Yesterday Auckland’s Rapid Transit Network got a little bit bigger with the launch of the Western Express (WX1), which finally sees a frequent bus serving the SH16 corridor and changes to a bunch of supporting services.
These changes are the most significant improvements to bus services in the West and Northwest since the introduction of the existing network in 2017 and will improve the frequency of many bus services to connect people to more places more often.
The bus route changes are partnered with over 7km of new bus lanes, new bus interchanges near the motorway at Lincoln Road and Te Atatū and over 40 new bus stops.
Waitākere Councillor Shane Henderson says the changes will more than double the number of people in the Northwest who have access to fast and frequent public transport.
“The Northwest is growing. By 2046, there will be 37,000 new houses, 11,000 new jobs, and nearly triple the number of people travelling along the Northwestern Motorway (SH16). Currently people living in the Northwest have limited public transport options and when you combine this with the amount of growth, we are seeing huge pressure on the roading network.
“The West and Northwest haven’t been well served by public transport until now. With these changes, more than twice as many people will be in walking distance of a frequent bus route. Improving public transport means more people can use it easily, which helps to free up the roads for those who really need them. Effective public transport can reduce congestion and carbon emissions, reduce the need to use land for car parking, connect communities, improve health outcomes, and provide independent mobility for those who can’t or choose not to drive.”
AT’s Executive General Manager of Public Transport, Stacey van der Putten, says the changes are about making public transport an easier, quicker, and more reliable option.
“The new WX1 and 11 routes will combine to provide buses between Westgate, Lincoln Road, Te Atatū and the City Centre in both directions every six minutes from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week.
“Local trips to hubs like Henderson will also be much easier, with more buses more often. The network will be based around not just commuters heading into the city, but also around people travelling across West Auckland. For example, you will soon be able to take a bus to Westgate, departing every 5-10 minutes, at all times of day, seven days a week.
“We do acknowledge, however, that these changes will mean some people will need to take two buses to complete their journey. Remember if you do this, you will not have to pay for two fares if you tag onto another service within 30 minutes. Given the service frequency improvements we are making, we still expect many journeys to be more convenient and quicker than today.”
The Northwestern Bus Improvements are the result of substantial stakeholder engagement and consultation and are seen as the first step towards providing people with more frequent and reliable public transport choices in the area.
It’s great that this has finally been delivered but it is also very frustrating that it took this long given the limited scale of infrastructure changes to support it and that funding was confirmed in 2020 as part of the government’s ‘Shovel Ready’ fund.
And it’s that limited infrastructure that is probably my biggest concern with the project. While there are more of them, the bus lanes are not continuous and the bus stops themselves are bleak and exposed – to both the weather and heavy traffic by being in the middle of a motorway interchange. To be clear, these were never intended to be large Northern Busway style stations but the expectation was that they would be at least somewhat functional and a bit better than your standard bus stop.
Despite that infrastructure, if AT can reliably hit the travel times on it’s timetable then the service could be very popular.
At 35 minutes from Westgate to the City, that’s an average speed slightly faster than is promised for the Northern Busway between Albany and the City, and that route has a large amount of dedicated infrastructure. While a car will certainly still be faster off-peak, with Google suggesting a travel time of around 25 minutes, at peak times this is quite different with Google suggesting travel times of up to 1 hour 40 minutes.
Yesterday in light traffic it seems these travel times were being exceeded but it will be interesting to see how that goes during week.
Welcome to Westgate. It took us almost 29 minutes to go from Lower Albert Street to Westgate in very light traffic. pic.twitter.com/oqsX8elHlf
— NZ Transit Buzz (@NZTransitBuzz) November 11, 2023
Great to see plenty of people transferring between new frequent local buses and the new Western Express (WX1) service today 🧵 pic.twitter.com/OlRtQo96R9
— Malcolm McCracken (@urbanistfromwhk) November 12, 2023
There are also some early indications of tweaks needed to traffic light phasing and bus priority to better support buses. These tweaks are in a number of locations but one example is shown below which for the sake of a few seconds, Malcolm says delayed the second bus by an additional 2 minutes.
The median northbound bus stop at Te Atatū is a nice touch to reduce transfer distances but the phasing isn’t long enough for two buses pic.twitter.com/gLeJLwAstR
— Malcolm McCracken (@urbanistfromwhk) November 11, 2023
I haven’t caught one of the services yet but did see some while out and about yesterday, and combined with some of the other images I’ve seen, another thing that also stood out to me was the buses themselves.
Why are the buses not double deckers? – These changes will take some time to bed in and for ridership to grow so based purely on that, double deckers might not be required just yet. But double deckers are more than just about adding more capacity, they can also act as a bit of an advertisement in their own right – a giant moving billboard, reminding drivers that public transport in the area has substantially changed, so get on board and see for yourself.
Given they’re not double deckers, why are the buses not electric? – Electric bus numbers are growing and while there’s still a lot more needed, flagship routes like this should be a priority to have them. It’s not like AT and bus companies haven’t had more than enough time to plan for this route’s introduction and shift vehicles around to enable this.
Why don’t the WX1 buses have the RTN branding, like the NX1 & NX2? – AT tries to differentiate buses used on Rapid Transit Services, such as the NX1 and NX2 by adding yellow to the front to mimic the design of our electric trains. Perhaps they’re moving away from it, like they are with the AT Metro branding, but if they’re not, then the WX1 services should match this rather than looking like almost every other bus out there.
However, it is also clear further improvement is still needed and the need for proper rapid transit still exists. National did support a proper busway in their election policy and a few months ago Waka Kotahi kicked off planning for a permanent solution. Let’s hope that work continues with priority.