Guest Post: March Madness Marches On

This is a guest post from reader Stephen Davis and was originally posted here.

Regular readers of TransportBlog will be familiar with March Madness. With workers, students and kids all trying to use public transport simultaneously, it’s the busiest month of the year. In rush hour, trips can take an hour longer. People stand helplessly at bus stops as bus after bus sails by packed to the gunwales, with their headsigns proclaiming “BUS FULL”.

Once you do get on the bus, scenes like this are fairly common. The “no standing” line is completely ignored, and it’s your turn to watch from inside as your bus now leaves other people behind.

Now, Auckland Transport treat this as a temporary, transient thing. It’s a problem for a few weeks, but we can’t afford to run enough buses to solve the problem when we’d only use them for a few weeks of the year. To quote an AT spokesman, “The numbers travelling on buses and trains does increase but settles back again as students work out their schedules. The best advice is to plan ahead and try to travel outside peak times.”

Now you can debate whether that attitude is justified. Our friends at Generation Zero compiled a rather nice report on the issues people reported, and it’s been ignored by Auckland Transport. But at least it’s over now, and those of us who haven’t given up on public transport entirely can at least get on our buses.

Except for one thing: these pictures aren’t from March. They’re not even from peak time. All of them were taken between May and July, this year, after 10am and before 4:30pm.

Welcome to New North Road.

I live in Kingsland, and study at the University of Auckland. I head in and out at all times, peak, interpeak, and evening. So this gives me a good chance to see how the buses are getting used, all day. There’s a lot of students, but the crowds aren’t just timed on the hour as people try to get to lectures. There’s also lots of non-students on the buses, too – judging by the number of beeps on their Hop cards.

The last week is typical. I’ve travelled in during the peak once, and interpeak four times. Of those four, twice I was left behind by a full bus, with the next at least ten minutes behind. Three of the four times it was standing room only. Twice the standing room was in front of the line saying “no standing in front of this line”. And this is at Kingsland, not even the end of the run – so as we go through Eden Terrace, those buses are no longer picking anyone up.

On a personal level, it doesn’t matter too much being a little late. I aim to get in well before lectures so that I’ve got time to do some work. I’m also young and not travelling too far, so standing doesn’t bother me.

But none of this is helping anyone else. Auckland is trying to grow public transport use, but in order to do so it needs to actually have some capacity for growth. We’re also trying to improve the reputation of public transport, and this sort of unreliability isn’t going to convince new people to try it.

So why is the crowding so bad? Have a look at the frequency of buses between Saint Lukes and the city. The hours are the times they arrive at Victoria Park at the end of their routes.

The frequencies are fairly high in the peak from 8-9, naturally, and are still high as late as 11am. But during the middle of the day they drop as low as 3-4 buses per hour. All that needs doing is to extend the frequency of buses throughout the day to be closer to the level during peak: 6 buses per hour or more. That’s what we run on Dominion Road, and less than what runs on Mount Eden Road. Some of the services can also keep running as expresses during the day, for example the 224 which starts all the way in Henderson. If it’s not going to stop in Kingsland anyway, it might as well be called an express.

You can also see that we need to extend bus lane hours and lengths. The few bus lanes along the route end at 9am – but the second-busiest hour, by the number of buses, is 9-10am.

The most infuriating part is that overcrowding off-peak is actually a good problem to have and a relatively easy one to solve. Full buses make money. Adding a new bus is expensive, but we already have them – there’s extra buses running during the peak hours, so all that’s needed is to run them at higher frequency a little longer. That’s good for business. It’s good for drivers, who can avoid split shifts or short shifts. And it’s good for passengers, current and potential.

Increasing frequency off-peak also helps with peak crowding. If the service is more attractive, more people will try to move their travel to avoid the peak.

Solving the overcrowding during the peak and in March is harder. There’s issues with the buses bunching once they get too frequent, for example. It’s going to take double decker buses, more frequency, more bus lanes, and maybe even light rail. But crowding in the interpeak? We could fix that right now, and it’ll make money, not cost money.

You know March Madness is really mad when …

From the files of: You know March Madness is really mad when:

And here it is in action courtesy of Christopher Dempsey from the Waitemata Local Board.

Party Bus - 881

Party Bus - 881 2

These buses are complete old dungers and in no way meet today’s bus standards but I guess they’re also better than no bus at all. Other than when being used as party buses they are also commonly found on the North Shore running school bus services (so they have HOP readers). The sooner we can get more double deckers the better.

Even these extra buses might not be enough though. This is the bus stop at Victoria Park a few days ago in the afternoon peak.

AT’s added PT capacity

Following on from my post last week about March Madness, Auckland Transport provided me with the following table showing how much capacity has been added to the PT system since April last year and showing how much is planned to be added by the middle of this year. As you can see there’s quite a significant amount of capacity that’s been added, although obviously only on specific corridors at specific times. Still, that we are still having capacity issues are a testament to just how much pent up demand there is from Aucklanders for better PT. In this regard I imagine AT are playing a constant game of catch up while also having to balance the costs that come with increasing services.

PT Capacity increases since April 15

Maddest March yet?

We’re now in March and as expected the transport madness is in full swing.

The annual battle for a spot on the bus has kicked off with commuters left standing in the rain waiting for a bus with room and journeys taking up to 1.5 hours.

Known as “March madness”, the phenomenon kicks in every year as students head back to university and workers are back in full force while the region’s traffic hits its peak for the year.

On Monday, 10 buses drove past Ravi Kaniyawala at his stop near Bellevue Rd, Mt Eden, before he could get on a bus where he had to stand.

Yesterday, he tried another option and caught the bus from earlier up its route in Three Kings. But even this backfired.

“It took me one and a half hours from Three Kings to Britomart.”

Mr Kaniyawala plans to drive to the Mt Eden station today and get into the CBD by train from there. The technical analyst said he’s been working in the city for three years but this is the worst March madness he has seen.

As mentioned in the article the whole thing is entirely predictable and yet it happens every year without fail. The good news is that more services will be put on from Sunday which should hopefully ease the pressure although the question remains why it didn’t start this week.

  • Mt Eden Rd – 24 trips = 1056 seats
  • Dominion Rd – 16 trips = 736 seats
  • New North Rd – 18 trips = 720 seats

Unfortunately the new double deckers will be too late to have an impact this year although it may help a little next year.

The buses aren’t alone in being busy. The trains are also feeling busy and despite having greater capacity than the same time last year, it feels like that extra space has already been used up. Platforms also feel busier than ever.

Packed Train

What would the impact be if all of these people drove instead?

What does concern me though is that AT seem continue to treat this an annual event.

Mark Hannan, Auckland Transport spokesman, said it was too early to say if complaints had increased this year as tertiary students had only just started back.

“The numbers travelling on buses and trains does increase but settles back again as students work out their schedules. The best advice is to plan ahead and try to travel outside peak times.”

Yes, things do settle down again after Easter but I also believe that a lot of people simply give up. After all there are only so many days you’ll put up with standing at a bus stop or squeezed on a bus or train before you try something else. How much higher would patronage be through the rest of the year if enough services were put on and people had a better experience? As well as more services, one big thing AT should be doing to help address the issue using off peak pricing to encourage those that can to travel later.

To show just how much busier March can be, here’s the monthly patronage results up to the end of January. The March results are shown in red. If the rest of the months were closer to what we see in March, it could add 10 million or more trips a year to the results.

2016-01 - Monthly Patronage

And some of the many tweets I’ve seen of full buses

While on buses our friends at Generation Zero are running a campaign calling for better buses

Does your bus kinda suck? We want to know if your bus is always overcrowded, if you have to wait while buses go past already full, and anything else about your bus journey that just isn’t quite up to scratch. If we hear from everyone who is annoyed at their bus this week, we can show Auckland Transport there’s a problem.

Today, tomorrow, anytime your bus is crappy in the next few weeks. As often as it happens. Let us know. What we want to identify is where and when we most need to add more buses. Then we can present all your complaints to Auckland Transport and make them do something about it.

Head over to here for it.

How are you finding March Madness so far?

Edit: AT have informed me the extra buses on isthmus routes won’t start till the 14 March.

Are we ready for PT madness season

Next week marks the start of annual madness season – the time of the year where use of public transport ramps up over February and culminates in what we call March Madness.

The spike in patronage seems to be the result of a combination of factors. Schools and universities kick back in to gear for the year (the school term officially starts again on Monday) which also more parents back to work. Those naturally make public transport busier and of course roads busier too. It also seems that a lot more people are willing to give public transport a go, perhaps a result of wanting an alternative after suddenly being exposed to the full mind numbing horror of driving on congested roads once again – especially after the easier driving over the summer period.

You can see the impact of March Madness in the chart below showing patronage in each month with March in Red. February is obviously lower due to fewer working days and PT use ramping up over the course of the month. Unsurprisingly the years where March wasn’t the busiest month of the year or where other months were very close (2008 and 2013) Easter was either partially or fully in month. Of course we have Easter falling fully within March this year – although due to the way the weekends fall it only represents one less working day than last year.

2015-12 Monthly Patronage

By the end of February the March Madness conditions will be in full effect so it’s important that Auckland Transport have the PT network working well to ensure that people can actually use it and encourage those new adopters to keep using it well into the future.

In the past they haven’t done well on this front. Both buses and trains are often packed to the point of turning people away. Last year I heard stories of some people on routes such as Mt Eden Rd waiting and watching as up to 12 buses went past too full to allow them to get on.

The numbers tend to die down after March due to a combination of factors such as school holidays and people giving up on the overcrowded PT services and going back to their car.

This all begs the question of whether AT are prepared for this year’s madness. In my view they aren’t.

Since this time last year the electric trains have been rolled out to the Southern and Western lines providing a little bit more capacity however even in January – normally a quitter time – trains have been very busy thanks to all of the patronage growth that’s occurred. The Western line is still stuck with trains at peak times only every 15 minutes despite AT and its predecessors promising 10 minute services would happen from as far back as 2010. Indications are we’ll finally see that increase happen this year but not till April/May, after the rush.

On the bus network it’s a similar story, not much capacity has been added but some is on the way. We learned last year that the various operators were buying 56 double decker buses to be used in Auckland. Some are already in use on the Northern Express and one is used by Howick & Eastern for trips between the city and Botany but it appears the bulk of these might be too late March. The expected roll out of them is below.

  • 18 buses on the NEX Northern Express (Albany to Britomart via the Northern busway) by April 2016, with the first ones on the road now
  • 15 buses on the 500 route (Mission Heights to Downtown via Botany Town Centre, Pakuranga, Panmure, Ellerslie and Newmarket) by September 2016, with the first ones on the road now
  • 15 buses on the 274 (Three Kings to Downtown via Mt Eden Rd) and 277 routes (Waikowhai to Downtown via Three Kings and Mt Eden Rd) in May & June 2016
  • 8 buses on the 881 route (Albany to Newmarket along the Northern busway) in June 2016

What we have seen though is that AT have been advertising their arrival.

AT_DD_Ad

I think AT have actually done a good job on the advertising, both in the design and placement of the ads but I do wonder if they’re a bit premature. The majority of them won’t on the road till after May so will provide no relief for busy routes like Mt Eden Rd so advertising them now might be giving a bit of false hope.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the system copes.

Are we ready for March Madness

We’re now in March and for public transport that means one thing – March Madness. It’s called that because a number of factors combine to see usage of buses, trains surge. Those factors include but are not limited to:

  • It’s a 31 day month with normally no public holidays – next year will be a big exception with Easter falling entirely within March.
  • Decent weather still so people are less likely to be put off walking/waiting for services.
  • Universities are back and students are often keen to start the year well so attendance is likely higher.
  • There are normally no school holidays.
  • I suspect there are less people taking leave in March due to no school holidays and many having taken leave over Christmas/New Year or in January or February.
  • There are likely to be less people taking sick leave
  • More people trying out PT as a way to avoid congestion also caused by the previous points.

The surge normally starts in late Feb and runs through to at least Easter before people start settling down into more established travel patterns – which may include travelling earlier or later to avoid the worst of the peak.

From a patronage perspective March is almost always the month with the highest patronage in any given year – and May is usually second. This is shown on the graph below where March has been highlighted in red.

AKL March Madness Patronage

There are a couple of exceptions to this, on the rail network the last couple of years has seen patronage in May slightly higher than March while on the ferries January is usually the highest month as a result of more people visiting places like Devonport and Waiheke Island.

One of the problems Auckland Transport and the operators face with March Madness is that a lot of the extra trips occur at the height of the peak which is exactly where it is the hardest and most expensive to add new services. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important that AT put a lot of effort into making the buses we have go faster by:

  • Reducing dwell times:
    • getting more people on HOP – it’s not uncommon to see 5 or more people be able to board with HOP in the same time it takes someone paying by cash.
    • in some places possibly allowing rear door boarding – currently the only place I’m aware that this happens on the NEX at Britomart in the afternoons.
    • encouraging bus operators to buy buses with larger doors – and bigger buses in general.
  • Getting buses out of congestion and therefore moving quicker with more bus lanes and other bus priority measures.

Speeding up buses means that the same number of them can deliver more services for no extra cost. That’s good for passengers and for city as it means we’re spending money more efficiently and getting better outcomes.

I personally think we’re in for a huge month for patronage. The last few weeks in particular have been extremely busy on almost all services I’ve caught – much more so than I can remember seeing before. For example even the buses I use which travel opposite to the peak direction have been standing room only while on some parts of the rail network the new electric trains are driving huge growth.

On top of the factors driving growth in PT, just due to the way the calendar falls this year it means there’s an extra business day means the total results should be even better. Below are a couple of images hopefully highlighting just how busy services have been of late.

This Northern Express bus heading to the city in the afternoon was so full that a number of people (myself included) couldn’t get on. Another one two minutes later was almost as full.

NEX Full

A frequent sight on morning buses to Takapuna and afternoon buses to the city

Takapuna Bus full

A regular sight in the afternoons with the queue for the Northern Express to the North Shore. It extends behind where I took the photo too.

NEX Queues Britomart

A different day and different angle but there were two queues, one back to Customs St and the other around to the right

NEX Queues Britomart 2

Trains leaving Britomart on the Western line are packed before even reaching Newmarket and Grafton where a large number of additional passengers try to get on.

Packed Train Leaving Britomart

And another one from twitter

From Patrick yesterday, the Airport Express was standing room only after only one terminal meaning a long trip to town for those on their feet.

So anyone want to take some guesses on how many PT trips there’ll be this month? As a comparison in 2014 there were just over 7.3 million with it broken down as per below.

  • Rail – 1,174,588
  • Northern Express – 262,431
  • Other Bus – 5,374,783
  • Ferry – 494,123

Given the growth we’ve been seeing in recent months a 10% increase seems entirely possible and that could see us reach over 8 million trips in the month.