Whilst I have many problems with Auckland’s public transport: frequencies, reliability (especially the trains), ticketing and so forth – I think perhaps the biggest issue, and one which doesn’t seem to get the attention that it should, is simply the fact that it’s so darn slow. In most other cities around the world catching public transport is faster than driving, particularly at peak hour. This is somewhat because, contrary to popular belief, Auckland’s motorways aren’t actually particularly congested by international standards, and are actually incredibly comprehensive by international standards. While a lot of focus goes on the unreliability and lateness of many services, I think a significant deterrent for people using public transport actually happens after they’re on the bus/train.
A couple of examples. From my work in Avondale there is a bus stop just a couple of minutes walk down the road. The service is reasonably frequent during the day, at 15 minute intervals (although I’m sure there used to be a 10 minute service a few years back along New North Road). Whilst some of the routes are inevitably late (the 224 which I have a personal vendetta against), the 211 and 212 services are generally very reliable. However, it’s a minimum 40 minute bus trip into town from here. A couple of times it has stretched out to 50 minutes if I’m unlucky and end up on a 224 which goes via a slight detour to St Lukes or the bus is particularly heavily loaded. This is off-peak, and as there are no bus lanes along New North Road until you get to Kingsland (about 2/3rds of the way in along this route) I can only imagine that at peak hour the trip takes even longer. By comparison, at off-peak times I can probably drive into town from here in 15 minutes maximum. My boss and I, when we do need to take trips into the city for meetings and the like, really do want to catch the bus so that we’re acting more environmentally sustainable and supporting Auckland’s public transport, but a lot of the time it’s just a no-brainer when you compare the length of time the trip takes.
A second example comes from yesterday actually. After many attempts, I finally managed to meet up with a friend from the Skyscraper City forums. He lives out in Meadowlands, which to be fair is a heck of a long way from the city. Meadowlands forms a part of East Auckland that has grown like topsy throughout the last 10-20 years into the most horrific part of the city in my opinion (no offence to people who live there, it’s not your fault). It is the most classic example of urban sprawl you’ll ever come across – massive houses, cul-de-sacs everywhere, completely residential neighbourhoods and an utter belief that everyone will drive everywhere. I met up with my friend (Marcus) at just before 6pm yesterday afternoon, after he’d caught a bus into the city from Meadowlands. The trip down Symonds Street was so slow (although this is because they’re constructing 24 hour bus lanes, so council don’t incur my wrath for this) that he got off at the university and walked down to where I met up with him. Now the scary part is to come, he got on his bus at 4.10! That means it took almost two hours for him to get from Meadowlands to central Auckland, two hours! That’s to cover a trip which I’ve measured to be (approximately) 23km long. That’s an average speed of not much more than 10 kph – you could almost walk that distance faster!
Now perhaps that was an unusually slow trip, and it did coincide somewhat with the evening peak (even though he was going counter-flow), but to me it truly shows why that part of Auckland has the lowest levels of public transport use in the whole of Auckland. Who would be crazy enough to put themselves through that each and every day? Clearly, it’s criminal that such a large part of Auckland was developed without provision being made for a railway line. It is also criminal that there aren’t even bus lanes along the two main routes out that way: Pakuranga Road and Ti Rakau Drive. Yet there are no real plans to do much about it. ARTA does plan some sort of RTN (rapid transit network) to go up Te Irirangi Drive and then along Ti Rakau Drive, but who knows how they’d ever be able to build it? An RTN should be either a rail line or a proper busway (very different to bus lanes) so unless ARTA magically is going to end up with hundreds of millions of dollars to buy an enormous number of houses to build a proper transit line through the area, the best it seems we can ever hope for are top-quality bus lanes. Great job planners of the area in the 1970s-1990s. NOT.
But anyway, bringing this back to the main topic of this post. Why is public transport so slow and what can be done about it? I guess for a start buses are inherently a slow form of public transport, and as about 80% of Auckland’s public transport trips rely upon buses, it’s no wonder PT can’t compare with the car when it comes to the speed of trips. It’s interesting to note that along the very limited number of corridors where decent bus lanes have been constructed and there is significant traffic congestion (Onewa Road and Dominion Road), public transport is actually enormously popular. Apparently 50% of people travelling along the Dominion Road corridor in the morning peak use public transport, and I would imagine Onewa Road would be fairly similar. This clearly shows that speed is a huge issue for people commuting: make public transport faster and people will definitely use it. Other areas where public transport is probably the fastest method of getting to the city would be along the Eastern Line railway, which once again is enormously popular by Auckland standards. This situation was identified as horribly intolerable by John Banks a few years ago, who proposed to build a massive motorway along the railway route to ensure that the normal situation of ensuring the car was the fastest way to travel, was restored. Fortunately that project has been shelved.
So why so slow? Clearly the first reason is the lack of bus lanes. Where buses have to intermingle with traffic they will always end up slower than someone driving along the same road – simply because they need to stop and pick up passengers. However, even on roads with bus lanes often the bus stops aren’t actually indented towards the footpath, which means that any bus coming up behind another bus that has already stopped has to either stop itself, or pull into the general traffic lane/lanes, thereby negating much of the advantage a bus lane creates. While Auckand City and North Shore City have done a good job over the past few years expanding their bus/transit lanes, there is still a long way to go. Why doesn’t Manukau Road have bus lanes? How about New North Road? Ellerslie-Panmure Highway? Lagoon Drive? The list goes on. And that’s not to even mention the lack of action by Manukau City and – somewhat surprisingly given their eco-city image – Waitakere City. The second reason is the often circuitous routes that many buses travel along. Sure, this is useful in terms of maximising the number of people who are close to a bus stop, but it certainly comes at a cost. Another clear reason why buses travel so slow is that they’re often forced to do right-turns at very busy intersections at peak hour, which when they’re stuck behind a line of traffic can add up to 5 minutes to a journey. There’s a classic example of this just up the road from me, where the 233, 007 & 008 bus routes are forced to make right-turns onto Mt Albert Road that I wouldn’t even consider making at any time close to peak hour. Somewhat fortunately the bus drivers take a “might is right” attitude and edge out onto the main road making the other drivers stop for them. However, that’s not much help if they’re stuck behind a slightly timid driver for 5 minutes waiting to make a right-turn. Surely, the location of traffic lights should be matched up better with bus routes, or alternatively the bus routes be modified to avoid situations like these.
Finally, and most significantly I think, buses are slow because they’re so incredibly slow to board. I have gone on about this before, but I think it’s an utterly critical point. By requiring the driver to interact with everyone getting on board a bus, it just takes forever for the bus to load if there’s more than 5 people waiting. This becomes particularly obvious on Symonds Street in the evening peak when all the university students load up the buses through a procedure that takes just as long as actually driving up this highly congested road. While I understand that some people won’t have a bus pass (which one would hope can be solved once integrated ticketing occurs – as I would personally send everyone in Auckland a transport pass to encourage usage) and therefore have to pay cash, it seems nonsensical that someone with a bus pass can’t just validate it at another machine on the bus and find their seat all while the bus driver is digging around for change to give the original person. However, at the moment no, the bus pass holder must wait in line themselves along with everyone else, while those already on the bus tear their hair out and vow to drive to work from now on.
Projects like the Northern Busway have shown that Aucklanders will most definitely catch public transport. However, it is utterly critical that everything possible is done to improve the speed of services. I strongly believe that is the only way we’re ever going to get more than 7% of the population catching public transport. Which is a rather embarrassing statistic to be honest.