The Northern Busway has been one of Auckland’s biggest success stories. Opened in February 2008 it’s helped transform transport on the North Shore with perhaps the most stunning statistic being this quote from a NZTA report on extending the busway to Albany and Silverdale – something that government cut from the package of works to widen the Northern Motorway.

Over the past few years investment in the Northern Busway, and efforts to improve bus and transit lanes in other parts of the North Shore, have resulted in a significant increase in the proportion of trips made by bus. Not only has the number of bus users across the Harbour Bridge improved significantly during this time, but there has been a decline in the number of cars crossing the bridge: freeing up space so everyone’s trip is faster and more reliable.

Recent figures indicate that almost 12,000 out of the 29,000 people crossing the bridge in the morning peak period are now travelling by bus (i.e. almost 41 percent of all people use the bus). This figure represents a significant increase in bus mode split compared to 2004 (which had roughly 5,000 out of 27,000 (18.5 percent)) of people crossing the bridge at peak times by bus.

The primary service that uses the busway is the Northern Express (NEX) who’s growth has been a direct result of the congestion free route the busway provides – although it uses the busway for just 41% of its journey. As of September over 2.5 million trips were taken on the NEX over the previous 12 months which us up from about 700,000 before the busway opened (NEX services started in late 2005 as a precursor to the busway).

14 - Sep NEX Patronage

The NEX is only one of a number of services that use the busway for some or all of their journey and many more people benefit from the infrastructure. With HOP it’s made it even easier to catch non NEX services that use the busway e.g. the 881. We don’t know the actual number of people using the busway however I’ve heard estimates that it’s in the range of 5-8 million trips a year. Another important feature of the busway is that buses using it travel at about twice the average speed of buses elsewhere in Auckland. That means the same number of buses and staff can run more services for no extra cost compared to other routes making them much more efficient. Because of all of the positive aspects mentioned we’ve also heard that services run at or close to full cost recovery so little or no subsidy is needed for them. In other words it’s a success on many measures.

NEX buses run every 3 minutes in the peak direction while counter peak – away from the city in the morning and towards the city in the evening – and off peak during the day they run every 10 minutes.

NEX Timetable

As many know I work in Takapuna and normally commute using PT. Recently instead of catching a bus direct to Takapuna I’ve taken to catching the NEX to the Akoranga station and walking from there (15-20 mins) as part of increasing the amount of walking I do. In addition due to the timing of the direct buses and transfers it often works out not much longer to get to work. It means I’m travelling counter peak and one thing that’s surprised me, as it does with buses direct to Takapuna, has been just how busy they are. In the case of the NEX this is particularly surprising considering just how poor the land use is around the busway stations.

This image was taken a few days ago while heading over the bridge in the morning with the bus full of people both sitting and standing. This is now a common sight at many times of the day in both directions.

Full NEX

The mornings are often busy however the afternoons have been seen buses packed, often to the point that people at Akoranga are missing out and having to wait for another 10 minutes for the next bus. While it is a sign of the popularity of the service it leaves those having to wait angry and frustrated. Those who get on and are standing on the bus don’t feel that much better either due to how packed it is. In addition buses extremely packed quickly fall behind schedule as they have to dwell at stops for a lot longer which can have knock on effects for future services. To make matters worse, those waiting on the platform for a bus will often see 2 -3 NEX buses plus up to half a dozen non NEX buses race past towards the city not in service so they can ferry people from the city back to the shore.

After this happened a few times and no response from Auckland Transport on social media about it (although they have been better lately), I went to AT directly about the issue. They pulled the data for the stop in the direction I was travelling for October and provided this graph which shows that around 5pm in particular many of the services are very very full.

NEX counter peak afternoons Oct 14

As a result they are now working with Ritchies to put on an additional service which they say will likely be at 5:05 to help cater for the demand. They will also closely monitor some of the other service s that look quite full such as the 4:30pm service.

This is a good outcome and should hopefully really help address some of the issues although I would have thought a 4:55 might be useful too. I think ideally AT should be looking to move to 5 minute frequencies in the afternoon peak which shouldn’t be too difficult seeing as the buses are having to get to the CBD anyway. In addition this information was only pulled because I highlighted it, I hope to see AT getting to the point that services are regularly full are automatically highlighted to them so these issues can be addressed sooner.

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52 comments

        1. Hahahahaha -Roughan admit he was wrong? His whole world would unravel. I’mthinking of sending him some chicken sandwiches.

  1. If it weren’t for the people like yourself Matt who put the effort in and ask the questions, I’m sure the services would never get better as fast as they have. What is really encouraging is that AT are prepared to engage and use evidence to make great decisions.

    What’s not so impressive is that they seem to be using Excel to do their analysis (I spy an excel pivot chart, although I’ll apologise if I’m wrong). Management by Excel lacks the integration between datasets and forethought required to devise the metrics/KPI required to manage effectively. The things that you’d expect from world class organisations.

  2. The Northern Busway was the Brainchild of Former Mayor of North Shore City George Wood who had a lot of protagonists in North Shore who opposed the Project. NS City Council Ratepayers contributed a hell of a lot of money via Rates but patronage has vindicated the project. The Bus Way does need extending to Silverdale and the relevant Govt Ministers need to be informed as such. The Northern Busway is testimony that some Councils do make good decisions.

    1. Only with commitment by government ministers too, of course. And if memory serves me well Mark Goshe was instrumental in getting the Busway over the line. The usual experts both official and self appointed, claimed that Shore people wouldn’t bus: The Herald’s resident genius, John Roughan, pronouncing it a ‘white elephant’ before it began. The traffic models, as usual, agreed, predicting much less use of this than of course has consistently happened.

      Same as with Britomart, and rail upgrades and extensions, and same people are still white anting and opposing proper investment in money saving Transit projects that work.

    2. The busway wasn’t George’s brainchild as I’ve found reference to it from prior to his time in office but he was responsible for pushing it though and he deserves a lot of credit for that. In many ways the debate about the busway is the same as the CRL, people question the cost and valitidy of it but after it is built it will be an outstanding success that everyone will wish happened earlier.

    3. I’m a bit rusty on this, but the concept for the busway goes back to the Regional Land Transport Strategies of the 1990s when it was recognised that rail on the Shore wasn’t a viable short term prospect, unlike the opportunities to upgrade the Isthmus ans West rail services. At that stage the busway services were planned to terminate at Constellation (like the motorway) and the extension of service to Albany was proposed by John Bonsall and Ken Gosselin of McCormick Rankin’s Mississauga office.

      The impetus to finally get underway with the busway actually came from Transit NZ, who started to take the project seriously when they recognised there was some infrastructure to be built and credit must go to Wayne McDonald, then regional director, who pushed the project along. In contrast, ARTA’s PT planning team dragged their feet in spectacular fashion, almost in denial that the busway was happening despite them.

      George Wood did get in behind the busway and brought council support despite some scepticism on behalf of some councillors.

      1. I joined the ARC ( to become ARTA) Busway team in 2003 and they were very committed to it at that time. Some of the ideas to utilize the Busway more effectively were altered due to political pressure but the basic building blocks weren’t bad on Day 1. Look at the patronage!! I might know you Steve C?

        1. I was employed by North Shore City Council in 1994 to make progress on the busway project, on arrival, I was shown 12 Eastlite folders on my desk and told “start reading there and end there and when you’re finished you’ll know all there is to know about the busway. When I left NSCC for Auckland City in 2000 the project was starting to look like it had wings, but funding was always the big issue. It took some creative B/C work by BECA (we’ll never get enough bus passengers to justify the cost, so lets imagine some HOVs!) to make progress on that front.

          I continued to work on the busway at Auckland CIty, being responsible for NS bus routes and priorities south of the bridge. In an attempt to improve coverage of the CBD for Shore passengers we shifted the main terminal from Victoria St to Queen St outside the Civic and developed the Albert St bus lanes. Boy was that a lesson in managing conflicting imperatives and even different goals of council departments. Talk about compromise and trading off!

          So you may know me Foreigner, however I’m not currently involved in transport planning.

  3. Rapid Transit works. It especially works for car and truck users. Without the busway the bridge would be jammed everyday, and the gov would be wasting 5billion on unneeded extra road lanes in massive tunnels across the harbour with all the additional appalling outcomes for our waterfronts and city streets.

    Improving and extending our little Rapid Transit Network (rail & Busway) offers the highest return on investment in Auckland right now- for every Aucklander and indeed the country.

    1. Talk about a quality investment – if the busway saves us from having to spend a fortune on a second Waitemata Harbour crossing then the return on investment will be astronomical. Maybe George Wood is the transport investor equivalent of George Soros!

      1. IF it manages to stop that project from happening, however, despite the Northern Busways success the government and NZTA are ploughing ahead with the planning for a road-only additional crossing, whose only outcome will be to waste vast sums of money that could have revolutionised PT in Auckland, fill the innercity with cars and most likely eat up bus patronage. Seems like a huge amount of money to spend simply to undermine PT and the urban fabric of the city. Why don’t they instead just shutdown the Northern Busway? We’d get the same outcome: congestion, more cars in the city etc at a fraction of the cost.

        Of course if any sanity was being applied to this crossing we’d be looking at building a rail only tunnel as quite clearly that’s where all the growth an depend is and will be.

    2. Agree 100% Rapid Transport well proven tick with an exceptional uptake. Rapid Transport should currently be a 90% spending focus as clearly being the most sustainable. 10% on walking and cycling targetting areas connecting/integrating to the rapid transit links once they are in place.Road maintenance spending only as roads over-invested in past. Ramp up walking and cycling spending over time. Correct the im-balance. This investment will also have the most benefit to cars/trucks as those they want to use other modes have the choice taking vehicles off the road. Cut all motorway spending it is money wasted and not going in the right direction at all. Discard all traffic modelling. Lets see what lanes we need once the bus, rail, walking and cycling network are humming.

      1. I think we need to be realistic and accept that some other (non RTN) public transport is needed, and that quite a number of roading safety projects are clearly needed too.

        1. Ok agree. 70% Public Transport RTN and non-RTN prioritised to the Congestion Free Network. 10% Walking and Cycling. 10% Safety Projects, 10% Multi-modal Growth Areas in conjunction with developments. 0% Motorways. Road Maintenance -same. Lets go with that. Better than the status quo.

  4. Any ideas what the plans are for the northern busway extension now that the government has decided not to include it in the motorway improvements package?

    1. The NZTA say they would like the build the busway in the same time frame as the other projects that did receive funding, but obviously that will be dependant on their being funding for the busway. There’s no reason funding couldn’t be through traditional methods though if it fits into the GPS.

  5. ~2.5m p.a. seems like a pretty small patronage for a flagship service. Is it really justified to run it at 5 minute intervals? What about just making it 7.5min frequency and using double deckers exclusively.

    1. I suspect that if you counted all the patronage to/from busway stations it would be much higher. Most people will just catch the first bus that comes along whether that is a NEX service or not. Yes you could go to 7.5 min services and use double deckers (the latter of which will happen anyway) but I think there’s also a marketing benefit to being able to say a bus every 5 minutes.

    2. Catch the NEX regularly, you will never ever question whether that frequency is justified again, the crowding is outrageous some days.

      1. Your theory being that once you increase to that frequency people deterred from using it will fill up the capacity? A possibility.

        1. So then we add even more buses, given that any full buses are running at a huge profit it’s hardly a problem. If a company’s machines are running at 100% utilisation then they buy or lease more to increase profits, AT should do the same.

        2. Sailor Boy, the Northern Express is on a gross price contract, all the fare revenue goes to AT, it should also be noted that many AM buses are full at Sunnybrae station, so short workings from Constellation or Smales should be considered

        3. Exactly, so AT will make the higher profits. I completely disagree regarding short runs, service should be as legible as possible, only acheiveable through a consistent running pattern.

        4. the legibility comes from the infrastructure which clearly states “here be buses”, punters waiting at Smales and Akoranga don’t care where the buses come from, only that there’s room for them to get on!

  6. From a users view I find the Busway excellent as it drops me off in downtown where as my Glenfield bus stops at Liston House in Hobson St and on wet days it is a long cold walk into the city. From my home it is a 3 bus change via the Busway but it still gets me into the city in less time than the direct 1 bus service.

  7. There is no doubt from the comments lodged on this issue that agreement about success has wide recognition. Would the next move for this Transport Blog to inform the relevant Government Ministers to do a Re think on non extension of this Bus Way? The Public are in favour of Project. A victory on this as a re think would be very good outcome.

    1. Yes we push for need for the busway extension to those in power when we can. We are hoping to get a meeting with Simon Bridges and if we do we will definitely be pushing it.

    1. Albany – is Metro centre while on other side of motorway is Mixed Housing Suburban
      Constellation – A little bit of General Business but mostly Light Industry. Resi areas are again just Mixed Housing Suburban
      Sunnynook – mostly Mixed Housing Urban around the station although one patch of Single House and THAB. Also some Mixed Use nearby.
      Smales Farm – Has a mix of different zonings
      Akoranga – Pretty much no change nearby other than maybe some more development on Warehouse Way, much of the green you see is an old landfill so can’t be built on

      1. I like the NEX/Busway and use it, but the otherwise well designed stations mostly have horrible placement.

        Albany is placed away from housing and buried in a sea of car parking almost making it hostile to walk/cycle up to. Even worse, the busway does not run directly to this, the biggest of the stations, which always struck me as a ‘almost, but not quite’ bit of planning.

        Constellation / Sunnynook, I don’t know as well, but Constellation seems to have little integration with housing.

        Smales farm is not so bad; lot of Westlake/Carmel students use it, as well as workers/visitors to the hospital and Smales farm office space like Vodafone

        Akoranga is close enough to AUT, but walking to Takapuna or Barries Point Road, I keep feeling that the station is relatively hidden away from people that might use it. Would be nice to have better walking paths directly into Barries Point Road (which has the odd good cafe now) and see more apartments there.

        1. what would you have proposed as alternative locations Grant? and do you think that the less than ideal station location wasn’t recognised at the time the busway was planned? consider land availability, practical station locations (the stations have a significant land footprint) access on foot, bike by bus and car (kiss and ride) and suggest something!

          following a trip coat-tailing the Brisbane busway team, the North Shore busway planners sat down to review the busway location with the recognised limitations of the station locations as the principal focus, first there had to be a suitable north/south corridor, (Glenfield Rd, motorway, East Coast Rd); then suitable station locations (not a lot on ECR, Glenfield Centre and Highbury on the west); available land for stations? $$$$$$; access by bus? ECR disadvantages people in the west, Glenfield Rd disadvantages the east.

          the upshot was that there while the planned motorway alignment wasn’t perfect, wasn’t a compellingly better location for the busway or stations and we had to contend with some commercial opposition to get some of the stations at all.

          the other aspect is that rapid transit in some form will be in that location for decades to come, there remains time and opportunities beyond the planned future for the land use to grow and adapt to the access provided

    2. Your question begs another interesting one: what influence has the busway had on land use and development patterns? I’ve seen studies relating to western line double tracking effects on land values, and arguably a study is not needed to justify the outcomes in New Lynn, but would be interesting to see if the busway is having similar effects. Maybe hard to separate from motorway effects as it is the same corridor, but I think that if one went looking for key features associated with TOD thinking this might produce decent evidence.

      Council…you on this? Or just crossing fingers and hoping? Perhaps RIMU needs a commission, or a thirds party if they are already busy.

      1. While double tracking will have made measurable improvements to the west, and there’s more to come with new trains and higher frequencies, New Lynn and everywhere else on the Western Line will get the most phenomenal upgrade with the CRL: Glen Eden will be as close to midtown as Kingsland is now. This is a spatial transformation the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Harbour Bridge effectively fished the North Shore Maui-like out of the distant sea and brought it into close proximity to the city….

  8. The fact that the busway is not continuous, let alone that 59% of it is missing, is nothing short of degrading to customers and an affront to democracy.

    There is no defensible reason why it is not continuous right over the bridge and into the CBD. More than that, in places it should be two lanes.

    For people to have to stand counter-peak adds insult to injury.

    1. The fact that all the widening in St Marys Bay occurred only a few years ago and included absolutely no bus priority north despite now providing 11 lanes for cars shows what NZTA thinks of PT, they’re purely focused on moving as many metal boxes as possible not on optimising the movement of people. If they were, then 5 lanes in the peak would be handed over for exclusive use by buses.

  9. It does show that buses are not the best form of rapid mass PT. A driver processing fares, stopping at least 3 times before the motorway at stops and potentially at 8 sets of traffic lights from Queen St to the motorway after dribbling along to it and very limited passenger capacity shows to me how much more efficient trains are in this respect. At least all passengers pay though!

    1. Well the best kind is always the kind you have and can afford, or rather the worst kind of rapid transit is the kind you never built because you didn’t have two or three billion to spend on a rail line.

      Very limited capacity? It moves more people each day than any of the rail lines. Drivers hardly process fares, I would say 95% of people use hop.

    2. I’m looking forward to the post CRL discussion about whether replacing the Northern Busway with light/heavy rail is a better next step than rail to the airport.

      When the other Busways have proven the Transit is viable in Auckland and the discussion topics are how to improve the service, rather than what the services should be.

  10. Well done Matt on getting some action from AT about putting on another bus, I emailed them twice earlier in the year (once in Feb and once in March from memory) asking for 5 minute intervals out of town in the mornings and into town in the evenings due to severe overloading. Several weeks after the second email I got a reply which said that it would soon be winter and patronage would drop off because it always does in winter so therefore no action would be required.

  11. I understand the buses used by the operators on the North Shore use about 80% of the morning peak bus requirements, so there are 20% sitting in the bus yard or in with the mechanics for maintenance. That would give 40-50 buses available to be used in the PM peak, but these would need to be paid for by a mixture of AT and the operators and consumers depending on the incremental patronage and far revenue. Would be great to see frequencies on key corrdiors at 90%+ of morning peak service during the key demand period. This would need to be a mic of NEX and non-NEX services as some of these services have customers wishing to get to their home destination further away from the Busway stations.

    From the AT patronage graph on the PM services it looks like there were 15-20 services around that magic 5pm band that had 70 customers on board. Gut feeling is that 5 extra buses would transfer some of this excess and give more customers seats, and allow for additional capacity to grow. It is a real shame that the afternoon frequencies are so far below the morning even with the patronage demand spread over further time and school kids. The vehicles are definitely available for service and customer experience improvement and long term patronage growth.

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