Public Transport in Auckland has improved remarkably over the last few decades. The number of annual boardings have almost tripled from a low of just 33 million to 92 million today, well ahead of population growth and most of that in the last decade. PT is undoubtedly working a lot better than used to, but that doesn’t mean it is working as well as it should. For example, if right now we had a similar level of per capita usage as Wellington, boardings would be a third higher again. To achieve that sort of level in say a decade, once combined with Auckland’s rapid population growth, would require about 150 million trips, or 5% growth every year for a decade. There are clearly some big ticket items in the pipeline that will help, such as CRL and light rail, but they’re 5+ years away. To achieve that sort of growth in usage, and have PT play a bigger role in transporting Aucklanders, Auckland Transport are going to need to be more aggressive with improvements.
On Friday night, following a couple of drinks after work, I had one of those PT journeys that was full of examples of things to improve.
Not In Service
So far, public transport improvements have largely focused on commuters to and from the city. There are plenty of valid reasons for this; it is the largest, densest and one of the fastest growing areas of employment in the region. When coupled with the universities, it results in high levels of transport demand at similar times of the day. So, if you’re travelling at peak times in the peak direction i.e. to the city in the morning or away from it in the evening, PT now generally works pretty well. We can see this reflected in the numbers which show that now more than half of the people entering the city centre every morning peak aren’t doing so in a car.
But as our city and our PT networks have evolved, people want to use it for other trips. Making public transport viable for a wider variety of trip types will be crucial in getting more people to use it overall. Changes like the New Network can help with this but that alone won’t be enough. One thing that could help is making better use of Not In Service (NIS) buses.
Every morning, hundreds of buses make their way to the city loaded with passengers, after finishing their route many will race as fast as possible back to the suburbs to start another peak time, peak direction run. The same thing happens in reverse in the evening. As a result, many of Auckland’s 1,300 buses will only operate 2-4 runs a day, that’s not great utilisation. Making use of some of those buses to provide better counter peak and off-peak services could help improve connectivity and usage. Time for an example.
I made my way to Akoranga Busway Station, arriving just after 6pm where a crowd of 20+ people were already there waiting for a Northern Express (NEX) to the city. Just as I arrived a double decker NEX turned up. Great timing I thought. Only due to the events on that night, the bus was full and only one or two were able to squeeze on.
The platform display said the next bus was about five-minutes away, more frequent than usual and not too long to wait. While waiting for that next bus, two more double deckers and two single decker buses flew past the station at speed and NIS, en-route to the city for another peak run.
Only that wasn’t the end of it. The five-minute wait actually turned out to be about eight and when the next double decker arrived, it too was full and no one was able to get on. After another similar wait, two more double deckers and another single deck bus raced past the growing number of waiting passengers. Finally a NEX turned up that had enough space to to fit people only, but only just.
Had just one of those NIS buses stopped to pick up us stranded passengers we would have saved 15-20 minutes on our trips and been provided with a much superior customer experience. While this example was when events were on, it has been happening here on normal days too.
Firstly, AT needs to be running more of these buses in service. Not only would that help reduce these issues but the improved level of service would help attract more users too. Secondly, AT and the bus companies need to find a way to react to situations like this. One option might be for drivers of full buses to alert their depot and have the next bus stop and pick people up.
It’s worth noting that there were a number of buses that were heading directly to Eden Park that stopped and picked up passengers but didn’t do anything to dull the queues for the NEX. Also relevant, our comparatively high levels of peak to off-peak service is highlighted in this graph, from a post last year.
Finally on this, a couple of overseas examples to show how poor our bus fleet utilisation is. Our ~1,300 buses carry 66 million trips annually while Vancouver’s ~1,540 carry 250 million and Brisbane’s ~1,240 carry 111 million. Our buses need to be working harder.
Make PT easier to decode
If you’re travelling anywhere but to the city at peak times, public transport is often just too hard for casual users and so they just don’t bother. It’s partly why so many say that PT is terrible even though it has improved a lot. Why I was at Akoranga in the example above is a good case study of how hard things can be. I was in Takapuna and I needed to get to Britomart to catch a train. But buses from Takapuna don’t go to Britomart, meaning two buses are needed. There are actually two different bus route options, each of two buses. Sometimes there’s a clear choice of which option to go with but sometimes, even for an experienced user like me, it’s a 50:50 call. Get that call wrong or because something unexpected happened, like a full bus leaving you behind, and you can be stuck in the wilderness wasting time wishing you’d chosen the other option.
In this case, the two options to get to Britomart are either:
- One of the Takapuna to City buses, with a transfer about 160m further down Fanshawe St
- A bus to Akoranga and transfer to a NEX. Interestingly google maps doesn’t even give this route as an option.
While there are generally more buses on the first option, I’ve come to find the second is often easier as the Akoranga bound buses are departing from Takapuna, so do so on time, whereas the Takapuna to city buses have often been delayed en-route. Waiting at Akoranga is also nicer as it’s fully covered and quiet, unlike the fully exposed footpath on northern side of Fanshawe St.
It’s hard to change the two-bus nature of this trip (till CRL) but it trip could be made so much easier. For the purpose of this example I’m going to use the new network map because it is easier to read and the same flaw exists in it.
The issue is the Takapuna to City buses (the N4 in the new network) travel via Esmonde Rd and bypass the Akoranga Busway Station, despite passing within 200m of it. If all Takapuna bound buses passed through Akoranga it would make journeys much easier and allow users to pick the next bus that came along.
Admittedly, I’m always traveling counterpeak so others experience may vary, but very few people use these buses on or near Esmonde Rd. One option could be to have them follow the same route as the N25, N30 and N46 buses and use Anzac St and Fred Thomas Dr to access the station. Buses usually only take 3-4 minutes to make this trip and would be more reliable with bus lanes on Anzac St. An alternative would be to keep the N4 buses on Esmonde but divert them into Akoranga. The problem with this is that Esmonde Rd is often congested and so getting a bus to turn right could add unacceptable delays.
In my view, AT need to find a way of addressing this. Takapuna is a popular destination and buses are often very busy but how many people don’t bother trying to use PT to get there because it’s just too hard? Perhaps AT want to leave it that way to help fill up the giant carpark they’ve demanded. This is only anecdotal evidence but prior to the CRL works when Takapuna buses used to travel along Albert St, I would often see numerous regulars transferring between buses and trains. Now I seem to be the only one.
Pad the seats, not the timetables
The final stage of my journey involved a trip home on the train. I arrived at Britomart at just before the 6:40 was due to leave. However, for whatever reason it was delayed and didn’t depart till 6:46 (I was checking my phone). The train was busy, full with people going home or to Eden Park to watch the rugby. For the journey home I was engrossed in my phone so wasn’t keeping a track of things so didn’t notice the journey till I was about to get off.
I travelled to Sturges Rd station and the timetable tells me the train should have departed at 6:40 and arrived 47 minutes later at 7:27. Yet, despite leaving 6 minutes late, the train arrived at 7:30. So, even though the train had a large crowd on board, which usually delays things, the train made up at least 3 minutes on journey. I have no idea what happened to achieve that faster time. Was it a faster turnaround at Newmarket, faster dwells at stations, or was the driver just able to travel faster because he wasn’t being held back by a slow timetable.
Whatever the reason/s, why can’t AT achieve those sorts of travel time improvements for regular services? We know AT will often pad timetables to make punctuality look better and to build in some recovery time so following services are less likely to be affected by small delays but is that really the best option? A three minute saving, plus perhaps another minute if AT can get things like doors working faster, would go a long way the concerns we’ve had about the speed of our trains. It will be interesting to see just how much faster the new timetable due in August is.
Ultimately, the question is would you rather see trains running as fast as possible but having lower punctuality, so more chance of a train being “delayed”, or would you prefer trains that are always slower but stick to the timetable. Personally, I’d prefer the former, and then work on fixing whatever was causing some trains not to achieve those times.