Grafton Bridge – Revenue Gathering or Stupidity Tax

I’ve lost count of the number of times this same story comes up in the Herald and about the only thing missing this time was a sob story from a motorist. Instead we get three councillors who think this is a perfect opportunity to try and score some political points.

A central Auckland bridge is netting $150,000 in traffic fines from confused motorists every month.

Almost 1000 tickets have been issued each month this year to drivers snapped by enforcement cameras as they cross Grafton Bridge – which has been closed to all but buses for three years.

This year’s total take is about $1.25 million.

Some civic leaders say a “dog’s breakfast” of signs around the bridge creates confusion.

Auckland Council members Cameron Brewer, George Wood and Calum Penrose have called for a review of the signs after learning that as many as 997 tickets, worth $150 each, are being issued each month.

Mr Brewer said the council-controlled Auckland Transport had put up an array of small signs around the busy approaches to the bridge to show it was for buses only between 7am and 7pm on weekdays.

But the number of signs had added to the confusion.

“For many who may be heading into the area for the first time in a long time, it is as clear as mud.

“With no time to take it all in, many drivers find themselves on the bridge, nowhere to go, and staring at a $150 fine.”

Mr Wood called the signs a “complete dog’s breakfast” and said they explained why so many people were still being fined three years after the bridge became a bus corridor.

Well George I don’t think that it is the signs that are causing people to keep using the bridge but a mix of stupidity and risk taking thinking they might get away with it. First there were cries of not enough signage, now cries of too much signage but I think that the signs are just a convenient excuse. As I understand it Auckland transport already has a policy of letting out of towners off with a warning and with the amount noise that was generated the previous times this issue has come up I would be really surprised if there was really that many people that didn’t know that the bridge was off limits.

If there is any confusion at all it is due to the fact the bus only status is only active between 7am and 7pm on weekdays, perhaps the solution is to just make it bus only 24/7. The other thing Auckland Transport should do is to is to come out and say that if people are going to be stupid enough to drive over the bridge then they deserve a fine (and the same goes for other bus lanes too). They shouldn’t have to appear almost ashamed that they are keeping the bus lanes moving as without enforcement they quickly deteriorate with drivers thinking they can get away with clogging them up.

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.

Warning: plague of blind drivers in Grafton

Reading yet another stupid article in the NZ Herald today about people getting fined for driving over Grafton Bridge during the 7am-7pm Monday to Friday period when it’s bus only really makes me wonder whether there’s a plague of blind drivers in this part of Auckland. It seems that somehow a couple of councillors think Auckland Transport is at fault for policing the bus lane along here:

Auckland Transport has been accused of “money-hungry militancy” over the increasing number of motorists being issued $150 bus lane fines on Grafton Bridge.

Auckland councillors Cameron Brewer and Calum Penrose said yesterday that the transport agency’s figures for the year ending May showed 14,253 bus lane infringement notices were issued on Grafton Bridge.

The bridge is closed to cars from 7am to 7pm on weekdays.

They reckoned that at “$150 a pop” the potential revenue from bridge tickets over 12 months was $2.1 million.

Since June last year, the monthly average had risen from 1000 tickets to nearly 1300.

I’m not quite sure how simply enforcing a bus lane can classify as “money hungry militancy”. I remember many years ago that people got grumpy with the police for enforcing speed limits, or enforcing that people wear their safety belts. It seems to me that people just have a habit of getting grumpy when they’re caught doing something they know they shouldn’t.

So why are so many people continuing to cross Grafton Bridge when they shouldn’t?

Mr Penrose, who represents Manurewa-Papakura, said he was getting a lot of complaints from people snapped by the bridge’s bus lane enforcement officers’ cameras.

“They simply don’t realise the bridge is closed to cars during the day.

“Some don’t even know they’ve done anything wrong until the ticket turns up. They can’t remember seeing any signs or any advertising.”

Now when the bridge initially went bus only I wholeheartedly agreed with those who said the signage was inadequate. The transport department at Auckland City Council – who were in charge of this issue at the time – made some stupid excuses about being consistent with national signage standards, before finally common sense prevailed and we saw a massive plethora of signage.

From memory, there are advanced warning signage on all approaches to the bridge, there are no turning signs (with the explanation that this applies only some of the time given secondary prominence). And there’s also a big overhead signs with red crosses over the top of the lane during the day to indicate that you can’t travel in that lane at the hours of the day when the bus lane applies. To ignore all these signs is similar to driving the wrong way down a motorway onramp and then the wrong way over the harbour bridge ignoring all the red crosses in the lane above you.

So, I can come to the conclusion that there are only two possible explanations for such a large number of people continuing to ignore the huge number of signs and effectively make decisions similar to driving the wrong way down a motorway onramp and then the wrong way over the harbour bridge. The first possible explanation is a plague of temporary blindness that occurs in Grafton, meaning that drivers simply don’t see the mass of signage. This seems like a fairly unlikely possibility, although I have managed to catch a cold over the past few days of being at the hospital after being completely cold-free for the whole of this year up till now.

The second explanation, which seems a bit more likely, is that people take a gamble that there won’t be anyone enforcing the bus lane at that particular time. With lots of political pressure seemingly being put on Auckland Transport to reduce the number of people they catch driving in the bus lane, perhaps people think the odds are pretty good that they won’t be caught.

Ironically, I probably think that the way to solve this issue is by Auckland Transport policing the bridge a heck of a lot more, rather than any less. If they policed it all the time and advertised that fact widely, then people wouldn’t take the gamble because they would know that they’ll get pinged. As an example, compliance levels for Onewa Road’s T3 lane are pretty damn high because they have at least one team of people policing the lane each and every day. People generally don’t take the gamble of driving down the Onewa Road T3 lane because they know they’ll get caught.

I don’t know whether it’s possible to automate the process of enforcing the Grafton Bridge bus lane. Perhaps each bus (and emergency vehicle) could be fitted with a transponder which talked to a camera, basically saying “it’s OK, I’m a bus”. Everyone else would get pinged automatically – perhaps with a two-week warning period where people got sent a letter explaining the situation but not being fined, with the fines being implemented after that. I reckon if Auckland Transport adopted this approach we would have next to no people crossing the bridge in cars within a few weeks.

Update:

This is a good photo showing the signage. You really would have to be blind to miss it: Bus lane sign. Two no entry signs. Bus lane writing on the road surface AND a big overhead sign with red crosses. Crikey if you can’t see all that then I reckon you don’t deserve to be able to drive.

The Grafton Bridge Saga

Back in February I wrote a blog post about how lucrative Grafton Bridge’s bus lanes are proving for Auckland City Council, with well over a million dollars in fines having been issued in the few months that the bridge has been open to buses only from 7am to 7pm, Monday to Friday. For some reason Auckland City Council think this is a bad thing, and a whole agenda item was included in the most recent meeting of the Transport Committee to discuss this embarrassment of riches.

Furthermore, NZ Herald columnist Brian Rudman picks up on the issue in today’s paper, saying the following:

…The result is the Grafton Bridge fiasco. Since October, when cars and trucks were barred from the bridge between 7am and 7pm on weekdays, there’s been mass disobedience on the part of motorists. How much is deliberate defiance is anyone’s guess.

I suspect the main reason has been the inadequacy of the signs, compounded by the “tourist on the wrong side” syndrome.

Just as some tourists default to their normal right-hand side of the road when driving on our long and often empty rural highways, Grafton Bridge seems so inviting when you approach it in its usual state – which is largely devoid of buses.

In other words, there are no reference points such as a line of buses, to suggest it is a bus-only zone.

Since December, when $150 fines began being enforced, more than 12,000 drivers have been stung for $1.9 million. Only 25 per cent have paid.

Transport committee chairman Ken Baguley now admits the signs were inadequate. He says he’s suggested to his officials that “with the benefit of hindsight, you’re not alerted to the fact that it’s a bus lane very well.”

He hardly needed hindsight for that penny to drop.

In late October, soon after the ban came into force, I ridiculed the inadequacy of the signs after a single trip to view them. The problem was obvious then, and people were transgressing from day one.

In a recent report to the city transport committee, parking group manager Dale Clements says the “perception amongst some road users and the media” that the signs have been inadequate and the enforcement activities are part of a revenue-gathering exercise “has been exacerbated by the low level of observed bus volume on the bridge – 281 buses per 24 hour weekday”.

He adds that “perceptions of low bus volumes undermine the argument for retaining Grafton Bridge for buses only”. With that sentiment I fully agree.

I’m a great supporter of public transport. Unlike the vast majority of politicians involved, I use it. But I’ve always believed hijacking Grafton Bridge for buses merely created a new set of problems.

High among them was that it blocked the quickest route from the inner western suburbs to the city’s main public hospital and the adjacent Domain and museum.

In the last remaining months of Auckland City’s existence, we’re unlikely to see anyone admitting the error of their ways over Grafton Bridge and the central connector.

But come the Super City and one integrated transport agency, maybe a fresh set of eyes will do better.

I certainly agree with Rudman that the the number of people making the mistake of driving on the bridge when they should be is an obvious indicator that the signage is inadequate. In terms of what can be called “empty road syndrome” that fact that not many buses appear to be using the bridge ignores the fact that for each full bus that goes across it you are carrying as many people as would be in cars that would take up the whole bridge. But getting back to the signage, it is interesting to see how defensive council staff are about things, in the committee paper:

October 2009:
The initial signage installation complied 100% with the TCD (Traffic Control Devices) Rule. All signage was in place at the opening of Grafton Bridge.

November 2009:
Based on the high level of warnings issued, during November 2009 additional advisory signage was installed on the Karangahape Road approach to the bridge and at the point of entry on the bridge. These were Bus Lane 7am to 7pm Mon to Fri signs. This advisory signage was installed prior to active enforcement and is over and above requirements nominated by the TCD Rule (Traffic Control Devices Rule).

February 2010
By the end of January, allowing for the holiday period, the infringement levels had still not reduced to the levels expected. Therefore, on 14 February further signage which carried the international No-entry symbol
and No left/right turn symbols were installed. These signs are unequivocal and, again, are well beyond the requirements of the TCD rule. Permission from NZTA was required to install them.

This is the kind of “speak” that makes people hate bureaucrats. Who cares if the signage is over and above some arbitrary TCD rule? The fact of the matter is that it’s clearly insufficient, so council needs to improve it.

But where I certainly don’t agree with him is about the idea that having Grafton Bridge as a bus only route is problematic. For a start, the bridge cannot be widened – so therefore either we are going to have buses mixing with general traffic (negating many of the benefits of the Central Connector project as a whole) or we are going to have to build a separate bridge (super expensive) or Rudman’s suggestion (earlier in his piece) that the Central Connector go via Grafton Road rather than via Grafton Bridge.

In the map below the current Central Connector route is shown in blue, and Rudman’s preferred alignment shown in Red: There are many reasons why I am forever grateful we went with the blue option. For a start it provides high quality bus lanes along almost all of Symonds Street – one of the biggest gains of the Central Connector is that the millions of buses that use Symonds Street can enjoy this benefit. The second advantage of this alignment is that it is far more accessible to AUT, a huge source of passengers. And a third reason is that it’s far more useful for this southeast corner of the CBD – there are a lot more people working in Upper Symonds Street or K Road than along Grafton Road. Finally, it’s worth nothing that another bridge across Grafton Gully for vehicles has been built in recent times – the Wellesley Street bridge shown in Green. So vehicles have effectively gained a crossing and lost a crossing – surely not too bad of a result.

While Auckland City Council should definitely improve the signage to ensure that people know when they can and can’t cross Grafton Bridge in their car, aside from that the council should be extremely happy at the amount of money it is making out of people driving across the bridge. By my calculations they’ve already made back about 20% of their investment in the Central Connector project. In a few years’ time it might even be turning a profit. In other words, while I have sympathy for those who truly didn’t realise the bridge was bus only, I can’t help but think that a fair number of people “give it a crack” and hope that nobody will be there to photograph them as they cross. The whole Central Connector project depends on Grafton Bridge being bus only – and the alternatives are pretty hopeless.

In the end, Auckland needs to use its road-space more efficiently and that involves getting more people onto our buses. For that to be viable the buses need to travel quickly, and that depends upon more and more bus lanes. The sooner we get used to that the better.

Grafton Bridge proving lucractive

It’s interesting to see that people are still ignoring the signs that say Grafton Bridge is for buses only. A NZ Herald article explores the issue further:

Lucrative bus lane

New bus-only lanes on Grafton Bridge have helped swell Auckland City Council coffers by $1.7 million since they were introduced in December.

More than 11,000 drivers have been stung for using the bridge between 7am and 7pm, when both lanes of the central city bridge are reserved for buses.

A senior councillor admitted the signs alerting motorists to the change were inadequate.

“The signage needed to be upgraded, without doubt,” said transport committee chairman Ken Baguley.

“I’ve suggested to officers that, with the benefit of hindsight, you’re not alerted to the fact that it’s a bus lane very well.”

[rest of article here]

I’m surprised the number is that low actually. The one time I caught a bus across Grafton Bridge, on my way to the opening of the Newmarket train station, there was someone on the bridge taking photos of cars travelling across it when they shouldn’t have. In the mere time it took the bus to cross the bridge I saw three or four cars travelling across it in the opposite direction. A cool $600 of revenue in just a couple of minutes.

While obviously it’s important for the signs to be clear, I think that the high number of people crossing the bridge in their cars does show a bit of contempt for public transport amongst car drivers in Auckland. Hopefully the $150 fine is useful ‘education’ for them. I also wonder whether the hours of operation for the route being bus only (7am-7pm Monday-Friday) confuse some people into thinking that it’s OK to cross when it isn’t.

From another perspective, it’s quite a useful source of funding for council. Maybe once we have the Super-City operational we’ll see that funding going back into public transport services.

Grafton Bridge Reopens

After being closed for well over a year, the Grafton Bridge has finally reopened for buses between 7am and 7pm Monday to Friday, and for all traffic at other times. It is a critical part of the Central Connector project, which is also now technically complete.

From Auckland City’s website:

Grafton Bridge to reopen

From City Scene, published on 4 October, 2009.

A special civic ceremony to mark the reopening of the historic Grafton Bridge and completion of the Central Connector project will be taking place at 11am today, 4 October.

The mayor will commemorate the occasion with a ribbon cutting ceremony and unveiling of a new plaque on the bridge.

The event will be followed by an open day that is also part of the Auckland Heritage Festival, with heritage tours, live music and vintage vehicle displays.

Grafton Bridge is an important key in the Central Connector project. When fully operational, Central Connector will provide 65,000 Aucklanders each weekday with quicker, more reliable bus travel between Newmarket and the CBD. Grafton Bridge will reopen to traffic on 5 October, but will operate as a busway between 7am-7pm, weekdays. Emergency vehicles, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians will have access at all times.

Now, as far as I know, bus services will slowly be shifted onto Grafton Bridge and Park Road, from their current routes. This process will start with the Link Bus from tomorrow, which will return to its old route of continuing up Symonds Street, left into Grafton Bridge and from then onto Park Road. I think that ARTA is avoiding shifting too many routes onto Park Road for now, as it is narrower than usual due to works relating to the construction of the Grafton Train Station and the double-tracking of the western line through that area.

I hope the Symonds Street bus lanes are fully operational from tomorrow onwards – as they are the biggest boost to public transport from the whole Central Connector project in my opinion.

Central Connector saved

Auckland City Council have, thankfully, decided to proceed with making Grafton Bridge bus only between 7am and 7pm, when it reopens next month. Grafton Bridge forms a key part of the Central Connector – effectively a semi-busway between Newmarket and Britomart along the route shown in the map below:central-connector I had been a bit worried that the roads-loving Auckland City Council would look at allowing cars back onto this bridge at all hours of the day – making it highly likely the link would be clogged up and therefore making the whole idea of the central connector rather pointless. But it does seem that the council has made a sensible decision, and will proceed with the original plans.

The Central Connector is pretty close to being finished, and is due to open next month. Since I shifted house to Herne Bay back in March I haven’t used Symonds Street nearly as much as I used to – so I’m not sure whether the changes made so far have made much of a difference, but it will certainly have enormous benefits for Symonds Street in particular once complete – by providing 24 hour bus lanes and properly indented bus stops along a route that possibly carries more buses per day than any other road in Auckland. I drove along Symonds Street the other day and it seemed like everything between the Wellesley Street stop and Britomart is basically complete – although the bus lanes are only operational from Britomart to the Waterloo stop. Further ‘up’ Symonds Street, the road layout is all over the place, and a lot of road markings are still to be completed, but it certainly seems like all the major works are complete. Hopefully once the project is complete the days of having your bus take 20 minutes to crawl up Symonds Street will be over.

As you can see from the map to the left, if Grafton Bridge had been “left out” of the busway, it would have left a gaping hole in the middle of the project, and much of its benefits would have been lost. ARTA would have certainly been aware of the negative effects of allowing such a gap, and I imagine it was their pressure on the city council that went a long way towards ensuring they made this decision.  This is mentioned in the report by council staff to the Transport Committee:

Both the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) and Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA) also support the current 7am to 7pm weekday for bus/cycle/pedestrian only operating scenario. NZTA and ARTA are also the major funders for the Central Connector project, contributing $20.4M and $13.7M respectively. NZTA and ARTA have indicated in their feedback that if the operating scenario is changed from the current proposal, then they might review the original City Council funding application. This represents a considerable funding risk to the project, which is nearing completion.

So perhaps Auckland City Councils hands were rather tied on the matter? Nevertheless, credit where credit’s due: they have made the right decision here. And I also must give some credit to Ken Baguley – the chairman of the Transport Committee. I have been critical of Mr Baguley in the past, as he was the one who first came up with the idea of splitting the Central Connector in two by allowing cars onto Grafton Bridge, but in recent times it certainly seems like he’s realised the necessity of good public transport. This seeming change of attitude is clear both in this decision, and also comes through very strongly in a couple of quotes he gave to an article in this month’s Metro magazine on Auckland’s transport:

Ken Baguley points out that it’s not even an argument about money. He says Joyce’s $1 billion a year for motorways should be pooled with existing public transport funding and allocated according to an overall set of priorities. “It shouldn’t be that contentious,” he says. “We line up the projects, do the comparative benefit analysis, and proceed accordingly.

Wow, one pool of funding for transport. That sounds familiar. And:

Councillor Ken Baguley, chair of the Auckland City Council’s transport committee, says the CBD Rail Loop is the priority. He believes the loop is so widely accepted, “it’s not even a political issue any more”.

If Mr Baguley can be turned into a “born again public transport advocate”, perhaps there’s hope yet for Steven Joyce?

Grafton Bridge – bus only?

The Central Connector is a critical public transport project providing continuous bus lanes between Britomart and Newmarket. According to Auckland City Council, the project has the following benefits:

The Central Connector forms a crucial part of Auckland’s expanding transport network, linking into the Northern Busway at Britomart and connecting future bus improvement projects on Great South, Manukau and Remuera roads. It will also complement the rail network by providing a travel option to Britomart and Newmarket stations.Work to strengthen and future-proof Grafton Bridge is also nearing completion. The bridge will be able to accommodate heavier low-emission buses and other forms of passenger transport such as light rail in the future.

One crucial aspect of the project has been the strengthening of Grafton Bridge, with the plan to eventually make the bridge bus only from 7am to 7pm on weekdays. The bridge is only two lanes wide, and can only ever be two lanes wide. Therefore, before it was closed for maintenance last year it got very congested at peak hour. Redirecting a lot of buses over Grafton Bridge – as proposed by the Central Connector – would only add to this congestion if other vehicles continued to be allowed to cross the bridge, and undo many of the benefits that the rest of the Central Connector. So, to ensure that the money spent on the Central Connector actually achieves its stated purpose. Council spell this out quite clearly:

Upon completion, the bridge will be able to withstand a one in one-thousand year earthquake and accommodate up to 1200 buses every weekday. Accommodating more buses on the bridge is integral to maximising the benefits of the Central Connector busway and making inner city bus travel faster and more reliable. The bridge will be able to act as an important transport link between Grafton and the CBD, while retaining its heritage glory.

So far, so good. However, it seems as though the road loving politicians that actually make up the Auckland City Council don’t like the idea of not being able to drive across Grafton Bridge whenever they please, and have decided to waste ratepayers’ money and put the whole purpose of the Central Connector at risk, by undertaking further stakeholder and community consultation into whether cars should be banned from the bridge during these hours or not.

My feedback: don’t be idiots. Obviously the bridge has to be buses only from 7am-7pm. Use Wellesley Street bridge like you’ve been doing for the past few months and let’s get on with it. Somewhat fortunately, ARTA’s funding contribution to the project is based on the original proposal – so I hope their feedback goes something along the lines of “it’s buses only from 7am-7pm or you can find somewhere else to get the $14 million we’re contributing!”