A letter from a reader to Auckland Transport that I was copied in on. It’s an all too familiar tale.

I am a central city dweller and I really, really want to support public transport – but you’re trying my patience and commitment. I’ve lived and worked in London and Sydney and owned a car in neither city. Back in Auckland I work reasonably close to where I live – so close that a car ride will take maybe 10 minutes. But I was trying not to own a car. A bus journey to work should take under 15 minutes – but that assumes the BUS SHOWS UP ON TIME.

This past week, I have wasted an accumulated estimate of close to two* hours of my life waiting for delayed buses. At a micro level, I’ve been personally frustrated, late for meetings and, on one night, cold and damp. At a macro level, the productivity loss of my time, multiplied by the number of people similarly impacted, is staggering.

*That 2 hours is only across 4 days; I walked to and from on the other day – and it was still faster than the previous day’s bus commute.

I’ve been experiencing erratic timetables for awhile on the 267/258 routes travelling from/to Queen St, along Symonds St to/from Dominion Road. (I get on in the mornings either on Queen St or the Symonds St overbridge). So, this week I decided to be more methodical about tracking just how little relevance the timetable has to reality:

On Monday, April 28th the week began in a manner prescient for the days to follow …
Arrive at Queen St stop at 08:44. 08:50 #258 listed as 7 mins away – on time then.

  • 0849: 3 mins away…
  • 08:53: The 08:50 #258 simply disappeared off the board. No “C” for cancelled appeared – it was as if the 10 people waiting had somehow missed the bus without noticing. I can assure you, we hadn’t.
  • A #258 bus did pull up after that – but became “out of service”. As an aside, it would be nice if drivers, when approached by people who (reasonably enough) assume it’s their bus arriving, simply say “I’m sorry, I’m not in service”, rather than pointing and snarling “look at the front! Look at the sign”… that they’ve just changed.

Return trip from Dominion Road.

  • Arrive at bus stop at 6:10pm for 6:12pm #258. No sign of it as the clock edges to 6:19, by which time a #267 should be arriving …
  • At 6:35pm, a #258 scheduled for 6:30pm arrives.

Total delay in today’s commute: 33 minutes.

And Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, it’s much the same. Hoorah for the 08:53 from Symonds St on Thursday morning being only 2 minutes behind schedule.

I can only speak for my experience and, indirectly, those people waiting at bus-stops with me – sighing as they check the electronic board showing increasing discrepancies between scheduled and actual arrivals. But extrapolated across the city, how many thousands of residents arrive at work stressed because they’re late, or waste time every day getting to a stop extra early just to compensate for the unreliability of the service? If my experience is reflective of a common one, Auckland has a long way to go to be “the world’s most liveable city”, or its most productive.

Public transport is vital to the functioning of any city. When done well, it’s awesome. In the central city, I love the Link Bus; I’ll likely never drive within the CBD given this awesome (free with HOP card service). For those living further out of the city, I am sure that even if your bus is delayed, motorway bus lanes are still much faster than peak-hour car travel. It’s environmentally preferable. And reduces the need to waste precious land on car-parking.

But, for those of us moving around the city fringes, what can be done to improve services? I know a number of residents who also philosophically would prefer to take the bus (or train, when it’s expanded), but they’ve given up. Are my expectations of reliability unreasonable? Is my experience that the 258 and 267 route buses are routinely delayed by 10+ minutes within AT’s “acceptable” standards?

I’m just not willing to sacrifice 2+ hours a week to standing unproductively in bus shelters; I’m, with regret, off to buy a car.

I look forward to your feedback.

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  1. Unfortunately we have the very same bus issues here in Sydney.. When it works, it works fairly well, but thats when it works..

    1. Yes but Vic Sydney has a massive train and reliable ferry network which offsets this considerable, especially for the shorter city fringe movements talked about here.

  2. [apologies for posting same comment on two threads but same answer to is relevant to so many issues in AK]

    Surely the solution is to add buslanes to all significant routes. This would:

    -improve, no revolutionise, bus reliability
    -reduce waste, ie cost of having bus and driver sitting in traffic
    -increase service speed for millions of person trips pa
    -increase service utilisation ie lower cost per rider
    -reduce fuel use and pollution
    -obviously increase ridership profoundly
    -improve the city’s productivity

    And the cost?

    -reduction in road space currently dominated by general traffic, either as parking, medians, or general traffic lanes
    -some direct cost; paint, signs etc

    Without of course conducting any kind of full cost/benefit it seems pretty likely from a glance at the two lists above that benefits are likely to outweigh the costs of such a programme. Especially as the transfer of travellers to such improved bus services seem likely to cancel out congestion effects from any reduction in available road space.

    It is baffling to me that there isn’t a task force dedicated to identifying the most urgent routes for this at AT, or if there is why it has been so slow and ineffective?

    Or am I missing something?

    Perhaps some policy expressed or assumed that little or no auto privilege can be sacrificed for other modes….?

  3. I’d actually be happy with the level of service provided above.
    My cousin was staying with us for a month and a half commuting into the city.
    5 days out of 5 in the first week the 7:00 bus did not arrive.
    3 days out of 5 the 7:30 also did not arrive
    2 days out of 5 the return bus (5:30 and 6:00pm respectively) got cancelled

    Net result: she bought a car that weekend.

    Incidentally I have tried to catch the bus home from the train 3 times. So far 3 cancelled buses has been my track record. Most people wouldn’t try the second time.

  4. I had similar problems along New North road. The common thread here I think is these bus services are running counter to the usual rush hour flow. My guess that morning rush hour inbound to the CBD services don’t get cancelled if they can cancel an outbound service.

  5. From the letter you received, that must be the 1% of the busses which don’t arrive within 5 minutes of the scheduled time….which the bus companies report to AT every month. Hahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahaha

    1. Well no, the bus operators 5 minute window which they achieve 99% of the time they say, is the bus **leaving** from its origin within 5 minutes of the scheduled time, not it arriving anywhere (or even – shock, horror, arriving at all) else within 5 minutes of anything.

      1. I used to catch the 020 in the City from the origin and I must have been the unluckiest person in town to get those 1% of services that didn’t leave within the 5min window day after day.

        1. Yeah I think the time of the self reported performance stats is so over. Surely with HOP there must be ways of getting bus data objectively? Free the data AT and see what the community can do with it….?

        2. 020 stops right outside my house. I’ve monitored the times of the bus going past and it is usually 2-3 minutes before the scheduled time. While that’s great for those who get on earlier, it’s hopeless for anyone expecting the timetable to have semblance of reliability.

          I’ve given up on the 020, and now use the Link, preferring to walk a few minutes to get that. At least in the mornings I know I’ll not have to wait too long for a bus. Weekends are a different story.

  6. The AA and the car lobby are just loving this stuff, eating it up. Their plans are working perfectly!

    1. Neither more bus lanes, nor bigger buses will solve the problem of cancellation. A late bus is annoying, a cancelled bus can be job threatening. AT need to be made to start measuring reality as met by their unfortunate customers. They then need to start to audit the results to make sure they are accurate.

      1. Actually bus lanes would help. Buses are cancelled because there isn’t a bus and driver to run the schedule service, usually because it’s stuck in traffic somewhere else. Sometimes if it all gets too bad they have to pull various routes and reroute what buses are available to the most important routes. That often means skipping one direction and running straight past ou of service to the start of the next run.

        Lots more bus lanes would do wonders for timekeeping, and greatly minimize cancellations. Plus as Patrick alludes to above, if your bus route gets 50% faster the same buses can do 50% more trips in the same time, that’s 50% more frequency and 50% more capacity too.

        1. Agree bus lanes would help free up many peak issues; however
          ability to sue the operators for lost earnings would probably help more by making them care.

          There is not traffic problems between Manukau –> Manurewa (in that direction) at 7:00 am in the morning; however that service consistently fails to materialise.

          1. Bus customers suing bus operators for non-delivery would require a special law. There is no contractual relationship between the bus rider and the bus company (or even the rider and AT), so there are no grounds for a lawsuit. Unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.

            Plus, of course, the pool of “bus customers” would blow out to half the population of Auckland if there was the possibility of a settlement for buses not running to time. “I walked past a bus stop when a bus was due to arrive, and it didn’t, so I want compensation!”

          2. True Matt, which is why AT should be doing this. They are the ones with the contract and the ones paying the money to the operators each month.

          3. Once PTOM is actually in effect, there might be a chance of penalties for operators who fail to deliver.
            Right now, though, the operators all deliver stellar results each and every month. We know this is so, because they tell us it is so!

  7. As an aside, I tried to top up at the glen eden station thus evening. Tried both West and city lines, both tix machines not working (former for eftpos, latter totally out of service). Wondering if they will be working tomorrow morn at 6:45am, when I get to the station early to try an top up?

  8. Bus lanes definitely, but also, at times of low frequency (say, <15min), make it compulsory for the driver not to be early, ie wait for the timetable time so he never leaves before his planned time. That's the way buses are run in Europe. the fact one can rely on a bus not being early makes planning a lot easier, even at the cost of adding a few extra minutes to a ride here and there. AT are in the process of updating their timetables using feedback from their new realtime positioning system, so they should get more accurate some time this year. But they still need to realise the problem that it is allowing buses to be early. Bus drivers aren't supposed to do it, but there's no enforcement, so it happens all the time.

    1. “Real time” seems to be a relative term, so I don’t see how the stats could be reliable – if the stats were actually real time, how could buses vanish after counting down, without them actually arriving at the stop?

      1. Indeed, but they have GPS signal every 30s now. so that’s not bad. I’m not sure the whole fleet has it though.

  9. Sigh. The vision is there, the patronage is there, but where is the service delivery?

    Why can’t we have a Bogota-like transformation in Auckland? Is it that special interest groups and ‘rates concern’ troll groups are too powerful here?

    Do we (transit advocates and those with the levers of power) doubt ourselves too much? Fear upsetting the apple cart?

    Can’t we in this country be world-leading in just *one* aspect of transport that isn’t car ownership per capita, just for once?!

    1. Maybe the vision is diluted as the public transport organisation here is also busy with parking and personal vehicles? I’m not sure how normal this is.

      1. Yes and it doesn’t seem like the PT component has much heft within AT, I wonder if a structural change could help this? Would more independence help or hinder things, do you think?

    2. Perhaps we need a dictatorship or at least a military Junta so that we can put a town planner into the lead role (as long as he has my attitude).. Ted for King. (Maybe you should go for Patrick? or Matt?)

  10. I sympathise with your correspondent – certainly there’s lots AT need to do to improve the efficiency and reliability of our PT system.

    But there are more options than the somewhat facetious “I’m, with regret, off to buy a car”. Cycling is the obvious one, and surprisingly fast, as the regular commuter challenges demonstrate. Need more power to mix it with the traffic? A scooter or motorbike is the next obvious choice.

    It’s sadly indicative of our transport culture that private cars (with just one person in them) are considered the only feasible option when our underfunded and inadequate PT services let us down. But those in the know are out there on two wheels…

    1. Yeah, cycling from rewa to Britomart is a hugely attractive option to the average commuter.

      Along with picking up a motorcycle license over a weekend

    2. Hi Steve, I’m the correspondent and it is with genuine regret that a car feels like the only option for now. In summer, I’ve walked a lot, but winter ain’t so grand. I would love to see cycling as an option for more people around the city, but it’s not a good option for me – for starters my employer doesn’t have showers available and I’m in the kind of job where I need to be non-sweaty and made up at work! Also, if I’m honest, I just wouldn’t feel confident/safe enough to do it. I know part of Dominion Road is designated for cyclists now, but lots of the rest of my journey wouldn’t be and I’ve scarily seen the results of cycle vs car so without buffered cycle lanes, I’m just not brave enough 🙁

  11. This is standard for Auckland buses. It’s bloody frustrating. I think Jacques is right about the buses sometimes being early, resulting in the “real time” system losing track of where the bus is.

  12. Add service reliability as a KPI for AT’s senior managers and CEO, and in the contracts for all its serivce providers. Make failure cost significantly. Respect your customers, you clowns.

  13. Perhaps AT’s Journey Planner web page could add a “check in / check out” function so that people can upload their actual trip times. I will catch the bus in summer, but not in winter. Standing in the freezing rain for an indefinite period of time is not fun.

  14. So while he lived in London he never experienced a tube strike? Last week the city came to a standstill all thanks to a bunch of Unionists with unreasonable demands.
    If he lives within a 10m drive of work he should just walk – who stupid would you have to be to waste 2 hours waiting?

    1. Umm, a 10 minute drive at an average of 30km/h is 5km each way.

      Which is to say about an hour each way at a typical walk.

      Which is 2 hours per DAY, not per 4 days.
      Or, compared with buses that ran on time, about 90 minutes per day extra

      And I doubt you’d be giving up 90 minutes per day of gym time.

      And motorway bus lanes?!?!? where exactly do those start down south?

      I think somewhere north of Mt Wellington ?

    2. A tube strike at least is understandable, that is near impossible to control from the operators. ACtually having enough buses and drivers to run a service on an average day is a lot easier.

    3. You generally know in advance when there is going to be a tube strike,
      I am fairly sure that the OP would be delighted if they knew in advance which buses would not show up on time,
      Rather than the current “suck it and see” appraoch

    4. hmmph strikes are nothing. When I lived there crazy Irish gits would close the whole system down with bombs and threats of bombs. I went there knowing nothing about their cause and came home 2 years later despising them. Still do!

      1. Yeah, you should definitely hate an entire group of people because of the behaviour of a tiny fraction of a percentage. Seems reasonable. Most of them will have been born in the UK too, so you should probably also hate the British.

        Sorry all for going off topic but this sort of bigotry bothers me.

  15. Such a shame. Auckland has a public which is ready and eager to use public transport, but when you hear of services so overcrowded on both trains and buses that they can’t pick up passengers, and constant cancellations, lateness etc it puts any newcomer off. The public is being let down by AT who just doesn’t know what they’re doing full stop.

  16. …running up Albert St to catch an ahead-of-schedule bus. 50m away, waving hop card in the air, driver sees and refuses to stop…

    In fact, the unreliability of both my am and pm bus where I catch them only 2-3 stops from their commencement is a cause of great wonder. Bring on the open APIs to the raw GPS data.

    1. I’m willing to bet money that the bus you are running for is actually the previous one running almost half an hour late. I have caught a bus at the bottom of Albert that left Mayoral on time and got to me 20 minutes behind schedule.

  17. I don’t believe him. Auckland Transport tells us that 99.9% of buses are on time.

    If this is true, this man must have incredibly bad luck, or is simply making things up.

      1. Whoops, sorry! I often think how these threads are heavily male-dominated, and here I am making things worse.

        Have you approached any female authors to contribute/guest-post?

  18. I have had similar experiences on Monday and Wednesday mornings catching a 258/267 bus from Stop #8431 993 Dominion Rd to St to Queen St. The 258/267 bus service is shocking with regard to reliability.

  19. My bus the 221 or 222 often comes 7 mins early meaning i miss it or 7 mins late meaning i come 7 mins early meaning im waiting up to 14 mins after walking 15 mins to get there. The last service on weekdays into town is 10:30 which is pathetic also since i start midnight.

  20. What you need is some network where the buses didnt have to mix with cars as much as possible. If only someone came up with network for buses that was free of congestion…

    Based on my initial observations of the new buslanes along fanshawe, they havent worked out all that well. In fact I think it is probably a waste of time. I can see it operating from my office and for most of the day it is entirely unecessary because the roads are empty and in the PM peak the roads get so clogged the buses cant even reach the buslanes anyway. I doubt we will find out, but I wonder what the bus travel times are looking like now with those new lanes in there. I would take a stab and say there is no difference from before.

    1. Using the highly scientific study of what m uni mates have told me it is slightly better than before. But slightly better for 4,000 people and hour is a win.

    2. “and in the PM peak the roads get so clogged the buses cant even reach the buslanes anyway”

      if that is true, then it is a call for doubling down and connecting them better, not saying the lanes aren’t working…

      And as Sailor Boy says – it it’s saves 2 minutes for 4000 people one hour each day, then that’s over 5 person-days of being stuck in traffic gone right there every day.

  21. Smart choice. Buy a car. Hell buy two and start a collection! In London most of the things you would ever want to visit are connected by a bus route or in the case of the really busy things you might want to go to, a train route. Now look at a map of Auckland. Try the regional parks in summer by bus, try the observatory late at night, try getting to Greenlane Hospital where most of the outpatient clinics are now without having to change. We are the third most liveable city and we have cars.

    1. Most of the world’s most liveable cities are the result of their urban design and transportation systems. We have natural beauty and a stunning harbour, and appear to have become one of the world’s most liveable cities despite our transport and urban design decisions. We’d come out on top easily if we fixed that.

      1. Given that we are 3rd on the Mercer rankings but 43rd on infrastructure it seems there is only a weak link between the two. Most of the cities that have spent up large are well behind us overall. As for urban design that is nothing but one persons opinion at a given time. Wait 15 to 20 years and the current urban design views will be declared to be wrong by the experts and something else will be the fashion.

          1. I always laugh when I get to page 5 “The exciting novelty of the motor car has worn off, and we are becoming aware of its problems” (Plishke, 1947, p. 67). That is up there with the IBM dude who thought there would only ever be 3 computers

          2. I think it more demonstrates that even that long ago, it was possible to see the problems coming but noone was prepared to do anything about it. And unlike the guy at IBM, Plishke was dead right, only ahead of his time.

            Cars have been a disaster for cities, especially where inner city motorways have been built, like Auckland. Eisenhower (who started highway building in the USA to emulate the autobahns he saw in Germany) was shocked when he saw the first inner city motorways being built (http://www.uctc.net/access/35/access35_Paved_with_Good_Intentions_Fiscal_Politics_.shtml). He rightly thought that would destroy the urban fabric.

            You are still assuming that where we are now was inevitable and is a consequence of free choice. It wasnt at all. It is the result of choices made by politicians with little or no public input – as that paper shows.

        1. You’re sounding like the consulant engineer who once opened an NZTA project meeting by declaring that the project team had budgeted 50mm for the ‘urban design’.

          By that he meant the pattern impressed in the face of concrete panels. Sad but true, a microcosm of the rather misguided view you’re adopting there.

          Urban design is far less subjective and superficial than your understanding suggests. Some designers may lead you to believe otherwise, but I think that is their own naïveté, and some other voices would like to noisily diminish the strategic, empirically based critical messages that urban design highlights- many of which underpin the the land use and transport planning that this blog aligns with. Urban design messages are often challenges to Business-as-usual thinking, and therefore often targeted for exclusion, but are often substantial in social and economic terms. If you think it is an issue of fashion, pavement patterns or city branding then you have kinda missed the point.

          1. The idea that design is concerned with merely the surface of things is sadly rampant both in engineering [a design discipline!] and among politicians. Both these groups are attempting with this opinion to flatter themselves that they, and they alone, deal in the ‘real issues’. But will condescend to have some fancy pants come along and put a pattern or colour or a plant around their project ‘design’ for 0.0001% of the project budget. This is simply an incomprehension risen to an ideology to control both budgets and outcomes and a road to sub-optimal and mono-dimensional results.

            It is as daft as anyone claiming that it doesn’t matter if a bike works or not so long as it looks sexy. Clearly great design goes to the core of the purpose of the project.

            And urban design is not, as our engineer friend seems to view it; the appearance of a city but the very nature of its make up. And most shocking of all are engineers with this view because all great engineers are great designers.

            For example while I prefer NZTA to attempt to hide their vast motorways through our city with gardening, this still does nothing to improve the core fault at the heart of their auto-dependant model. It’s just lipstick on a Gorilla.

          2. Ha, yes this. I recall a comment from a certain traffic engineer how he really liked the urban design of the CMJ upgrade and Grafton Gully. I couldn’t understand this, and after much toing an froing I eventually realised that for him urban design meant the volcano shapes in the precast concrete!

  22. Am I to beleive there is only two possible buses going from the central city to Dominion Road, and v.v? Makes you wonder why Dominion Road is being upgraded if there are so few bus services.

  23. I don’t understand how bus companies can claim to have >98% reliability rates given the testimonies from the letter in the post and by many other commenters. Sure there are many, many bus services running throughout the day but if the majority of peak service (During which runs the most amount of services) buses are late everyday surely their statistics are hyperinflated.

  24. Again the 258/267 service from stop number 8431 993 dominion road this morning is terrible with both express and non express not stopping, late or never arriving. Know wonder people are using their cars more as evidence from the traffic jams in dominion road and I have been late to work for the past three weeks. AT needs to put more express buses. It is a pity that the mayor Len Brown does not try catching a bus from this stop between 7 and 8 am to experience how bad the dominion road bus services are for workers going to the city.

  25. Again the 258/267 service from stop number 8431 993 dominion road this morning is ter,rible with both express and non express not stopping, late or never arriving. Know wonder people are using their cars more as evidence from the traffic jams in dominion road and I have been late to work for the past three weeks. AT needs to put more express buses. I suggest mayorblen brown tries using 7am to 8am buses on a weekday to get the city so that he can see what a terrible service it is.

  26. Again the 258/267 service from stop number 8431 993 dominion road this morning is ter,rible. Both express and non express not stopping, late or never arriving. Know wonder people are using their cars more as evidence from the traffic jams in dminion road and I have been late to work for the past three weeks. AT needs to put more express buses. I suggest mayorblen brown tries using 7am to 8am buses on a weekday to get the city so that he can see what a terrible service it is.

  27. Again the 258/267 service from stop 993 dominion rd this morning is terrible. Both express and non express buses, not stopping, late, or never arriving. I have been late to work for the last 3 weeks. No wonder people are using their cars more as is evident from the traffic jams on this route. I suggest Mayor Brown tries using 7 to 8 am peak bus services on a weekday to get the city so that he can see what a terrible service it is.

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