This has been a long time coming, as the new network has been in the works since 2012. But now we have reached this milestone, it does beg the question “what next?”
I think having made this big change, the key next step is to really make the most from the new network – through a combination of improvements:
- Bring rail into being a true part of the frequent PT network. Incredibly the rail system, despite being identified as a critical part of the frequent network, is not yet part of it as it still operates at pathetically low frequencies off peak and (especially) at weekends. While the upcoming timetable change will make some improvement, more is needed for it to meet ATs definition of a service at least every 15 minutes 7am-7pm, 7 days a week.
- Expand the frequent network by making some services that currently operate every half hour more frequent, so they meet the “15 minute” standard.
- Increase the standard of a frequent service to be every 10 minutes (proper turn up and go) instead of every 15 minutes.
These changes will require more investment in PT operations. While the Government has made good noises about increasing PT funding, operational funding for public transport services will always be tight. The trick is to look at all the different variables that go into making each dollar stretch the furthest.
Alon Levy has a good recent post that digs into some of the simple maths that sit behind operational costs, including the different levers that can be pulled to make a difference. In a nutshell it is quite a simple story:
Daily service hours * average speed per hour = daily frequencies * network length
Alon runs through a series of calculations as part of a project he’s undertaking to see how the bus network in Brooklyn, New York can be improved. But these all build off the formula above, which can be applied in most places (especially to buses where costs are most variable). To get your head around this, let’s work through it bit by bit:
- Think of “daily service hours” as the amount of money being invested into PT operations. This buys a certain number of hours each bus is used for, multiplied by the number of buses you run.
- Once that’s multiplied by the speed vehicles travel at, you have the total amount of service kilometres being delivered.
- Now looking across the other side of the equation, the total amount of service kilometres being delivered can be split in two different ways. You can either run really high frequencies across relatively few or relatively short routes, or you can run lower frequencies across a longer and larger network. The more you do of one, the less you can do of the other.
The new network really looked at the right-hand side of this equation. Things like how many routes there should be, what frequencies should each route run at, how might we find an optimal balance between frequency and network length? If we then take “daily service hours” as relatively unlikely to dramatically change, this leaves “average speed per hour” as the main tool for getting much more out of our bus network.
A good way of thinking about this is to imagine a single route – let’s say one that’s 10 kilometres long so the maths is easy. If the buses on this route average 20 kph then they will take half an hour to travel end to end, or an hour to do a ’round trip’. You would need 4-5 buses to operate a service every 15 minutes on this route. Increasing or decreasing the speed of the service will increase or decrease the number of buses you need to maintain the same frequency – and therefore drive up or down cost. Furthermore, a faster service will be more attractive to passengers and likely mean that fares cover a greater proportion of operating costs (after all, busy buses make money, it’s really only the empty buses that require a subsidy).
So, if we want more frequent services or to expand the frequent network, we must make the buses go faster. Fortunately it seems like Auckland Transport have a plan for this:
Auckland Transport is preparing to speed-up many suburban bus trips, in a bid to boost patronage while major long-term projects continue.
Some of the changes along key routes won’t be an easy sell to local communities, chief executive Shane Ellison told Stuff.
The agency has lined up 11 main routes where it believes giving buses a better run, even at the expense of general traffic or kerbside parking, could make a big difference…
…”We are looking at where we can improve the bus journey time, the frequency and the consistency of journey times – all those things matter to customers,” said Ellison.
“That could have a huge impact.”
Auckland Transport has yet to release details of the first routes or timings, and met on Monday with industry consultants and firms, to discuss how best to make changes.
Legislation enabling Auckland’s 11.5 cent-a-litre regional fuel tax, lists Sandringham, New North, Mt Eden, Remuera and Manukau roads as five areas to be funded for upgrades.
Five others were earmarked for capital spending for initiatives such as “dynamic lanes”, which switch directions in peak times, on Great North, Blockhouse Bay, Patiki, Redoubt and East Coast Roads.
Progress in expanding Auckland’s bus lanes in recent years has been painfully slow, but these lanes are critical in speeding up the PT network and thereby making it much more efficient to run. They also obviously make PT much more attractive and squeeze much more out of the road network (a busy bus lane can shift many times the number of people as a congested car lane).
We also need to look at other ways of making our buses faster. This includes changes such as:
- Along many routes bus stops are still located far too close together, resulting in unnecessarily frequent stops. While we don’t want people to have to walk too far to get to a bus, sometimes things are just silly.
- The design of buses can help speed up or slow down boarding and alighting. Wide doors and numerous tag posts are critical to ensure people don’t get stuck behind those paying with cash or don’t end up in long queues to tag off.
- Allowing all door boarding, which has been proven in many cities to help get people on to buses faster.
- Considering options for off-bus payment for fares, especially on busy stops
- Looking at articulated buses with three or more doors for some routes. Double Deckers have been critical in increasing capacity as demand has grown but they can be painfully slow to unload at busy stops. Articulated buses can address some of these issues.
- Road rule changes that would give buses “pulling out” the right of way also would speed up services.
- Giving buses priority at more intersections (i.e. the light automatically turns green as the bus approaches) could substantially reduce delays, although this becomes challenging at high frequencies as there will nearly always be a bus approaching the intersection.
What we really need to see from Auckland Transport, once the new network is fully in place, is a relentless focus on all the different ways we can speed up the bus network, make it more efficient and then use those gains to boost frequencies across Auckland.