Over the last few years Auckland has ticked off some major public transport milestones. The roll out of HOP integrated ticketing (albeit with the black-listing issue), electric trains (albeit with the long dwell-times ), double-deckers (albeit with stubby bus lanes on Mt Eden Rd), and integrated fares (albeit only on train and buses at this stage) are all giant leaps towards the type of public transport network Auckland will need if it is to continue to grow and prosper.
On Sunday, Auckland will reach another major PT milestone: The roll-out of the New Network (NN) in South Auckland. While some smaller areas such as Green Bay and Titirangi have already been implemented, this is the first major sub-region to see the NN. For those who have been asleep for the last few years, the NN was first proposed in 2012 when Auckland Transport consulted on the Draft Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP). In this document, AT argued for a complete redesign of Auckland’s PT network, with a new emphasis on the development of a connected, frequent network of bus services that operated all-day, every-day — thus catering for a wide-range of journeys.
The general concepts underpinning the NN is explained in this video, and illustrated in the following diagram. Both the video and the figure contrast the design principles underpinning the NN with the existing bus network, which runs many different services in a chaotic fashion and at low frequency.
The same design principles can be seen in most successful public transport networks overseas, such as London’s Underground and Barcelona’s “sober” bus network. Edinburgh’s network of (primarily) frequent bus routes, for example, carries approximately 110 million journeys per annum at close to 100% cost-recovery, and all this occurs in a city that is smaller than Auckland (albeit much denser). Evidence suggests well-designed frequent public transport networks — where services operate all-day, all-week — are extremely effective, both in terms of patronage and efficiency. Of course, once you have a core frequent network you can always overlay direct additional services as and when justified by demand.
Auckland Transport have defined a frequent service as one that runs services at a minimum of every 15 minutes, 7am-7pm and 7-days a week (NB: Some routes will operate frequently outside of these hours). In the current network only a handful of routes achieve this standard, as illustrated below (the left-hand map). One of the key reasons is because Auckland’s current network has a lot of duplication, where routes run in parallel with other services, such as the rail lines. This duplication results in a relatively high cost per net passenger carried, and relatively low vehicle utilization. The word “net” is deliberate and important. In a network where there is duplication, removing a route will often not lead to much loss of patronage, because a large fraction of passengers divert onto other services.
And if you then reinvest the savings into running more service on another route, then you will often generate more patronage. This is indeed what AT have sought to achieve with the NN. In a nutshell: The NN is designed to deliver frequent, connected bus services, leveraging the benefits of past investments in the Rapid Transit Network (rail and busway), integrated ticketing/fares, and interchanges, such as New Lynn, Panmure, and Otahuhu. The result? Well, a vast expansion in frequent bus service to large parts of Auckland. The difference is illustrated by the maps below. Note that the original time-frame of 2016 has turned out overly optimistic, which is a point I’ll return to later.
NB: In the wake of consultation, not all routes are the same as shown below either. While some of the changes have improved the network, many of the changes — especially in the Isthmus — appear to have compromised the effectiveness of the NN by reducing the frequency of cross-town routes. Again, this is a point to which I return later.
Beneath the frequent network are, of course, additional secondary and local networks that connect with the RTN, local centres, and other key destinations – expanding the reach of the RTN network. What is often not appreciated is that many secondary routes run at frequent levels of service during week-day peaks, so as to enable connections to other rapid/frequent services. Moreover, some secondary routes are prime candidates for future frequent routes, as and when patronage warrants and/or operating budgets allow. The secondary route running from Westgate to Constellation, for example, could well blaze the trail for a frequent route connecting a (soon-to-be-born) North-western Busway and the (jumped-up adolescent) Northern Busway. We look forward to that day!
The NN concept was adopted in 2013. Later that year AT went out to detailed consultation on the South Auckland network. Following some changes the network below was accepted. In 2014 they also consulted on and confirmed the Pukekohe and Waiuku changes, which also go live on Sunday.
As mentioned above, a key part of the New Network is its focus on using connections to increase frequency, span, and coverage. The need to embrace connections reflects the fact that no single route can, on its own, meet the wide variety of travel demands that exists in a bustling metropolis. Instead, what is required is a network of routes that work together to cover the urban areas. In such a network, some passengers may need to connect to reach their destination, but the pay-off (for everyone) is more frequency. The need for connections does, however, create the need for interchanges. Such as the $28 million bus interchange at Otahuhu train station, which is formally opened to the public tomorrow.
A high-quality bus interchange is also planned at Manukau. Work on the $35 million Manukau Bus station started this week, and is expected to be finished circa mid-2017.
While signature interchanges are important for enabling connections and network legibility for new users, many journeys will not start or end there. For this reason, as part of the NN AT are also rolling out improvements to local bus stop infrastructure. Following consultation on some concept designs, AT come up with new standards for bus shelters, which will be progressively installed around the region.
And the changes don’t stop with the physical infrastructure. The implementation of the NN is proceeding in tandem with a whole new bus contracting regime, known as PTOM. For decades Auckland has been lumbering under the current contracting regime, which is a throwback to the Thatcherite hey-day of the early 90’s and was weighted heavily in favour of the ***incumbent*** private bus companies, stifling competition. For about 5 years, a combination of central government ambivalence and differences held-up progress towards a new contracting regime, until the explosion in contracting costs jolted the hamsters into action. We’re not sad to see the back of the current contracting regime, and it’s something that should make life much easier going forward. Specifically, the new PTOM contracts tilt the power back in AT’s favour while increasing competitive pressure at the same time. The tendering of bus contracts for the NN in South Auckland, for example, saved $3 million annually — while achieving a 21 percent increase in hours of operation and a 15 percent increase in kilometres covered. New operators will often be introducing brand new buses branded in the standard AT livery. The new contracts also put in place stricter rules around the quality of buses.
All these changes go a long way to explaining some of the delays to the roll-out of the NN. For example, following the conclusion of consultation for South Auckland, AT announced the network would be rolled out from mid-2015. That has kept slipping back until now, so it is rolling out over a year later than originally intended. I understand a large part of the slippage has to do with the delays building the Otahuhu interchange.
There are some other lingering issues with the NN that AT really do need to address, and which I’ll briefly mention here:
- AT’s rail service planning appears to have fallen off the tracks. This means the frequency of the rail timetable has not been improved to match the new bus network. This is technically somewhat interesting, because I understand the lack of frequent rail services contravenes the RPTP, which has some statutory weight. Anyway, the upshot is that while bus routes will operate frequently all day, they will connect to trains that do not (depending on the station). The updated train timetable isn’t due till March, i.e. 6 months after the NN rolls-out. Hopefully someone can rouse AT’s rail service planning team into action before the NN rolls-out to the next sub-region.
- In the south, a combination of consultation and budget savings saw an expansion of the frequent network from what was originally proposed. In contrast, the recently announced changes to the Isthmus network back-pedaled on NN design principles, and saw the retention of many duplicative existing routes, the Outer Link being the prime example. This necessitated a reduction in the coverage of the frequent network, especially on crosstown services, some of which have been downgraded and/or dropped altogether. It’s a shame AT’s NN nerve wavered in the Isthmus, which is the very part of Auckland where a frequent connective network is most beneficial.
So, what can we expect when it comes to patronage? Change always causes disruption, and it is likely that the NN will disadvantage some existing users. While unfortunate, this is unavoidable with major network changes of this nature. You can’t make a bus omelette without breaking some eggs. As disaffected passengers will stop using PT almost immediately, while new users take a while to attract, it may be that patronage decreases initially. I’d personally prepare for angry newspaper articles and photos of unhappy people going to the wrong bus stop and ending up in Waitakere (NB: Of course it’s all AT’s fault for even running buses to Waitakere in the first place. If only it’d been a train, then nobody would have been inconvenienced. Stupid AT).
More seriously, notwithstanding the initial resistance to change, the general experience is that patronage usually ends up higher than it would have otherwise within about 3-6 months of the network changes, and that growth thereafter is more rapid. As mentioned earlier, AT have already rolled out changes to the Greenbay/Titirangi area based on similar network principles, which experienced patronage growth of 35% in the last single year — and that was without any frequent services too.
Despite the delays, and minor quibbles like an infrequent rail network, it’s fantastic we’re finally seeing the NN rolled out in South Auckland. It should make travel using public transport much easier for a lot more people which is a great outcome. It also provides the bones of a frequent network around which infrastructure investment and land use development can progressively occur. It’s important that frequent bus routes become a much-loved and semi-permanent feature of Auckland’s urban-scape, as indeed they are in all major cities. (Incidentally, the need for permanence is one reason why we go on and on about bus lanes on Mt Eden Rd: That route is not going to go away, it’s been there since the year dot, and it’s now busier than ever. That’s a good thing, and that’s why AT should throw some resources into making those bus lanes run for more than an hour.)
While AT may not get everything right first time around, at least the “bones” of a decent bus network are in place, and it is something that can be progressively improved, as and when justified by demand and/or enabled by budgets. This point is important to keep in mind: The NN represents the start of a long-term project whereby Auckland’s bus network becomes more frequent, more connected, and easier to use. I would hope that we’re back here in 5 years time quarreling over how to best respond to the growth that results. The answer, I hope consists mainly of more frequency, more connectivity, and less complexity.
P.s.The other main areas to be rolled out are West Auckland, expected in June 2017 with the North shore, Central Auckland and East Auckland rolled out between August 2017 and April 2018.
P.P.s. If you want to attend the opening of the new Otahuhu Station, the details are below.
Ōtāhuhu Station opening
- Date and time: Saturday 29 October, from 10am to 3pm.
- Getting there:
- By train: Both the Eastern and Southern lines trains stop at Ōtāhuhu Station.
- By bus: A free shuttle bus will run between Ōtāhuhu town centre (existing bus depot) and Kaka Street. The bus will operate every 15 minutes from 10am to 4pm. Passengers will need to climb the steps of the Kaka Street overbridge to get to the event.
- By bike: Lock your bike at the station’s cycle rack.
- There is no public parking at the event.