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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.