Tomorrow is March and with it we well and after a couple of years off due to the pandemic, our transport system is well and truly in the midst of March Madness again. March Madness is where our demand on our entire transport system is typically at it’s highest. The summer holidays are over and most people are back at work before starting to think about their next trip. Back too are schools and universities, the latter filled with eager students before the some decide that it just isn’t for them and stop turning up. There also aren’t the typical ‘winter bugs’ floating around keeping some people home.
Even before the pandemic, public transport struggled in March with buses, trains and ferries often full to capacity, and sometimes leaving people behind. This year the demand for travel is seemingly returning but with bus driver and ferry operator shortages already resulting in thousands of services being cancelled weekly, as well as ongoing rail network disruption, there just isn’t the capacity this year to cope with that demand. As Todd Niall at Stuff reported the other day.
In pre-Covid years Auckland Transport has been able to draw on buses outside the normal Metro fleet to boost capacity, but for 2023 those are buses are already committed to replacing train services.
Auckland Transport’s only response this year will be to try to reallocate the largest buses to routes with the highest demand, and advise passengers who can, to avoid the morning and evening peaks.
“There’s a short (peak) period of 1-1.5 hours morning and evening – if you have flexibility, work from home, or come in later,“ said Harrison.
That comment at the end was also echoed by AT on their social media channels
As we head into March, please consider travelling off peak to avoid the busiest periods on our roads & public transport services. Buses, trains and Ferries will be busier & more services will have standing room only. For those who need to travel in peak, please allow extra time. pic.twitter.com/xpwXwe1L7r
— Auckland Transport (@AklTransport) February 24, 2023
This was, understandably, pretty widely mocked on on social media. But I don’t think it’s as bad as many people make out. Peak demand is often only for a relatively short time so trying to encourage people to travel at slightly less busy times is a common strategy used in many cities.
Where I think AT have failed in this messaging though is in not trying to explain the problems they have, what they’re doing to address it and to put greater measures in place to make off-peak travel more appealing. What do I mean by this:
Explaining the problems
It’s no secret that public transport is bad right now, due to some of the issues I mentioned earlier as a result of staff shortages and rail network disruption. But you’d be hard pressed to find out much information about that from ATs website or apps.
AT should have a page on their website detailing what each of the issues are, being honest about what impacts these are having e.g. the number of cancellations and delays as well what they’re doing about it. Perhaps also how things are tracking over time. They should also highlight the routes with the greatest capacity constraints and perhaps alternatives some people may be able to use.
This is of course exactly what they did within days of the recent weather events, with a link from their homepage to one that gives details for each road affected. Essentially, they should treat the currently PT situation as a crisis, because that’s what it is.
Highlight what they’re doing
In addition to some of the ideas mentioned above, AT should highlight some of the active steps they (and the government) are taking to improve the situation, such as explaining the changes in driver wages and immigration settings, what they’re doing to help bus operators fill vacant roles, highlighting the work they’re doing to try and optimise the network as much as possible etc.
Ideally this would also include other, more tangible measures to improve the quality of services and to encourage off-peak travel
Improving services and making off-peak travel more appealing
Starting with off-peak services, one simple thing AT could do to encourage more use of it is to highlight that they do offer a 10% discount if you complete your journey before 6am, between 9am and 3pm or after 6:30pm.
Ideally they’d make this discount higher. As Stu Donovan pointed out here, Brisbane and Sydney respectively offer a 20% and 30% off-peak discount.
AT should also be looking to implement urgent measures to speed up buses As Councillor Richard Hills highlighted in that Stuff article
“Where are the pop-up bus lanes to get faster turnover? What about reducing peak demand with pricing? Have we exhausted all coach and tourism company capacity? What about cycle infrastructure that’s not affected by bus driver shortages?”
I would go further. Speeding up buses is perhaps one of the single most effective things that AT could do to both improve the attractiveness and capacity of the PT network.
Say you have a bus that takes an hour to make a run and you run a bus every 10 minutes, or 6 buses an hour. That requires about 12 buses to run services in both directions. But through improvements to speed up buses you can save 10 minutes on a journey, so it now takes just 50 minutes. Due to the time saved it means only need 10 buses to run the same timetable meaning you either:
- free up two buses that can be used on other routes.
- can increase the frequency too a bus every 8 minutes, or just over 7 buses an hour, increasing the capacity of the route but also making it more attractive due to being faster and more frequent. In this scenario, for a 17% saving in travel time you gives you a 21% increase in capacity
I’m not going to suggest this is easy to achieve but a dedicated team focused on fixing the regular slow points on the network could likely make a dent in travel times. Some of the solutions, such as more bus priority, may require infrastructure changes or making hard calls about road space allocation, but others may be a bit easier to achieve.
One of those ‘easier’ solutions might be to allow for all-door boarding, even if just at busy stops or even have off-board fare payment so people can just pile on/off the bus as soon as possible.
Filling in indented bus stops, so the bus stops in the general traffic lane, could help make bus stops faster and easier for buses to get back underway – I’m sure many of us have had the situation where a bus is stuck at a stop because drivers refuse to let the bus out.
Moving up the difficulty scale a bit, One thing AT never got around to following the new bus network was rationalising bus stops. On many routes there are still bus stops as little as 200m apart. Increasing the spacing between stops to around 400m can help improve speeds on some routes simply because buses aren’t having to stop as frequently.
With all that in mind, perhaps a better message for AT could be something like this –
We know that public transport isn’t as good as we expect it to be, find out why and what we’re doing to improve it. While we work to fix it, you can help by travelling off-peak where possible and we’re going to make it easier, cheaper and more attractive to do it.