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

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.

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  1. Having worked a little bit in the “making buses faster” sphere in recent years, my experience is that, as with “cycle lane projects” any bus improvement project proposing bus lanes or similar physical improvements soon ends up with requests from nearly every other team in AT – so what starts out as a fast & nimble project ends up being asked to improve road safety, fix outdated signals and ped crossings, stormwater issues etc. So you end up with something slow and costly instead.

    1. I have heard the same from others within AT. Same thing happens when you are outside trying to get an agreement with AT. It gets passed around a whole bunch of people within AT, at least one of whom can find flaw with it and isn’t prepared to balance the overall benefits and costs.

        1. Pretty much. The old Councils each had someone who decided things and made the trade offs needed. This outfit has dozens of little groups each with a leader. They even call these people SMEs or Subject Matter Experts. Good luck getting them to agree across the groups. The structure means every job becomes expensive and slow.

        2. Actually it might be the result of far too much leadership. Each of the many teams has a leader committed to ensuring that team continues to exist and continues to influence all of the projects passing through.

    2. What is the solution to that? How about making sure that internal consultation is limited to design reviews by a nominated group of specialists who carry out reviews within one week and discuss solutions with the designers, then can escalate difficult issues to a manger’s panel to resolve? Which is what AT has done.

  2. Some great ideas here, many of which really should’ve been implemented years ago! Just don’t forget the equity implications of encouraging people to travel off-peak (which inherently constitutes discouraging people from travelling at peak), as not everyone has the same level of flexibility with their jobs, education or commitments.

    1. The equity implications are therefore positive. Many of those with the least choice about when they must travel probably have less choice about how they travel, too. They need the system to function, which is assisted greatly by encouraging those who can shift their travel off-peak to do so.

  3. One thing that might help is if we stop calling the problem a bus driver shortage. The problem is poor staff retention at the companies contracted to run buses. They won theses contracts based on paying poverty wages and now they are being found out. AT should be enforcing all the contract penalties it can for canceled services to give the operators an incentive to find more drivers. Otherwise what is the point of even contracting the services if you are still taking on all the risk of wage expectations?

    1. They bid based on poverty wages because that is the structure AT created. If you apply penalties you will end up with buses owned by liquidators, no drivers and no bus companies.

        1. Most of the issues go back much further than that. NZ has been importing bus drivers since the 1960s.

      1. Surely the contracts can be cancelled due to the operators not fulfilling their obligations. Are the contracts public? If not, surely they could be obtained with an OIA. It would be interesting to actually read them and see what was agreed to.

        1. How would that possibly make anything better? Cancel the contracts and buses would be locked in depots during the busiest part of the year.

      2. Are you saying bus companies are too big/important to fail? And no-one could buy the buses from the liquidators (at a lower capital investment cost), re-employ the drivers, and run the service instead? Some creative destruction would remedy the moral hazard?

        1. We tried that in 1993 and it didn’t work. Remember Cesta and their broken down buses. Public transport services are a service, its right there in the name! The services have a cost set by market forces. If you try and force the price lower than that then the buses don’t run and the only people who suffer are the people who need to use the service.

          Why is it that market forces were all the rage in the 80s and 90s when they were used by governments and employers to reduce wages, but now that labour is tight, market forces are seen as bad because a pay rise is somehow equated with inflation? Pay increases are not inflationary if they are required to clear the market.

        2. Yes, they should pay more to drivers and improve their conditions, until they can attract and keep enough of them. It should not be cheaper for the bus operating companies to fail to run a service they are contracted and paid to run, than it is for them to run it. They will continue to pay low wages and just drop services, unless contractual penalties are enforced. They may claim they’ll go broke, but would they really? And if they really would, let them and next time award the contract to a company which better demonstrates how it will employ sufficient staff. Yes, that may mean a fundamental change in the system, or it may just mean weighting reliability and staff conditions higher in the bidding process. Or just the mere fact that companies find they need to compete better on the labour market in order to stay in business will mean they’ll organise and bid differently. But don’t just let them off the hook, because the results will be more of the same or worse.

  4. Even lower PT costs for off peak will make a difference? Even if it was free, I doubt it.

    Why would an Eastern line user wait till off peak if that means an additional transfer roughly doubling the transport time?

  5. It’s all the little things. Onewa Road is now becoming clogged, intersection with Birkenhead Ave just gets clogged with cars turning and blocking the buses. Massive case for proper enforced bus lanes everywhere – in London you get stung even having your care 0.5 m inside those cross hatched yellow boxes at intersections – surely this would quickly stop people going through intersections blocking them.

    And then obviously cars giving way to buses pulling out should be legislated

    Also is there a direction to the bus drivers to give way to cars turning off side streets and driveways. Mind boggling they do this when you have a bus full of people waiting for a single car, which invariably then wants to move over lanes blocking everything. i get they are probably driving defensively..

    1. This is the bus I get and it’s absolutely horrific, 20 minutes to move a few metres just to get through an intersection clogged with cars to get onto a buslane.

  6. It’s easy to say “speed up the buses” but to do so requires bus lanes in areas where the buses are caught in traffic. That is the difficult parts where bus/cycle lanes means removing parking and taking general traffic lanes. We already have plenty of bus and cycle lanes, they invariably disappear where you need them the most.

    1. Yeah, but fixing buses would include handing over lanes for priority. But thats what she refers to when she criticises them for “trying to save the planet”.

      She is interested in solutions, but not the ones that will work.

  7. I had blithely assumed that public transport must somehow be exempt from the Consumer Guarantees Act, but it turns out that it is not. The Consumer NZ complaint to the Commerce Commission about the Cook Strait ferry operators taught me that. The PT operators are running a service and if they fail to run reasonably to the timetable, due to their own failings (such as not employing enough staff) rather than due to issues they could do nothing about (poor weather, possibly mechanical breakdown, unusually heavy traffic) then they are liable to pay compensation for actual losses (such as you having to take a taxi instead). So if a scheduled bus is cancelled and you have to take a taxi to make it to your destination, consider making a claim for compensation. If the company says they aren’t liable, then you can claim via the small claims court for actual direct and incidental losses (document and keep receipts). It probably won’t be worth your while, but it may shift the dial on service provision if it happens a few times. Bear in mind there is a published timetable and they have a contract with AT to deliver those services. Also, if they say they aren’t liable in such a way that implies they are contracting out of the CGA, then they are probably breaching the Fair Trading Act and liable to quite a significant fine (and you can complain to the Commerce Commission, like Consumer NZ). One thing: I’m not sure how one can prove that one intended to take a particular service, if one doesn’t have a physical ticket (you can’t tag on to a bus that you weren’t able to take). I suppose a taxi or uber ride from the bus stop to the destination and a screenshot of the cancellation notice in the AT app might do it.

    1. “such as not employing enough staff”

      That’s a bit difficult to fix when there aren’t the staff to employ or, because the employers’ reputation is so bad nobody will work for them

  8. I suspect we are going to need something less labour intensive than buses if the current low unemployment rate continues. Surely it’s time for some new technology in the transport sector. Why can’t one driver drive 4 connected buses for example, with technology making the buses snake along the same path? It’s hardly rocket science is it?

        1. The project is so expensive because drivers shall not be inconvenienced at all! Oh this traffic jam? That smells like freedom!

    1. Even simpler are Bi-articulated buses which can hold up to 200 passengers, another option would be articulated double decker buses.

  9. Best thing we could do to decrease bus times is to return Queen St to two lanes. What a schmozzle that piece of road has become since the decision to reduce the bottom half to one lane. Nobody can get anywhere including buses who are taking near on half an hour in peak time to get from one end of Queen St to the other.

    With so many bus routes going through Queen St or being negatively affected by inducted traffic arising from Queen St we must now admit this experiment was an awful mistake and has produced negative outcomes.

    1. If it was done correctly and all other traffic removed, just have electric buses running it would be great. As always, they do a half arse job and you get crap outcomes. Like all of the “shared” roads around britomart

  10. Still waiting on that law change to give buses priority when leaving bus stops. Overseas other vehicles must give way to a bus that is indicating to leave a bus stop. Certainly a lot cheaper to implement than filling in bus stops and works all the time rather than the non indented suggestion which drivers can still ignore (overtaking), or ineffective on a multi lane road.

  11. The solution to this public transport “problem” is already in plain sight: AT must double down on alternatives ie private transport solutions. Multi-lane arterial roads, motorways and flyovers increases transport capacity, freeing up buses for those who must use them.

  12. Two upgrades would help me use the buses more often.
    1. Wider seats. We are not all size 8, and
    2. No advertising over windows which makes it hard to see your stop especially if in unfamiliar territory or at least turn off the interior lights at night so we can see where we are.
    And I usually walk where possible instead of catching the bus not drive

    1. “2. No advertising over windows which makes it hard to see your stop especially if in unfamiliar territory or at least turn off the interior lights at night so we can see where we are.”

      SOLUTION 1: Use the AT app to track you location and to show you where the next bus stop is located.
      SOLUTION 2: Listen to the on board audio announcements
      SOLUTION 3. Let the driver know that you need to get off at stop XYZ
      SOLUTION 4: Ask a fellow passenger

      1. Good these solutions work for you. But plenty of people agree with Grant about how advertising detracts from their experience and wayfinding ability.

  13. “or even have off-board fare payment so people can just pile on/off the bus as soon as possible.”

    Many bus stop are used by more than one bus route. Off bus boardings would seriously affect the ability of the planners to determine the loadings on each bus, as the HOP cards tracks the number of passengers who board and unload from a particular bus, at a particular bus stop. Installing HOP tag on posts at 2500 bus stops would every costly, plus that data that is collected by the HOP card reader, then has to be sent back to the appropriate bus depots each night, where it is absorbed into the central bus network planning database.

  14. “or even have off-board fare payment so people can just pile on/off the bus as soon as possible.”

    Many bus stop are used by more than one bus route. Off bus boardings would seriously affect the ability of the planners to determine the loadings on each bus, as the HOP cards tracks the number of passengers who board and unload from a particular bus, at a particular bus stop. Installing HOP tag on posts at 2500 bus stops would be very costly, plus that data that is collected by the HOP card reader, then has to be sent back to the appropriate bus depots each night, where it is absorbed into the central bus network planning database.

    1. The system could handle what route they travelled by the tagging off (done on bus) spot, defaulting to random or most likely service if this is the same as another one starting from the same tag on post.

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