In Auckland transport circles, a lot of attention is given to the rail system, and in particular what is wrong with it, what upgrades to it are underway and what upgrades to it are planned (or should be planned) in the short, medium and long-term future. Of course there are good reasons to focus on the rail system, in part because of its generally poor state and also because of the huge amount of work that’s been done to it at the moment, but we shouldn’t forget that in Auckland buses are the meat and drink of the system. If we are to hit ARTA’s target of 100 million annual passenger trips by 2016, then it’s likely that cost to 80 million of those trips will be on the bus system. Most Aucklanders don’t live in close proximity to the rail system, and for them the bus is likely to be the most convenient and accessible means of public transport. So a huge part of improving Auckland’s public transport system must involve improving the bus system.

In recent weeks, both Nick R and myself have suggested ways in which the bus route system could be altered to make it more popular, but there are many other ways in which we need to improve our buses, with one simple aim: they simply have to be faster. Buses have the big advantage of not requiring any specialist infrastructure (over and above a basic road) and the flexibility that brings, but they generally have the huge disadvantage of being incredibly slow. If a bus is running in general traffic (ie. without bus lanes or other forms of priority) then it is completely and utterly impossible for that bus to do the trip faster than a car would (because it has to stop and let passengers on and off). Therefore, a bus in general traffic will never be able to compete against the private vehicle in terms of time: therefore people will only catch it for price and (potentially) convenience reasons.

At a guess, I would say the most frequent reason why people don’t catch the bus is because it’s too damn slow (as well as it not going where people want to go). As I have said many times before, people are logical with their transport decision making: choosing the option which is fastest, cheapest and most convenient. The fact that a bus in traffic can never be faster than a car travelling along that same road places a huge restriction on the number of people who are likely to use public transport – in reality only those for who the cost of driving will be high enough to warrant them catching public transport. In Auckland that generally means those working in the CBD and those who don’t own cars – a pretty small proportion of the population.

Therefore, in a city like Auckland – with a relatively low proportion of jobs in the CBD, very high levels of car ownership and a rail system that is relatively limited in its geography extent – one of the main reasons why so few people use public transport, and so many people feel ‘forced to drive’, is because our buses are so damn slow. So how can we speed up our buses? Well I would say there are a number of things that we really need to do to our bus system to make them faster and more able to compete against the speed benefits that driving one’s car currently has:

  1. More bus lanes. This is perhaps the most important thing that needs to be done to improve the speed of our buses. Bus lanes allow buses to avoid car congestion, and offer a logical alternative for people to being stuck in vehicle congestion. The kind of important alternative that I talked about in this recent post. Over the next few years we really need to expand our network of bus lanes – it is probably the one thing that could be done that would increase public transport patronage the most for the least investment.
  2. Faster boarding times. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for 2-3 minutes  while a bunch of people queue up to get on the bus, and each person has to go through the painful process of putting their card into the machine, have the bus driver push three or so buttons, split the card out and eventually shift on. Even if that process only take 10 seconds per person, if you have twenty people queued up at a stop, that can be a three and a half minute delay. Smart-card ticketing should hopefully speed that up, but I think that at busier stops we really need to look at providing the opportunity for people to enter “fare paid” zones at their stop, so they can board quickly from both doors when the bus turns up.
  3. Wider spaced stops. The fact that buses often need to stop every 200-300 metres slows them down hugely, even if we were to disregard boarding times (wider spaced stops would have more people boarding at each stop if we are to assume the same number of passengers). It’s often difficult for buses to pull out from their stops into traffic, while the slowing down and speeding up also is ‘lost time’ compared to if the bus was to travel further between stops. Obviously there’s a tradeoff in having wider spaced stops, in that people will on average have to walk further to their stops, but I think that faster travelling times will make walking a hundred metres or so further worthwhile.

Implementing these three main strategies on major bus routes could potentially but down their travel time by 25-50% I reckon. If that difference made catching the bus faster than driving (which does exist along some routes like Onewa Road and Dominion Road) then I think passengers would rush to public transport in droves. Even though it’s not a fancy rail system that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build (not that I have anything against fancy rail systems), but because it makes sense.

We can’t ignore making Auckland’s bus system better if we’re serious about improving public transport. After all, as I stated at the beginning of this post, around 80% of public transport trips in Auckland are on the bus.

Share this


  1. I think you’ve left of the fourth key point to improving bus speed: Route rationalisation.
    As a rule buses in Auckland trade off speed and directness in order to provide direct access to a greater number of locations. But this makes most non-express routes long and time consuming. As we have both discussed before the bus system would be both more efficient and faster with a lesser number of more frequent direct trunk routes that intersect to allow people to transfer to access a large number of locations.

    Perhaps the fact that the Dominion Rd line is faster that driving has a lot to do with the fact it is a straight direct route to where people want to go, as well as having bus lanes to avoid the effects of car traffic. If it meandered across the wider area like so many Auckland bus routes do any advantage of bus lanes would be lost.

  2. Greg, there has been extensive previous discussion about the “free public transport” issue. Essentially I am not a fan because I would rather the extra money that would cost to go into improving the speed and quality of the system.

    Nick, yes good point. I had avoided talking specifically about messing with route structures, as that had previously been discussed, but you make a good point that we need straight and simple routes to increase speeds.

  3. It’s so true! I travel by bike, foot, bus, and scooter, and the only time the bus comes into play is when I have plenty of time – or the weather is really awful.

    Getting from where I live in Ponsonby to Newmarket Google Maps calculates 30 minutes on the Link, and given that the Link doesn’t run on schedule it might mean waiting another 10 minutes for the next bus.

    Walking at 5 km/hr it’s only a 37 minute walk to Newmarket which means chances are I might get there faster walking.

    It would be interesting to know the expectation from the public around how fast public transport should get you from A-B. My own goal would be getting you there in less than half the time it takes to walk.

  4. One thing that often frustrates me regarding bus travel is that when a bus pulls into a stop it then has to wait for a break in traffic/considerate driver to allow it back into the traffic flow. In the Uk buses had a “give way to buses” sign on the rear and drivers seemed to respond accordingly. Again it was a good signal that PT was given priority in traffic thinking, could this be introduced in Auckland?

  5. Buses also always miss the “green waves” of traffic light synchronisation due to being held up a stops. Giving buses power to turn traffic lights green for them would, for instance, cut the time needed to travel up or down Queen Street.
    @Matthew: the advantage of walking from Ponsonby to Newmarket is being able to use Newton Road, while the Link bus does a really unnecessary detour via the University instead of going straight to Newmarket, as a proper circle line should.

  6. Vin, I belive there was recent discussion about changing the rode code so that general traffic must give buses the right of way when they are pulling out of bus stops. Not sure what came of that, sounds like what the rest of the world does anyway.

  7. Adherence to the schedule would be nice as well. It seems like a lot of buses on higher frequency routes simply never turn up. Do the bus companies publish stats on this?

  8. Oooh more bus lanes please – last two times I have used Birkenhead buses going into the city I have spent over fifteen minutes going from just before Nelson St. to Hobson St., and then nice drivers would let us disembark the moment we’re round the corner rather than sit on the bus while it slowly climbed Hobson St.. Both Fanshawe (through that section) and Hobson need bus lanes!

  9. Axio, that does make me wonder why Birkenhead buses go that way. Why not go via Sturdee Street and terminate around Britomart like other North Shore buses I wonder.

    Vin, Gareth Hughes (Green MP) has the private member’s bill in the ballot on that very issue. Let’s hope it gets pulled at some point and the government has the sense to support it.

  10. I wonder (ironically) if it is so they can run tighter schedules. The current route means the bus doesn’t have to turn around anywhere – the termination point is also the start point for the return run. Personally I would like to see them take a different route into the city because it is currently awkward to connect to Britomart from those services (it’s about a 600m walk from 26 Hobson St).

  11. Axio, the Northern Express manages to achieve that though. It runs into the city along Sturdee and Customs Streets, and then out via Quay Street, the Lower Hobson viaduct and back onto Fanshawe Street. There’s no reason why Birkenhead Transport buses couldn’t do the same thing.

  12. You’d lose the Midtown service though. At the moment the Birkenhead city services (save the 971 and 972) all serve Midtown which, based on the loads I’ve seen, is a pretty popular destination, but it would be nice for them to also serve Britomart (in both directions – outbound services currently stop at D21).
    I don’t know how the North Star buses run into the city, but they also have their start point at Midtown.

  13. I agree that bus access to Midtown is really important, but then you need to weigh that up against the transfer advantages that Britomart offers.

    Hmmm… hopefully once we have a midtown railway station we’ll also somehow have a bit depot/transfer point very nearby (capark behind Aotea centre?)

  14. When I lived in One Tree Hill I used to prefer the 31 Flyer bus, which runs on the motorway between Greenlane and Wellesley St, to the meandering 392. Unfortunately there were only a couple of 31Fs each day, so I was usually stuck with a bus that took twice as long (up to an hour at peak times).

    I have since moved to a more convenient location, but I have often wondered why there are not more buses that make use of the motorway network. As long as we have all these stupid giant roads converging on the centre of the city, we may as well make good use of them. If certain lanes of the motorway were reserved for buses at peak times, and if sufficiently high-capacity buses were used, we could even create a sort of poor man’s rapid transit network.

  15. @sj I would guess because people already get upset enough at so-called ’empty lanes’ that they cannot use. People seem to think that bus lanes should be as congested as normal lanes only with buses instead of cars.

  16. James – to make them more useful we could also make them general car pool lanes. In the the major cities in California they have done this and in some places it is as simple as putting up some signs saying it is a carpool lane and painting a few symbols on the road.

  17. Matt L, the problem I have with turning bus lanes into transit lanes is that they then very quickly become T2 lanes (slippery slope – a politician can easily argue that T2 is not so different from T3 – look at Tamaki Drive!). But T2 lanes are barely better than general lanes and so they screw up the buses again. Public transport benefit lost, little else gained.

  18. Ingolfson – I’m not talking about turning existing buslanes into t3/2 lanes but more so taking a lane of motorway traffic and changing it to a bus and t2 lane. In all the places in the US I saw it implimented it was fairly well respected by motorists and there were a few times when that lane was flowing where all other lanes were at a standstill.

    At the end of the day a bus/t2 lane on the motorway is better than what we have now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *