Disruptions to public transport have long been a frustrating fact of life in Auckland, but the last year has taken this to a whole new level, with the ongoing longterm rail shutdowns with bus replacement services, plus thousands of bus cancellations a day becoming a regular occurrence.
Things are currently so bad that AT has now permanently removed a large number of bus services from timetables altogether, rather than display just how many regular cancellations there are. This has resulted in passengers having to endure poor quality services – or likely, in many places, giving up on PT entirely.
And it seems we could be trending up again, as more services come under pressure of one sort or another. This week, it’s been ferries.
How it started / How it’s going pic.twitter.com/jB8ebYsB11
— Kenny Williams (@Ohheykenny) January 17, 2023
The biggest cause of disruption has been the shortage of bus drivers. At least on this front, both the government, Auckland Transport and (the previous) council have made moves to improve diver conditions, most notably through higher wages. These changes, when fully implemented, will mean the average wage for a bus driver will have increased from $23.71 per hour in the middle of last year to $30 per hour.
The concern now is that the council will look to cut the ‘removed from the timetable‘ services permanently, in a bid to save money.
Regardless of what fixes are put in place for services now, there will always be disruptions of various kinds, and how AT deals with that is has always been a point of frustration.
It seems improving AT’s communication on this front is something Council’s new Transport and Infrastructure Committee Chair John Watson wants to fix.
Auckland Council’s Transport Committee chair says his priority this year will be ensuring commuters get clear communications if city services are delayed or cancelled.
John Watson said without this, or the necessary substitutes to make up for it, people would continue to be pushed back into their cars rather than making use of the city’s public transport system.
“People have got all variety of apps these days for monitoring what’s going on, and the one consistent thing you hear from commuters is ‘we just want to know what’s happening, and we want to know with a reasonable lead-in time'”.
I have to say, I would have thought actually fixing the issues causing the disruption to services would be the priority – although of course better communication is always needed.
But this brings us to the real point of the post: what can be done to improve communications during disruption.
I certainly don’t have all the answers but here are a few ideas that might help. It would be good to get other ideas too in the comments, including any great examples from overseas. Disruption is not unique to Auckland, and surely we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Better Network/Disruption Maps
Every bus stop should have a full network map plus more localised or stop-specific maps, so that passengers can see at a glance what their options are.
In some places it’s not uncommon to have multiple ways of getting the same destination, but many people are only familiar with the service/s they regularly catch – so there may be an easy alternative, if they’re shown that it exists.
Related to this: it would be a big job to do this for every station or stop on the PT network, but at least at train/bus stations, ferry terminals and other major bus stops, AT should have clear posters displayed with options/instructions of what to do if disruption strikes.
AT will have plenty of data to draw on to know where most people from that location (or on that route) are going, enabling them to easily provide options for the majority of movements their passengers are likely to make.
Timely and accurate communication
One of the big frustrations I’ve experienced, which is most prevalent on the rail network, is the uncertainty of whether the disruption applies to just the train I’m on – in other words, should I just wait for the next one, or should I be looking to make other plans.
Sometimes not knowing this means you miss out on a quick and easy alternative, turning a minor inconvenience into a PT disaster.
AT needs to find better ways, and not just (belated) tweets on a useful but obscure Twitter account, to communicate real-time disruption to passengers.
This probably means better use of their app, but also better use of and a more expanded network of electronic displays. To support this, they’ll also need better/faster processes for understanding and relaying when something goes wrong.
Change Train Managers to be Station Managers
Another rail-specific angle: a big frustration to me is that we have staff on trains whose main job is to close the doors at the stations, and this strikes me as a real lost opportunity.
While the train managers are also ostensibly on the train to provide customer service and passive security, in reality that often doesn’t happen – as they may be at the other end of a carriage, or on a 6-car train being in the other 3-car set. There are many trips that you’ll never see the train manager at all.
During disruption, it’s not uncommon for a train manager to know less about what’s going on than the passengers – and if something goes wrong there’s not much support they can provide on what passengers should do.
Our trains are designed for driver-only operation. So perhaps we should look to instead deploy the train managers towards permanent staffing at each station. In this role, they could be much more helpful during a disruption event in helping guide passengers on their options.
They could also provide a lot of benefit for new users trying out the network for the first time – something likely to be needed much more in a few years once the CRL opens.
While this doesn’t directly help passengers when disruption happens, it seems odd that that there is no publicly available reporting on how many and what services are being cancelled, so people can understand the broader context.
For example, University of Auckland statistics professor Thomas Lumley tracks bus movements for a Twitter readership, with a regularly updated web display of the (more or less live) state of play. But you do have to wonder, how has this important reporting task fallen to public-minded tech-savvy citizens to take care of?
The number of cancellations seems to be creeping up. 1356 plus the 1000 removed from the schedule: 2000 used to be unusually high. https://t.co/QyJ5W2ung8
— Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) January 17, 2023
Also slightly unrelated, but while we’re at it: it’s well overdue that AT got rid of their bogus Punctuality and Reliability stats.
AT measures public transport reliability as the percentage of (non-cancelled) services that depart from their starting point within five minutes of the scheduled time. For the 12 months to the end of September (the most recent data they’ve published), they report that 98% of buses were on time.
But in practice, travel delays – typically caused by a lack of bus priority on the roads – means what people actually experience is wildly different from that.
Instead, to be a meaningful measure, punctuality should be based on a service’s ‘on time’ performance at a number of stops along the route, which is similar to what I believe Thomas Lumley’s Tūreiti bot measures.
These are just some ideas. How do you think AT should improve communications about disruption? Any great ideas from elsewhere?