Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bus system crashing.....

Environment Canterbury is making the most savage cuts in bus service history under cover of reforming bus route structure. But have City Council and ECan really done an effective job in managing buses services and their  recovery?  Or are ratepayers and bus passengers paying a very high price (literally and in loss of life quality)  for a service that suffered far more that it might have, had there been more effective civic leadership more committed to public transport.

NZ in Tranzit investigates the "other fault lines" that have helped destroy a very good bus system

As a result of several severe earthquakes (and multiple aftershocks) multiple city buildings in the city centre were destroyed or made unsafe to occupy. The whole central area of devastated Christchurch was declared a no-entry zone to unauthorised persons. and all businesses and other enterprises had to relocate to temporary or permanent new premises outside this area.

Many streets and the underlying sewerage and water systems in city and suburbs  were severely damaged and ruptured and thousands of houses became unlivable - as much as 6% of total city housing stock.

For Christchurch's public transport system has two or three cross town and orbital routes but is still largely based on a a "spokes of the wheel" system, matching the most flat city's shape. About thirty routes radiate out from the central city hub, which is also used as the primary transfer point.

It was clear from the start that the number of people working or studying in the central city zone would drop radically, perhaps as much as 90% with most of those jobs in the peripheral areas to the red zone, where intact buildings were less likely to be compromised by neighbouring larger buildings. The Public Hospital was probably the largest workplace still operative.

It was also clear that many streets were impassable, blocked by damage or emergency water and sewage pumping stations, and at best even if passable many would not support heavy vehicles such as buses. This concentrated traffic onto a reduced number of streets with much added congestion, particularly in the crescent of streets linking north and south areas through the less damaged inner western suburbs such as Addington and Riccarton.

Before the earthquake 60,000 bus trips a business day (and a number of ferry trips) were taken on the city public transport system, a system relied upon by approximately 25-30,000 persons a day (roughly the population of Timaru). This included not only workers and students but about 8% of the population (one in 12) who according to the last census do not have access to private transport. Many of these latter people are elderly, disabled or poor and would have added trouble accessing to basic supplies such as food with multiple supermarkets closed, some irreparably damaged. 

The task facing Environment Canterbury, Chaired by Dame Margaret Bazley after the National Government removed elected members, was to do everything possible to restore links between home and workplaces and schools, and ensure that those dependent upon public transport were given the support they needed. 

Luckily, Dame Margaret Bazley has a reputation for being a person who gets things done and for being a trouble shooter (she is not paid $1400 a meeting for nothing). Public transport in Canterbury is one of the big ticket and primary functions of ECan, arguably the function effecting the most people [and ECan ratepayers] most directly on a day to day basis. 

This is the awesome story of how Metro and City Council saved our bus system and kept the city moving.

From the start Dame Bazley realised she was required to play a more interactive leadership role, and monitor efforts being made closely to ensure they were effective as possible given the circumstances.

It was clear that the central city would be out of action for a year, possibly several years, with many demolitions necessary and therefore, bringing almost all buses into the central area was no longer relevant. The key aspect was to ensure through route service links remained available. Even if the routes had to be cut in half, to avoid the added distortions caused by traffic jams and bus delays, it was important to keep the through function as simple and effective as possible - find one central point to replace the transfer function of the former Bus Exchange. Access to the central city was largely irrelevant but anyway easily covered by route patterns and a shuttle. This was instantly and easily grasped by both Metro and Council transport officers.

In the circumstances a proper bus exchange system with buses able to move in both directions and no obstructions from parked cars was set up beside the former sale yards in Deans Avenue. The NZ army helped erect floodlighting and the scaffolding and canvas work for platform side wind shelters, and two buses were converted to waiting areas after adequate ramps were created for elderly and disabled access, with added lighting and heating to alleviate the rather gloomy dank and smelly atmosphere. Project Legit made a superb mural on the old sale yards building which was otherwise sealed off. and two food and coffee outlets were also granted license to operate. 

The City Council helped out by using cones and signage to remove stop the usual half dozen cars that normally park in Harper Avenue from blocking up a very useful bus lane, the Fendalton Road/Harper Avenue tradffic signals were re-jigged to include an over-ride switch allowing a day time points-man to activate extended greens or delayed reds when buses were approaching. This helped keep a better link from all Northern route buses tofro the Exchange point. 

The central zone was served by a shuttle service looping the damage area, to ensure residents and workers around the edges continued to get access, the loop moving closer in over the months as more areas, post demolition were opened for resumption of activities in remaining safe buildings. 

Retaining an effective bus service was seen as a major key to reducing congestion on limited through roads as well as reduce the burden on resources, with reduced service stations and vehicle servicing facilities.

Metro is a large organisation handling over $60 million income a year, half from rates and taxes, and needless to say maintained proper professional research, networking and liaison systems with its city wide customer base, notably through its online networking with the 1000 biggest people "movement generators" in the city. 

Workplaces, educational sites, hospitals, the airport, recreational centres, malls and events organisations are just some of the multiple sites which are sent a simple survey  every six months, tick boxes identifying site numbers and shift hours, plans for increases or reductions in staff or new branches or site relocations. In the event of big changes planned a personal liaison is made with an appropriate administrators by Metro's customer sales team and details shared with planners in monthly reports and planning meetings.

It was this network that made it relatively straightforward to "shift the pins in the map", as to where new workplaces were being created or existing sites expanded. It was also linked to the marketing department which was able to create on-line and paper format fliers and posters advising recent route changes through these thousand key sites, for staff and public noticeboards, as well as on-line notices to email subscribers and through Metro's Facebook.  

The marketing department used a bus stop hierarchy  tree, ranking bus stops by most usage, which allowed quick and targeted pasting of updates, route and timetable changes etc using the same "reach as many people as possible" concepts once used by amateur organisations such as Halt All Racist Tours in their campaigns to stop sporting ties with Apartheid South Africa. This effectively helped reached thousands of people not anyway on-line and/or who had lost cell phones and computers and computer access fleeing damaged buildings.

It was not rocket science, but Dame Bazley made sure that the ECan commissioner responsible for Transport, Rex William (paid only $900 a meeting) was right there for thousands of  people already suffereing service cuts and multiple private effects of the disaster.

It was quickly perceived that the bulk or relocations, perhaps predictably, were to underused capacity in the "indycorr" the extended industrial/office park zone running between Ferrymead, through Woolston, Waltham, Sydenham, Addington, Middleton, Parkhouse, Hornby and Islington, with added activity at Rolleston; and areas around the Airport and Sheffield Park.  It was also identified The Orbital Route was getting the heaviest usage, and offered movement around the city that was impaired but still relatively fluid. 

The obvious move was to link some short frequent shuttles from these areas to The Orbiter - given most bus companies had surplus buses and surplus staff, this was relatively simple, In particular Metro instituted services running every 15 minutes in peak hours and half hourly at other times- a shuttle loop from the Airport area and Sheffield Crescent directly to The Orbiter route, and similar loop from The Orbiter route at Westfield to the Birmingham - Parkhouse employment zone.

Several eastside high schools had been amalgamated with undamaged schools in the west - one school operating 9am - 1pm the other 1.30pm - 6pm or similar. Scores of buses were used to transport students a cross the city and this gave Metro the clue to create a skeleton level express service from The Palms using the same route to give workers access to these shuttle service and key western areas. 

This was made a little easier after Dame Margaret Bazley secured an extra $5 millon dollars for emergency bus services, although of course it was only a minute drop in the ocean compared to the billions of dollars for recovery efforts in other fields. 

Speaking on the day the emergency funding was made available, then Minister of Transport Steven Joyce speaking in Wellington  said the agreement would help ensure the delivery of a "very,very good commuter system". Dame Margaret apologised profusely for being overly vigorous in pushing Canterbury's case, interrupting Wellington's latest moment of self congratulation.. Minister Joyce generously responded, "No matter m'dear, but please don't make habit of it". 

Dame Margaret and her off shoot Rex Williams, recognised it might be two or three years before a larger bus could go down some streets, and it was important to get a fleet of several shuttle vans into service. The world was waiting to help Christchurch and it three of the larger international vehicle manufacturers jumped at the chance to help out and publicise their goodwill efforts, supplying three vehicles each and these were provided three each to the main bus operators, Redbus, Leopard and GoBus. Through this method a regular half hourly service was reinstated to quake stricken areas, notably in the eastside of the city, from Lyttelton and Sumner through to Parklands, where multiple supermarkets had been put out of action and even obtaining fresh water had become a dusty trek with bottles to an emergency tank and spiggot.(Or did I just dream this - Ed)

Large numbers of houses were destroyed in the east, as much as 10%, and in some areas the ground has proved so unstable that whole streets will never be rebuilt. The radical drop of population is reflected in school rolls, the Avondale School for instance  - at the heart of one of hit areas - reporting one year after the February 22nd 2011 mega-quake that its roll had dropped from 425 to 310 (almost 25%!) due to people moving out of the area. 

Possibly as much as third of the population of around 30,000 people, in the seven census blocks most effected, have left. Obviously commercial interests can still add up the sums re population numbers and major super market Pak'N'' Save on Wainoni Road is keeping their supermarket (with 285 staff) open, adding a fuel outlet and spending $20 million on repairs and upgrade. 

Environment Canterbury has been just as committed to the area - taking only nine months (phew who burnt the midnight oil there!!)  to create an alternative service, Eastgate to the Palms via Aranui and Avondale etc (no direct link to city) to replace the two, half hourly city-suburb bus routes, 84 and 51, pulled out of this area due to roading damage and repairs. Using one van is economic - it allows a two hourly service, daylight hours and no suitable service for schools and workplaces, including the two mentioned above, because first trip is after 9am. As the time between trips from these key shopping malls is one hour twenty, the amount of time most pensioners take to full a bag of twenty minutes leaves an hour to kill, a great chance for an elderly person to use up their pension on coffee and cakes, or just farting around going to the toilet three times. 

And after all that fantastic effort to help Christchurch bus users stay mobile what a blow, that at its lowest 55% of passengers deserted the services!!   

Although only 2.5% of people left the city. Surely there is a big fault line under those figures. A 25% drop, a 33% drop,in bus use in the first months, that would be understandable, sure. 

But to drop the ball as badly as occurred took special expertise!  Sorry folks, now we just have to hack shit out of the best bus service in New Zealand.

Damn it,  Dame Bazley and boy Rex  fought like tigers,. but what could we do, this was a major earthquake, this wasn't our fault. It was the fault lines fault!  We just took the money cause we are worth it.

Such a wonderful story .....

NZ in Tranzit believes the photos below are closer to the real story, culled from past blog entries

Maintaining through flow;

A clumsy system of two central city transfers needed - three buses minimum - to cross town North-South, that often took two hours or more just get a few kilometres did enormous damage to patronage and the status and image of Metro. The bus shelter in a bus was good in theory but most people voted with their feet to stay outside where they see buses coming and going - the City Council appears to chosen  to ignore this obvious preference and made no attempt to use scaffold and canvas or similar to create curbside wind and rain shelters.

It was incomprehensible too many regular passengers why only one side of Hagley Avenue was used and a few parked cars (see right side of photo above) were given precedence by the City Council  over thousands of bus users who as a result had to travel prolonged loop, and switch buses twice, often wasting hours to travel cross city. Hard to understand indeed, indeed why the "Bus transfer station was sited where it was, when location in Deans Avenue (near sale yards) or further down Hagley Avenue near Hagley High (using both sides of the road - see cars parked below on this Sunday morning photo) - both of these options offered multiple opportunities to route buses in ways that significantly reduced journey times and maintained ease of transfers. 

Main stop at Queenspark photographed on April 24 2011 - eight weeks after the February 22nd mega-quake Metro marketing isn't even oganised enough  to paste or maintain  "services no longer operating" posters on this and other stops on the Queenspark route, and elsewhere

Council assistance for buses

Regrettably I have lost the photo of a LINK bus queueing on Harper Avenue while the lane adjoining the golf course had about four parked cars blocked probably 500 metres of potential bus lane.

Shuttle services to and from The Orbiter or Metrostar

Metro appears to have operated no additional or emergency services other than the LINK bus between the two central city area bus transfers, despite the large number of buses and bus drivers under-employed because of cuts in other services. It continues to design bus routes that lack clear "hop off - hop on" alignment of routes to foster easy transfers.

Networking, customer base tracking and marketing

Neither as a full time bus user, nor employee of a large corporate body, nor as a researcher of public transport information over many years have I ever seen any trace that Metro is working from a fully comprehensive customer data base, a continuously updated city modelling or that it networks on a regular basis with organisations that generate passenger traffic. Even their timetable stands, specifically aimed at passengers, have no room or added noticeboard section for updating customers.

Right hand photo - poor structure, poor scheduling choices, lack of empathy or understanding of passenger needs,  poor signage. lack of maintenance!  Departure point for the four remaining bus routes from New Brighton scattered between two different locations, 100 metres apart, no clear pattern is kept of spelt (this stop is for northeastern services via The Palms except when they come from Southshore via Eastgate). The other stop is for all services direct to the city via Eastgate). None of this is simply and clearly defined - and regular replacement or cleaning of the clear plastic covers of these signs is rare.

Services to elderly etc for accessing supermarkets

The appalling neglect by Environment Canterbury of the elderly and disabled, and the deep impact it made upon their morale and sense of independence was also noted by articles in suburban newspapers, two of of thse articles referred to in this blog posting 

Emergency Fundraising from Government/CERA

The Government is tolerating a lower farebox return in the next few recovery years but apart from a contribution towards the new Central Bus Station,( incidentally, built for about 1/70th the cost of Auckland's Swanson Railway station serving less than 4000 residents), remarkably little call appears to have been made upon Earthquake Recovery Funds being distributed for multiple other purposes. 

Sponsored Assistance from Overseas

ECan may be planning to make bus services a cot case but they don't ask for charity!  Or even a fair share of the NZ transport dollar for that matter!

Ecan and Council making strong commitment to the thousands of people still living in eastern suburbs.

Is there any wonder that people have deserted the bus services in their tens of thousands?


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