Yesterday Auckland Transport rolled out the new bus network on the North Shore, the final major implementation of their New Network project which began (publicly at least) back in 2012. It has seen the bus network for the entire region redesigned based around principles of frequency, connectivity and simplicity. But it’s not just changing lines on a map. It’s involved contracting every route, the introduction of new providers and updated requirements have seen a significant proportion of the bus fleet replaced with new buses, sporting a unified livery. Separately but integral to the revamp of PT in Auckland has been the introduction of HOP and integrated fares as well as improvements to the rail network.
While not everything has been perfect, what ever is, I think it’s easy to underestimate what AT have achieved. For the most part the implementation has gone smoothly, something that only really becomes appreciable when we compare it the challenges Wellington is having.
AT should take pride in reaching this milestone, but they also can’t rest on their laurels if they’re to meet the council and governments goals of giving Aucklanders true transport choice. Here are some things we think AT should be considering to make to the PT network even better. Implementing some of these should also be a bit easier with the government significantly increasing the levels of funding available for PT.
The core of the new network are the frequent routes that run at a minimum every 15 minutes 7am to 7pm, 7 days a week. Even before yesterday’s roll out, frequent services accounted for just under 50% of all boardings, up from about 38% before the new network started rolling out. IF we include the three main rail lines, there are now 31 frequent and rapid transit routes. The structure of services is described below.
AT say that before the New Network, 215,500 Aucklanders lived within 500 metres of a frequent or rapid network route stop and that now 527,600 people do, an impressive 145% increase. But with about 1.57 million living within Auckland’s urban area, it’s only a third of the population. We need more frequent routes so that a greater proportion of residents have access to frequent public transport. The image below shows how many more frequent routes there now are, but uses different population change numbers.
The great thing about the new network is that the basic network structure for the future is now in place. While there will always be changes, especially as big infrastructure projects come on stream, for the most part AT will simply need to up the frequency of existing non-frequent routes. Many of the connector routes, which have a minimum frequency of half-hourly, already run every 15 minutes or higher on weekdays during the peaks and so to increase them to frequent status would require only improving off-peak and weekend frequencies. This map isn’t up to date but many of the dotted lines would be the first candidates to upgrade to frequent status.
More Frequent Frequents
What’s better than a bus every 15 minutes, a bus every 10. Frequency is consistently cited as the most important improvement Aucklanders would like to see, and by some margin. Frequency becomes even more important when transfers are involved.
Moving from a service every 15 minutes to one every 10 might not seem like a big difference on paper but it does on the ground for users. For example, I still recall when the peak frequencies on the rail network improved from every 15 to every 10. I used to time my departure to ensure I got to the train on time and would often end up running to ensure I didn’t miss it. Now I find it much less stressful as a 10 minute wait doesn’t seem anywhere near as bad. Perhaps one way to think about it is that 10 might only be 33% better than 15 but 15 is 50% worse than 10.
We’d like to see AT working towards improving the frequency of the frequent services with a goal of making them all every 10 minutes at minimum, especially the rapid network. The trade off to this is that it makes it that much harder to upgrade services that are not currently frequent to a frequent status.
While on the topic of frequency, the rail network is meant to be the core of the PT network but even with the latest timetable only runs every 20 minutes off peak, lower than some of the services connecting to it. AT need to sort this asap.
Longer span of hours
Similar to the issue of frequency, we’d like to see the minimum frequent operating ours lengthened. These days the city doesn’t shut down at 5pm and our PT network needs to reflect that. Like with the other issues, this is something that AT could look to incrementally improve, for example, extending services to 8pm, then 9pm etc, same towards earlier in the morning too.
Notably some services already well exceed this with 13 of those 31 frequent routes running frequently until midnight.
Market the hell out of it
AT have done some localised marketing of the new network but it has always felt constrained because other parts of the network were waiting to be rolled out. Now that the network is done and easier to understand, AT need to market it as a full network. Pushing an accurate version of the map above would be good start.
Keep improving the routes
The new network is a big improvement but it isn’t perfect. While much of it can be improved through some of the ideas above, AT need to work to improve some parts of the network. One notable example of this is the Outer Link which doesn’t adhere to the core principles of the new network with its crazy diversion to Valley Rd and Mt Eden shops which makes it slow and unattractive for cross town travellers.
There will also need to be network restructures as some of the big infrastructure pieces are delivered. One of the first will be the new Northern Busway station at Rosedale which is currently only served by an infrequent bus on weekdays.
The network in the west was particularly compromised by the lack of supporting infrastructure such as transfer stations along the SH16 corridor meaning a number of lower frequency routes have had to run all the way to the city. Whatever happens with the light rail investigations, our transport agencies need to look at how they can deliver some quick wins at Lincoln and Te Atatu roads to enable this.
- City Rail Link
- Light Rail on the isthmus and to the North-West.
- Eastern Busway
- Airport to Puhinui and eventually Botany busway.
There will also need to be new or extensions to services to support the greenfield growth happening in the North, Northwest and South.
ATs requirements have seen many of the bus companies significantly upgrade their fleets which has been great for users. At the same time it feels like a bit of a lost opportunity to be even better, especially in relation to electric buses. Mayor Phil Goff has already committed Auckland to procure only zero-emission buses from 2025 and having the city centre emissions free by 2030. The new e-buses that AT are trialling already show a glimpse of how much nicer and quieter our streets would be without diesel buses. Bus heavy streets such as Fanshawe, Symonds and Wellesley will be notably improved by e-buses. But if we’re to meet the mayor’s pledge, we’ll need to start seeing more in service to support them.
Auckland has also moved strongly towards larger buses, in the form of double deckers, to improve capacity. I think they’ve also helped build the attractiveness of PT – there’s nothing quite brings out the inner child excitement about catching a bus like getting the front row seat. But the one downside to double deckers is they do take an awfully long time to unload. I recently timed one arriving at Albert St in the city in the morning and it took almost 1.5 minutes for all passengers to disembark.
That’s not a major issue on long distance routes but on busy routes with lots of intermediate destinations, such as Dominion Rd, that’s not ideal. For some routes, AT and the bus companies need to look at articulated buses with three or even four doors to help speed up dwell times.
Make buses faster
Auckland’s buses can be painfully slow, even when bus lanes exist. AT need to work to speed buses up which will help make buses both more attractive to users and potentially makes it easier to improve frequencies. Some of this will require infrastructure, and AT have a goal of rolling out bus priority measures to all frequent routes, but other measures can help too. These could include changes such as off-board fare payment all door boarding.
So, well done to AT on the roll out of the new network but keep the foot on the pedal to keep improving the service.