This is a guest post from Paul Callister. You can read another post of his on this topic here.
If you need to travel long distance to or from some of New Zealand’s most deprived rural areas what choices do you have? If you can afford the petrol, driving is one option. But there are people who are too young or old to drive, others who are physically disabled (such as through poor eyesight) or people who simply don’t own a car. You cannot fly as many poor areas are in the countryside and don’t have nearby airports. If there is an airport, you may not be able to afford the airfare. While some areas still have train tracks there are now only expensive tourist trains travelling on limited routes. So long distance bus is the only remaining travel option.
But even if you need to travel between some cities and cannot or do not wish to drive then a bus may be the only real option. Unless you go by tourist train, which operate every second day, long distance buses are the only way for the non-driving public to travel between, say, Auckland and Hamilton or Wellington and Palmerston North. Try to get from Taupo to Hamilton for a medical appointment: you cannot fly; there is no train, so bus is the only possibility.
While some people have no alternative other than to use buses for long distance travel others sometimes make that choice. Tourists often use them to see the countryside. Others, meanwhile, may want or need to travel long distance but are concerned about climate change thus wishing to minimise their carbon footprint. Bus travel has a far lower carbon footprint than flying or driving a car.
Yet, the infrastructure supporting bus travel makes it a poor cousin of other types of long distance travel. The downtown bus depots in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, exemplify this.
New Zealand’s two main bus companies, InterCity and ManaBus, operate out of Auckland. InterCity’s facilities are provided by Sky City Casino. In 1996 Sky City was required to build the current bus station on the Hobson Street side of its complex as a condition of the resource consent to construct the hotel and casino. This bus station is handy to down town backpackers and youth hostels but quite a distance to Britomart, Auckland’s public transport hub: the point of arrival and departure point for most local trains and some local buses.
According to a recent report by Radio New Zealand, Sky City now favours removing the bus station. Sky City’s reluctance to support the Intercity facilities is evident. The couple of times I have used these toilets they were cold, dismal and dirty. When I mentioned this to InterCity staff they said they receive frequent complaints about them. The Auckland depot is probably InterCity’s busiest and for many overseas travellers arriving in Auckland it will be their first example of a New Zealand bus depot.
The ManaBus ‘terminal’ is currently located in downtown Auckland. It is basically a bus stop located in Quay Street, opposite the Ferry Building. It is described as being 50m west of Britomart bus and train station. According to Google Maps, the InterCity and ManaBus depots are about 1km apart. This is not great for elderly or disabled people wishing to transfer easily between these long-distance bus companies.
Still, according to Radio New Zealand, this situation may well worsen. Soon there may be no downtown Intercity bus depot in Auckland. Similarly, it seems ManaBus have been told to leave their downtown parking site by 2018. Planners are clearly not taking climate change seriously. There is barely a major city in the world without a central downtown coach depot.
On the southbound route out of Auckland the next main stop is at Manukau. Both ManaBus and InterCity use the same bus stop opposite the Manukau Mall. There, passengers, including young children, wait for both the day and night buses, often in the cold, at the roadside shelter. While this shelter has a roof, its sides are open and exposed to wind. Why is this not an enclosed shelter, air-conditioned in summer and heated in winter?
I have written elsewhere about the second-rate – or non-existent – toilet facilities at many bus stops made worse by many long-distance buses not having on-board toilets. As noted on an overseas website ‘In an absolute sense, the toilet on board a long-haul bus will be among the worst toilets you are likely to encounter. …But the best toilet in the world is the one that’s available when you really need it, when not having one would be a disaster. When you have to stay on the bus for another hour or two, a bus toilet can be the best toilet ever.’
No one would tolerate not having an onboard toilet when travelling by air. Even flights of less than an hour between Auckland and Wellington have on-board toilets. Older Aucklanders, many of whom are well heeled, travel free on their SuperGold Card to Waiheke Island on ferries with on-board toilets. Politicians and planners passing through the Koru Club are unlikely to understand any of the shoddy facilities faced by bus travellers.
Disabled bus travellers too face challenges getting on and off long distance buses. For instance, there are usually steep steps to climb. Often fellow travellers have to help physically challenged or elderly passengers get on and off the bus. Moreover the Intercity website states ‘as our drivers travel alone, we do have some limitations regarding the level of assistance we are able to provide, and therefore passengers must be able to board and disembark the bus without assistance from the driver.’ And currently most buses are not designed to carry people in wheelchairs.
Long distance bus travel is likely to become increasingly important to rural communities (including relatively poor communities such as Tokoroa) as New Zealand’s small towns shrink. Not only are many small towns declining in population, but the average age of people in these areas is increasing. Local medical services and, in many areas, banks are increasingly being replaced by services offered only in large centres. At some point many older people may lose their driver’s licence or just feel challenged driving into large cities for events such as specialist medical appointments. They may not have relatives living nearby who can provide transport. One sad feature of getting old is that the ability to travel long distances without regular toilet stops tends to lessen, as does the ability to sprint to a distant toilet. An obvious example is at Taupo – one of our central tourist towns and long distance coach transit point – where the toilet is quite some distance from the bus stop. Many bus schedules allow little time for toilet visits. Inequality in New Zealand takes many forms, one being inequitable access to good quality transport. Instead, regional ‘development’ often focuses on improving road or air links.
As an obvious contribution to tackling climate change, more people should be encouraged to use buses for both long and short distance travel. Far more attention needs to be paid to making this a pleasant experience. One improvement would be for all long-distance buses to have well designed on-board toilets. Another is for weatherproof roadside shelters. At some point in the near future these buses may be electric – or perhaps hydrogen powered – rather than diesel.
To achieve such facilities, local authorities and central government need to partner with bus companies. An important first start would be to construct an attractive downtown terminal in Auckland as well as improving facilities at the Manukau stop. A downtown terminal would enable local and overseas travellers to transfer easily between long distance bus companies, as well as between local buses and trains. If cleverly done, it would also be an important New Zealand landmark that would bring us into line with other major international cities.