A bouquet (of sorts) for the Christchurch airport bus

NZBusCards
HOP, Snapper, Metro – have cards, will travel…

I make fairly regular visits from Christchurch to Auckland and Wellington, mostly for work. Much of the time, I find that the available public transport services there are sufficient to get me to and from the respective airports to where I need to go (usually downtown), so I have the “full set” of PT cards for the main centres. We know that Christchurch’s bus service has been fairly regularly maligned lately (some of it for valid reason). But in comparison with other big city services, it’s hard to beat the Chch bus connection to our airport.

As described elsewhere, my usual connection from home to the airport (typically at about 5.30am) is a combo of bike to the Bus Interchange and then #29 bus to the airport. Total travel time door-to-door from the other side of town of about 45-50 minutes. Now, of course I could get there a little quicker, if I drove myself, or took a taxi or Uber (if I could find one handy at that time of the morning). But all of these would involve considerably more cost for the privilege; typically $25 upwards (more like $60 for the taxi). So it’s pretty hard to beat an airport bus service that can get you anywhere in town for just $2.65 with your MetroCard (even the $8.50 airport cash fare isn’t too bad, but for any semi-regular visitor to Christchurch, I always recommend to them that they get themselves a MetroCard).

Now contrast this with the offerings elsewhere:

  • The Auckland SkyBus normally costs you $19 each way to downtown, even with a HOP Card (at the moment there is a “Summer saver”, which could bring things down to $16 each way if you buy a return fare)
  • The Wellington Airport Flyer service costs $12 each way to downtown, even with a Snapper Card.

(I should mention that there is a cheaper alternative for Auckland; you can take the #380 bus to Papatoetoe station and then get a train into town for only $4.80 via HOP Card. Probably takes about 10 minutes longer and does require you to connect between services though, but it is a fairly well coordinated system.)

So why the price difference? Some of it for Auckland can be explained by distance; it’s about 20km into downtown Akld vs ~10km for Chch (although remembering that you could actually travel right across Chch to, say, Sumner 20km away and it would still only cost you $2.65). Wgtn has even less excuse, as the trip there into downtown is no more than 8km.

WgtnFlyerSign
This notice has been greeting Wgtn Airport bus users for the past few months

Wellington used to cost “only” $7.20 with a Snapper Card. But then the new public transport contracts started mid-year and NZ Bus, who operate the service, hiked up the fare for everyone. They have also been threatening to stop accepting Snapper Card for payment since October (requiring cash or EFTPOS payment instead), although that deadline has twice been extended through to 1 Feb 2019 now.

How does this happen? Basically because both SkyBus and Airport Flyer are “fully commercial” services, i.e. they receive no subsidy from NZTA and their respective regional councils, as the operators figure that they can make a profit on them without it (usually due to the large cash fares they charge for non-regular users). As a result, they fall outside the general fare pricing/payment systems put in place for the rest of the PT network.

Christchurch meanwhile has continued to keep its airport services within the fold, thus requiring them to honour the standard MetroCard fares. It means that the airport services continue to be exceptional value for money for the regular user; in fact I’ve even suggested to Environment Canterbury that, if they were looking for more revenue, they would still be very good value even as a “Zone 2” fare ($3.85).

(Honourable mention also to Queenstown, whose new ‘Orbus’ public transport system includes flat $2 fares across the network with a GoCard, even to the airport…)

OK, so that’s the good news; what could be improved?

  • It used to be that a couple of useful advantages of the Akld/Wgtn services were the free wifi onboard and the in-bus announcements/displays of each stop (handy for the unfamiliar visitor). Now however, Chch has also caught up in that regard.
  • The frequency of the main #29 service is currently only every 30 minutes; contrast with the SkyBus and Airport Flyer (both every 10 minutes for much of the time). However, that is a bit misleading as there are also Purple Line buses every 30 minutes to town via University/Riccarton, as well as #125 buses at least as frequently towards Papanui/Redwood and Hornby/Halswell. The new long-term public transport plan just signed off proposes a high-frequency airport service (although oddly, it suggests that it might go via Wairakei Rd instead, which seems less direct).
  • Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the current bus service in Chch is where it is located at the airport. You couldn’t get a more remote location, compared with the car parking and taxis right outside; this is not helped by the current construction works requiring people to negotiate an ever-changing route of temporary barriers to get to an unsheltered stop. A live display screen prominently located inside the terminal listing the times to next buses would also be useful; at the moment it feels like a “beware of the leopard” sign might be more appropriate. A cynic might almost be forgiven for thinking that the airport is deliberately trying to steer people towards the taxis and parking where no doubt they make a lot of revenue… Wgtn is not much better in this regard (although at least the new bus stop is fully sheltered); only Akld gets it right by giving the buses priority space right outside the terminal. There is a future Master Plan for Chch Airport that is more accommodating for bus services, but I’d rather not wait 20 years for that.
ChchAirportBus
Spot the bus: far away from the terminal, through the construction zone, a red #29 bus can just be seen…

So while I think there could certainly be some improvements to the way that the Christchurch airport bus service is promoted, it’s hard to beat its outstanding value for money.

Have you tried the airport bus services in Christchurch and elsewhere? What did you think?

4 thoughts on “A bouquet (of sorts) for the Christchurch airport bus

  1. If the weathers fine and you’ve got time you can walk out the wellington terminal onto the suburban streets to get the #2 bus into town cheap as chips

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    1. Yeah, that’s not a bad option sometimes; I’ve done it a couple of times. Mind you, it is over 500m away from the terminal to the stops (and the busy road crossing to get there is pretty appalling)

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  2. Good article, Glen. The #29 service in Christchurch is also a commercial service (of sorts). It started off as a fully commercial service but was brought under the Metro brand. If I remember correctly, the deal that was made at that time was (is) as follows:
    * From the city to the Antarctic Centre, the service runs under normal Metro conditions (with subsidy and the rest of it).
    * From the Antarctic Centre to the Airport, the service remains commercial.
    * A condition to bring it under the Metro banner was that Redbus had to allow MetroCard holders to use it under the normal Zone 1 rules, including the airport part of the journey.
    * It’s up to Redbus how much they charge those who pay cash to go to or from the airport.

    So if you don’t have a MetroCard and want to get to (or from) the airport on the cheap, you pay the Zone 1 cash fare ($4) to (from) the Antarctic Centre and walk the last few hundred metres.

    But as you say, more competition for this one commercial service is coming in the form of the proposed “port to port” service. The thinking is to take the #28 bus from Lyttelton Port and pair it with the #17 service that currently stops at Sheffield Cres and extend that one to the airport; hence via Wairakei Road as that is where the #17 currently travels. That’s supposed to be a 15-min service as I understand it. Great!

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  3. I always thought it would be helpful to have a metroinfo counter prominently located in the terminal, or at least an existing vendor that doubles as one, where visitors can get maps and metrocards and ask for help etc. Even an unmanned display would be a significant improvement.

    The location of the bus stops in relation to the terminal is downright mad, and it doesn’t help that signage is barely existent and inconspicuous. I always feel like I’ve stumbled upon a secret when I get there.

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