Increasingly, the answer is yes – although we certainly can’t rest on our laurels yet. Read on if you want to know how and why…

I recently read Paul Mees’ excellent book Transport for Suburbia, which argues that high-quality, useful public transport services can be provided even in the low to medium density cities of Australia and New Zealand. Reader Warren S gave a glowing review of the book earlier this year.

Mees, who did his initial research on Auckland in the 1990s, was quite scathing about the decades of planning failures that led to the city having an underutilised and not especially useful public transport network. The user experience has suffered, he argued, due both to decades of underinvestment and a refusal to plan an integrated bus network that would be useful throughout the growing city.

The key to any good public transport network, Mees argued, is that it must function as a network. A 2010 NZTA research report (pdf) that he co-authored identified two key principles of network structure.

First, the network should be stable throughout the day, as shown on the right hand side of the diagram. In other words, the bus lines that are running in the peak should be running in the middle of the day, in evenings, and on weekends. This has important benefits for users, because it gives them a lot of certainty. For example, a working mother who rides the bus to work doesn’t have to worry that she won’t be able to make it home in the middle of the day in case of a medical emergency. The bus will always be running down the same streets.

Mees principles of network design

Second, frequent connective services are essential if public transport is going to serve a diverse range of trips. As Jarrett Walker says, frequency is freedom: when you know that you’ll never have to wait long for a bus (or to transfer between services), then it’s really convenient to choose to take the bus. The following diagram is somewhat difficult to read at first, but it depicts how much more mobility is enabled by a frequent connective network. This is really, really good for users, because it gives them many more choices about where to travel and how to get there.

Mees Squarevill example

Based on the best practice from overseas, Mees argued that New Zealand needed to make some crucial changes in three main areas. As the table below shows, we’re actually well underway (or finished with) most of these changes! Moreover, we’re seeing the benefits of many of these changes already, meaning that they will be easy to build upon and hard to reverse.

Of course, we’re not yet in the promised land of PT, and the devil is often in the details. While Auckland’s New Network represents a real improvement in the quality and usefulness of the city’s PT offering, Mees points out that there are many elements of network design that will require fine-tuning. That means things like rolling out bus lanes on more routes, getting bus stops in the right place, and making connection points between frequent routes comfortable and easy to use – all of which requires on-the-ground knowledge.

Paul Mees’ recommendationAre we doing it in Auckland?
1  Appropriate institutions and public processes:
Establish a public agency to plan the network across the whole urban region.Auckland Transport is doing this – it seems to be earning more bouquets than brick-bats in the process
Redirect private-sector competition into producing best-value tenders for the delivery of part, or all, of a publicly planned system.Done – changes to PT contracting under the last two governments have given transport agencies back control of network planning
Use well-designed public education and consultation programmes to manage changes.Done – AT’s consultation on the Southern New Network was praised
Provide a simple fare system that avoids the imposition of penalties for transfers.HOP cards have given us integrated ticketing; integrated fares are (hopefully) up next
2  Network structure:
Provide a simple and stable network of lines throughout the day.In progress – that’s the goal of the New Network
Base mode choice for different lines in the network on required capacity, comfort and speed.In progress – CRL and more busways planned in AT’s capital programme
Consider locations for suburban interchanges on the basis of predicted travel patterns and efficient vehicle operations.In progress – Panmure Station successfully implemented, Otahuhu to follow
3  Network operations
Simplicity and directness:
Organise the network on the principle of ‘one section – one line’.Done in New Network
Avoid deviations in the physical routes chosen for bus services.Done in New Network
Provide pendulum lines through key activity centres and interchanges.Done in New Network
Speed and reliability:
Aim for travel speeds comparable to, or faster than, door-to-door travel times that can be achieved by car.Already done on selected routes – e.g. the Northern Busway and some isthmus routes
Provide on-road signal and traffic-lane priority to allow buses to meet connections.In progress – e.g. with the quick win on Fanshawe St – but not fast enough
Aim to have vehicles stopping only as required to pick up and drop off passengers.Already standard practice
Establish ’forget-the-timetable’ headways (10 minutes or less) in key travel corridors.Key principle in New Network, although that aims for 15 minute frequencies as a minimum
Set up integrated timetables outside high-frequency areas.Key principle in New Network
Location of stops and access to services:
Carefully plan the location of stops to minimise the number of stops and ensure their optimal location in relation to major trip attractors, intersecting lines and pedestrian accessways.Hopefully underway as part of New Network route design… AT’s been doing some work on new bus shelter designs
Locate stops in car-free precincts close to important destinations, to give public transport a significant competitive advantage.We haven’t yet started to think about this – perhaps time to get started?
Change current access to ‘trunk’ services from ‘park-and-ride’ facilities to access by walking, bicycle, or feeder bus, in order to cater for long-term growth in patronage.More could be done
Ensure that walking distances between services in interchanges are very short: preferably no more than 10 metres.
Marketing for first-time and occasional users:
Create a simple line structure that makes the network easy to understand.Done in New Network – have you seen the maps?
Use maps, on-line information, vehicle livery and on-board displays to reinforce understanding of the line layout and transfer opportunities.Some bus routes (e.g. Northern Express, Link Buses) have branded livery; real-time information is improving but still spotty

Moreover, this is not just an Auckland phenomenon – other New Zealand cities are eagerly embracing the principles of PT network design. Wellington and Dunedin are at work applying the same set of principles to their public transport networks. This week, Christchurch’s own frequent connective network went live – a significant milestone for a city that’s still rebuilding following the earthquakes.


In short, there has been a quiet revolution in public transport planning in New Zealand. Many regional transport agencies (and central government) have looked at best practice from overseas and gotten on with implementing it. Paul Mees might have torn his hair out when studying the mess that had been made of PT planning by the 1990s – but things are now turning around. Long may it continue!

Share this


  1. Love the positivity, Peter, but I think it’s fair to point out that while many of the recommendations on the list are underway in many cases they aren’t complete, so are yet to be fully experienced by the user.

    What is good about this is that there is a great deal of what is listed above that is in the pipeline and will turn into very real improvement in service and experience for citizens.

    We are seeing this with the rail rebuild, each step of the way has attracted new users but it is only now as the project nears substantial completetion that its full value can begin to be seen. And the ridership jumps are the reward for that investment.

    It is hard to overstate the value of the unified Council structure for providing the vital citywide network as Mees described. This really was the first and most important change.

  2. I think Auckland’s bus network is still failing on the three most important aspects – speed, frequency and price.
    – Catching a bus might be faster than driving during rush hour, but off peak it is normally quite a lot slower. AT really need to reduce the number of bus stops, encourage people to get on and off quicker at those bus stops (bigger entrance ways, bigger discount for HOP), add more bus lanes, and make sure the high frequency buses are taking the quickest possible route. There should be a KPI for the time difference between driving the quickest possible route and taking the bus for the major bus routes both on and off peak (max 30% slower off peak, min 30% faster peak?).
    – There is a big difference between a 15 minute frequency and a 10 minute frequency. Even 10 minutes is a bit long IMO. And outside 7AM to 7PM these frequencies are often halved. I think if they guaranteed a 10 minute frequency dropping to a 20 minute frequency usage would increase enough to justify it. I’m not 100% convinced that the new network will work without higher frequencies – replacing a direct bus with a transfer should only occur if the transfer service frequency is every 5 minutes or better.
    – I have travelled a fair amount and used PT in a lot of countries, I have never seen a bus network as expensive as Auckland. It might not be so bad for frequent users with monthly passes, but for casual users it is very expensive, especially for three stages and above. There is no (sensible) daily cap, return journey fare or off peak fare.

    AT seem to be addressing some of these points, but its all very slow. I don’t think they are going to ‘get public transport right’ any time soon.

  3. I think post is great and are really hanging out for physical changes.I thought things could and should have been done sooner as know the potential a real network would make.
    Maybe fares could come down when not stuck going nowhere and patronage booms

  4. Yes, I agree there are starting to be too many ‘positive’ verging on Pollyanna-ish articles. We are all pleased to see Auckland head, in fits and starts, in the right direction, but let’s not exaggerate the achievement. Many similar cities have had bus reviews that said the same thing that Walker or Mees or whatever have said, but the proof is not yet in the pudding for most of them.

    And Auckland seems to be struggling for a raison d’etre for its rail system. There is far from universal consensus, even among PT friendly people, that rail must be the linehaul spine of the system, but therefore it must be fast, very fast, frequent and stations must be well designed. And that, dare I say, is true irrespective of CRL being built or not. Do not let CRL distract you from that, or you will end up like Melbourne, with a very expensive underground rail loop but the same problems you started with.

    1. There is no lack of consensus about the Rapid Transit core of the system, and that this consists of the improving rail system plus all real BRT we can get, currently of course just on the North Shore. The PT using public are choosing these services way over all others, they are currently growing at 18% pa. No idea what causes you to think there is a ‘lack of consensus’ .

      Your Melbourne image is completely off mark as well. There are no plans to build a confusing Melbourne style loop in Auckalnd, nor to run trains on any one way patterns. Melbourne rail is not the model, in fact it is a model of what not to do. The CRL is a straight north south line. It is infact more like the future plans Melbourne has to fix its rail system from its current overstretched mess.

      I do agree however that this post does look forward to the completion of projects that are yet to deliver fully, or in some cases even begin to. Especially the New Bus Network the full roll out of the new trains, and Fare Integration. We won’t be able to evaluate this massive programme of improvement till the process is much more complete. The next two years will see huge gains in quality, frequency, and reliability. So long as all goes as it should.

  5. I think the title of this post should be “Are New Zealand cities getting public transport right?”

    When I first saw the actual title, “Is New Zealand getting public transport right?”, and then the opening sentence “Increasingly, the answer is yes . . .” I had to do a double-take. Public transport throughout most of New Zealand is non-existent. Inter-city public transport with the exception of air, is skeletal only. Rural public transport is absent.

    Whether this state of affairs could ever be any different in a car-dominated society is questionable, however it does seem that long-distance passenger rail in particular has been ‘let go’ in a way that other comparable countries (eg Norway) have chosen not to allow. In this respect, New Zealand certainly isn’t getting public transport right! And there is no sign that anything is about to get better, under the present government.

    And I have to say that even in the cities, we are only “getting things right”, based on baby steps to correct decades of getting things wrong. Rather like starting to climb out of a deep pit you have deliberately chosen to throw yourself into can be termed ‘getting things right’. In attitudinal terms, and in comparison with other countries, we have a long, long way to go before we can really say we are getting things right.

    1. I guess what I mean when I say “getting public transport right” is “understanding what is required for a workable PT system and implementing it”. This does not necessarily mean that everything is all fun and games yet… but it does grease the path of improvements, which is important.

      The issues you raise are essentially about funding priorities. You’re right: we choose to spend most of the transport budget on the roads. We require high farebox recovery rates from PT services that makes it difficult to run useful services to areas without a lot of people.

      This is definitely a problem. However, the institutional changes and improvements to service design and infrastructure provision that I discuss means that when money becomes available, we will probably spend it effectively. This is a good thing and a reason for optimism.

      Also, there are several companies that offer fairly comprehensive, competitively priced intercity bus services. It seems to have improved from the first time I travelled on intercity buses in NZ about a decade ago. I discussed this a bit here:

  6. Good list, but I think some items aren’t highlighted enough: for me, the single biggest item which would make me use the bus more is a reduction in travel times, and conversely any increase in these would make me seriously question using the bus. The new network will provide some advantages in terms of frequency of service and legibility, sure, but if it’s at the expense of an increase in travel times of 10min (because of the new interchanges for ex., or a slightly more circuitous route, or the possible removal of express lines), then it’s a net loss for me and, I suspect, for most commuters.

    The best way to mitigate this, in my opinion, is to have AT provide bus lanes on all arterial routes. They should also put some effort into modeling travel times in their new network, and install bus lanes as needed.

    Another point is that the planned interchanges at Te Atatu, Lincoln Rd, Westgate will actually add quite a bit of a delay to people’s journeys (waiting for a connection) if they are used before a busway is installed on SH16. So: build the interchange after the busway. please.

  7. Phew, I’ve now finished reading the whole report. Good work, makes sense.

    I’m also reading a history of London buses at the moment: they had the concepts of ‘lines’ and transfer tickets way back in the 1850s (they got these ideas from the Paris buses, which had them many decades earlier). In Auckland, nearly two centuries later, we’re still waiting for the wheel to be fully re-invented. Tedious.

    1. Re-inventing the wheel, aka “not invented here syndrome”.

      As with most of what passes for gainful employment on this funny planet, we’d probably find half a dozen people designing mass transit systems, everywhere, is all we need.

      Apparently Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet, the terrible truth is we’re not that special and there aren’t that many “experts” either. Bonkers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *