Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Christchurch City Council dumps Shuttle bus service

..........."By any measure "The Shuttle" appears to be one of the most successful bus systems anywhere in the equivalent world "

A scene gone forever?  Inside The Shuttle, northbound, passing The Shuttle, southbound, on Colombo St

Faced with extra costs and reduced rates [local property taxes] income as a result of massive earthquake damage the Christchurch City Council appears to have permanently dropped "The Shuttle", an iconic central business district serving free bus service that used distinctive Designline gas-electric hybrid buses.

The move, listed in a CCC agenda of 29th and 30th June,[p14] was unequivocal "Removal of Central City Shuttle. Removal of the Central City Shuttle service is proposed, which would result in savings of $1,050,000." There is nothing in the subsequent minutes to suggest there was any move to stop this, or take the more obvious step of suspending the service or applying a small charge.

[ Note added August 30th - the recently released Annual Plan 2011-12 has the comment besde Shuttle Bus - "Re-evaluate when central city up and running again" . No reference is made to providing public transport for the large number of people still living, studying and working around the inner city areas that are not cordoned off during those months or years ahead]
By any measure "The Shuttle" appears to be one of the most successful bus systems anywhere in the equivalent world of lower density high car ownership smaller cities. Despite a capital outlay, believed to be less than $2 million - basically four state-of-the-art for their era (1998) buses at $400,000,  - The Shuttle has built up a patronage of over a million passenger trips per year ferrying locals, foreign ESOL* students, Casino visitors, and tourists in general. around the central areas of Christchurch.

User friendlty, tourist friendly -  The Shuttle

One has only to look at other small cities that made the mistake of investing in light rail - Tacoma in Washington State,  for example (the smallest metropolitan area in North America with light rail) who paid over $US80.4 million for it "Tacoma Link" light CBD route, shorter than "The Shuttle" in Christchurch and carrying slightly less passengers at 20 times the capital cost - to realise how much luck and insight Christchurch had in its choices.

A feature of this choice was that Christchurch received early designs of  an innovative bus builder, John Turton, based in Ashburton only 80km south - their playful style and high profile appearance, coupled with a simple well identified route, has undoubtedly been a factor in their success - easily identified by tourists and locals alike.

"The Shuttle" has been a huge factor in simulating central city living - as is obvious by the steady patronage of shoppers from Moorhouse Avenue supermarkets carrying groceries back up to north city central flats, as well as a user friendly, easily identified way for tourists to get to the Casino and other central city retailing and heritage areas.

Twilight of an icon??

The goal of Christchurch City Council who funded the project (without any apparent Government subsidy) was to keep the costs below a $1 per passenger (to be precise $0.97 cents per passenger operating costs) and to carry 850,000 passengers a year.

Before the relentless and devastating  season of earthquakes these thresholds appear to have been well exceeded with annual ridership exceeding a million trips in 2009.

Although the service was free, the actual subsidy rate was well below that paid out to fund other Chruistchurch suburban buses services where typically city rates and national tax subsidies appear to fund somewhere around $2.00 per passenger boarding.

Even allowing for a couple of new buses or the rebuild and upgrade of bus technologies after 15 years (as is commonly done with commercial buses) the total capital cost spread across 25 years would have been well below $5 million, or adding costs of about 20 cents a passenger in that standard infrastructure cost measuring period! In contrast it would take almost  $20 million to introduce four equivalent small modern trams and many millions of dollars in infrastructure cost recovery to bring real tram costs down.

However it is the cost-benefit ratio to the city - in perceived CBD accessibility; in being a user friendly city for tourists; in stimulating uses of buses in general, in  helping attract foreign students, in creating a lively modern eco-image (The Shuttle is believed to have been the first timetabled service hybrid bus system anywhere in the world); in making inner city living possible without a car; that has been The Shuttle's real gift to the city.

The cost of a trip on The Shuttle stands in stark contrast to the the Heritage tram, which asked $17 per adult fare for a 30 minute commentated tourist trip - albeit reflecting real costs and  a profit margin to private operaters -  expensive if entertaining for tourists it has proved hopelessly slow for locals, even when offered an annual pass at very low rates!  The large sectors of heritage tram tracks built upon pedestrian malls disallows faster trips and minimise value for an alternative form of shuttle (quite apart from trams going nowhere near Town Hall, Convention Centre, Casino, supermarkets or  or CPIT!) and would only increase the risk of horrendous accidents, such as occurred a few weeks ago in Melbourne.

By contrast "The Shuttle" running on a ten minute free service, lived up to its slightly  retro sci fi "Jetsons" cartoon image by sliding in and out of traffic seamlessly and quietly carrying large numbers of patrons, not least from the local tertiary education centre CPIT and other ESOL and from Nanny colleges tofro the city centre proper and the Bus Exchange.

One can only presume Gerry Brownlees and the National Party led Government may have refused Council requests for funding for The Shuttle, which having the flexibility to be re-routed to suit post-earthquake conditions (avoiding cordoned off danger zones or endangered building "drop zones") could play such a huge role in maintaining inner city residential, educational and retail survival and recovery and morale.

Another alternative might have been to create a nominal fare (cash or Metrocard) of $1 which, even with reduced patronage and a 50% farebox subsidy (as promised by the Government!) would have probably met most costs, reducing the immediate costs to Christchurch ratepayers, whilst still stimulating the tourist, ESOL, tertiary studies, retail and inner city living revival.

Instead the city is left with grim prospect of waiting for over a year to a very expensive and not very effective for local purposes heritage tram system to crank up. Or a mix of buses passing through various areas, which and where not at all clear to most locals, let alone tourists, and with a boarding threshold for adults paying with a Metrocard of $2.30 (albeit recovered if used again or on other buses within two hours).

Dropping "The Shuttle"  is a huge loss to Christchurch, directly and in undermining wider use of buses to access the city centre; a short sighted decision,  and let's be honest - probably a good reflection of how ill equipped the current city administration itself would ever be to take over operating a  public transport system, as our Mayor has suggested.

Dropping "The Shuttle" is a huge
and unnecessary loss to an already devastated city !

* ESOL =  English as a Second Language, the NZ term for language immersion schools. Students typically stay in the city between 3 months and a year whilst learning fluent English. The heavy bus patronage by foreign students, has been a significant factor in boosting bus patronage and making regular evening and weekend services better patronised and more viable than they might otherwise be.

All photos by David Welch; the Cathedral Spire (visible in top photo) and Provincial Government building central stone tower, built 1860s, (bottom photo) both suffered catastrophic collapse in the Feb 22nd aftershock.