Monday, June 20, 2011

Bill Bayfield rolls up his sleeves while Metro minimal response leaves patrons bewildered.

NZ in Tranzit  - opinion (hackels up, nostrils flared from too many crap bus transfer journeys!!)

Four months of this farce? Not good enough Metro ! Not good enough Council!

"Big chief rolls up sleeves to help with quake" was the headline posted in today's NZ Herald on-line. The description is of newly appointed Environment Canterbury [Regional Council] Chief Executive Bill Bayfield, who arrived on the day of the rather nasty 5.5 and 6.3 after-shocks, and today Sunday was out in the eastern suburbs helping shovel silt with 1200 other volunteers.

Hopefully he will prove a roll model (terrible pun) for his Government appointed masters, "Commissioners" Dame Margaret Bazley, David Caygill, Rex Williams and co; and for the staff of the Environment Canterbury [Regional Council] public transport arm, Metro - neither group appears to have done too much "rolling up their sleeves" to help city bus users in the last month or three!

What was a rough and ready emergency response still remains at that primitive level and now appears to be being considered acceptable;  indeed a recent restoration of minimal service levels on some route was spin-doctored on the Metro web site at one stage as "improvements".

Many people already under great emotional and practical stresses (house damage, work changes, family loss, nervous tension, quake-brain) associated with the repeated earthquakes/s/s/s ... are now having to waste hours extras each week getting tofro work or study; or to make complex journeys to pick up family members who can no longer bus; or not able to have a restorative fuller social life (enjoyed from about day three in some suburbs) - curtailed purely because of the bizarre organisation of bus services.

Thousands of people depend upon buses but Metro seems oblivious to how they are cutting life-lines by not addressing the specific needs of each area. There is no apparent targeted strategy to serve the customer base as best as possible.

In a recent Mainland Press [June 15th pg 15] article, the acting director of operations certainly doesn't give the impression that Metro has rushed out to help those reliant on buses to keep moving.  Speaking almost four months after the February quake, about responses still six weeks away, the executive says [my emphasis added]  "The initial response has been focussed on reacting as each area becomes accessible again."

Excuse me? How long does "initial" last? ....isn't Metro funded by ratepayer,  taxpayer and passengers to run a bus service??  To find a solution? To offer a subsitute?

Bus services are operating way below par and Ecan/Metro response fails to impress. Although almost everybody is back at work or study, albeit in a new location, not surprisingly thousands of patrons have deserted the service.

Among areas I identify;

- ECan/Metro does not appear to have negotiated with the Ministry of Transport for added emergency funding,  in sharp contrast  to most other major city services (although "contributing to the government’s focus on recovery of Christchurch following the devastating earthquakes" is one of the Transport Ministry's five stated priorities and public transport support one of its legislated roles)

- using both sides of a street (with central lane traffic speed reduction controls etc) for a Bus Exchange, the obvious and sensible course appears to have been blocked by some department of Council or perhaps central Government lawmakers, completely crippling operations and effectively disadvantaging directly and indirectly (city wide) a significant portion of the 25-30,000 plus people using buses each day** in order it seems to save a few hundred motorists a slow-zone bottleneck. So much for city commitment to public transport.
- the lack of adequate area set aside for an exchange has created the absurdly clumsy two exchange system, requiring three transfers,  tedious congested loops, unpredictable times. delays and missed connections inevitable, and a grossly truncated system.

- The absurdity with a one-sided exchange of upto 15 buses in a row and patrons having to scamper along, sometimes in the gloom or rain trying to find their right match before it pulls out!! Implications are that service levels can not be restored to normal as capacity at exchanges is already exceeded by the existing number of buses, Simple sense would suggest sufficient room for south, west, east and north loading areas, but of course impossible with only one side of the road used.

- the incomprehensible failure to erect wind-shelter fences or extended verandha roofed areas using scaffolding, relying instead upon the minimal seating of two dreary old buses inaccessible to wheelchairs, prams, walking frames, etc.
-  timetable information for most routes is grossly inadequate making journey planning extremely difficult, departure times only given for routes that can take up to 45 minutes and normally list three or four timing points.

- Despite the listing of timing points in The Orbiter and Metrostar and the few through-route timetables no attempt has been made calculate new patterns and upgrade other timetables to give indicative (earliest possible) intermediate times, leaving many bus users guessing, or waiting unnececesarily long times, or missing suburban connections.

- Even offering patrons a simple A4 sheet helpfully detailing all departure times for each route (same each hour) from each exchange seems beyond the capability of the marketing department. Much information is tied to computer use and ownership, inaccessible to probably about 30% of patrons, with no computers, or no power, or cellphones and computers damaged or trapped in the city centre.

-  ALL 15 minute frequency routes have been cut back to 30 minute services which any quality check would instantly show barely effects the west and northern suburbs (these mostly missed severe damage) apart from industrial Blenheim Road (peak hour services any way bolstered) and small pockets of Wigram and Avonhead. By contrast cutting frequency in half on the two remaining eastside south of Avon routes, previously supported by five adjoining or overlapping routes no longer operative severely impacts upon thousands of eastern residents. In the east they talk of "two cities" .....

- Because overlapping services of two or more routes give frequency to many areas, in effect Metro (or Ecan if it is the commisioner's who are setting the policy) has chosen to cut services 75% to large areas and roading corridors where residents have been worse quake effected. This includes much of Avonside, Avondale, Aranui and higher density areas in Linwood near the Harrow Street eastern exit corridor. In other areas with no easy service services have been reduced 50%. Balancing frequency against reduced route access to minimise total journey time would seem to be the very minimum emergency response !!

- Who wants a long walk, maybe 2-3km or more, through gritty windblown dust, or if raining grey slush, at the end of every working day, made longer by extra early starts, relocated workplaces, lack of emergency-added bus services, ridiculous double transfers, and service waits of up to half an hour, virtually impossible to avoid with current non-informative timetables. If people have to walk longer distances to a stop, the least they can expect is a maximum 15 minute wait.

- the reason for closing off  evening services early, too early for most people to get out and back in an evening, (to make a safe transfer usually means leaving events or social occasions before 8.30pm!) and/or for not running 15 minute frequency services is that the ruptured road services noise and vibrations impacts on local, according to a Metro executive response to a letter in The Press recently. Luckily Leopard and Redbus have some initiative, and have not taken that attitude with The Metrostar and The Orbiter!!

- Apart from conveniently ignoring the fact that both The Metrostar and The Orbiter negotiate slowly some terribly damaged sections of road (including New Brighton Road and Gamblins Road respectively) the question remains - four months down the track why Metro has not moved to get emergency substitute services, such as arranging the lease or purchase from around NZ of some smaller step-in Daimler Sprinter type passenger vans or smaller buses to create shuttle loops for passengers in the more severely damaged areas - such as between Eastgate and Avondale. God knows there are enough cars negotiating dusty passage on many of those roads!!

- Or why Metro haven't moved in urgency to redesign temporary shortened routes to at least create a salient access point, to reduce walking distance, or to help connect the area to one of the still open supermarkets. Or created a contracted taxi link?

Ideas like this are not rocket science, they arise easily if Metro is working to ensure best possible service to its patrons! Ironically Rex Williams, the Commisioner responsible for public transport wrote an article for The Press in May  called "Buses doing their Best."  That is indeed a depressing thought.  He also hints the present situation may be used to bring in long terms cuts in services, "Not surprisingly, takings and patronage for April show a 50 per cent drop on a year ago. With less income, some less popular routes may be reviewed or scaled back".

In the Mainland Press article (pg14) a revamp of services, with new crosslinks hinted and increased Orbiters promised, is to be launched by August 1st subject to agreement with  the City Council on an exchange site. It will be interesting to see - it is hard to imagine that a few months would be adequate to put together a really effective new network. But equally hard to understand, why Metro has (literally) left bus passengers trudging along, way out in the cold,  for four months of extra hassles and shoddy systems, is a huge ask, the longest wait! Thousands haven't bothered waiting and voted with their feet to desert Metro, once arguably the finest bus system in New Zealand, now a shambles, a farce, an insult to its customers.

While the water works and sewage and power companies, the library and many other commercial systems have done everything possible, either to restore services or to create substitute services (such as hot shower stations and fresh water tanks in areas with-out running water or emergency library services in shops and warehouses) the Commisioners of Ecan and Metro have failed miserably to offer effective committed response to passenger needs. Far from adding extra services to meet new needs, or far from sustaining services they have actually cut service levels, not least, carelessly and offensively, to areas already most effected by the loss of other routes and damage to houses and services.

There's lot more work ahead for Bill Bayfield in the hot seat, but no time to sit down.

** presuming the  majority of the 330,000 trips per week on Metro, 60,000 per working day pre-earthquake, were mostly double trips (there and back) or involved a transfer by a single rider, and only about 10% of these one way trips (typically, a tourist, or getting a car ride the other way).

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