
  • Re-routing the northern part of the Link Route so that instead of travelling along Wellesley Street and through the University it would go along Victoria Street, Albert Street and then Customs Street and Beach Road before making its way to Parnell.
  • Re-routing the “Outer Loop” bus between Newmarket and Britomart to travel via Khyber Pass Road and Symonds Street, rather than via Parnell.

While obviously the proposed changes are intended to improve bus access to Eden Terrace, and one wouldn’t expect anything different from an business organisation representing that area, they also potentially have some merit and I think are worth having a bit of a think about one by one.

  • Inner City Service Extension:

This proposed change is most obviously for the benefit of the Eden Terrace area, linking them in with the city centre to a greater extent. The route extension is likely to mean that it’s necessary to either have an extra bus or two running the route, or to operate it at lower frequencies.

I think that ultimately when deciding about this extension we need to make a call on whether the Newton/Eden Terrace area is part of the city centre or not. With the proposed Newton train station as part of the CBD, plus the enormous potential of the area for intensification and greater development, I think that in the longer term it could be part of an extended city centre – perhaps including some sort of ‘capping’ of the motorway between the Symonds Street and Upper Queen Street bridges.

I would probably lean away from this particular service extension at this point of time, mainly because there is a huge number of buses already connecting the city with Eden Terrace (all the New North, Sandringham, Dominion and Mt Eden Road buses) so I don’t see too much gain for the extra resources expended. However, in the longer term if we are to bring Newton/Eden Terrace into the city centre properly then the route extension really starts to make sense.

  • Link Bus Changes:

The change proposed pushes the Link to service the northern part of the city centre to a greater extent, travelling via Britomart rather than the University. While there’s obviously a bit of a loss in not having the Link pass by the University anymore (this is compensated by having the Outer Loop pass by the Uni) there’s an argument that having the Link in the northern part of the city centre more than compensates for this.

In my submission I noted some concern about the Link having poor coverage of the central city,with both of its east-west crossings of Queen Street being to the south of where most employment activity is. The EBTA proposal would certainly fix that, by running the Link along Customs Street instead of Wellesley Street. Overall I quite like the change – although potential bottlenecks along Albert Street and Customs Street probably need to be addressed, while it also requires the re-routing of the Outer Loop service to ensure the University is properly served.

  • Outer Loop Changes:

The main change is pulls the Outer Loop out of Parnell and sends it via Khyber Pass Road and Symonds Street to Britomart instead. It’s hard to know whether that would result in a slower trip or a faster trip to cover the Newmarket to Britomart journey (via Parnell is probably shorter, but with less bus priority). One big advantage of this option is that it puts the university on the Outer Loop bus – thereby providing good connectivity to the university for anyone along this quite extensive route.

While I realise the EBTA want more buses to travel via Eden Terrace, I do wonder whether this Outer Loop change might work a bit better if the bus followed the Central Connector route past the Hospital and over Grafton Bridge – as the extensive bus priority measures through here might speed things up a bit.

Overall, the suggested changes are quite interesting and I think they’re well worth some serious consideration. For me, looking at the alterations holistically there seems some benefit in sending the Outer Loop bus via the university and some benefit from having the Link bus serve the northern part of the city centre. Whether that’s worth the negative aspect of not having the Link bus pass by the university, or the longer travel time the Link bus and potentially the Outer Loop bus might have, is something that I probably can’t really answer – but would certainly consider with interest what others think.

Northern Express service improvements coming

The first step of implementing the public transport service improvements mentioned a week or so ago are about to be implemented – with a significant increase to the number of Northern Express buses proposed. Here’s the media release from Auckland Transport:

Auckland Transport extends Northern Express bus services

As public transport continues to grow in popularity, in addition to other public transport initiatives announced recently to manage increasing demand, Auckland Transport, with its operator Ritchies, is boosting the Northern Express bus service with additional buses,

More buses will run during peak hours and night time services have been extended.

From May 2, buses will leave Albany Station every five minutes between 6.30am to 9.30am and from Britomart every five minutes between 3pm and 6.30pm. Additional services will operate at peak times.

Friday and Saturday night time schedules have also been extended to give late night workers and revellers more options to get home.

Auckland Transport’s Manager Transport Public Operations Mark Lambert says increasing bus patronage and rising petrol prices have taken passenger numbers to record levels.

“Customers are happy with the service and we are pleased more people are taking the bus, however patronage has grown faster than we anticipated, putting pressure on existing bus services.”

Passenger numbers on the Northern Express bus service on the North Shore were 20.7 per cent up in just one year, with 1.99 million passenger trips for the year.

“The improvements and increased frequency of buses will alleviate overcrowding allowing people to get to their destination faster, easier and in more comfort.

“This is a great response from Ritchies in a short amount of time arranging more buses and we expect our customers to be very pleased with the good news,” said Mr Lambert.

So what’s being proposed? Let’s have a look:

Monday to Friday:

Service commences 5.30am ex Albany (currently 5.45am).
Service commences 6.00am ex Britomart (currently 6.30am).
Service frequency increase ex Albany to 3 minutes 7.00am to 8.00am School term only (currently 4-5 minutes).
Service frequency increase ex Albany to 5 minutes from 6.30am to 7.00am (currently 10 minutes).
Service frequency increase ex Britomart to 5 minutes 3.00pm to 4.00pm (currently 10 minutes).
Service frequency increase ex Britomart to 3 minutes 5.00pm to 5.45pm School term only (currently 4-5 minutes).
Service span increase Monday to Thursday – last service 12.00am ex Britomart. Service will operate every 15 minutes with last service 12 midnight from Britomart (1130 Albany).

Friday and Saturday evenings:
Increase in service span – last service 3.00 am ex Britomart (2.30am ex Albany).
Friday night – 15 minute frequency until 12.00am midnight ex Britomart then every 30 minutes until 3.00am (2.30am ex Albany).
Saturday night – 30 minute frequency until 3.00am ex Britomart (currently ends 11.00pm) (2.30am ex Albany).

While it’s not exactly how I might have looked to improve the Northern Express (I would have really focused on extending the time that the NEX operates at 5 minute frequencies to 6.30-10.30am and 2.30-7.30pm – to encourage a ‘spreading of the load’) there are some really great improvements here. We will see more buses on the road during the times of maximum demand, we will see better frequencies just before peak demand times (both in the morning and in the afternoon) and we will see later buses at night. I particularly like having a normal (as opposed to night-rider) bus service operating until 3am on a Friday and Saturday night. I wonder whether there might be justification in having the NEX operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the not too distant future.

Auckland Transport and Ritchies are to be congratulated at responding so quickly to the need for improvements. They kick in the day that university returns from its two-week break, so there should be significant demand for the increased capacity. Time to order some bendy-buses I wonder?

AT responds quickly to bus overcrowding

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

Bus and Train Service Upgrades Announced

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do the improvements entail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving North Shore buses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submit on central city bus changes by Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure on to improve buses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was left “incredibly frustrated”.

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

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

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

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

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