This story from The Press caught my attention the other day.

Environment Canterbury’s (ECan) boss believes Christchurch’s public transport model is “flawed” and is lobbying the Government for change.

In a letter to then Local Government Minister Chris Tremain in January last year, Dame Margaret Bazley writes about how public transport sits between councils, and should be addressed at a national level.

The letter, released to The Press under the Official Information Act, states: “The current model for delivery of integrated and effective public transport is flawed in Christchurch in particular. We have signalled our support to the minister of transport for a review of public transport arrangements.”

I think the fact that ECAN is controlled by government appointed commissioners rather than elected officials leads people to think that this suggestion is automatically about trying to damage PT in Christchurch and that comes through in the comments a bit but reading further, I actually agree with ECAN.

In Christchurch, responsibility for the provision of public passenger transport lies with ECan, but the responsibility for providing the infrastructure to support public transport, such as bus stops, shelters, and interchanges, rests with the city council, which has caused some tension.

However, hundreds of emails between the staff from both organisations, released under the Official Information Act in a separate request, show they appear to be working together, with the differences occurring at the governance level.

ECan commissioner Rex Williams, who is in charge of public transport, agreed it was a flawed model.

A review would most likely be done in “due course”, he said.

“It’s not urgent. We should be able to get around it,” Williams said. “All we have to do it work together and commit to the policy instead of veering off with other stuff.”

He hoped the two organisations would be able to communicate better at a governance level.

Any review of public transport would have to take place nationally, and would be unlikely for a couple of years, Williams said.

During last year’s budget-setting process, ECan lobbied the city council to put aside $18 million a year for the next three years for public transport infrastructure, but $8.4 million was included in its budget.

In a written submission at the time, Bazley said ECan was unhappy with the level of funding from the council.

“The absence of any significant capital expenditure to improve the operation of public transport over the next three years reinforces our view that the city council no longer seems committed to a viable future for public transport in Christchurch,” she said.

The problem really stems from the fact that the organisation that controls the PT network is different from the one that controls the roading network. The best plans for PT mean nothing if the road owner won’t do anything to support them.  For example if ECAN want a bus stop added in but the council don’t want to do it then it doesn’t happen and getting bus lanes added can be a whole other level of difficulty.

The reality is this issue is not just one that is faced by Christchurch but by every city in NZ with the exception of Auckland. The problem exists due to the local body structure that we have and I assume the primary reason for putting public transport under the control of the regional body was to address the likes of Wellington and the old separate Auckland councils where there were multiple councils within a single urban area.

Auckland used to suffer this fate with the old ARTA setting plans for PT but it being reliant on individual councils to put in infrastructure like bus stops and bus lanes. For this reason it is perhaps even the more surprising that we managed to get the bus lanes we did on roads like Dominion Rd. Of course the creation of Auckland Transport was intended to be able to cut through these types of issues as well as the through the political impediments to change however oddly that didn’t help with the creation of more bus lanes until recently.

Overall I agree with what ECAN are saying. As we start to build a greater appreciation of the importance PT plays in the transport system in our cities then the current way it is set up simply isn’t going to work.

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  1. Its not quite true that it is only Auckland that doesn’t have these issues. Nelson is a unitary council and has in the last few years finally put in a half decent public transport system – no conflict between Regional and Town council as they are one. There are lots of issues with having a unitary council, but this is one area where there is an advantage.

  2. I agree with some of the comments, but I do not believe that public transport should be “adressed at the national level”. That is in fact extremely worrying, because it would signal an even greater shift of power away from local Councils (where they still exist – yes I am looking at you, ECAN legislators!)

    1. I assumed “addressed at a national level” to mean she wanted the national government to make a decision if public transport should be a city or a regional responsibility, then pass legislation to enforce that responsibility. Not to develop and provide services directly from Wellington. I think that is sensible.

      1. Yeah, that is the point where that “suspicion of our current government” (particularly in regards to respecting local government) comes in. They do NOT have a track record to admire on that.

  3. Hm, got me thinking about recent council history … Under the old Auckland councils, who led the charges on bus lanes? That the vast majority of them are in the old Auckland City area, with T2/3 lanes mostly found in North Shore City territory, shows that it may well not have been ARTA (probably logically as they couldn’t actually implement them anyway). And IIRC since ARTA more or less became AT’s inaugural public transport division, the lack of regional can-do for adding bus lanes transferred across, which combined with more of a high level focus (rail, ticketing, New Network planning) not quite balanced with a focus literally on-the-ground, may explain the lack of new bus lanes in AT’s history to date.

    Good that’s in the process of changing tho.

  4. I cant think of much that has ever been achieved by Regional Government other than piles of policy documents and studies and perhaps the pollution of the Manukau Harbour

    1. ARC did a good work on regional parks. ECAN as far as I know did a good job protecting water resources from agricultural exploitation, until it was stopped from doing so, by spurious reasons (I still can’t explain how much ECAN bothers me – such a naked power grab, contrary to all democratic convention, all just for economic reason. What a banana republic we can be sometimes…)

      1. I will give you regional parks. The parks you go to when you want a drive in the country. By pollution of the Manukau I dont mean the fix I meant the cause. It was the ARA regional wastewater plan that started a lot of that. But if you tick off what we got from regional government it is fairly short list. Buses existed before the ARA and ARC was never allowed to own them, Hunua water supply dams were built by Auckland City Council, rail services were much higher before ARA, the regional roads board while it existed only built Greenlane/Balmoral link and the Ash Street monstosity, the airport was a Council JV. No I think all those people and all that expense and we got regional parks and a polluted Manukau.

        1. ARC did some good work for PT. They laid the foundations for electric trains that come in to service next month. It took ages for the ARC to convince ARTA of the merits of electrification, and it was the ARC that got funding from central Govt for project Dart double tracking and electrification of the network.

          On the other hand, the ARC lobbied Infrastructure Auckland to pay $81m to Toll for access to Auckland rail track in the early 2000’s. Fast forward over a decade later and Auckland Transport now pays $20m+ in track access fees every year to Kiwirail.

          1. The ARC was willing to buy just the Auckland network off Toll. The central government stepped in because they didn’t want fractured ownership, and bought the whole nationwide network in 2004 (as OnTrack). For one dollar, IIRC, not $81 million.

          2. I think you have mixed up ARTNl and ARTA. The former organisation was a council controlled organisation owned by the 6 local authorities that had rail (and majority owned by Auckland City Council, that was set up in 2002/3 to lease the Auckland rail network from the crown and upgrade it including electrification, because the ARC was legally not able to own PT assets. ARTNL was however not properly funded by its shareholders and there was ongoing disputes over money and control with the ARC, which led to the Labour Government deciding to retain control of the Auckland network and to create ARTA as an standalone subsidiary of the ARC which absorbed both the ARC’s Rail project office and ARTNL in 2004 ARTA subsequently prepared the business case for electrification in 2006 and the ARC and ARTA Chairman jointly persuaded Michael Cullen, the Labour Minister of Finance to support electrification in 2007

        2. I have a friend (who must now remain nameless) who left the ARC. At his leaving do he came up to me and told me that in his years of working there only one job he had worked on had actually been built. And he got in to trouble for that because he had freelanced during his holidays to an outside company on that project.

  5. The real origin of this problem goes back to the early 1990s when the National government attempted to force Christchurch to privalise its bus services by making it illegal for councils to operate services. Christchurch people soon saw ‘the benefits’ of privatisation as brand new man buses, recently bought by the city council operator, were replaced by old yellow dungers from Auckland when another operator put in a cheap bid for many routes. As a high school kid catching the bus everyday to schoool I remember that privatisation driven downgrade of servies very well.

    1. As did the Auckland folks when the ARA was made to sell off its bus services too by the same law – why do you think those old yellow dungers were “available” to be redeployed elsewhere outside Auckland in the first place?

      Basically the tendering process for the new bus services was a joke for Christchurch and the Council never bother to write into the tender documents decent minimum service levels or bus quality, so of course the incumbents could be and were, trounced by some rank outsider with dodgy old dungers no one else wanted.
      Auckland simply handed its Yellow Bus operation to Stagecoach who then raped and pillaged for what they could get before selling it off to NZ Bus, who continued in a lesser vein.

      How the Christchurch council kept its (council controlled) Red Bus operation going through this I don’t know, but they obviously did a better job of preserving the PT services than Auckland did.
      Thats why the nadir of Auckland bus operations/PT usage was the early ’90s – after that sell off when the service delivery went through the floor and they hiked fares massively (for the time), then cancelled all Sunday and many evening bus services to “cost save” – and that legacy is still with us even today, with people who refuse to use PT – in part as some of them remember the dodgy bus services from then and assume thats still the case today.

      1. Do you remember Cesta? Their buses looked like something the Eastern Europeans would put up with any longer so they came to Auckland. There was one of their buses broken down on the harbour bridge several times a month.

  6. City councils definitely seem like a better home for PT operations than regional councils. Regional councils can in theory provide PT to regional destinations, but there’s actually very little regional PT going on anywhere. Whereas it’s vital to coordinate services and infrastructure. It also puts roads and PT on more of a level playing field, since they’re being funded from the same source. It even opens the door to radical ideas like bulk funding from petrol taxes, rather than NZTA dictating which local projects go ahead through the system of funding via activity classes.

    It also makes the system slightly fairer, since it means that rural areas aren’t paying to cover PT costs (which mostly benefit urban residents).

    One main obstacle is the strange boundaries that councils have. Some “cities” don’t even quite cover their own urban area (Nelson, Tauranga, Napier), and some also cover a huge surrounding rural area (Dunedin, Whangarei, Hastings).

    Then there’s the issues with Wellington’s separate councils, and Christchurch’s ECan, CCC and CERA/CCDU all at war with each other. The Soviet space program school of institutional design – the left hand knows exactly what the right hand is doing, and it’s bloody well going to put a stop to it.

    The only other issue with city councils taking over PT is the consequences for regional, intercity transport (Napier to Hastings, Fielding to Palmerston North, that sort of thing). Not sure how you’d deal with that.

  7. This is a difficult question to deal with. I wonder if setting up a Wellington Transport and a Greater Christchurch Transport would solve most of the issues. Could also apply in Hamilton and Tauranga. Dunedin is big enough so that all Dunedin PT services operate within the council boundary, so PT should just be transferred to DCC.
    Best thing about Auckland is can freely switch money between PT and roads, and easily budget capital expenditure in line with service changes, such as for the new bus network. Replicating this elsewhere by putting roads and PT in the same body would give them a lot more capital to play with.
    Would need a strong link with local councils, so maybe mix of elected representatives, and some from the underlying local councils.

  8. I think because Christchurch is so spread out transport solutions have to be with ECan. Would prefer this be democratically elected and manage all the roading and PT budget.

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