I first heard about the bus route that has become the “Outer Link” quite a long time ago, late last year I think – as kindly some people at Auckland Transport sought my ideas on what they were proposing. My initial response was fairly mixed: positive about the fact that the route links together so many places, provides for so many trips – particularly trips that public transport doesn’t traditionally provide for, by offering decent frequencies seven days a week and through its “loop” structure. But at the same time I was also a bit sceptical about aspects of the proposal, in particular my concerns about whether it could keep to time or whether the buses would “bunch” together – like happened on the LINK bus route, though to an even greater extent because of the longer route.
This is what I said once the plan was released for consultation on that matter:
Essentially, I think that unless we have some well-targeted and necessary infrastructure upgrades along the route of the outer loop, it will not be possible for such a long, looping route to be reliable. What Auckland Transport really should be doing is driving a few buses around the route during peak times, identifying where the delay points are and investigating measures to deal with those delay points.
I repeated this concern about reliability and bunching in my submission – as I think a number of other people said. After all, these issues are inherent to loop routes (hence why the London Circle Tube Line was changed recently to more of a spiral route).
Well so far I haven’t had any problems with the reliability of the buses, or with the bunching of buses, I am somewhat concerned about the way in which Auckland Transport is avoiding bunching becoming a problem – by providing extremely generous timings for buses to reach certain “time points” around the Outer Link’s routes, then leaving the bus to sit at these various stops for what seems like an age before continuing their journey.
From what I’ve seen so far, on the quarter of the route that I’ve used (between town and Pt Chevalier), it seems that there are three time points even on that small part of the route: at Westmere shops, at Ponsonby and in town just outside the Civic theatre. In some respects the more time-points the better, as theoretically the wait at each time point should be minimised, but what I’ve seen so far is that the waits can be pretty long. Two examples include a 6 minute wait at Westmere shops for my outbound Outer Link on Sunday and a wait this evening at the Wellesley Street stop which seemed just about as long (it was long enough for the driver to have a cigarette while he waited to catch up to his scheduled slot).
Now I understand the point of the time-points, as without them you will undoubtedly end up with buses bunching and not being at all reliable, but I wonder if Auckland Transport has taken their response to that concern a bit too far. It’s incredibly frustrating sitting there waiting for the bus to simply catch up to its scheduled time while cars zip past you. So perhaps I’m starting to regret the huge deal I made out of wondering whether the Outer Link buses would bunch and be reliable – as we’ve now gone to the opposite extreme.
But what’s the solution? Auckland Transport might be wondering why I can’t just shut up as I’m never happy – and I can perhaps see the logic in that. Ultimately though, I think this was why I found myself so concerned about such a massive loop route, because either the buses would bunch and become unreliable or we would end up having to wait huge lengths of time all throughout the route, with the timetable reflecting a very conservative speed of the bus (I mean how on earth could the bus get six minutes ahead of its time between Ponsonby and Westmere on a Sunday for example). I think that the real solution will actually require a bit of work: eliminating the bottlenecks so that we don’t have to be so conservative with our timetable (through providing bus lanes at key points of the route), having traffic lights respond to the buses so that especially if they’re running at all behind times, the lights immediately go green enabling the bus to catch up. Once again that would ensure that the timetable doesn’t have to be so conservative (leading to huge waiting times).
Those are long term things though, in the short term I hope that Auckland Transport does keep a close eye on how long the buses are sitting at the various timepoints around the route, analyse whether it’s really necessary to have the timetable being so conservative (particular during off-peak times when travel times should be pretty standard) that the buses are constantly getting ahead of their schedule. In the meanwhile, I think I’ll probably avoid the Outer Link and try to get the 005 as much as possible – speed is important.