This article was first published at TraNZport and is republished with permission.
An interesting concept that may be rolled out later this year is the introduction of express buses between the fast growing Waimakariri district and Christchurch city. (informative articles here and here) Before I get into what that is proposed to look like, a little background. For those that don’t know, the motorway linking these two areas is relatively busy and currently being extended. There are worries – including from NZTA itself – that the new motorway, which extended from just north of Belfast to Cranford Street in St Albans, will create a bit of a congestion issue by dumping traffic onto the streets of an inner city suburb. By 2026, the expected number of cars using this section of motorway is projected to be 40,000 per day. Please see my previous post on the worst road project in New Zealand.
So to counter these problems NZTA has turned the right hand southbound lane into a peak hour High Occupancy Vehicle Lane (HOV), and also has a HOV lane on the southbound Tram Road onramp.
ECan is doing its bit too, proposing express bus services between Rangiora, Kaiapoi and Christchurch in the AM and PM peaks periods. These are kind of interesting in that there would be a separate, direct service for each of Rangiora and Kaiapoi. ECan’s preferred proposal was for 4 morning services from each centre into Christchurch, and 5 return. There would be a maximum of three drop-off/pick-up points in Central Christchurch, and buses would depart from three park and ride facilities in Rangiora, and two in Kaiapoi. Other than those locations, there will be no other stops on either route.
In general, I really like this idea. It has a lot of potential. There are two things I see as being pivotal if it is implemented; it needs to be bloody good (i.e. of high standard, not just any old bus service), and; it needs to be seen as the first step of a vision that aims to provide a world-class public transport service along the northern corridor.
What is the minimum standard these bus services need to be?
It may seem like stating the obvious to say that such a service needs to be “bloody good” but you’d be surprised. It’s often that politicians, policy makers and planners scratch their heads and say “why doesn’t anyone use the bus? We put it there, but they won’t stop using their cars“. There are a few features I think need to be part of the recipe for it to attract full buses.
Double deck or articulated buses
The buses should be large to accommodate peak crush, and provide ample room for people to relax or get some work done. From personal commuting experience in Wellington I can say that being on the top deck of a double deck bus is enormously relaxing due to the absence of standing passengers and the increased capacity meaning I normally get a seat. Articulated buses can provide a similar benefit, and have the added advantage of quicker boarding, which could be made even better by having all-door boarding. The fact that Christchurch’s central bus interchange is built in the saw-tooth design shouldn’t be a deterrent as a “special” bus stop can always be created adjacent. Never underestimate that novelty factor either; double deck and articulated buses can have a novelty impact in a similar way to how people “just like trains”. In this case, given that it is a peak hour only service, double deck buses may be easier as they could be used on other routes off-peak.
Buses should be electric/zero emissions
Why not? Especially if this is a peak hour service, it makes sense. Electric buses already operate the 29 to the Airport, and electric buses are mandatory being rolled out as part of the new contracts (although at pretty pitiful rates). What the possibilities are regarding higher capacity buses being electric and having air conditioning? A worse case scenario would be a hybrid, but I think it is possible to go fully electric and have all the comforts.
All door boarding
I mentioned this above, but I think it really is something that should be looked at. I also think that a cashless, Metrocard only, service could be looked at. That might sound limiting, but it creates a sense of permanence and quickens boarding.
High quality shelters/stops
If we are talking about only a handful of stops at its northern end, then make them awesome. Large shelters built to accommodate potentially dozens of people in mid-winter conditions, real time info, maps and service information, CCTV, seating, tactile pads, bike racks etc.
WiFi and USB ports
This should be mandatory on all new buses, but it is worth pointing this out because if nothing else it needs to be mandatory on this service.
Targeted bus priority measures
It goes without saying, but this crucial. beyond the HOV lane, buses, and the service itself, it is ludicrous to think nothing else will need to be implemented to give full effect to the intentions of the service. What will happen when buses reach Cranford Street? How will it negotiate inner city streets? Local authorities should be prepared to invest in bus lanes and bus priority signals at key locations. The entire express bus concept is hardly “doing it properly” but if you’re going to do it then you need to go hard or go home, as they say.
Look at other measures to help it along the way
I won’t dwell on this much, but driving in Christchurch is ridiculously easy. Despite what people say around the water cooler and on Stuff comments, parking in Christchurch is both abundant and cheap comparative to just about any city in New Zealand, and indeed the world. But you only know what you know, right? (or, perhaps more accurately, you only know what you want to know). Regardless, increasing parking prices in the Central City to levels similar to Auckland and Wellington, combined with these types of public transport improvements, could be instrumental in getting mode shift happening.
A first step to (even) better public transport?
I’ve heard other proposals, including this one by Axel Wilke that provides for a lane in each direction on the new motorway reserved for buses for an all day express bus service. I think there is some merit to going hard, but I don’t have confidence that the political capital is there to do it (yet). The current proposal, as it stands, including the minimal requirements set out above will, in my opinion, provide a good foundation. I see it as the first phase in a mid-term vision for improving public transport on this crucial corridor.
If it’s successful, further measures could be taken as a “phase 2”. One idea would be to replace the existing Blue Line and 96 north of Belfast with all day express bus services. The Kaiapoi service could be extended to a park and ride at Woodend, and/or a new local Waimakakriri bus service replacing the missing Blue Line and 96 from which people could transfer to the express buses at stations Rangiora and Kaiapoi. If people aren’t heading to the Central City, a transfer stop could be put in place on Cranford Street where the 28 and Orbiter pass. Whatever eventuates from the business case work currently underway to improve the wider bus network should also fit in with this proposal as it will possibly see a high frequency service introduced along Cranford Street in future. I also think you could look to replicate the services to Rolleston and Lincoln, although I note the existing 85 Rolleston non-stop service is like this concept but without much in the way of priority measures or much marketing.
I think this is the time you would review the success of the model and start to see how improvements to infrastructure could be made to better support it. Long-term, given there is a rail line serving Kaiapoi and Rangiora, I truly believe that is where the future of public transport on the north-south spine to Waimakairi and Selwyn belongs, particularly in regard to serving nodes, integrating with the bus network, and fomenting transit oriented development. However, if such an investment is not forthcoming in the next decade (and I hope it will be) there is no reason further infrastructure that supports the buses and better driving habits could not be pursued in the meantime. For instance, currently NZTA are utilising one of the two southbound lanes of the motorway extension for a HOV lane. It seems the design of this motorway was incredibly short sighted, given the downstream issues a busy 4-lane motorway funneling into a 2-lane road will bring. Increasing congestion as Waimakairi grows, along with the success of the express buses I see two options here; one, do what Axel says and reserve one lane in each direction as a bus or HOV lane (I’d pick the latter) all day, or; two, add a permanent third lane in each direction as an all-day bus lane, with conversion to HOV when/if commuter rail comes into being. This also has the attractiveness of allowing decisions to be made at key junctures and not locking into one future. Because…
At some point you might jump onto the commuter rail option, and this might be it. The success of the express buses, if done right, could lead to that in shorter time, perhaps before phase 3 or even phase 2. it really depends on the success of things, outcome of business cases, political appetite etc. Yet in this process you retain the critical decision making points where you can evaluate the different options at each phase and make an informed choice. Heck, phase 4 could even be BRT or light rail in the middle of the motorway. You never know.
The prospect of these express bus services is exciting. I take a great interest in public transport projects throughout New Zealand, but Christchurch fascinates me because – apart from originally being from there – it’s utterly awful transport habits and barely existent public transport make it an exciting sort of blank canvass. I have a similar nerdy fascination with Auckland and some other historically car-centric cities around the globe. Something like this may not seem exciting, but I like the way it targets a very specific problem that has far reaching implications. It’s trying to do as much as possible with very little, which is about all that could be expected in a city with poor historic investment in public transport. If successful, this could be a gateway to better investments in future. The results of consultation seem positive, so I hold out hope this plan will be implemented. The issue is whether the rates increases are justified in the current environment. I would say they are in the sense they are relatively minor, and that the completion of the northern motorway extension has been pushed out to end of 2020 rather than mid-year.
I’ll also just leave this here:
This is my proposal for a rapid transit network for Christchurch consisting of two commuter rail lines to Rangiora and Rolleston, upgraded bus services along the key northern and southern routes (perhaps similar to Vancouver’s rapid bus concept), and a central city busway through the city. I promise to revisit this soon, including with an updated, better map (offers of help appreciated!), and a little more context, information, and insight on learnings from the past year or so. In the meantime, ensure you wash your hands, stay home if you’re feeling unwell, and keep safe.