Next week, the transport version of a perfect storm kicks off in the form of March Madness. It’s the time of the year when both roads and public transport use is at its heaviest. This is generally the result of a few factors that combine to create a significant surge in transport demand. These include:
- Primary and secondary kids are all at school
- Tertiary institutions have started for the year and students tend to be more keen and eager to attend classes
- A lot of people take leave over Christmas or around the various public holidays early in the year rather than in March so more people are at work
- Coming out of summer, more people are also at work and not struck down by the winter illnesses that tend to sweep through workplaces and classrooms.
- The weather is still decent so people are less likely to be put off walking/waiting for services.
- As the roads get busier, more people try out public transport as a way of avoiding congestion
That last point is important because if people try PT and it works well, they’re more likely to keep using it later in the year. If instead they find buses and trains too busy to get on, caught in congestion they’ll be much more likely to give up and go back to driving.
To highlight just how much busier March tends to be compared to other months, this graph shows March coloured red.
You can also see it in these graphs from Auckland Transport’s monthly indicators showing the average boardings on business days. March last year saw almost 250k people a day on buses and over 70k per day on trains.
For many years now we’ve repeatedly asked the question of whether AT is ready for March and every year, once March hits, they’ve been caught short and images of full buses and trains are a regular occurrence. Some people have reported in the past of up to 12 buses passing them before one turned up that they could get on. Often AT have capacity improvements planned but they’re not due to be implemented till after March which defeats the purpose. Last year things were so bad that AT got operators to pull out every old dunger of a bus they had hiding out the back of their depots just to try and meet demand. So, will this year be any different?
Positively, while I expect March will continue to be busy and put pressure on bus and train capacity, I think there’s a greater chance than ever of getting a good result. That’s because AT appear to be learning and have been adding capacity *ahead* of March.
Auckland Transport is putting on more services to meet passenger demand during March.
Group Manager AT Metro Operations, Brendon Main says in the morning peak there will be 56 more city bound bus trips each morning compared to March last year. That’s 5% more capacity overall for bus services and an increase of up to 34% on some corridors. “We know the number of public transport passengers peaks in March as students head back to their studies, schools are in term and lower numbers of people are on leave. It’s known as “March Madness” and since March last year we’ve worked hard to get more services on some of our busiest routes.”
Mr Main says last March some peak time trips were crowded and these are the services being targeted with extra buses this year.
“We will have more than six and a half thousand extra spaces on buses and trains, this will go a long way towards meeting demand.”
Bus capacity has increased by close to 5400 spaces and timetable changes for trains from 12 March will mean an additional 1200 spaces are available in the morning peak.
Mr Main says double-decker buses are also coming to Birkenhead to help with the demand.
From next Monday, 27 February, four double-decker buses will commence services on routes between Beach Haven, Glenfield and the central city providing much needed additional capacity along Onewa Road.
New routes for double-decker services are 970, 973, 973B, 974 and 974B between Beach Haven and the CBD and the section of routes 950 and 955 between Glenfield Mall and the CBD.
Mr Main says public transport will be busy but Auckland Transport and its service providers will be closely watching the situation. “You might not always get on the first service but we want to ensure wait times are acceptable and, on some routes, better than last year.”
Here is where the additional capacity has been added, most of occurring late last year which is likely why, for me at least, February doesn’t feel to have had the same trouble indicators as previous years.
AT also say that the change to the rail timetable on 12-March will see 1,194 spaces inbound during the morning peak, split between the Eastern Line (796 spaces) and Southern Line (398 spaces). The western line had a capacity boost last year when it moved to 10-minute peak frequencies and the services I catch have been busy but not crushingly so.
The table AT provided raises a few other interesting aspects.
- In March last year, Dominion Rd and the Northern Busway had similar levels of capacity but my understanding is that ridership is notably higher on the Northern Express.
- You can also see the impact that the double deckers have on operations. Both routes had capacity for just over 4,000 people but the NEX did that with 43 buses compared to 63 buses on Dominion Rd. That means Dominion Rd needs additional drivers and buses to move the same number of people and with so many buses down the corridor, on which the bus lanes aren’t continuous, it can lead lots of issues of bunching, slow services and ultimately a worse experience for passengers. This is ultimately why AT want to put Light Rail down Dominion Rd but given that’s some time away, they really need to improve the bus lanes now and that could also help reduce operational costs.
- Given many of these services have been in place for a few months, they will already be reflected in the very peaky nature of our services.
Let’s hope that this year services handle the PT pilgrimage better than they have in the past and we don’t have people being left behind.