Right now Auckland Transport is in the process of implementing the New Network (NN). The NN is already operational in the south, and is being readied for implementation in other sub-regions as per the following timetable:
You can view the latest networks for each sub-region by clicking on the links provided at the beginning of this post. For those who don’t know, I should disclose that I was part of the consultant team who worked with AT to develop the original NN way back in 2012-2014. The original network we developed is illustrated below.
The original network shown above has subsequently evolved in response to several rounds of stakeholder engagement and public consultation. This included engagement with existing operators, consultation with local boards, and — finally — consultation with the general public. Moreover, as time has progressed, more detailed information has come to light, such as the land use outcomes associated with Unitary Plan and the NZ Transport Agency’s plans for developing highways and busways. All useful information that can inform the design of the public transport network, albeit information that has been somewhat slow to extract.
The NN has also had to dovetail with other projects AT has underway. I’m not aware of any other city in Australia or New Zealand that are attempting to change so much about their PT system in so little time. In the 15-20 year period starting with the opening of Britomart, Auckland will have developed a Rapid Transit Network connecting to every sub-region almost from scratch; redesigned the ticketing system and fare structure; implemented a new public transport contracting model; and drastically re-structured its services. Somewhat understandably, the desire to coordinate implementation of the NN with these other projects has delayed implementation beyond the initial (indicative) 2016 timeline.
So as we stand on the threshold of implementing the NN, one may wonder what comes next? The answer, in my opinion, is that the NN will be a constant, ongoing project for at least the next 5-10 years.
There are several reasons for this. The first is simply that all aspects of the NN won’t work perfectly right from the beginning, and they should be changed as further information comes to light. In terms of demand, some routes will experience too much while others will see too little. That’s a reason to reallocate resources. In terms of schedules, some timetables will have too much time while others will have too little. The struggle for reliability is ever-present.
Public transport nirvana won’t happen over-night, but it will happen. If we keep working on it. Maybe. But aside from continuous refinement of the underlying network structure, what else might change? The answer to this is both nothing and almost everything. When I say nothing, I am referring to the underlying principles of frequency and connectivity on which the NN was built, and which will allow us to run a more efficient public transport network. These principles are sound and should not change as we go forward. Instead, they should be strengthened and embedded more deeply into our PT network. Every time AT increase frequency, we should be asking whether we can remove duplication.
On the other hand, much about Auckland’s public transport network will continue to change. Let’s list just a few of the major projects that Auckland Transport and others will be working to implement over the next 5-10 years:
- City Rail Link
- Northern Busway extension, including new Rosedale station
- Extension of electrified services to Pukekohe, and new stations
- LRT on Dominion Road and Queen Street
- North-western Busway
When you line up all these projects, you start to realise that there isn’t many corners of our fair city where the public transport will not change fairly dramatically in the next few years. So we will need to get used to PT network changes happening on a fairly regular basis. Of course none of them should be as large as the NN itself, but nor should we delude ourselves that it will end with the NN. The NN is arguably close to the start of Auckland’s journey to PT salvation.
Indeed, such complacency with regards to continuous improvement of Auckland’s PT network is arguably a contributing factor to the situation we are in today. As an aside, I understand the following meme is popular among some of the folk that have long-lorded over Auckland.
Aside from the persistent and ongoing issues with the allocation of resources and reliability, there is one other potential meteor that seems likely to pass fairly close in the near future, and which threatens to destroy the heart of Auckland’s PT network. That is, Auckland has very limited bus capacity in the city centre, in terms of corridors, stop, and terminal capacity. I think it’s fair to say bus capacity in Auckland’s city centre has been neglected for decades, and is now being rapidly squeezed in all directions. The risk is that the meteor of bus volumes brings about a never-ending buspocalypse that in turn suppresses patronage and exacerbates congestion.
Put simply, the volume of buses that need to be accommodated in the city centre is rather high already, and it’s growing. And it’s not just about the corridor capacity: Buses need to stop, terminate, and/or turn-around. In fact, I’d suggest that corridor capacity is almost the least of our concerns, we can always splash around a bit more green paint, e.g. on Wellesley Street. Stop and terminal capacity is more problematic, simply because there’s not much space. LRT will help, but it is something that won’t happen super-fast and nor will it be a panacea when it is up-and-running. Meanwhile construction works associated with the CRL and the Council’s (excellent) place-making initiatives look likely to exacerbate the problems caused by our historical reluctance to address bus terminal issues.
Whether we encounter bus apolocalypse depends on whether AT are successful at changing the way we currently operate buses and manage streets so as to make them more efficient. The NN as it currently stands seem likely to result in higher bus volumes downtown than originally planned. Indeed, changes made during consultation — for potentially good reasons that I explain below — have had the effect of throwing more buses into the city centre, specifically:
- Removing through-routing — the original NN proposed through-routing bus services between Takapuna–Onehunga, Glen Innes–Mt Albert, and Glen Innes–New Lynn. I understand all three though-routes have been dropped. This both increases bus volumes in the city, and requires more passengers to transfer, which increases dwell-times.
- Retaining duplicative routes — In some cases, services have been added or retained that duplicate other services, even if they perhaps remove the need for passengers to connect. The most notable is the Outer Link, but there are also a number of peak services that have snuck their way back into the network. In terms of capacity, the latter are particularly problematic, because they directly increase peak bus volumes (by definition).
- Removing cross-towns — the original NN arguably contained five frequent crosstown services in the Isthmus, specifically: Mt Albert — Glen Innes, Takapuna — Onehunga, New Lynn — Glen Innes, Pt Chevalier — Ellerslie, and Mt Albert — Pakuranga. The proposed NN now contains only one, or arguably two if you include the Outer Link. Going from five to two cross-towns will increase the number of buses terminating in the city centre, and increase the need for passengers to connect between services there.
This should not be construed as criticism of the changes made by AT. Indeed, the changes arguably reflect positively on AT’s desire to respond constructively with feedback. It’s also entirely possible that the changes will increase patronage and/or efficiency in the short term, even if they exacerbate issues with city centre bus capacity in the medium to long term.
But *if* buspocalypse does arise, *then* what should we do about it?
The good news is that AT are aware of the risk of buspoalypse, and have started considering how to mitigate the chance it occurs. Some of their current thinking has been documented in the “Bus Reference Case” report that was published last year, and which was written by my colleagues at MRCagney. While somewhat technical, the report does make for interesting reading, as it provides an indication of the sorts of volumes we might expect and sketches out some possible responses. And when I say response, I am talking about one that considers not just infrastructure, but also other related aspects, such as services, vehicles, and ticketing.
The report notes, for example, that after the CRL the following actions could be taken to reduce bus volumes in the city centre:
- Re-direct the New North Road (Route 22) service to Newmarket. This would possibly allow AT to drop the infrequent but direct rail service operating between the west and Newmarket, and increase rail services on the main Western line.
- Eliminate expresses from the West, including Blockhouse Bay to City (Route 195), Green Bay to City (Route 209), Glen Eden Express (Route 151x), and Titirangi Expresses (Routes 171x and 172x). Instead, these routes would terminate at the Avondale, New Lynn, and Glen Eden rail stations.
- Expand service from the Northwest, specifically Routes 110 and 125x (WEX upon completion of the North western busway); and
- Eliminate expresses from the Southeast, including Mangere to City (Route 309x) and Papakura to City (Route 360x).
As well as changes to the network itself, the report investigates the potential demand for bus infrastructure in the city centre, especially with regards to bus termini and stop infrastructure around Wynyard, Wellesely, the Universities and Britomart. It’ll be interesting to see what the detailed designs for these areas look like, and whether they avoid off-street interchanges and termini. Naturally on-street would be more cost-efficient, but it does place increased demands placed on city centre streets. Balancing this demand with other place and movement needs will be tricky.
Either way, when we say “city centre bus infrastructure”, it’s fairly clear we are not simply talking about a lick of green paint. If we want to get buses off the streets in the city centre, while maintaining accessibility and growing patronage, then we need to think about where they go. And we may need to spend some money along the way.
In terms of the last point, it’s interesting to compare Auckland with our comrades across the ditch. Both Brisbane and Perth have some serious bus infrastructure in their central city. King George Square station, for example, opened a few years ago and is nicer than most metro stops.
Meanwhile in Perth, construction of the long-planned underground bus station (BusPort) in the city centre was completed in July 2016.
Over here in Amsterdam, they’ve been busy elevating their buses away from the street level so as to improve amenity around central station, while maintaining connections to other transport modes. Impressive stuff, and things that have long been in the works.
None of this is to say that Auckland will neessarily need bus infrastructure of the same scale as the above cities. With a more brutal network structure and more efficient operations, it’s certainly possible we could get by with less hard infrastructure than these cities have achieved. However, these cities do provide a good lesson for Auckland in terms of developing long-term plans for acommodating buses in the city centre. That is something Auckland hasn’t yet managed to achieve, even if it looks like the wheels are starting to turn.
It’s promising that Phil Goff’s election platform and subsequent noises have emphasized the important role for buses, both now and in the future. Getting Auckland’s buses working well will definitely require a level of technical and political leadership that perhaps has been lacking in the past. It may also require that we step on the toes of landowners in the city centre, who arguably have ruled Auckland’s roost for far too long.
What do you think? And if you were AT, and if there was an issue with city centre bus infrastructure capacity, then what would you do? I’d be particularly keen to hear about people’s ideas for the NN as it currently stands, and how it could be adapted so as to reduce bus volumes in the city centre. Which routes would you cut, and why?
And/or what are your ideas for how to improve bus infrastructure in the city centre? Ideas big and small are welcome. If we succeed with our plans for the city centre and public transport more generally, then it’s possible we’ll need some of these infrastructure and service initiatives sooner than we think. I think that’s a good problem to have.
P.s. Feel free to also comment on the proposal to relocate long-distance buses to Manukau and Albany. Grrr. That’s an issue I hope to cover in a future post.