A key public transport project that sat just outside the construction timeline phase for my “Transport in the next five years” plan, was about Dominion Road – and how we go about actually implementing a high-quality QTN (quality transport network) along that road. Dominion Road is an unusually good bus route in Auckland, because of its straightness, because of the level of development along it, and because of how extensive its bus lanes are.
Buses now run along Dominion Road at 5 minute intervals, even during inter-peak times on weekdays. Higher frequencies (around 40 buses per hour) travel along it during peak times. Anecdotally (fellow blogger Jeremy is a daily bus user along that route) I have heard that even though we have a huge number of buses servicing this route, at busy times they are still often running close to capacity. Because of this approaching capacity issue, and because there are some pretty tricky bottlenecks along the Dominion Road bus route, over the past few years Auckland City Council has been developing a plan to provide a better quality public transport route – something that can truly meet the standards of a Quality Transport Network.
A number of years ago the plan was for light-rail, although in more recent times the plans have switched back to generally being what could be called “enhanced bus lanes”. At a couple of particular pinch-points (the Valley Road and Balmoral shops), the buses (or trams, theoretically) divert behind the shopping centres so that wholesale demolition of the historic fabric of those town centres could be avoided.
I had thought that the whole project was essentially delayed until around 2016, because of Auckland City Council budget cuts, but a most recent paper in the Council’s transport committee agenda reveals that things are actually chugging along fairly quickly. The paper also offers a few handy maps and drawings to show us what we might expect from the project.Now that looks pretty similar to what we have now, but apparently it isn’t. As well as slightly widened bus lanes, it seems that we will now get the bus lanes somehow physically separated off from the adjacent cycle lane.
I have no problem with the removal of on-street parking along this route (although it’s fairly inevitable that will be controversial), and I suppose if this enables both a cycle lane to be put in, plus the bus lanes to potentially operate at all times, then this will be a significant gain. It does make me wonder what the original design actually achieved compared to what we already have (peak hour bus lanes, parking in those lanes at other times). The other big change proposed in this latest paper is for the lanes around the back of Balmoral and Valley Road shops to not actually be used, and to keep the buses on Dominion Road – hopefully in a dedicated lane I might add! I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, although (as I will explain shortly) I’m always loathe to give up a designation when you might need it in the future.
While I like the change that removes parking, and potentially the idea to keep the public transport on Dominion Road could have its merits (dipping around the back of shops never really leads to nice environments for those catching public transport – just look at the Onehunga bus ‘interchange’) I still have this fundamental question about whether “enhanced bus lanes” is really going to be sufficient for Dominion Road’s future level of demand, and whether in fact it is the best option – or whether we need to look at light-rail. From past posts I hope people have realised that I am not “anti-bus”, or indeed “anti” or “pro” any particular technology. In my opinion, different corridors have different needs, and on some corridors buses and bus lanes will be most appropriate, on others we will need heavy rail, and on others again we probably need something that sits in between – like a light-rail line (and by light-rail I mean modern trams/streetcars).
In my opinion the situations where we might choose light-rail are fairly limited, because a lot can be achieved through high-quality bus lanes, at a fraction of the capital cost (although operating costs are likely to be higher for buses). Light-rail is unlikely to be faster than a bus – as the speed will usually depend upon the level of priority given, boarding times, spacing between stops and so forth – which can equally apply for both light-rail and buses. However, there are some advantages that light-rail has which only apply to it. They are:
- Higher capacity. Along a route like Dominion Road it’s unlikely that the bus lanes will easily cope with more than 60 buses per hour, or around a bus a minute – this is not because of a lack of capacity on the road itself, but rather problems that will arise around stops, because they are ‘online’, and also because of problems arising from the non grade-separated nature of the road. With 60 people per bus, that’s around 3600 people shifted per hour. In contrast, as far as I know modern articulated trams can hold up to 200 passengers each, meaning that running one of those every two minutes could shift up to 6000 people per hour along the corridor in each direction.
- Smoother ride. The very nature of how trams drive is smoother than a bus, and internationally that seems to show a greater ‘capture’ of potential passengers compared to what you see on a bus route. It’s hard to calculate the extent of this though.
- Effects on land-use patterns. The existence of light-rail wires and tracks provides legibility about where the route goes, and shows a significant capital investment in that particular route. It means that services are likely to be provided at fairly high frequencies, and that where the route goes is fairly obvious. Internationally, this has tended to stimulate intensification around new light-rail lines more than would have happened for simple bus lanes. Portland is the classic example of this, and actually measures the success of its light-rail projects on the level of intensification stimulated – rather than by any particularly transport focused outcomes.
For largely points 1 and 3 above, I think Dominion Road is unusually suitable for a light-rail line, and if we don’t go down that path, we may very well regret in the future if the bus lanes become overwhelmed. This is what the council paper says about the bus lanes/light-rail discussion:
I have some really serious issues with this paragraph above. The first is that improving public transport is not about making a choice between heavy rail and light rail. They both serve very different purposes, particularly if we’re talking about the kind of “on street, modern trams” type of light-rail I’m proposing should be investigated for Dominion Road. It seems as though Auckland City Council (or perhaps ARTA, if this is actually what they said) has fallen into the “technology trap” of thinking that if you choose light-rail you can’t do heavy rail, or the vice-versa. Different corridors, different technologies.
The other seriously scary thing about the above paragraph is that Dominion Road’s bus lanes are even being vaguely considered for ‘opening up’ to T2 transit lanes, which would allow cars with two or more passengers to use them, as well as buses. This is the most stupid idea I think I have ever come across. Dominion Road will, if we go with the bus lane concept, be pushing the capacity of a bus lane – let alone if we allow a whole pile of cars to also use the lane! T2 lanes are marginally acceptable along routes where the number of buses is fairly low, such as Tamaki Drive where I think there are only 8 buses per hour in the peak direction at peak times. Making Dominion Road a T2 lane would be completely, incredibly, utterly and irresponsibly stupid (I think I might have got across how strongly I feel about that issue).
I must say, that while I have railed against the creation of the Auckland Transport CCO, and I still have some serious misgivings about it, some of the transport decisions being made at the moment by current councils, such as this project and AMETI, are incredibly ad hoc and short-sighted. Hopefully the new transport agency will at the very least be able to kill off some of the stupid decisions being made at the moment, view these projects in a more region-wide and long-term manner, and then go about implementing a coherent transport plan for Auckland. Let’s just hope the current councils can’t do too much damage in the meanwhile.