If Auckland is to deliver the mode shift needed to meet our climate commitments and improve mobility we need to get substantially more people to use public transport. At a high-level this is not a difficult thing. While even ten years ago people might have argued that Aucklanders were somehow different and wouldn’t use PT, experience over that time has shown us that when we provide even moderately decent services that people will flock to use them. We can only imagine what could be achieved if we delivered region-wide, high-quality services.
The good news is that Auckland has some really good plans for improving public transport. These are outlined in documents like ATAP and in the Regional Public Transport Plan. The big problem with these plans is there is often no funding and put simply, they’re going to take too damn long to implement. We’re need to rapidly speed up the delivery of these.
One idea we’re particularly fond of is the idea of using similar plans to what is proposed for the Northwest to rapidly roll out improvements to other parts of the region. This is something we and others have talked about before and was also part of the Green Party transport policy this election. Recently I’ve once again been getting a first-hand look at just how important that could be.
As readers may know, I live out west near the Sturges Rd train station and work on the North Shore at Smales Farm. I commute by bike the equivalent of one day a week and use public transport on the other days. There are two main public transport options for this trip:
- Catch a train to the city and then get an NX1 bus to Smales Farm. There are some variations to this like described in this post.
- To catch the 120 bus via Upper Harbour and then to any of a number of services down the busway to Smales Farm. I wrote about trying it once before.
Typically I would always do option one, despite it being more expensive than option two, a 4-zone fare vs a 3-zone one. The main reason for this was trip reliability – not that the rail network didn’t have issues from time to time.
But during lockdown two we learnt the rail network was in such a poor state that all services would be slowed down to just 40km\h until Kiwirail could replace nearly half of the track on the network. As we emerged from Lockdown two I decided I’d give the 120 option a go again.
The first time trying it again was in the straight after we returned to level one, which happened to be during school holidays. This ended up being particularly useful as it has helped highlight what might be possible,
Before getting into my experiences, it’s useful to reference the timetable. The first issue you may notice is that the service only runs every 30 minutes from Henderson. This is nowhere near frequent enough but for this post let’s focus on the travel times.
I have been catching the bus that departs Henderson at 7:30 and it arrives just outside the Sturges Rd Station where I board from about 5 minutes later. After running through Massey the bus arrives at Westgate at about 7:50 whereby the driver then turns the bus off to wait for 7:55. This is a horror Inner and outer Link users will likely know all too well with the Victoria Park Pause.
At 7:55 we depart again and head down Hobsonville Rd arriving at Hobsonville stop just five minutes later, upon which time the driver once again turns the bus off and we sit waiting for seven minutes.
At 8:07, as per the timetable, we are once again on the move again and after detouring through Greenhithe we make our way to Constellation Station arriving at about 8:26, 11 minutes early. All passengers then proceed to walk across to the busway platforms to jump on the next NX1/NX2.
That’s a total Henderson to Constellation journey time of 56 minutes but it also included stoppage time of 12 minutes. In other words had the timetable been tighter, the journey could have been made in about 44 minutes instead of the scheduled 67 minutes.
I’ve taken a few trips since then but at the other end of the spectrum was my most recent trip. The bus arrived at my stop at 7:35 as it has for most trips and proceeds as normal till just after Massey High School. There it hits congestion that has been getting worse since school holidays ended. This is even captured on Google Streetview, albeit it a bit grainy. The congested patch runs for only about 500m from just south of Red Hills Rd to just north of Triangle Rd.
It’s not a long distance but the bus loses about five minutes of time during this section and arrives at Westgate right on 7:55 so we’re immediately on the go again once other passengers have boarded or alighted.
More traffic means a greater chance of missing light phases and so it then takes us a while to get through and past the Westgate motorway interchange. We travel down Hobsonville Rd and arrive at the Hobsonville stop at 8:07. The timetable is looking accurate at this point and we’re quickly on our way again.
After travelling through Greenhithe we cross over the motorway and my heart sinks as I see the lanes are jammed up with traffic. This is an ominous sign as when riding my bike I know that when this happens, a lot of people try to bypass it by using Upper Harbour Dr and that route quickly backs up. Sure enough that happens and we proceed to crawl the remaining 4.9km along Upper Harbour Dr, Albany Highway and Sunset Rd. The bus finally arrives at Constellation Station at 8:51 for a about an 81 minute journey.
It doesn’t take a transit expert to work out that a bus that only runs every half hour and one day could be somewhat fast and then take twice as long the next day is not going to be attractive. Yet despite this the bus seems to do fairly well for usage, something backed up by AT’s stats which show it busier than numerous frequent routes.
However, I can’t help but wonder just how popular a route like this would be if effort was put into making it reliably fast – either via this route or a more direct one. And that’s where the proto-RTN comes in.
The idea is fairly simple. The government has just recently approved funding to put some interim bus improvements on the Northwestern Motorway including bus stops on the motorway interchanges. What if we could do something similar on SH18 and on the other Rapid Transit routes where we’re otherwise not likely to see progress on a permanent solution for at least a decade or more.
As well as giving us faster journeys, even if the route isn’t up to the full RTN standard set by the Northern busway, such changes would enable AT to start marketing the network as a whole and combined I suspect we would see a lot more people happy to use it.
On top of just the RTN routes, AT really need to get on with their Connected Communities project which is aiming to improve some of our busiest bus corridors.