With the demise of light rail, the question arises of what next for public transport in Auckland. That was the topic of an interview I had on Radio NZ yesterday, but I thought it was worth expanding on that some more with what I think should and shouldn’t be the focus.
First of all, it’s worth noting that public transport use In Auckland is still recovering and is currently 80-85% of pre-COVID levels. To put some context around that, that’s still puts usage around the same level it was in late-2016/early 2017.
Expanding the Rapid Transit Network (RTN) has become a one of the key priorities of transport policy in Auckland over the last few decades, and it’s easy to understand why. Our small RTN, comprising at the time of just the rail network and Northern Busway, has been a huge driver in the growth of public transport use, with about as much growth on it the 10-15 years prior to COVID as the rest of the PT network combined. This is not surprising as many cities overseas have seen similar strong growth in PT usage as a result of investing in their own networks.
Auckland’s proposed future Rapid Transit Network has only seen minor modifications over the last few decades. This is the most recent version which comes from the Auckland Rapid Transit Plan work released last year.
The government have said they want to deliver a busway to the Northwest, continue the Eastern Busway and build the Airport to Botany busway – though in all cases, with part of the funding from other sources which makes them less likely. In the chart below, the costs are just the government’s contributions to them, with the actual cost of the remaining sections of the Eastern Busway and Airport to Botany route likely to be double what is shown here.
These costs also highlight the big issue with rapid transit, it’s great but it can be very expensive (and take a long time to deliver). This has been made worse in recent years by massive construction cost inflation. That’s not the only factor though, we’ve also seen a trend of more heavily engineered designs so as to never to inconvenience a car driver – such as the Eastern Busway deviation at Burswood, and of course the idea of tunnelling light rail.
I think this has opened the very real question of whether the focus for Auckland in the short to medium term should be on these large infrastructure solutions or if that money could be better spent on other improvements across the network.
So what else could we do with that money. Here are a few ideas.
Build an Interim RTN
One of the big issues I have with our current RTN plans is that we seem to have taken an all or nothing approach to it. This means that some of the routes could take 30+ years to be delivered and we will see almost no improvement to PT in those corridors until that happens. In many cases there isn’t even appetite to run a regular PT service on the likely rapid transit route in order to help start building ridership in advance of infrastructure investment.
I think we need to look at options for delivering interim rapid transit solutions with the idea of having some form of basic infrastructure and service on all rapid transit corridors within the next few years. In their most recent Regional Public Transport Plan, AT have said they want to take this approach to the Airport to Botany route from 2027, which is great, but we need it on the other corridors too.
While certainly far from perfect, the roll out of bus improvements to the Northwest gives an idea of what this could look like – building some basic stations at key locations, supported by some bus priority infrastructure, such as on motorway shoulders. Routes like Upper Harbour, the lower isthmus crosstown and even between Onehunga and the Airport are all candidates for this kind of treatment.
Bring forward the RPTP
Speaking of the Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP), this is a statutory document that lays out how Auckland Transport plan to develop and operate all public transport in the region. Last year they consulted on plans out to 2031.
AT have a lot of plans for improvements to existing services, infrastructure and to the overall customer experience, but many of those changes are years away. For example, the AT’s proposed changes to how buses work in the city centre are not expected to happen until after 2028 and future threats to funding, from either the council or government, could see that pushed out even further.
This is the longest bus sausage I've ever seen.
Light Rail solves this! pic.twitter.com/uSpqp6OQRn
— scoot! (@ScootFoundation) January 30, 2024
Make further RPTP improvements.
One good thing that was unique to the new version of the Regional Public Transport Plan was that AT laid our what they would do if they had more funding.
If more funding for both operating services and the necessary infrastructure to support them were available, we would like to:
- Improve the all-day frequency on frequent routes from every 15 minutes to every 10.
- Add more routes to the frequent network.
- Expand the hours of frequent network operation from 7am – 7pm to 6am – 11pm
- Increase the base frequency on connector routes from 30 minutes to 20 minutes.
- Significantly expand the rapid transit network.
Let’s bring some of these forward.