Implementing public transport plans in NZ cities

When you promise much but deliver little.

This post first appeared on the TraNZport blog and is republished with permission.

There are two interesting developments in train (no pun intended… sort of) at the moment in two New Zealand cities. In Wellington, the new bus network, based on the hub and spoke model, is being seriously called into question by MPs at Transport Select Committee. Regional councillors and staff are having to face some heavy criticism and very direct questions.

There are significant issues with the network, and there will be an extensive review next year to ascertain how it has gone. I would wager that it hasn’t gone well at all, although I certainly won’t win any prizes for saying that. One of the biggest criticisms has been the lack of readiness for the new network, particularly in relation to bus lanes and other priority measures as well as bus hubs at key suburban and inner city location. Despite the time it took to review, research, design, consult and implement the new network, the preparation prior to roll-out seemed woefully inadequate. This contrasts with the introduction of a new bus network in Auckland, in stages over the last few years. It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing, but it has compared to Wellington and has also been relatively effective, with an increase in bus use being observed.

Anecdotally, the difference between Auckland and Wellington is, I feel, down to Auckland having the right infrastructure in place (though it isn’t perfect), bus hubs and transfer points at places that make sense, increased high-frequency routes, and a staged roll-out. When things went wrong, Auckland Transport responded quickly, as they did when congestion hit the northern busway. Wellington, on the other hand, had no bus hubs ready, no further bus priority measures installed, changed routes in ways that few understood (i.e. removing the direct Karori to Newtown (no. 3) link), and enforced transfers over relatively short distances at non-existent bus hubs in winter (note: I’m not against transfers, I just understand the frustration people were feeling). Small things can quickly snowball out of control. It doesn’t matter how much things make sense in the planning stage, the real test is when the rubber hits the road (or doesn’t, as the case may be!).

A tale of two (or three) cities

This isn’t about what went wrong and how to fix it, I have written previously on this to a small degree as well as pointing out that one of the greatest flaws is the way buses are funneled through a complicated mixed traffic, single corridor in the central city. I talked initially of two New Zealand cities, and the second isn’t Auckland but, rather, Christchurch. This week the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Joint Committee approved the draft Regional Public Transport Plan 2018-28 at its Monday meeting with little change. This is great news, and the plan will be submitted to Environment Canterbury for consideration at its meeting next Thursday (13 December). I do, however, have some concerns about how this plan is implemented. Namely:

  • More money is needed to be spent on public transport in the greater Christchurch area in general, and also to put this plan into effect
  • Timing is crucial, and the city needs these changes made sooner rather than later.
  • Bus priority measures are crucial for the plan to be effective
  • Rapid transit is in the plan at a high level, but there is a danger it could be there as a token gesture

All my concerns come back to the same thing; money. Compared to Auckland and Wellington, even on a per capita basis, spending on public transport infrastructure in Christchurch is appallingly low (I previously pointed out how Wellington, despite having a similar population, received more than four times the amount of funding from central government through the National Land Transport Fund for public transport). It’s fine to put things in a plan, but money is needed to put it into effect properly. See what has happened in Wellington for an example of trying to achieve outcomes without putting in the proper groundwork.

The planned new Christchurch bus network. When will we see this rolled out?

Reflecting on my concerns a little more, which largely remain after my initial look into the plan, I think that in terms of timing, I would like to see the bus changes implemented by the end of 2023 (new routes, increased frequencies etc). Infrastructure to give effect to this new network needs to be prioritised, and the most important should be in place by then, such as bus lanes at key pinch points or bus hubs, even temporary, in place or upgraded as required. The rest should be planned for and underway. As for Rapid Transit, I would expect to see a preferred approach, and maybe even a first stage or pilot service in place (Rangiora to Christchurch train anyone?). This should all be no more than a ten year plan. If we wait 30 years and all we’ve achieved is effectively some rejigged bus routes, increased frequencies and a report on rapid transit, then someone has failed massively. This plan is big on scope, but when you factor in the timing, its ambitions become a little muted. As I said, it all comes down to money. Christchurch needs more of it for public transport and without it, this plan won’t be going anywhere.

The people want better public transport!

Looking through the themes that emerged from the consultation period that were addressed, it is clear that people want a better public transport system, validating some of my concerns. These include:

  • Extended public transport hours, including at weekends
  • Better delivery of bus priority
  • Restoration of the central city shuttle
  • Faster implementation of zero-emissions vehicles
  • Keeping fares low
  • More funding (including from central government)

All of these were addressed to some degree by the Joint Committee. It’s worth noting that rail-based solutions for rapid transit were reflected quite strongly in submissions. This is what they had to say about that:

“The draft Plan includes providing for rapid transit in its future vision and no single mode of transport is preferred or ruled out. The NZ Transport Agency, Christchurch City Council, Environment Canterbury, Selwyn District Council and Waimakariri District Council are working together to investigate advanced rapid transit technologies which could include rail, through the Future Public Transport Business Case process.”

I still think this pays lip service to suggestions of rail services. I can’t help but think that with public transport use so low, so much money being spent on roads, with greater Christchurch’s population about only half a million, there is a feeling that rail based solutions might be seen as too expensive and that even if more funding was available it would be preferable to spend it on other things (on the basis of “more bang for your buck”). The problem with that is you might end up with something that isn’t really effective nor really rapid transit in the strictest sense (see this post). I look forward to the Future Public Transport Business Case, but remain skeptical that it will be a true and tangible step in the right direction. One thing I will note is that Christchurch has yet to see a champion for rapid transit emerge at the local body politician level. Will someone please stand up and do this? I won’t hold my breath.

Final thoughts – implementation is key

In all, I think that the news about the Canterbury regional public transport plan is good. However, there are so many more challenges to overcome to implement it in a way that will be truly effective. That will be the true test, and I hope it doesn’t go the way of Wellington’s new bus network, which really underestimated how well prepared you have to be when you change things and highlights the following through needed to fully effect improvements to public transport. In short, an ineffective, poorly implemented mess.

Auckland’s recent progress perhaps provides an insight into the advantages a joined up, single local transport authority can provide. In Wellington, one of the things that is starting to become obvious is the conflict between different councils, particularly the regional council and Wellington City Council. Put it this way, I am not surprised Wellington is ill prepared for bus network changes from an infrastructure standpoint. Christchurch has at least acknowledged it has a problem in this area, and the Joint Committee is an attempt to address that without undertaking wholesale, disruptive change to the way transport is administered in Canterbury. I certainly hope it succeeds with this plan.


One thought on “Implementing public transport plans in NZ cities

  1. 1) More money is needed to be spent on public transport in the greater Christchurch area in general, and also to put this plan into effect.

    Yes, but preferably under conditions which see vehicle users pay closer to their real costs (which they should be):

    a) congestion tolls in the peaks, or where not feasible b)

    b) CBD commuter parking charges on public and private parking which reflect inbound congestion costs to reach those parking spots.

    c) vehicle users paying an excise tax which reflects the externalities of vehicle air pollution on health

    d) vehicle users paying more ACC levy (or an excise tax) to cover the health costs of inactivity.

    d) transport users paying more excise tax and ratepayers less – it is the road users which demand the road space, not the ratepayers. Roads could be 2-6m wide if there were only pedestrian and cyclists.

    e) transport analysis taking account of the expected future real cost of carbon (circa NZD150-250 vs circaNZD20-25 currently) when making investment decisions.

    If one worked out all the subsidies vehicle users receive, it’s probably enough to cover making public transport free, (which Luxembourg is about to do)


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