This is a guest post from reader Roger Wilson.
I want a proper strategic level PT network for Auckland. As a regular region-wide PT user, the lack of a strategic network is the biggest single impediment to getting about efficiently. We already, sort of, have one, but there’s precious little “net” in our network. Every single line is focused on bringing people into the central city. Which is great as far as it goes, but the missing ingredient is connectivity:
All is not lost, though. The Auckland Transport Alignment Programme (ATAP) outlines a future Rapid Transit Network (RTN) which won’t be half bad. If it is built. The problem is that much of it is ten years (or more) away while argument rages about mode and who will pay for what. I don’t want to wait ten years plus for a proper strategic network. I want progress now and completion by the time the CRL opens. And perversely, Covid-19 may provide the opportunity.
One Covid-19 impact is the likely reduction in peak-hour PT travel into the central city. Although the extent of the reduction isn’t yet clear, some major businesses now have staff working from home as a matter of course, assisted by video conferencing. Some major bus routes could probably operate with fewer peak hour services – moving from every two-three minutes to every three-four minutes will be completely unnoticed by most. Peak services are economically challenging, given many buses operate only one or two services morning and evening. “Liberated” bus resources could be reallocated to all day RTN routes.
Another Covid impact is the huge amount of borrowing by government, which will limit its options for funding RTN mega-projects in future years. Few RTN routes qualify as “shovel-ready” for immediate investment, so let’s not hold our breath awaiting Covid-recovery funding to advance heavy or light rail. It is possible, however, that funding could be available for interim interchanges, for example, on the north-western line. Like central government, Auckland Council will also rein in spending – the proposed emergency budget illustrates this. Mega-projects on the scale needed to deliver the ATAP RTN will not be front of mind. Inevitably, most Auckland public transport improvements over the next few years will be necessarily bus-based.
Debate on a strategic network tends to focus on individual lines – should they be heavy rail, light metro, light rail, bus or even tram-bus? As a PT user, I really don’t care. The most important factors are priority, speed, limited stops, frequency – and genuine connectivity across the region. The network is already planned; a Covid-19 “reset” could bring it forward:
The RPTP 2018 outlines the timeline for the development of the PT network in detail. It’s actually quite impressive in adding new bus routes, expanding others from “Connector” status to “Frequent” and filling in gaps, though there’s room to quibble over details.
With a combination of resources culled from the peak-of-peak operation and resources already earmarked for new routes, what could be achieved in the short term?
Three initiatives which contribute to the RTN are identified in the RPTP for 2021. First, a new route opens from New Lynn to the Airport, though not yet to RTN frequencies. Second, Route 110 (Westgate via the NW Motorway) will become “frequent”. Auckland Transport is already considering constructing a Westgate interchange and an interim Te Atatu interchange (see https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2020/01/13/proposed-staging-for-the-nw-rtn/). With a small amount of additional resource, the route could be extended to Brigham Creek and Kumeu. And third, the Airport-Manukau link should be completed.
All these routes could be designated “strategic” lines by a combination of (a) making them limited stop (the Airport-Manukau link will be and much of the 110 already is) and (b) implementing 24/7 bus lanes and signal pre-emption/priority. Creative thinking around interchanges would be needed, and it’s not a full “rapid” transit solution, but it’s a good stopgap to serve public needs. I don’t want to wait a decade for something gold-plated.
Adding these lines puts more “net” into the network, especially for users in the city’s inner south. With a minor reallocation of resources this could be Auckland’s strategic network next year:
When the first stage of the Eastern Busway opens, the all of the planned Ellerslie-Botany-Manukau corridor could be included in the “strategic” network, given 24/7 bus lanes and signal pre-emption and priority. Peak hour buses made redundant by Covid could provide the operational resources required. Connectivity is further significantly enhanced in this 2022 network, and a route map could look like this:
The next landmark is the opening of the CRL in 2024, changing rail routings through the central city. Three more RTN routes are also foreshadowed and will contribute to the overall network:
First, the Dominion Road to Airport route. Light metro or whatever, some form of enhanced service is needed to serve the airport and poorly connected areas south of the Manukau Harbour, and for increased capacity on Dominion Road itself. It would have to be operated by bus (with all the attendant bus congestion) if implemented in 2024.
As an aside, Covid must surely be badly hurting Skybus, and the time may be ripe for Skybus to be included under the PTOM umbrella. Skybus could possibly be subsumed into an interim limited-stop Dominion Road and Airport line.
The second enhancement is the Henderson-Westgate-Constellation route, which moves to frequent services once the Northwest line is constructed. And the third is the conversion of Route 866 (Albany-Newmarket) to become the “frequent” NX3. This is planned for around 2028, but it would enhance network connectivity if brought forward. These three routes, plus the Devonport ferry (already proposed for the strategic network), the CRL, the post-Penlink plan to extend the NX2 to a Whangaparaoa Station (though possibly not by 2024), and a spur to Takapuna, almost complete the RPTP network, with great connectivity:
Note that ALL of these enhancements are already foreshadowed; it’s simply a question of timing and mode, and applying bus priority measures which are mostly already in the RPTP.
Consistent branding is required for the strategic, bus train and ferry network – the acronym “RTN” just doesn’t cut it. How about AT Rapid, AT MetroExpress or AT Transurban as possibilities? The branding and the route map should be mercilessly promoted and become part of Aucklanders’ daily language.
How to identify individual lines – should they be named, numbered, or given a letter? I favour letters to distinguish them from the rest of the network, like the “W” notation which already appears on some Western Line signage. I like the idea of each line also being named. Line U, for example, could be the Upper Harbour Line. But whatever the nomenclature, it should be simple and easily understood by all.
We can’t allow a “good” strategic network to become the enemy of the “best”, given the “best” won’t happen for many years. None of this precludes future upgrades to rail, light metro, light rail or tram-bus. The key question is whether it is better to have a fully connected strategic network soon or effectively have none at all for the foreseeable future?
The onus rests with Auckland Council and central government to get this moving. Each year AC outlines its expectations of AT in its Letter of Expectation (LOE). AT’s Statement of Intent (SOI) documents how it will implement the LOE. It’s too late for the 2020-21 financial year, but the process starts again in early 2021 for the 2021-22 year. So how about it, Councillors? Bang for buck and all that?