Powering public transport in New Zealand

I recently authored a report for EECA titled “Powering public transport in New Zealand.” In this report we considered a range of emerging public transport technologies and whether they might be suited to small to medium sized cities in New Zealand.

The first question to answer is why do we need this study? Surely there’s loads of comprehensive international studies out there that we can use? Well, yes and no. International studies are useful and we did use them in our report. The second question is why is renewability relevant? Well, it’s relevant because 1) NZ has a ongoing incentive to reduce carbon emissions and 2) a renewable and efficient PT system provides us with a hedge against higher energy prices.

The local NZ context is also relevant for several reasons. Most  importantly the local context defines the broad characteristics of our urban form (low density), as well as the scale and structure of our PT systems (small). The local context also informs the price and availability of fuels (limited). And then the reconstruction of Christchurch presents a unique opportunity for us to embed PT into the urban fabric of a city from the outset. Lastly, our cost structures – especially labour – are different from elsewhere, so you can’t just say “country y is building technology x” so we should do that too.

So in our study we took the approach of using international research to identify some potential “winners”, which were then evaluated in more detail for their suitability in NZ. In this post I won’t go into too much detail; I’d encourage you to simply download the report and read it for yourselves (only 40 pages with lots of pictures and graphs. But for those of you (like Patrick) who have short attention spans I thought I’d summarise our key findings:

  • Alternative fuel pathways – we consider that there are three potentially viable pathways for New Zealand cities:
    1. Diesel substitution pathway, which would make use of increasingly efficient diesel vehicles (such as hybrids) and non-mineral diesel fuels, namely biodiesel and synthetic diesel. This pathway is attractive because it offers immediate, albeit incremental, improvements in PT renewability. Public transport is an ideal testing ground for such fuels, because it provides a concentrated point of demand/distribution. On the downside, to be feasible the price differential between mineal and non-mineal diesel would need to decline over time.
    2. Biogas pathway – which may be suitable where large quantities of biogas can be generated from landfills. Best suited to cities where reticulated CNG is available as a back-up, and that support large PT systems. Scale is important because the switch from diesel to CNG buses will incur fixed capital costs, e.g. in maintenance facilities, which would ideally be spread over as many vehicles as possible.
    3. All-electric pathway – While the low energy density of batteries does create some range and speed limitations for electric buses, our literature review noted just how quickly these issues were being circumvented with innovative in-service recharging facilities, such as over-head and inductive charging points. These re-charging facilities meant that battery electric buses can now get through the day without needing to be taken out of service for re-charging. One of the interesting advantages of battery electric buses is that they tend to charge overnight when electricity prices are low, whereas trolley buses and light rail draw down during the day when prices are high.
  • Alternative vehicle pathways – in a future of sustained high oil prices, such as those forecast recently by the IMF, alternative vehicles, such as hybrid and battery electric buses, because cost-effective alternatives to diesel buses. Fixed route electric vehicles, such as trolley buses and light rail, struggled to be cost-effective due to their high capital costs. Going forward, we would expect newer technologies, such as hybrids and electric buses, to develop more rapidly and only extend their comparative advantage over fixed route options.
Three of the more advanced vehicles are illustrated below, namely 1) the ADL Enviro 400-H double decker; 2) the Arctic Whisper with fast overhead re-charging; and 3) the BYD all-electric bus, of which 1,000 are currently operating in Shenzhen.

ADL Enviro 400H – Hybrid diesel electric

Hybricon’s Arctic Whisper – Electric battery bus with rapid over-head re-charging and back-up diesel engine

BYD’s all electric battery bus, with fast re-charging


If you wanted my personal opinion on what pathway(s) were most likely, I suspect the best way forward is to focus on purchasing more efficient diesel buses, before subsequently embracing all-electric battery buses when they become viable. Of course the circumstances of individual regions and operators will vary considerably, which is why we hesitate to make an universal, all-encompassing conclusion about what is best fuel/technology mix.

Based on our results we made the following recommendations:

  1. Central government should closely monitor alternative public transport technologies, because these technologies are evolving rapidly.
  2. Undertake a systematic analysis of the barriers to uptake of emerging technologies, such as weight and mass restrictions.
  3. Engage with bus operators to gain feedback on which technologies they see as having the most potential.
  4. Investigate whether trials can be used to gain on the ground experience of new technologies.
  5. Perhaps most importantly: Central government should establish a public transport vehicle procurement forum to help realise economies of scale in bus procurement.

Recommendation #5 is potentially the most interesting. What we’re encouraging central government to do here is to take a leadership role in the procurement of public transport vehicles. This has two positive consequences. First, it creates opportunities to gain economies of scale in vehicle ordering, which in turn drives the price down. Second, economies of scale are especially important when you’re trying to buy new technologies. As such, by facilitating a public transport procurement forum central government can help us to gain access to cheaper, better buses.

As the report notes, participating in the vehicle procurement forum would be completely optional and moreover self-funding through charging a small commission on successful orders. And ultimately by helping to lower the costs of vehicle procurement (which are a not insubstantial cost of the PT system) we should see reduced demand for PT subsidies and higher quality, more renewable vehicles.

It’s also a useful example of how our Government could take a leave out of the Scandinavian economics text book, by working  more closely with the private sector to coordinate strategically interdependent “win-win” outcomes.


  *** I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of Jörn and Liz at EECA for supporting this study, as well as Ian Wallis for helping to make it happen ***

The “PT effectiveness project”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, NZTA has been undertaking a significant amount of work into finding out ways to get “better value” out of public transport investment. As I also noted yesterday, NZTA currently gets around $4.40 worth of road user benefits for each dollar they spend on subsidising public transport in Auckland, so they’re actually doing pretty well at the moment. But if there are other ways to efficiently improve the delivery of public transport, obviously they should be looked at – and it’s interesting to see what ideas have come out of this project.

They’re summarised in the diagram below:

There’s some good stuff being said here, like the need for simplified fares and ticketing, and the need for a zone based fare system (as an aside, ARTA had better be wording on a zone based fare system that will be rolled out with integrated ticketing). References to the need to focus on a more integrated approach to public transport network planning is also good, while the idea of a “demonstration project” in each city sounds quite exciting. Other things, like improved customer service, probably have some value (I have noticed that bus drivers seem a lot friendlier these days) but in the future we’re likely to be interacting with drivers less frequently, so that might not be as important as other things.

Let’s have a look at some of the details of what’s in these boxes. Starting with improved customer experience, some of the statistics in the section below are quite fascinating – particularly the potential economic benefits of increasing public transport use: So 10% more people using public transport in Auckland would next to an (annual?) benefit to Auckland of over $80 million. That’s a useful number to store in the memory bank. It’s also further confirmation of the significant economic benefits that are brought about by getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. I’d be curious to know what percentage of that $85 million would be benefits to road users.

What is said about integrated networks is perhaps the most interesting thing of the lot, and links in a lot with what I have said previously about “The Network Effect“, which was also the subject of a fairly recent NZTA research report – which public transport academic Paul Mees contributed significantly to. It also has some very interesting statistics regarding the effectiveness of the Northern Busway:

If NZTA are really thinking about how the network effect could be applied in New Zealand, and most particularly in Auckland, then that’s very very good news. While the cost-effectiveness of subsidising public transport in general remains excellent (as outlined in yesterday’s post), over the past 10 years there has been a lot of “adding services” without necessary too much thought going in to the structure of our services – with the result being the incredibly messy route structures that we have. The “network effect” seeks to clean all that up, create a grid public transport network and to base the system around transfers rather than around avoiding transfers. International evidence shows that this works spectacularly well.

Another interesting key issue identified by this effectiveness project is what NZTA has termed the need to strengthen leadership, but what I would probably call the need for everyone to bloody work together for once. The last sentence here is the key one, that what we really need is for the different operators to start focusing on growing the public transport market, rather than just focusing on protecting their little bit of that market. Now this was the point of the public transport management act, to give ARTA a lot more powers to make this happen. I’m not sure whether NZTA has been informed of the Minister’s intentions to ruin that legislation.

There’s quite a lot of further information that I will probably get around to blogging on in the future, but it is quite good to see that some of the thinking going on behind the scenes actually makes sense, and is focused on the very issues that I often talk about on here – the need to simplify and integrate, and also the tremendous economic benefits that can arise from increasing the number of people using public transport.

The Public Transport Leadership Forum

Amidst spending zillions of dollars on motorways over the next few years, NZTA’s National Land Transport Programme also established the “Public Transport Leadership Forum”. This is what’s said about that forum in the NLTP:

Meanwhile, an NZTA programme will take a longer-term view of public transport investment while seeking to make decision-making processes more robust. We will convene a public transport sector leadership forum, with one of its first tasks being to develop an action plan to improve the effectiveness of public transport in New Zealand.

It may not seem like particularly much, but I think that there are likely to be some very useful results coming from simply getting together a pile of people who know what they’re talking about when it comes to public transport, and thrashing out some ways to improve public transport nationwide.  The forum held its first meeting in September last year, and is holding another meeting in a couple of days time.

A progress report on what was achieved at that first meeting, and a series of next steps to take makes for quite interesting reading actually – and suggest that this might actually achieve something, rather than simply being a talkfest designed to distract us from NZTA’s potentially disastrous farebox recovery policy that is being developed.

The forum considered a number of aspects of public transport, including its wider context. Their findings on this matter are summarised below: That seems to cover pretty much everything. I’m particularly glad that parking policies, peak oil and the ability of public transport to help achieve growth strategies has been mentioned. These three issues are often overlooked.

A number of reports were put together by various transport experts – including Russel Turnbull from Parsons Brinkerhoff, Dr Peter Stoveken from Stoveken Consulting, and Ian Wallis from Ian Wallis Associates (I must say it’s nice to learn that we actually have public transport experts in Auckland). Various long-term strategies and plans were discussed, but perhaps what I found most interesting were the identified “low hanging fruit” – or relatively easy to implement improvements in the next five years that could make a big difference:

Improving real-time travel information, creating a full integrated ticketing system and looking to create incentives so that employers provide staff with free public transport (instead of free parking) look to me as three steps forward in particular that could make a very positive difference.

There’s quite a bit of other information I have, which can be read from the links below:

  1. NZTA Powerpoint Presentation – Improving Public Transport Effectiveness
  2. Planner/Funder Breakout Group Notes
  3. Operators Breakout Group Notes
  4. Users Breakout Group Notes

Of course who knows whether all of this will actually achieve anything, but it’s certainly good to know that some serious thinking is going on to improve public transport. Hopefully all parties involved in the forum have read Paul Mees’s excellent book: Transport for Suburbia. It will answer most of their questions I would imagine.