I also confess I still don’t get the point of the busway bridge across the motorway north of Albany which will result in buses doubling back. This will be particularly odd if we do put in that light rail conversion – are we going to have another Newmarket Western Line situation with train drivers changing ends?
Unexpectedly, on Monday the NZTA provided me this response.
The construction of the Northern Busway between Constellation and Albany is already underway as part of the Northern Corridor Improvements project. The Albany Bus Bridge has one lane in each direction for buses to enter and exit the station. The busway route has been designed to allow light rail options and for the future extension of the system to Silverdale. This includes future proofing the busway between McClymonts Road Bridge and Albany Bus Bridge on the eastern side, to accommodate platforms for light rail. Therefore it wouldn’t be necessary for light rail to utilise the Albany Bus Bridge to access the station, as there would likely be other platforms available along the route. All of this would need to be developed as part of the light rail project scope in the future.
For clarification, here’s what’s currently under construction. The busway travels up the eastern side of the motorway and under McClymonts Rd and past the existing busway station but then doubles back over the new bridge. Like they do now, buses heading further north need to pass through the Oteha Valley Rd interchange. In the future the busway could potentially be extended further north and/or as suggested, be converted to light rail. In that latter situation, the comments above suggest the platforms would be added on the eastern side, presumably somewhere around where the blue marker is (the location of a gantry sign).
I can’t help but thinking there’s a good level of strategic folly at play here. A case of public transport infrastructure being designed without thought as to how services do and should operate. Here’s why:
One reason I’ve seen suggested as to why a station would be better on the eastern side of the motorway is that it puts the station closer to more houses and therefore is easier for a lot more locals to access. Now that is a good thing but it also ignores what is happening on the western side.
Albany right now has a lot of empty paddocks but that is rapidly changing with a large amount of residential and commercial development underway and proposed. There are thousands of apartments already proposed or under construction near the busway station and more will come in the future. The number of people in those apartments will eventually dwarf those living in the houses on the eastern side of the motorway.
The best indication of the scale of this comes from Stats NZ population predictions – although these are still based on the old area units and 2013 census data.
Nonetheless, if we compare Albany with those area units immediately to the west we get these population projections out to 2043 based on the medium growth scenario. On the high-growth the eastern sides do grow a little bit more but it sees Albany reach 25.5k people.
Of course we also need to think about employment catchment as we want public transport to be useful for people getting to Albany to work just as much as we want it to be about people commuting to the city. Unsurprisingly on this metric Albany again scores highly. This uses the newer Statistical Area Unit 2 which splits Albany off from Albany from Albany heights and splits Northcross into Oteha East and West. We also don’t have projections for employment only the data from 2000 to 2019 however we know there’s a lot more growth coming, such as the Council’s recent decision to move hundreds of staff to a new building there.
So whether it be for population or employment, the closer the station is to the Albany town centre the better. The same obviously also applies to retail too.
So with that clear, let’s have a look at a quick catchment analysis of the two sites. These two maps show an approximate 800m walking catchment but show that while the stations may be only about 100m apart, they’re much more than that in real terms.
If the light rail proposal did go ahead, a bridge across the motorway would be essential to reduce as much severance as possible but still wouldn’t be as good as having the station closer to the town centre. In fact, given the catchment it opens up we should probably do it anyway.
It is obviously too early for the NZTA or AT to be making decisions about where buses will run in future but in the scenario where the busway is upgrade to light rail, how local buses integrate with the station will be crucial. Does it mean we need a new busway station or will people be required to walk between the two stations (that bridge mentioned above would be essential). But even if a bridge was built, that’s not the greatest user experience compared to the current situation of being able to walk across the platform.
RTN extension to Silverdale
The NZTA also cite the potential future extension of rapid transit to Silverdale as a justification. However, their own process as part of the Supporting Growth work identifies the busway as separating from the motorway and heading west through Dairy Flat to serve future communities there. So at some point the rapid transit line is going to have to cross the motorway regardless.
So what should they have done?
One of the things I thought at the time the extension was being planned, and even more so having recently seen the scale of the busway extension with structures already above the motorway in many places, is that the NZTA should have taken the opportunity to shift the busway to the western side of the motorway at around Greville Rd.
This was actually one of the options initially considered back in 2012 when the high-level scheme for getting the busway from Constellation to Albany and then to Silverdale was assessed. Interestingly, the idea of crossing the motorway performed better in the analysis than staying on the eastern side but was rejected in part because it was considered about $5 million (2%) more expensive and because the eastern side “provides the greatest flexibility for future State Highway improvement projects“. In other words the public transport outcome was compromised to make future motorway changes easier. At the time there also wasn’t all of the growth now proposed at Dairy Flat.
As well as better access to the Albany station, the other thing that’s notable from those walking catchments above is that the existing station being at the Northeast of Albany doesn’t do a good job of serving the south and west of Albany, such as the stadium, Massey University and the growing numbers of commercial buildings such as around Corinthian Dr. A western alignment could also have allowed for a second new station closer to these areas which would have further increased the coverage and usability of the busway.
A more radical change could have seen the busway diverted further west to allow an even better placed station – although would have likely required more compromises on grade separation, like exists in the city and would likely be a little slower for passengers north of there compared to the alternatives.
It’s obviously far too late to change the design now given the project is well under construction but when it is something I think we’re going to have to think about more when it comes time to convert the busway to light rail and means a more expensive option is likely going to be required. I’m also sure we will be able to come up with some creative solutions for reuse of the segment that would end up stranded on the eastern side.