Auckland has had plenty of mistakes and missed opportunities in its transport history and one of the biggest is also one of the most recent, the failure by Waka Kotahi to build a busway on SH16 at the same time as we were expanding it as part of the Western Ring Route works.
I drew this in 2013. pic.twitter.com/9htLnLnGwq
— Carol Green (@carolgreen) July 27, 2021
It’s still unknown if and when we’ll get a proper rapid transit route but yesterday works officially kicked off to at least make public transport to the Northwest a little bit better.
Work to improve public transport for West Aucklanders and support the region’s economic recovery by creating hundreds of jobs has officially kicked off, Transport Minister Michael Wood announced today.
Michael Wood and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff this morning marked the start of construction on the Northwestern Bus Improvements project. It includes connecting the bus lanes down SH16 between Westgate and Newton Road, new bus stops, crossings and footpaths at Te Atatū and Lincoln Road, and a new bus station at Westgate.
“Not only will the Northwestern Bus Improvements project mean better public transport for West Auckland, it’s going to support the economic recovery and create around 300 jobs,” Michael Wood said.
“It’ll make a real difference for commuters with around 25 minutes shaved off a bus trip from Westgate into the city. When complete, 170,000 more people will able to access the city centre within a 45-minute bus journey.
“By delivering faster and more frequent bus services, we’ll make taking public transport a real option for more people – reducing congestion and emissions.
“The northwest is going to be a major growth area over the next 30 years, with an additional 100,000 people expected to live there. This project is the first step in giving West Auckland the rapid transit it needs to keep it moving,” Michael Wood said.
Construction of most parts of the project will be completed in late 2022, when express bus services will begin. Construction of the Westgate bus station is expected to begin in 2023, with detailed design and consenting starting later this year.
The changes are an improvement to what we have now and it’s good to see them happening but a busway it is not. One thing I worry about is that officials and politicians will say “job done, we don’t have to worry about the Northwest anymore” when really this needs to be just the first stage of the long-term plan for a proper rapid transit route and we need more commitment that those permanent improvements, likely light rail, are still happening.
These current improvements consist of a couple of key changes:
Improved Bus Priority
The existing bus lanes on SH16 are useful but they stop short of interchanges forcing buses to have to merge with general traffic. The project will see these lanes extended to/through interchanges which I expect will be similar to what Waka Kotahi did around Onewa Rd to improve the Northern Busway. There are a few new bus lanes being added too between Western Springs and Newton Rd.
Motorway Bus Stops
At Lincoln Rd and Te Atatu, bus stops are being added to on/off ramps to enable buses to exit the motorway, board/alight passengers and then get back on the motorway again. There will also be stops for local buses that people can transfer to/from. The main problem with this is that changing buses in the middle of a motorway interchange is not going to be a very pleasant experience, especially as depending on which direction you’re travelling it may require crossing the road and these areas are fairly pedestrian hostile.
At Lincoln Rd there will be bus stops on either side of the motorway but the one on the northern side will also act as a terminus for a number of local buses.
At Te Atatu the stops are on the off ramps
Updated Bus Network
Bus routes in the west will be changed to make use of these improvements. The key change will see the introduction of an express bus service along the Motorway stopping at just Westgate, Lincoln Rd and Te Atatu and with other buses focused towards delivering passengers to those stations instead of one seat rides all the way to town. Changes like these will always cause concern from some people, especially some existing users but they’ve been very successful on the North Shore and other parts of Auckland. It should also help that it appears AT are planning to improve the frequency of a number of routes, especially those serving Te Atatu.
A Westgate Station
A proper bus station, like we see on the Northern Busway, will be built at Westgate though as mentioned above, it won’t start construction till 2023 after the other improvements are completed.
Why we don’t have rapid transit already?
As for why we don’t have a busway on SH16 already, there are a number of reasons for this.
The easy answer is to blame the then National Government, and it’s fair to do so, they could have required the busway but the issues go deeper than just that.
During the process of getting consent for the motorway works the issue of including a busway was raised by submitters. Waka Kotahi argued against having to do so by saying that the route wasn’t identified as needing rapid transit by the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority – the organisation that ran public transport prior to the creation of Auckland Transport.
- Submitters have also requested the future proofing or implementation of busway standard public transport on SH16.
- As explained earlier, in our view the NZTA is providing for the appropriate level of passenger transport infrastructure (as identified within ARTA’s PTNP) through shoulder bus lanes. By contrast, a busway standard facility would be classified as a Rapid Transit Network (RTN) connection under the definition within ARTA’s PTNP. In the case of the Western Suburbs, ARTA has identified that the Western Rail line will be the corridor for an RTN connection into the CBD – not SH16. This is based on the assumption that the Region’s passenger transport system should operate as a single co-ordinated network, rather than having different transport modes (i.e. bus and rail) competing against each other for patronage.
- Finally, I would note that while the NZTA is not providing for a busway facility within its SH16 designation, we are not precluding the ability to implement a busway in the future, if Regional plans were to change.
My understanding is that ARTA’s view on this stemmed from the Auckland Regional Council (their owners) who were worried that a busway on SH16 would undermine the case for the City Rail Link.
They also said this despite having previously drawn up plans for how they’d do it. These drawings were for stations at Te Atatu, Lincoln Rd and Royal Rd.
However, ARTA’s plans did call for the section of SH16 between Lincoln Rd and Westgate to be of RTN quality to serve a Henderson to Constellation Dr route. That section also didn’t start construction until 2016 and it was clear long before then that rapid transit would be needed. So why wasn’t it?
During the consent for that stage Auckland Transport requested rapid transit be provided for.
Waka Kotahi argued against having to even future proof for a busway by blaming AT for not having produced detailed designs for a project that would be inside Waka Kotahi’s State Highway corridor. They also thought it was better to rush ahead to get consent for a project that wasn’t to start for another 5 years than put a small amount of effort in to do even some basic future proofing.
Frustratingly, Auckland Council’s planners supported Waka Kotahi’s position and so no provision was made for rapid transit.
So as a bit of a summary to all of this, Waka Kotahi argued they shouldn’t have to provide for a rapid transit corridor in some sections because it wasn’t shown as needed on existing plans, but where it was on existing plans they argued they shouldn’t have to provide rapid transit because they didn’t want to.
Interim improvements elsewhere
While these improvements aren’t perfect and we still need a proper rapid transit route, I also think we should look to use this model for other identified rapid transit routes that are currently a decade or more away from delivery. For example this kind of solution may work on the Upper Harbour route between Westgate and Constellation, on the remaining Airport to Botany corridor and on the New Lynn to Onehunga corridor.
Ideally I think we should be aiming to have all of these delivered by 2025, similar to when the City Rail Link comes online. That way the entire Rapid Transit network could sold as a transformational step forward as well as getting PT in general ‘good enough’ to enable other changes like congestion charging.