If you’ve tried catching a bus over the last few weeks and not had any issues, count yourself lucky, as a wave of cancellations have been striking bus routes all over the region. For example, this was what AT’s mobile app showed me on a trip last week – I had caught the 866 after an NX1 service was cancelled and was hoping to transfer to the 20, but it too was cancelled, along with a few Inner Links in a row.

Here’s another example:

And it’s not just regular buses impacted. Last weekend the rail network was closed for works and the rail buses were also impacted to the point they were only running hourly.

A large part of this will be the resurgence in COVID cases the country is seeing right now, but it’s almost certainly not the only factor. Rumours and anecdotal evidence suggest a large number of bus drivers are also also leaving the industry.

Poor reliability is probably the biggest ‘turn-off’ factor for public transport users, far more so than aspects like the cost of fares. A few bad journeys can be enough to drive some users back to their car, especially if taking place on a cold and wet night, and will certainly put off any potential new users.

So whatever the reasons for the cancellations, it’s ultimately the public who suffer from having fewer viable transport options along with all the negatives like emissions and congestion that come with increased car use.

The perceptions of public transport are also not helped when it’s revealed AT could have made improvements to air quality in buses but chose not to.

Plans to introduce more fresh air into Auckland’s bus fleet to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission were abandoned due to cost.

RNZ’s ‘Whose Breath Are You Breathing?’ project revealed carbon dioxide levels inside crowded buses could be in excess of 5000 parts per million, a number which has shocked scientists. It’s more than six times the recommended safe indoor level to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission, which is 800ppm.

High readings can indicate how much exhaled air is in a space. At the highest reading on the buses, the equivalent of one in every seven breaths was made up of air breathed out by others.

Most Auckland buses also do not have windows which passengers are able to open, and air is not drawn from outside but instead recirculated inside the bus. However, Auckland’s buses are not fitted with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) air filtration, which filters virus particles.

Mask use is mandatory on public transport, but not policed.

Auckland Transport acting group manager of metro services Darek Koper said plans to improve air quality on buses were dropped due to cost.

“Based on the financial assessment of costs for the identified air treatment options and the efficacy and safety of the systems, it was decided to abandon the plans to introduce air purifications systems or introduce more fresh air onto existing buses and trains.”

He said the investment required to change the public’s perception of safety “without the scientific evidence and subject matter expert support” presented a challenge in justifying such investment.

You certainly have to wonder how much the air quality in buses is contributing towards the cancellations we’re currently seeing. The RNZ article goes on to quote University of Michigan associate professor of engineering Jesse Capecelatro:

He said it was disheartening to hear Auckland Transport was refusing to provide bus drivers with N95 masks.

“The bus driver is the most susceptible person on the bus. The longer you’re on the bus, the more likely you are to breathe in a large number of infectious particles.”

I also wonder if in situations like this, it would be far more helpful if AT had been upfront with the public on the issues and the costs rather than not saying anything until a journalist came asking. For example, how much per bus are we talking here?

But also telling in the larger discussion about issues like climate change and air quality is this line:

Air inside buses is recirculated “to avoid introducing polluted air into the cabin from the urban environment”.

All of this combined with other issues like lower fare revenue and it feels like a perfect storm is brewing that could see drastic and long term cuts to the provision of public transport in our city. That would be the exact opposite of what we need to be doing right now if we want a chance of meeting the our emissions reductions targets.

I certainly don’t envy the position that AT staff are in trying to navigate all of these issues. Many of them could ultimately be solved by more operating budget and political support for what is the bread and butter of the public transport system. Ultimately, both the issue of air quality and driver conditions comes down to cost. Bus operating contracts go to open tender and are let to the lowest bidder. If AT doesn’t require air filters the operators are not going to add them to their buses and raise the tender cost. Likewise, if the tender brief doesn’t specify minimum wages for drivers, then the operators are under competitive pressure to cut them to the bare minimum they can get away with. Staff shortages and talent leaving the industry suggests this hands-off procurement strategy is failing to deliver.

Unfortunately it seems that, other than the recent Climate Action Targeted Rate proposal, neither Auckland Council nor central government would even consider extra bus funding or changes to contract standards. Perhaps it’s because bus contracts aren’t a transport ‘project’ that they can write a three stage business case for? If feels like it’s time for the government in Wellington to step up and bring some of the transport budget to the table to fix this now, rather than risk a death spiral of more cancellations, fewer drivers, less passengers and less revenue. They only thing that would lead to is higher emissions, more traffic congestion and greater transport poverty.

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51 comments

  1. For the past couple weeks I’ve been seeing 75 services being cancelled sometimes three times in a row. Yesterday I checked the realtime bus stop app to see what time I should leave work so I could catch a bus without having to wait in the cold wind, saw the closest 75 was running but the next consecutive two services were cancelled. When I left work to catch that bus and checked the app again the first bus had been cancelled and the next two services were going to run as usual

  2. Yea it’s pretty brutal using PT in Auckland right now. It’s almost as bad as car drivers tell it is normally.

    Isn’t Wood looking into the Public Transport Operating Model and the conditions of bus drivers at base level?

      1. Yep. He is timing it perfectly, so that National get to implement their version of it (See the Auckland super for a similar situation).

  3. A pathetic effort of planning for the best, ignoring the most likely outcomes and literally setting back our transport planning by decades.

    Muppets, the lot of them. But muppets who are stealing the future from our kids.

    1. Yea it’s pretty terrible. Right now we are getting negative transport synergy.

      AT” No trains all this weekend due to needed works that are going to take years and reinstitutional negligence. Rail replacement busses are running to a hour frequency because of staffing issues. Due to wide spread covid impacts, services may be cancelled at short notice. We have built zero bike infrastructure in the last few years so good luck with that. Plan ahead.”

      Really selling the concept of not driving cars everywhere.

  4. The management structure seems to be broken. The driver of my train found out it was cancelled only after she phoned the office after the platform announcement was made. The AT notification for the train cancellation on the app didn’t happen either. So the driver didn’t know nor the passengers until 2 minutes after the train was due to leave.

    1. Why don’t At fill in for the bus drivers give them some life experience and see what the customer has to put up with, there’s a thought.

    1. Do you realize this is critized in the article as well and that fewer busses will mean more people on those busses in the short term and, thus, higher CO2 levels, and more people in cars in the long term and, thus, higher CO2 and NOx levels?

      1. Yes hence my own internal ethical struggle. On one hand I don’t like the idea of people getting sick and I would rather they drove, rode bikes or walked. On the other hand public transport appears to be very good at spreading the disease quickly so the peak will be over quicker so I can go out again.

        1. Yes immunity for 3 weeks isn’t worth much. But every other pandemic has ended presumably as the virus uses up the options. We can hope that will eventually happen with this one too. The path towards that will be faster if everyone else to keeps getting sick multiple times and takes little care. Meanwhile I will continue to wear my N95 mask and avoid public transport.

      2. The article points out that even on buses with only a few people on it CO₂ concentration is already high. It will be quite a challenge to organise PT if you can not have more than 10 people on a bus.

        1. There’s a strong odour of CBF’d that’s really disappointing.

          Now’s the time to improvise improvements, since the crisis is upon us. There are plenty of examples out there by now: Like Corsi-Rosenthal boxes etc.

          It’s not can-buy time, it’s can-do time.

        1. Lol.

          And Lindsay, then you can take a straightforward and modest PT project, and blow it up into a billion dollar mess.

  5. Poor performance and lack of accountability comes from the top.
    It’s the hallmark of this Labour government and is reflected in many areas.

  6. It is realitivly easy to get constant air replacement in single decker buses,just by using the roof vents,in the front ,out the back,Double Deckers not so much.
    Given the investment required in capital,for electric buses,and now the often overlooked component the driver,surely, ensuring the buses have unimpeded flow around the network,has to be a priority, this is entirely in AT,s hands.
    The PTOM model where the private operators are expected to provide minimum standards ,and are fined as such if they underperformed,hasn ‘t worked,it would be safe to assume that no fines are being handed out for failure to deliver. If AT pursued fining operators,they would call their bluff,by handing the contract back to them.

    1. The PTOM model sucks for everyone. NZ Bus and co drive down costs at tendering because they have to. This results in them having less to pay drivers and them needeing to employ huge numbers of comms staff to talk with AT. Finally PT users always get delayed news reguarding disruptions and AT can endlessly omit responsibly to its contractors.

      Terrible model.

  7. This crisis is the worst possible case for the service contracting model we use.

    PTOM service contracts could work fine under ‘normal’ conditions. AT could set minimum wages, minimum AC, minimum reliability, etc. Covid isn’t normal conditions and it isn’t possible to structure service contracts to serve the public good. Service contracts are also terrible in other crises such as floods, storms, or rapid inflation. Given that we are looking at years or decades of crises, perhaps it is time for AT to run services directly.

    1. A lot of times I don’t understand why councils contract out things to other companies.

      Another example is parking enforcement. Here is how I imagine this playing out:

      Option A:
      – the council hires parking wardens.

      Option B:
      – the council writes out a tender,
      – some lawyers are involved to make sure the contract is good, avoid loopholes, etc.
      – a company replies to that tender,
      – more lawyers are involved to make sure the contract is good,
      – a company hires parking wardens,
      – I guess the company also has to make a profit,
      – optionally: more lawyers are involved to resolve disputes between said company and the council.

      Maybe I am missing something. But one seems much more efficient than the other.

  8. I think the next few weeks are going to be difficult so not to much point in running around panicking. I am becoming resigned to cancelled buses its just a matter of giving yourself time but them I am retired and I normally have plenty of that.
    I wonder where the RNZ reporter got figure equating CO2 levels with how much pre breathed air you are breathing in. I would also wonder about the accuracy of the CO2 meter. I have one and it measures fly spray presumably it can’t differentiate between CO2 and the hydrocarbon in the propellant. Maybe there was a person on the bus called someone who was using overpowering amounts of perfume or aftershave. Another surprising thing was peeling and cutting up an orange sent the reading sky high. Maybe the cleaner had being using a citrus based product. However our reporter measured increased levels as more people got on the bus which is what you would expect. One thing your skin expels CO2 so if you hold the monitor in your hand it will display elevated levels. Anyway congratulations to the reporter on a timely article but now it needs to be fact checked. I will take my monitor on the bus and train when I go out in a few minutes and report back this afternoon.

    1. So the bus with two people plus the driver measured 445 ppm and the train was the same. Outside at the bus stop was also 455 ppm. So no elevated levels however inside the Manukau Mall I got a reading of 800 ppm. The train had being sitting at the station for 10 min or so with the doors open it had about 20 passengers in a three car unit. So no problem if you get on a non crowded service.

  9. In reguard to air quality on buses etc there used to be this old fashioned thing where you could actually slide the top section of the window open also there were things called vents on the bus roof that by some marvel of old fashioned engineering design allowed air to flow into the bus once it was in motion. Obviously though that’s too simple for todays times and we must have a basically air tight bus so no evil particles come inside and upset the air conditioner.

    1. Yea I think we know enough about how harmful general emissions are that having open windows on buses is probably a crappy idea.

      1. Isn’t the reason the buses ventillation is circulating only to stop the fumes from said bus entering the bus. I doubt it is anything to do with other air pollution which realistically is negligble – despite recent opinion pieces). Bring on electric buses (and cars & trucks)!
        You can’t have opening windows. What about the missed advertising revenue!

  10. Even without COVID, the air quality on buses in particular is shocking. Slightly damp day and the buses fog up, stink of mildew and whatever other passenger smells there are. Certainly need a higher standard of air conditioning on any new buses.

    1. It’s not even the standard of the air conditioning thats important.
      I’ve been complaining for years about rail replacement buses that have
      sealed windows and airconditioning fitted, but its all useless because
      the a/c equipment is not working.
      I have spoken to the drivers about it but the answer is always “sorry
      mate, I was issued with this bus and told to get on with it”.
      I don’t blame them, but someone somewhere higher up is not doing
      their job.

  11. Nonsense the people walking etc outside the bus are breathing the same air i know it’s not pristine mountain air in that city but you’d rather sit in a bus breathing recyled air with god knows what virus floating in it rather than the air outside,and therein lies the crazy logic of todays generation and policy /decision makers.

  12. But is this new?

    Morning rush hour buses has always been dodgy out my way.
    Since AT has decided that my suburb should go through Westgate (yet Westgates buses show up as they want – no not as they want but as traffic permits them to. They are extremely unreliable and time consuming due to the traffic inferno that is the NW motorway and the Kumeu to NW stretch).

    Hence the only option for PT is to go through Constellation, yet the busroute to Constellation was cancelled a few years back and instead a route to Westgate was put in place. Idiots stuck with old silo mentality where west is west and shore is shore rather than providing a good alternative that increase PT usage.

    The feeder bus to west gate, which is usually pretty empty, does not follow timetable and is often very early or completely cancelled since patronage is absymal. This of course leads to our neighbourhood being pretty much relying on driving the NW to town. Madness when all that’s needed is a decent connection to the northern busway to make PT usage quadruple in no time.
    AT of course doesn’t care for convenience and providing reliable and frequent options of PT.
    Whats even worse is that since more or less zero kids from here kids choose a secondary school in the west or NW, the few buses that comes are filled to the brim with kids busing to the shore for quality schooling. That market itself should fill up quite a few additional buses.

    1. Have you heard that the train service between Pukekohe and Papakura
      will be cancelled for two years, with effect from next month ?
      I assume that freights, the Hamilton/Auckland train and the Northern
      Explorer will get through, while us peasants enjoy the comfort of a
      stuffy bus and the company of those who prefer not to wear masks.
      And people wonder why I am Grumpy ?

      1. Yes, I have heard. And I am grumpy in sympathy with you. Closing rail services for an extended period is an expedient available in New Zealand because our transport authorities figure we can manage without them. Other countries where rail is deemed essential would be obliged to spend more in order to keep services going.

  13. It’s okay though, AT’s method for increasing ridership on those few remaining buses will be to artificially make driving a car worse in the short, medium and long term.

    I feel they need to be funded based on meeting KPIs that relate to improving the travel times on the network for all users. Plus some emissions target as a secondary measure.

    I thoroughly look forward to breathing in other people’s breath on Friday. Thank goodness I only need to go to the office twice a week!

    1. “I feel they need to be funded based on meeting KPIs that relate to improving the travel times on the network for all users”.

      You had me at Congestion Charging.

      Other than that, my vote is for liberating a lane on the bridge. WK’s own modelling shows traffic flow will improve. Everybody wins.

      1. That’s not exactly what I said.. I think congestion charging in Auckland at least is just another tax, as there really isn’t an alternative route or transport option for many.

        But for those who could easily take a reliable and frequent PT service, sure it makes some sense for sure. Could even do spot pricing to ensure you don’t penalise people when its free flowing.

    2. +1
      It is broken. They can’t improve PT, so makes the alternative (drive) worse off.
      Everybody quality life suffers.

      It reminds me about Communism. Driving a car is evil. Your only choice is to do what governments want you to use (PT). If you want to have personal choice (cars), the government will punish you.

      Yet the only choice (PT) become so bureaucratic, monopoly and inefficient.

      Eventually everyone’s quality of life suffers.

      This country is heading to the wrong direction.

  14. If the bus driver pay was slightly less miserable they might be able to entice a few Uber drivers out of their Priuses. There are surely far too many of those for the demand. Though given how poorly Ubers are typically driven, AT would need to budget for some comprehensive training.

  15. Yes seems we need to specify better conditions in PTOM. Driver wages, conditions plus some filtered clean air.

    Perhaps some of these layover facilities in the city (where buses pass through more) will help. This I presume is more to do with AT.

  16. I am bus driver, and let me tell you the reality, recently we have had assaults on 5 bus drivers, out of which 3 are on ACC and one had a broken nose because of a brutal punch.

    Many are leaving bus driving jobs because, AT and Bus company does not provide any protection for bus drivers, example all the bus drivers just want a cage system ( Coverd driver cabin) on the busses for there safety but AT and Bus companies are not prioritizing it.

    Many bus drivers are proffesionals in different fields they drive busses for fun, like myself I’m a multimedia specialist I stated driving since the pandemic, we had Aeroplane pilots, bankers and people from different proffesions to get the experience of driving big vehicles.

    So at the moment drivers are not sick, they are leaving this job because of assaults happening on them.

  17. The Sydney media report today:
    Patronage on Sydney’s public transport network is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels, internal state government analysis reveals, with travel patterns predicted to reach a “new normal” next year. The documents reveal more than 400,000 people abandoned public transport during the pandemic and instead opted to work from home or drive to the office. Another 800,000 road users opted to work from home.
    Btw no one at my work place uses PT anymore now we are back at the office because of covid/ flu anxiety and there was much upset talk yesterday about the RNZ story on air on buses. They now all drive which is very depressing and spend time comparing notes about the cheapest parking building deals ☹️

    1. The Vancouver sky train system is so good and very suitable to Auckland.

      It is fully automated. The beauty is because no driver, they can use many smaller trains instead of one large train.

      So it gets the best of all worlds:
      -High Frequency (turn up and go)
      -High Capacity (so many smaller trains, it can carry many people)
      -Low operating cost (no driver)

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