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.
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.
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’ recommendation||Are 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!