Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Taupo and Blenheim - one horse towns.

Taupo and Blenheim - one horse towns.  What the hell! What hornet's nest of small town pride whipped to a lynch mob fury is that crazy wabbit stirring up now? Taupo and Blenheim, two towns in the hinterland of New Zealand, both now over the 20,000 population mark. In former times (before government agencies moved the goal posts) that magic figure allowed a NZ town that size to call itself a "city".

Blenheim in the south, in the driest summer-browned patch of Te Wai Pounamu is getting chubby round the middle, like this blogger, on the hugely successful local wine industry; Taupo in the centre of Te Ika a Maui bases itself on the greatest disaster movie of human history, the world's largest recorded at the time volcanic eruption. (Yeah right, movies always overstate!). Lake Taupo, the biggest lake (note to Aussie readers, with water at all times) in Australasia lies in a caldera created by a supervolcanic eruption which occurred approximately 26,500 years ago. According to geological records and Wikipedia the volcano has erupted 28 times in the last 27,000 years. The mega ash cloud from the last eruption about 2000 years ago caused the sky to be reported as turning red over Rome and China. In between eruptions it is a very beautiful place to live, with hot thermal pools [of course] and famous for its trout fishing and other lake land activities.

Blenheim has reached a population of 28,000 and Taupo has a smaller population of 22,000 but is boosted by a summer season tourist influx of up to 50,000 visitors. Indeed a local bus driver I chatted with said many of the houses, apparently normal suburban dwellings, were in fact holiday homes, owned by wealthy city folk and rented out by the week.

The reference to one horse towns is not a slap across the face and an insult to parochial pride, but reference to the fact that both towns run a very minimal local bus service, the barest token service, using only one horse  in operation at any time. Taupo's has been attractively marketed and branded as "The Taupo Connector" and runs seven days a week; Blenheim's service is a bit more prosaic, "The Blenheim Bus" and runs only Monday-Friday (business days) during the middle of the day. Having read about the Taupo Connector on the Environment Waikato website a year or two back, I was interested to see a small town doing public transport well. Well splutter me latte and froth at the mouth, what a load of nonsense. In forty years of following and using public transport I have never seen such a ridiculous obscure and fragmented and needlessly complex service! The service seemed to run a different inner centre route each trip; to travel to the same general area (near the top of Rifle Range Road) twice in every trip yet miss whole parts of town and had a timetable that even sitting down and staring at for some time, I could not intepret. Unlike virtually every other timetable in the world it did not list the arrival/departure times for the central business district, but rather only the times the bus left outer terminii, in three diferent patterns, with a confusing system of two headed arrows allowing  passengers to add up how long it should take to get to town, according to which route by which it was travelling, if they could first intepret whether that route could apply to them. Even more confusing was that maps for the route variations were presented showing the same area tilted at different angles, making it very difficult to transpose which way it was coming through town.
A service with an attractive modern bus [see photo above], an old fashion friendly driver,  and very stylistic advertising but defying all good principles of public transport - keep it simple, keep it consistent (standard route through town centre), keep it memorable (easy to remember times, if possible same minutes past hour or consistently splayed if longer than hour) and for goodness sake provide a timetable that can read as fast and easily as possible, does not involve mathmatical calculations. The classic mistake is to try to make a bus service do too many different things, and end up doing none well. Taupo has thrown away a good service - one that if clearly routed and marketed could reasonably hope to generate a higher portion of its income from retired locals and a seasonal influx of carless back-packers than most other small towns. 

I was extra huffed after mis-reading the map-timetable  [not for want of trying] and waiting at a bus stop on one street, seeing the bus sail past on another. In general, indeed I was so annoyed at bus services being sold short in this way I raced off a letter to the local newspaper
- I suspect I wasn't the first patron to feel such irritation as the paper gave the letter it a page wide banner headline "Bus timetable too complicated". The dwatted wabbit strikes again!! Dum de diddy dum diddy dum dum, dum bonaza!!  I swear as the long distance coach headed south out of Taupo the following day an elderly couple standing at the side of the road saw me, at the bus window, the old man doffed his hat in mute respect and I saw the woman turn to her husband and say (yes, I lip read!) "Who was that masked wabbit?"

When I returned home I went looking on the internet for other, similar size, towns around New Zealand. I have not tried catching the local bus service in Blenheim, at the top of the island, Te Wai Pounamu but  it also appears to be operated by a single bus - indeed with some sponsorship of Mitre 10, though perhaps that is just the payment for bright orange paint job and advertising. Blenheims' bus service lacks the very stylish marketing presentation of the of Taupo but appears to use one bus with such down to earth intelligence it can only be considered, by comparison, quietly awesome! The town is divided into two routes both more or less rectangle circuits, and both pivot around a key common departure point in the centre of town "Seymour Square". First the bus leaves at 9am and does one circuit getting back by 9.30 am to do the other circuit, getting back by 10am to do the other circuit....not only is the timetable unforgettable (leaves on the hour to area A, on the half hour to area B) but presumably if you want to go from the outer area of A to part of B you just stay on the bus as it passes through town. Another factor is that this service if successful (it has already been upgraded from two days a week to five) can extend the hours of operation or insert a second bus, so all services run twice as often but still a consistent pattern on both routes. Splicing extra services in would only further confuse the higgedly piggedly Taupo timetable. My only critique of Blenheim as a regular bus passenger would be choosing to arrive in the CBD on the hour and half hour rather than 15 and 45 minutes past hour - makes for an unnecessarily long wait for people who have appointments or start or finish part-time work, these  being more typically "on the hour". As for the timetable it goes to the opposite extreme - perhaps too many timing points for the driver's comfort - but absolutely clear all the same, as to what time it leaves each location.

Compared to services in Canterbury's smaller towns and cities these are indeed one horse operations, very much token services, making no attempt to provide a realistic alternative to car use or ownership for the elderly and others, let alone services to workplaces. Rangiora with only half the population size of either of the above towns has day and evening and weekend services, weekdays every 30 minutes on one internal route circuit, and more or less hourly on another. These are both adjuncts of  Environment Canterbury Metro services entering the town on the journey from Kaiapoi and Christchurch, though funded in part by a local transport rate. Timaru about the size of Blenheim (and I imagine with considerably smaller tourist influx than Taupo) hosts four main circuit bus routes, running from 7 am to 6pm and on Saturdays. These services operate hourly and more often around morning and evening peak hours weekdays, complememnted by one or two smaller connections to nearby towns, such as Temuka. Again local rates play a funding role. Given the huge subsidies, or taxpayer contributions towards various social services, from police to surgical units, and towards covering up the real cost of private cars, how effective public transport is has more to do with political attitude than any objective assessment!

Recently there has much talk of disbanding Environment Canterbury, including dispersing the Metro operated bus service operations in Christchurch and Timaru back to local city councils. The Mayor of Timaru, Janie Annear, said in The Press [Feb 23rd 2010] her council could "easily" take over public transport in the city. "It's not rocket science. If you're providing the infrastructure, it seems sensible you run the services as well."  With all due respect to the Mayor, it may not be rocket science but nor is it easy to deliver truly effective public transport. The illusion maybe that in small towns, with only limited services, or one bus even that this will be simpler. As the contrasting examples above show doing public transport well with limited resources can be just as challenging as any other format of transit.

Below; One respect in which Taupo does seem to be leading the country in transport governance - the recent installation of "parking eyes" timed to trigger a GPS signal to parking wardens if a vehicle parked over top of the eye exceeds the allowed time!! Not only a huge saving on chalk and - do I care? - far more efficient policing of limited time parking zones.

You saw it first (maybe, yeah right) on NZ in Tranzit blog...coming to your neghbourhood soon?


  1. OOoooh, I don't like the look of those parking eyes.

  2. Please Note; I have removed an erroneous reference originally included in this posting; to the source of the name of New Zealand which I since discovered runs counter to known facts - David NZTZ 25/07/10

  3. The infamous timetable that caused apolexy in the dwatted wabbit has now been ammended, rewitten in more conventional form, as can be seen on the click through link. Obviously I wasn't the only punter irritated and perplexed

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