Over the last 10-15 years Auckland had seen spectacular growth in the use of public transport – although coming off a low base. The growth came off the back of improvements to infrastructure, such as the upgraded rail network and Northern Busway, and improvements to services, such as the new bus network as well as integrated ticketing and fares.
The last of those major changes occurred in 2018 with the roll out of the bus network to the central isthmus and North Shore areas. While none of these were necessarily easy to achieve, the growth they enabled and encouraged has exceeded expectations and I feel that allowed Auckland Transport to get lazy as they sat back watching the numbers tick up. Why push to make even more changes to the user experience if you don’t have to?
They have instead been preoccupied with big infrastructure projects such as the Puhinui Interchange, Eastern Busway and City Rail Link as the solution to growth. This is not to say they’re bad projects by any means, they’re very much needed, but it has meant the user experience on other parts of the network has been stuck in a bit of a time warp. Many of the less tangible things that frustrated people and put existing or potential users off using PT a decade ago still exist.
This is even more confounding when you consider that AT has a division dedicated to ‘Customer Experience’ with the leader of that reporting directly to the CEO. They have produced a few good things, such as the ongoing improvements to the mobile app, but in general you have to wonder what they do all day – focus on gimmicks like subsidised taxis I guess.
As a result of all of this, the rate of growth on PT was slowing even before COVID-19 hit and AT’s preference of just throwing more peak hours buses at the problem felt like it was hitting the limits of financial and spatial constraints. It was increasingly difficult to see where the next 50 or 100 million annual trips were going to come from. But we’re going to need multiple times that kind of growth in a relatively short space of time if we’re going to make an impact on issues such as congestion and climate change.
So perhaps one silver lining from Covid could be if AT were to use the opportunity to overhaul their service offering, aiming to make it something that you don’t just use because parking is expensive or because you don’t want to sit in traffic but use because it’s easy and convenient. This could help not only help in making the experience better for existing users but set up a whole new wave of growth that could help push usage levels back up as well as setting up the system to be able to handle that better.
The big infrastructure projects will contribute to improving that experience and I’ve written before about the need to turn up the dial on all day/week frequency. But in this post I thought I’d look at the often really little stuff, the stuff that should go almost unnoticed but can play a big part in the user experience. These are in no particular order.
Access to stations
AT need a programme of work to vastly improve the levels of access to train/busway stations and even local bus stops. So much could be achieved if we made it easy to walk and cycle to your local stop. This includes, but is not limited to, things like pedestrian crossings and ensuring safe walking and cycling to stations and that there is ample space to park bikes.
Advertise the network
Since the new network, PT routes have been designed to work as a single network but you’d never know it from AT’s website or collateral. Trains, buses and ferries are all treated completely independently of each other. For example, if you’re on the Northern Busway there’s no mention that the NX1 connects to trains at Britomart.
When AT do try to do marketing it’s often very localised and/or route specific or are so generic to be pointless. AT’s Go Metro campaign is a classic example of the latter and even if you go to the website link, it just tells you to then go to another page to use the journey planner.
One of the best things for advertising the network would be to just show the network. The map below showing just the rapid and frequent networks was developed as part of the new network project but why is an up to date version not used? It should be at every train and busway station and every bus stop on a frequent route at least, not to mention all over AT’s website.
As Roger suggested in his post last week, why not come up with some specific branding for this or even just the rapid transit portion. Instead we get this which is only on the trains and makes the busway feel tacked on and not really part of the network.
Wayfinding between the RTN
Seamless transfers aren’t always possible and one place that’s most evident is between Britomart and the NX1. How about AT do something like paint a line on the ground to guide people. Follow the yellow brick road, or something like that.
At some train stations AT have put these sparse route maps showing the upcoming stations. These are quite common overseas but AT’s design leaves a lot to be desired, for example to me these are normally presented bottom to top, with the upcoming stations above the one you’re at.
Last year, Sam – who wrote yesterday’s post, took a crack at redesigning them and there’s a night and day difference between them – and not just because of the choice of background.
- It fixes the issue I mention above.
- The rail line connections are easier to understand instead of a line of text
- It also includes some of the frequent bus connections which also adds to discoverability of the network.
- It includes the scheduled time to reach upcoming stops
- You can see the entire line, with it clear which part is ahead of you (in case you’re on the wrong platform).
AT launched their Metro brand in 2014 and that has subsequently been rolled out to buses and trains across the region, but bizarrely not everywhere with a number train stations still sporting the old MAXX branding. I might understand a few lessor used bus stops not having been updated but the rail network and busway are meant to ATs flagship services. You’d think at least they would get updated.
At a handful of stations AT have installed some newer, more readable displays but most train and bus stations still have the old dot matrix displays that can be difficult to read, even relatively closely. AT need to roll better displays out around the network.
More Displays on platforms
Most train station platforms are about 150m long, just long enough to fit a six car train on. Yet they will normally only have a single electronic display that even with good eyesight is nearly impossible to read from parts of the platform. You also don’t always have a hand free to be able check the AT mobile app for something that should be abundantly provided at stations.
So, how about another couple of displays scattered along the platform?
Displays from the street
Many train stations have a large plinth advertising the station at one or more entrances, normally near a main road. An example is below from my local station – which as per above still remains in the old MAXX branding. Why not have a display in with say “Next train to the City” and just a large number showing how many minutes away it is. The idea is that if you’re approaching the station and a train is close you can speed up to ensure you make it.
HOP Cards in Vending Machines
In most cities you can buy the equivalent of a HOP card at a train station, but not Auckland. I don’t know why Auckland Transport cheaped out and bought top-up machines that couldn’t dispense cards too but they did. But here is one really simple solution – make use of the vending machines.
A few years back AT installed vending machines at most train stations a way to get a little extra revenue. How successful they are I have no idea but they’re I do know they’re stocked with multiple versions of the same product e.g. my local station has multiple rows of the same brand/size bottled water. Why not take a couple of slots and convert these to storing some pre-loaded HOP cards?
Specialist child cards
We have special HOP cards for Supergold so why can’t we get the same thing for children? It could be a unique design to make it stand out and come pre-loaded with a child discount. They’ve even kind of done it already once before as part of their Te Ara Haepapa schools programme, which involves 9 schools with 900 students, where they gave the schools free and uniquely designed HOP cards pre-loaded with a child concession.
More HOP machines
You arrive at a train station and need to top up your HOP card, only there’s a line of others needing to do the same thing and the train will be at the station soon. What do you do? More than once I’ve seen people miss trains because of this and if you’re on the receiving end it must be awful. AT seem to have deliberately put fewer machines than they should have in a bid to push people to online and automated top ups but in my view it has just let to poor customer experiences. They need to put more top-up machines at train stations. It seems to me there should be at least two on island platforms or on the peak direction platform.
It would also be good if they could be at the entrances to stations and not in the middle of them.
More HOP tag posts
One of my big bugbears is that AT try to scrimp by only have one HOP tag post at each entrance to most platforms. Having to queue up for a minute or two just to tag off when a lot of people get off the train in the evening is infuriating. Even worse, just last week I saw someone miss a train because the tag post was surrounded by people waiting to tag off so the person arriving to catch the train couldn’t tag on and therefore had to wait another 10 minutes for a service.
Below is just one example from the Gold Coast Light Rail system. This is at the end of the Line at Helensvale and features six tag posts. Other stations have them scattered all along the platform so there’s often one close by you can use.
AT need a programme of increasing the number of tag posts at stations. They should have a minimum of two per station entrance, if not more at bus stations.
HOP tag posts by top-up machines
Topping up a HOP card using a machine on a station platform is needlessly customer hostile. Putting aside the issues with the machines themselves, you first have to walk to the middle of the platform to get to the machine – which could be 70m away from the station entrance. Then, after topping up you need to tag on, only those tag posts are back at the entrance to the platform so you have to walk back there to tag on – then possibly back to about the location machine again depending on which carriage you might want to get on.
This is needlessly convoluted and if you’re running late you could be trying to do this as the train is approaching the station.
Putting aside the more machines issue above, much of this issue could be solved simply by putting a tag post next to the top up machine.
HOP machines with different station orders
Admittedly It’s been a while since I looked these but from memory if buying a paper ticket the HOP machine displays a list of stations in alphabetical order rather than something more coherent like the line map above based on upcoming stations.
This is important as often those buying paper tickets are the irregular users – who are also the ones we want to be showing that PT is easy and convenient to use.
HOP machines with more intuitive layouts
As per above, it’s not just the order of the stations that could do with a tweak but the overall layout. Even as a regular user I’ve found I have to concentrate harder than I should have to have to work it all out.
Prepaid top up codes/bundles
Go to a supermarket and you’ll often see a rack with a variety of prepaid cards for purchase. Why can’t AT do the same with HOP, which among other things would then enable people to more easily buy travel for others.
Better disruption communication
Street disruption sometimes happens and when it does buses will need to change routes. Yet AT’s communication of these changes is archaic. In this example there is one but often there’s nothing but a table that looks like this. Have they not heard of maps?
Special event HOP cards
Like with child HOP cards, AT should be cranking out designs every few months to celebrate special events.
Better Bus stops
You may recall five years ago AT were looking at options for new bus stop designs. The winning design is now being rolled out around the region but crucially one is missing, the neighbourhood interchange idea, which is meant to be in places where frequent routes intersect. They said at the time up to 20 neighbourhood interchanges will be needed and AT want to ensure that they “are impressive from both a form and functionality perspective”
I don’t think one has been installed and transfers between services is often still far less than ideal.
There are plenty more ideas out there and this post is already too long so chuck them in the comments and let’s create a list.