Continuing our rather recent tradition of exploring random parts of Auckland’s public transport system, Leila and I resolved to check out the northern busway on Sunday. The busway has been open since February I think, allowing buses to bypass the traffic nightmare of the Northern Motorway, and get from Albany into the city in about 20-25 minutes. Often by car it takes twice as long if the traffic is bad, so unsurprisingly the busway has been pretty popular. A whole selection of North Shore bus routes use at least part of the busway, while the Northern Express service offers a “core spine” service to the whole network, only stopping at the busway stations between Britomart in the city, and Albany.

We started our adventure in Ponsonby, after a very nice breakfast at Cezanne Cafe. Our link bus into the city was quite an adventure in itself. The link buses do feel like the one ‘world class’ bit of Auckland’s public transport system, with nice new buses, information screens showing snippets about the areas the bus passes through and so on. However, apparently our bus way running late so we all got turfed onto another bus. The next bus hung around for a while itself until the driver helped a drunk old man off the previous bus. I think he’d fallen asleep, as he promptly fell asleep once again on the new bus. But anyway, it was more amusing than annoying as we weren’t in any particular hurry. The bus eventually made it to Britomart, and we hopped off and waited for our Northern Express bus. After a bit longer than should have been the case, the bus showed up. I had seen the Northern Express buses many times driving over the Harbour Bridge (they’re quite distinctive) but had never actually been on one before. It seemed as though ARTA had been quite careful in the selection of the Northern Express bus, as they’re pretty damn huge – with the ability to cope with what is (hopefully) at peak hour pretty heavy loads.

It was actually quite nice to head across the Harbour Bridge and check out the view properly for once. Although I make my way across the harbour bridge around four times a week, I’m always driving so don’t get much of a chance to admire the awesome view for more than a few seconds at a time (to avoid crashing the car!) However, of course the busway doesn’t actually get going until a reasonable distance north of the harbour bridge itself. Perhaps this is a bit of a weakness, but my general experience is that traffic congestion in the evening doesn’t really get too bad until after the Onewa Road off-ramp, so perhaps it’ll be OK. After getting off the motorway at Akoranga Drive, we slipped into the Akoranga Station quickly. I was impressed. The station looked much more like a modern train station that one would find in a European country than a typical Auckland bus stop. You could even wait inside, buy your ticket at an electronic machine and so on. We didn’t get off there though, but continued further up the busway proper – passing through Westlake, Sunnynook and Constellation Stations on the way. The busway itself gave an interesting perspective at cars on the motorway, as they zipped past on your left rather than on the right as per usual. The grade of the road itself made it pretty obvious to me that if/when the decision is eventually made to turn it into a railway line there will need to be some pretty serious earthworks to smooth out the ups and downs.

In pretty short-time was arrived at Albany Station. The station itself was just as flash as all the others, and with quite a few different platforms clearly has room to grow in the future. Perhaps this is what the New Lynn bus depot looked like when it was brand new back in the 70s or 80s? However, the station’s biggest disadvantage became immediately clear as soon as we left it and embarked on the final leg of our journey to the Albany Westfield – it’s basically in the middle of nowhere. I suppose that’s not really the fault of ARTA, the council or anyone else involved in the construction of the station. Albany Town Centre is planned to grow like topsy over the next decade, but at the moment it still feels strangely ghostly. There are big four-lane roads with traffic lights, roundabouts and everything else, but no buildings, no people and hardly any vehicles either. Just the most expensive grassy fields in Auckland I imagine. To be fair, it is a work in progress, and I certainly hope that eventually there is either a good pedestrian connection from the busway to the future Albany Town Centre or (even better) buses actually continue through the bus station before terminating bang in the middle of the town centre. After all, not many people want to catch a bus to a grassy field, but a lot would want to catch one to a shopping mall.

Leila and I had a pleasant enough afternoon reading books at Borders and generally checking out the Albany Mall. In many ways it does feel quite similar to Sylvia Park – Auckland’s other fairly recently opened Megamall. I was impressed by how it interacts better with its surroundings – particularly to the north with a row of cafes and restaurants looking out over what will be a nice lake and park area in the not-too-distant future. Sylvia Park does have a train station located almost inside the mall though, so that’s hard to beat.

The trip back was fairly non-eventful. Once again the walk to the bus station was a tad annoying – more because of how bare and exposed it all felt, rather than its distance. I do hope that the economic downturn doesn’t put any further development on the back-burner forever, because the whole ‘half-built’ feeling is a bit spooky. Southbound on the busway works better than northbound, as the busway stretches significantly further south. This is particularly useful as it bypasses pretty much all the congestion on the Northern Motorway (not that there was much on a Sunday).

Wow the weather has been really nice the last couple of days, it almost feels like summer!

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