With the large transformative PT infrastructure projects, such as the City Rail Link and Light Rail, many years away, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of improving buses as a way for Auckland Transport to continue to deliver strong growth on the network. This has focused on improving frequency and reliability. In this post I’m going to look at how particularly fixing the latter can also make our buses faster.
Getting our buses to run faster has two main benefits
- It makes buses more attractive and more competitive with other modes. This means more people will use them.
- It can enable more efficient, allowing the same number of buses and drivers to make more runs, thereby increasing frequency and capacity. Alternatively, the same timetable may be able be to be run using fewer buses, thereby saving money.
Perhaps the main tool to achieving faster buses is the same one that will also improve reliability, AT’s Connected Communities programme (formerly the Integrated Corridor Programme). Although as I said in the reliability post, I’m concerned at ATs record of delivery on stuff like this. On this programme AT say:
As part of this RPTP, AT is also looking to apply some of the advantages of the RTN to the Frequent Transport Network through the Integrated Corridor Programme. This Programme will seek to extend bus-priority for the full length of key FTN routes, improving average speed and reliability and reducing operating costs.
Auckland has constrained arterial corridors and there will be trade-offs to be made around competing uses including general traffic lanes, cycle lanes, parking and median strips. AT will design and deliver whole-of-route bus priority on the FTN where:
- current and planned services experience inconsistent travel times due to congestion
- where travel-time savings and patronage levels justify the cost of delivery
- where capacity exists, or new services are planned that can leverage priority infrastructure to deliver patronage growth
- if reallocation of road space is required, where expected patronage gains are sufficient to ensure that bus priority implementation will increase overall people throughput along the corridor.
How fast are our services?
To start with I thought it would be useful to see just how fast our buses were.
If you’ve looked at a timetable in any depth you might also notice that routes tend to run faster off-peak than they do during the peak. This is because off-peak there is less congestion on the roads and there are generally fewer passengers, speeding up dwell times.
Theoretically, by providing that whole-of-route priority it should mean that buses at peak times can get closer to at least matching off-peak times. So I thought I would compare the two.
Using AT’s transit feed information I calculated how long each trip took and the distance of the route. There are a lot of services so for the purposes of this post I’ve only compared the ones that run regularly all day, the frequent and connector services. As route lengths and times can vary significantly, to better compare them I then looked at how the average speed of these services in the morning peak and compared that to the how long they take in the middle of the day.
The results quickly showed some notable trends, particularly related to services that go to/near the city centre so in the chart below I’ve split them out from the other services. I’ve also included the trains for comparison.
Some of the things that stand out to me are:
- The slowest (scheduled) bus route is the City Link, traveling at a zippy 8km/h – this will be unsurprising to many who will have found they can walk up Queen St faster than those buses.
- Most of the green routes are very slow with the exception of a few faster ones, which are generally services from the Shore or Northwest that use the motorways for a portion of their journey. It is particularity notable that many of the isthmus corridors are amongst the slowest, averaging just 13.5km/h at peak times. These tend to be the routes that have some existing bus priority so it is scary to think how much slower they would be without it. The fact that city routes are slower would be further reinforced if I were to include peak only shorter running services, like the 22A, 24W or 27T as the average speed on all of these routes (and other similar ones) was slower than the longer all-day routes.
- For those routes that don’t go to the city centre, average speeds at peak times are nearly 50% faster at just under 20km/h.
- Off-peak speeds are around 3.6km/h faster. This may not seem like much but as the next chart which just looks at the difference in peak vs off-peak speeds shows, this represents an average speed increase of about 18%. For many routes, this means a travel time saving of 10 minutes or more. That kind of saving could be significant and in some cases, may be enough to allow frequencies to increase without costing AT any extra.
On top of just giving buses whole-of-route priority, there are also a couple of other things we should consider doing to speed up buses.
Improving dwell times
A couple of tools that we should look to adopt have helped speed up buses that have been successful in other cities
Off-board fare payments.
Now over 90% of all bus trips are made using HOP. On these frequent corridors, for anyone needing a paper ticket we should require one is purchased prior to the bus arrives which will help speed things up. For the Northern Busway we should aim to go a step further and like we would a train station, with people tagging on at the platform instead of on the bus.
Allow all door boarding
Allowing people to board buses using all doors can have a significant impact. For example similar measures introduced on some San Francisco buses saw a 2% improvement in travel times. This kind of change would be helped by the fact that over 90% of buses users now do so using a HOP card so they can easily tag on to the reader at the rear door.
Wider Stop Spacing
One of the things that stood out to me in the graphic I created recently to show the walking catchment of light rail on Dominion Rd was just how close some bus stops are. In many places, bus stops are barely a few hundred metres apart and that frequent stopping can be a big source of slowness.
Fewer stops means buses can should be able to travel at higher speeds for longer thereby be faster. The trade-off is that some people will have to walk further to get to a bus stop. An example of this is shown below for Sandringham Rd where in the 3.8km between Stoddard Rd and Kingsland Station there are currently 14 stops, giving an average distance between them of just 271m. If we instead reduced the number of stops to 9 it would see the average distance increase to about 420m. The red represents a 400m walking distance to the current bus stops while the blue a 400m walk from some potential stops.
There are definitely some areas that won’t have as much coverage based on these station locations but how much faster does it make buses?
Using the speed information above I’ve pulled together this chart to compare the average speed of buses and the average distance between stops. I’ve the same breakdowns from above for consistency and plotted them as separate series. What this shows is that there is some benefit from having longer stop spacing, potentially by up to 1-2km/h overall. Although this may be included in the peak/off-peak comparison as buses won’t be stopping as much to pick up passengers.
Either way, fewer stops served by more frequent and faster services seems like a good trade-off to me. Stop spacing is definitely something that the Connected Communities work should be looking at although I’d note that anyone who thinks it is easy to move a bus stop has not tried moving a bus stop.