This is a guest post by Greater Auckland reader, Jack Gibbons.
Despite the Northern Busway’s enormous and continued success, it has always had one serious flaw: the lack of an interchange between Onewa Road buses and Northern Express buses, north of the harbour bridge. This makes it far less useful than it otherwise would be to a huge chunk of the North Shore population.
Currently, especially off-peak, we get some very sub-optimal trips. This example is a trip from Birkenhead to a restaurant in Takapuna taken in the evening. Although there is a direct bus, it is infrequent, so the best public transport option is often to cross the harbour bridge twice.
This is the most reliable and consistent way to make the trip due to the decent frequency and priority on both routes. This problem comes about because despite running interlined on the same route for almost 5km, the first stop where passengers can swap from an Onewa road bus and a Northern busway bus (or the 82) is on the south side of the bridge, on Fanshawe St.
The North Shore bus map shows the location of the crucial, but missing, interchange. These two groups of buses are the busiest in the city, depending on how you count it up. There are 3.9 million boardings for ‘Onewa Rd Services’ and 8.5 million for the NX1, NX2 and 866 combined.
I think we should build an Onewa busway interchange station. This would leave most of the current peak direction (commuter) trips unchanged, but would significantly improve off-peak and counter-peak experience through four methods:
- Optimised and consolidated bus routes
- Much more frequent trips between Onewa and the busway north through transfer.
- Shorter trip lengths.
- Concentrate services on better bus infrastructure.
This would in turn:
- Offer more frequent trips at all times for everyone
- Allow decent frequencies off-peak, while still reducing off-peak service hours.
- Provide a more legible transit system, with more defined trunk and branches.
- Allow users of these services to make convenient off-peak trips, significantly improving the ability to live car-lite/car-free. A huge cost saving for society.
I have two main proposals to provide this facility.
Short term solution
Buses run on their existing alignment, and make pit stops north of the bridge on platforms formed on the old toll plaza. There is plenty of room – 100×20 meters at least – on both sides for long, wide platforms. The two platforms would be linked by a new pedestrian over-bridge, allowing safe, visible transfers. This station design would provide the basic functionality and requires no massive civil works. The 50 meter over-bridge transfer isn’t ideal, but is still much shorter than the distance between the Lower Albert bus stops and the Britomart train platforms, and much better than riding a bus all the way to Fanshawe street. We could gain most of the benefits of an interchange with this cheap(ish), and politically easy option. I think this should be progressed as soon as possible and could be up and running very soon.
Long term, optimal solution
In the longer term the busway will need to be upgraded or relieved. From my perspective, the most likely solution is for the existing busway corridor to be upgraded to a decent Light Rail line, so I will assume that here. This station solution could therefore be built at the same time as the light rail upgrade.
We would ideally build such a station on the inland side because there more room, and it is more convenient for locals to get to. The obvious challenge is getting input and output lanes/tracks in the right place. Without the benefit of site investigations, my guess is that the Onewa Road access would be provided through a widened northbound off-ramp. This would allow a bi-directional busway to and from Onewa Road.
The light rail would use a new 2-lane flyover crossing the motorway from the inland side to the current busway alignment, utilising this extra wide abutment on the Onewa southbound off ramp, that Waka Kotahi built at the time of the interchange construction.
I will note that it is concerning that throughout all the recent North Shore rail plans none of them include an Onewa Road rail station, instead tunnelling all the way up to Akoranga or Takapuna before surfacing as described here and here. Onewa access is provided by city-bound and north-bound buses from Onewa Road. Perhaps there are serious civil engineering considerations that make an Onewa Road station impossible. It would be good to hear from Waka Kōtahi why it’s not being planned for.
A two-way busway
This optimal solution requires creating a two-way public transport corridor for the section between Onewa Rd and Akoranga, similar to the busway north of Akoranga. Waka Kotahi claims that this would require reclamation which would pose consenting challenges. However, there is enough space between the car lane, (around 3.5m vs 3.1 minimum), the shoulders and the 4-meter median, to fit either a bi-directional busway or double-tracked light rail. With lane narrowing, the speed limit would likely have to be lowered to 80km/h, but over the extra 2km, that’s only an impact of about 18 seconds. Access to Akoranga station would come through the current busway underpass, which was built future-proofed for bi-directional running.
Travelling southbound from the Onewa Station
In the long term we should still run Onewa Road buses into the city, even with light rail going through Onewa station to the city as well. Forcing everyone to transfer to light rail would be a poor solution because:
- Onewa Road is a big destination. We want to have capacity on LR for the future, not use its capacity serving essentially a major branch so close to the city.
- Transfers are a feature of a well-connected network, not a bug. But only on long through running services, not lots of short hops. Forcing a transfer for everyone here is far from ideal.
- So many people transferring to/from terminating bus services at once would be an engineering challenge for a station, and would drive costs & complexity.
In light of this, and the huge demand already for Onewa Road, we need to have priority transit lanes on the inner lanes of the Harbour Bridge. To provide for the remaining bus users on the bridge, some bus priority would go a very long way. Public transport is only good if it’s competitive with driving, so it needs to be congestion free.
These dedicated lanes will have to be provided on the inner lanes. The clipons are reaching the end of their life carrying heavy traffic while the center spans have a long life ahead of them. They would be reached via a flyover descending into the space between the two motorway directions.
Two concerns local residents may have are effects on local street parking, and the threat of cannibalising Stafford Park to provide even more parking. Firstly, I don’t think any new substantial car park and ride facilities should be provided at any urban or suburban stations, especially so close to the city. Investments in bike access and bike parking would be far more cost effective and space efficient. Stafford park should be safe.
Secondly, local parking won’t be an issue here. We see parking issues at Sunnynook in particular, where people drive in to access the public transport and park in the residential streets, overwhelming them. This behaviour happens in places where the last mile service is inconvenient or slow. So instead of taking the feeder bus, biking, or walking, people drive to the closest busway/train station.
In the case of an Onewa Rd station, commuters will not be needing to drive in. On either of the key routes that would go through Onewa station, it would make far more sense to park further out, catch the bus earlier in its route, and take advantage of the bus lanes/T3 lanes. Driving and sitting in the worst of the traffic, only to get on a bus for the only free flowing part of the trip, is not most people’s idea of an efficient commute. There is no logical reason an Onewa road busway station would impact local parking.
Consolidation of services is one of the major advantages. While most of the current services are used heavily on peak, maintaining decent frequencies off-peak is extremely expensive with very low per-bus ridership. If a number of routes were consolidated then we would have more people on individual buses while running less service hours at these off-peak times, and still have more frequent services. Here is the North Shore network for reference.
The station could allow AT to rethink these buses and more:
- the 942 which runs from Onewa Rd to Takapuna, replaced with 97 and transfer to 82.
- the 966, which runs from Onewa Road to Newmarket via Ponsonby Road. Replaced with a 97 and transfer to an NX3 busway service (replacing the 866)
- 939 / 933, windy ridge / beach haven to universities, replaced with an upgraded 95 and transfer to NX2
These consolidated service hours would be added to the 95 and 97, boosting their frequency and allowing AT to run more cost effective services. The overall journey times are lower because passengers could leave every 5 minutes and transfer to frequent NX2 services, as compared to the hourly off-peak frequencies for some routes. Even now at peak, it’s usually faster to use this transfer model. The service simplification and consolidation is the same successful model that AT rolled out on its New Network revamp.
This change will add next-to-no peak direction demand. The key benefactors would be people traveling locally within the North Shore, and off-peak travelers. These are two crucial areas Auckland needs to improve, to make living car-free or car-lite much more practical.
Whatever form an alternative harbour crossing or an upgrade of the busway might take, it’s likely to be over a decade away. The short-term option I’ve outlined is a much faster project, able to provide ridership and improvements to communities in the near future. It would be a good interim solution until light rail demands more significant changes. It would help the case for PT in the city overall, and could help ensure an interchange at Onewa Rd is built into future transit plans.