This is a guest post from reader and friend of the blog, Shan L
Although most southern commuters’ first experience of the New Network for South Auckland was on Monday morning, the go-live was on the day before – Sunday – when travel demand is much lower and any issues can be ironed out before the masses crowd on. To see what it was like, I decided to take a transit journey down south and experience first-hand the sort of the change the network might (or might not!) bring.
I took a look at the network map online, and decided to start my journey at Britomart, travelling to Mangere, Otahuhu Town Centre and finally Sylvia Park before returning to Britomart.
Then I added a few constraints to make it interesting:
- No smartphone or otherwise computerised trip planning allowed – given that the New Network is designed to be legible, I should be able to plan my trip entirely with a paper map
- No smartphone real-time tracking of trains or buses allowed – the New Network should be frequent and reliable enough that this is a nicety, not a necessity
- At each destination I’d do a brief bit of shopping – just to make things a bit more realistic
- Leave in the morning, and be back by lunch.
(Note: I’m aware this is a fairly unusual set of trips and not something people would do often. I wanted to see how the network would cope more than I wanted to simulate a reasonable journey)
Although I’m a pretty experienced user of PT in Auckland, most of my regular trips are within the isthmus, so on the surface this could be a quite a challenge, especially since just the day before the transit “network” looked like this:
Spaghetti, yes: and the chef was quite possibly drunk and suffering from anger issues.
That map is convoluted enough to make me give up and not even try – how are you meant to figure out which one of those maroon coloured lines to take, for instance?
But the New Network simplifies this to:
My plan would be:
Otahuhu Station is greyed out to indicate that it’s purely a transfer: I don’t care about shopping there, I’m only getting off the train to take a connecting bus to Mangere.
Now… to pretty much anyone who uses PT regularly in Auckland: this plan is clearly lunacy. You’d only ever try it:
- with a smartphone and spare battery;
- real-time tracking and route planning;
- not on a Sunday or in fact a weekday except during peak hours – you’d spend all day waiting for infrequent services to turn up.
But the New Network says this should now be possible in reasonable time and minimal frustration, so why not see if it holds up?
Leg 1: Britomart to Otahuhu Station
Wait for onward service to arrive: 8 minutes
Starting outside Britomart, the first task was to find a paper map and timetable. This was easy enough, and once obtained I looked for the first train that’d take me to Otahuhu Station. Luckily Otahuhu is served by both the Southern and Eastern lines, so the individual (entirely inadequate) half-hourly frequencies combine to give a train on average every 15 minutes – which while not exactly great – is serviceable.
After waiting at the platform for 4 minutes, I took the 9.58 service (on time), and arrived at Otahuhu at 10.24.
Leg 2: Transfer at Otahuhu Station to Mangere
Wait for onward service to arrive: 5 minutes
The new Otahuhu Station is fantastic. Somehow, It even smells like transit. Maybe ozone from the overhead lines is seeping into the building.
There’s quality wayfinding in place, much like you’d see in better stations in cities overseas, with exits and platforms clearly marked.
There is real time information in the concourse as you transfer, but unfortunately it wasn’t showing the platform for each service. Instead of looking around I took the easy option and asked an AT person with a clipboard where to get my connecting bus.
It’s great they’re using what look like fairly standard sized and reasonably large LCDs. But in my opinion they don’t show quite enough services at once before they resort to paging: waiting for it to scroll around to the screen that interests you can be at best annoying and at worst bus-miss-inducing. On a normal trip I’d use my phone to get this info instead.
The primary job of an interchange is to get passengers from one service to another with maximum speed and minimum anxiety, and given that the entire network just got replaced and everything is brand new, it did this with reasonable competence. A bit of tweaking to the wayfinding and it could be excellent.
I found my platform and a 325 turned up after 5 minutes. I had the option of a 32, 324, 325 or even 326 here, which combine to give average 6 minute frequency. The bus trip was on a brand-new vehicle, with USB at every second seat (in fact all buses I rode were similar). There were unfinished bits though – like missing screens which I’m hoping at some point will display your position on the route.
Leg 3: Mangere to Otahuhu Town Centre
Wait for onward service to arrive: 5 minutes
The bus arrived at the Mangere bus station after a short trip. Since Mangere was a shopping stop, I wandered off to look around for a while. The station clearly isn’t quite finished yet: it’s basically a cone farm.
I didn’t see any obvious sign of any cycleways yet either, but I did see a child on a BMX trying to wend his way through the construction. Hopefully it gets finished soon.
Mangere is home to one of the new bus shelter designs that were trialled on Symonds St. This one felt a bit more robust than the one that was demoed and was pretty comfortable to be in, at least on a good day. I’m still a bit doubtful about how well it will hold up to wind and rain, though.
Despite there being some pretty decent maps and timetables displayed in the stops, practically every passenger who came through asked AT staff for help. My impression is that they’ll need staff on hand at all the major stops for quite a bit after launch. I overheard a few conversations, and while many were understanding of the changes and the need to transfer, one person neatly summed up their concerns with, “but nothing ever works properly in Auckland”.
When I got sick of shopping I started looking for my next bus, which was a 32, and turned up after 5 minutes.
So far I’d managed to do all this without looking at an actual timetable at all – only maps – something which would’ve been inconceivable on Sunday, only a week before.
Leg 4: Otahuhu Town Centre to Sylvia Park
Wait for onward service to arrive: ~30 minutes
This is where things got a bit dubious. The trip to Otahuhu went fine, and from looking at the map I thought I was going to be stopping at a proper bus station:
But unfortunately it isn’t completed yet so it’s less clear when to get off. Thankfully the bus driver saved me and let me off at the right place.
After wandering the town centre for a bit I finally found my unique-to-the-region produce and went looking for the bus to Sylvia Park.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that I should’ve just got back on the same service at the same stop I got off on… but being an idiot, I instead headed directly for where the old Otahuhu bus station used to be, where I found a large number of very confused people. The AT staff were pretty busy helping people who genuinely needed it but when I started trying to clamber through the construction site across the road someone showed me where I actually wanted to go.
But to be fair on me, the wayfinding here was pretty poor: if you’re going to require people to go to an unexpected place to catch their bus, then you need big signs with giant arrows all the way to the destination, not the little bits of A4 they had taped to the bus shelter. Having people to help is great (and they were great – watched one guy manage to get a couple with zero English on the right bus), but never underestimate the value of giant arrows in times like this.
Due to the combination of me screwing up and lack of good temporary wayfinding I missed my bus, so had to wait 15 minutes for the next. Which would’ve been fine, had it turned up. In reality, and in true Auckland fashion, it didn’t. So I waited about half an hour until one did, which was the 32 to Sylvia Park.
Leg 5: Sylvia Park Station to Britomart
Wait for onward service to arrive: 0 minutes
As I wandered from the bus stop through the mall to the Japan Mart (source of all the instant ramen you could possibly want) to do my final bit of shopping, the real-time train info handily displayed in the mall let me know that the next service to Britomart would be leaving in 7 minutes.
This was simultaneously useful and disappointing: useful because I now knew I only had 7 minutes to get to my train, which isn’t much time; disappointing because now I had a choice between either cutting my shopping short (I genuinely wanted to spend more time there) or shopping a bit longer and waiting almost half an hour for the next train.
I opted to cut it short and return. The train turned up as I stepped on the platform, then arrived at…
Total duration: 2 hours 50 minutes
Total cost: $8.00
Possibly the most interesting thing about this journey was that I could do it at all. It’s was little extreme, and you’re not likely to want to do such a thing often, but until Sunday it was impossible or at least wildly impractical to do with public transport – and now it isn’t. We’re taking a big step forward.
But how about the details? How did the network stack up against the constraints I set at the beginning?
Legibility: No smartphone or otherwise computerised trip planning allowed
I didn’t use a phone at all for planning, nor did I choose my start time based on timetables, it was just when I happened to get up. I was surprised how legible the network was; I never really missed having my phone – in fact it was freeing not having to constantly ask Google how to get somewhere. Planning the trip felt similar to planning a journey on a reasonably decent transit network somewhere in Europe.
Frequency and reliability: No smartphone real-time tracking of trains or buses allowed
I did miss having on-demand real time tracking a bit – it helps make you feel more in charge of your journey (do I bail and call a taxi, or stick it out?) – but the only time I really felt I needed it was when the 32 bus from Otahuhu Town Centre didn’t turn up for half an hour. When services are frequent and reliably so, you don’t really need real time. Sadly, I don’t think we’re quite there yet in Auckland, even on our frequent routes, so this will probably remain essential for quite a while.
Suitability for shopping / spontaneous lifestyles
This is a derivative of frequency and reliability: are things good enough that I can ride somewhere, wander off and not worry about when I have to leave to catch a service? Despite the hiccup with the 32 I felt I could – but only if the journey didn’t involve rail.
It seems to me that the biggest weakness with the network will be the poor off-peak rail frequencies. AT need to look into getting them to serviceable levels as soon as possible. To me, that means every 10 minutes, but no doubt others have different opinions. I’d just like something that’d allow me to get my noodles, and not be forced to hang around in a mall for ages if I decide on a whim to buy cake as well.
Leave in the morning, and be back by lunch.
I eat at 1pm.
Addendum: Travel Times
(Approximate, for huge nerds only)