21 March 2012

Wellington bus review

Courtenay Place from Mt Victoria, 17.09.2011
Greater Wellington has just completed a public consultation phase on its proposals for a major overhaul of Wellington City's bus services. The review, which concluded on 16 March, sought public input on a raft of changes to existing routes, and a shift to a route model based around a core network of rapid transit corridors, with services running at least every 15 minutes all day. This core network would be supplemented by secondary bus services with all-day timetables at a lower frequency from every 15 minutes to hourly, and peak-only filler routes to serve isolated suburbs.   


The outlined route proposals are bold and will provide access to an enhanced rapid transit network for a large proportion of Wellington's public transport users. The greater emphasis on transfers, with dedicated transfer stations to be constructed and free transfers permitted, will help to build a strong network effect that makes cross-town public transport usage more feasible and reliable.

Transport consultant Jarrett Walker, whose blog Human Transit is an excellent resource for discussions on building user-friendly public transport systems, worked with the council to develop the proposals. He summarises the benefits of the new network as follows:



A remarkable outcome of our proposal is that the percentage of the population within walking distance of frequent all-day service goes up from 58% to 75%.  The last 25% live in very hard-to-reach or low-density places where it would be cost-prohibitive to run frequent service, so we are bringing high-frequency service to almost all parts of the city where it the densities and road network make it viable. 
That's important because frequency is freedom. High-frequency service (every 7-15 minutes or better) is service that's ready to go whenever you need to go, and that can even be used spontaneously to move around the city. 
This kind of network design work is a holistic exercise in multi-variable problem solving.  Each idea for improvement has many knock-on effects that we have to evaluate, and it takes skill and experience to see the best network patterns that optimise across so many issues.  The outcomes don't please everyone, and especially don't please people who are opposed to all kinds of change.  But it is exactly the sort of network design that leads to stronger urban transit networks that more people find useful.  This kind of design also supports more intense urban development where that's appropriate, thus providing more alternatives to horizontal expansion of the urban region. 

There are, as Walker mentions, some drawbacks for the hard-to-reach 25 percent of Wellingtonians. Some parts of the current network that are served by peak-only city commuter services will lose those services, and about 10 percent of travellers will be required to change services if they want to reach the city, which will add time to their journeys. People in Vogeltown, Mornington and Melrose will find themselves dependent on a new circulator bus that links to city buses at Brooklyn shops and the hospital but doesn't go all the way to the city. Residents of arch-suburban Churton Park will find themselves having to link to buses at Newlands or trains at Johnsonville rather than going all the way to town on a single service.

In my opinion the overall model is excellent, and I support the proposal for increased frequency on the key routes outlined. It will mean Wellingtonians will have even more reasons to leave their cars at home, or just not own one in the first place. Evening journeys to town will no longer be complicated by lingering waits for rare bus services. And a single fare will get you across the whole city, making public transport much better value for money. 


But for some areas such as the southern end of the current 21 route and all the current 20 route, direct access to the whole harbourside centre of the city will be removed, which will decrease the viability of commuting by public transport in those areas. I think a better balance could be struck between boosting the key rapid transit routes and maintaining commuter access for suburbs that are outside that major network. It's about making public transport better for everyone, not better for most at the expense of some.  


For example, I currently live in Highbury and sometimes take the 20 bus to work on rainy days like today. This will be less viable under the proposed scheme because the route will terminate at the Cable Car, which will require a separate ticket and an additional 10-15 minute journey, followed by a longer walk to work. And smaller buses on the 20 route, while a boon for navigating the narrow roads, would likely be insufficient for passenger demand on rainy days. 


Could one solution to reduced services be to trade off against the frequency of main services after 9pm (while still improving on the current services offered) and devoting those resources to providing direct services through the city at peak hours? 

Or why not consider my rather more radical proposal to alleviate congestion in peak hours and to free up more space for all-important buses: ban private vehicles from Lambton Quay for two hours in the morning and evening rush. A similar plan for Courtenay Place was unpopular with all the right people, so it's definitely worth investigating.
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