Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bus, Busway or Rail? No debate, Auckland building effective public transport

Styx Mill Station in the North of Christchurch, the embankments were built using masonry rubble from the great earthquakes of 2010-12 - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2024 Edition.  NOT! Actually part of the $100 million upgrade of facilities uniting buses, trains and busways as well as enhancing roading, cycleways and pedestrian access ways in the Panmure area, Auckland. 

Recently I was in conversation with a workmate and discovered this person had been a policy analyst (or some such) for the public transport authority in Manchester in the UK for six years. It was great meeting someone from the professional world of of public transport and swapping a few notes. I invited this person  to check out my blog. 

"He's no anorak" the same workmate later told other workmates about my interest in public transport, "He knows his stuff allright" (or something similar). Quite apart from  my vanity (of course) I think the dichotomy inherent this statement is a crucial one.  "Anorak" is the pommie word for "train spotter" or equivalent, no doubt based on the fashion tastes and practical needs of sincere people [90% males?] interested in spotting various types of  vehicles.  Males love engineering and I do too, but perhaps more in a writer's intuitive arty way - Engineers are unsung ninja of our world, the people that make so many miracles possible - and I am often filled with awe. These guys that do extraordinary things such as Otira Viaduct, spanning an area of one of the world's great faultlines on the spectacular trans-alpine road through Arthurs Pass and Otira Gorge between Canterbury and the West Coast of Te Wai Pounamu.

Or built an amazing cliff face hugging structure such as at the, somewhat gruesomely named,  Reid Falls* on the same spectacular Arthurs Pass-Otira Gorge road -  a sort of concrete umbrella to send  the waterfall  and excessive rainfall and any loose rocks skidding off to the gorge below rather than through the windscreen.

Engineers specialise in joining things together so they fit and in doing so allow effective functions to occur. The ways engineering skills are used are multitudinous and often obscure. At the height of my career (40 years ago, I've been in decline ever since) I was a "Production Manager" (aka office boy) of a Knitting Pattern publishing business. Apart from being the only job I ever wore a suit to, and being very short-lived (by mutual agreement!) the most fascinating thing for me was learning that all these jerseys and high fashion fine wool dresses that grandma and co. are busy knitting were designed by a fully qualified engineer. 

This knitting pattern firm  farmed out each new pattern to be trialled by six machine knitters; six hand knitters and they in returned filed a report and also attended a meeting with the designer. "The tension in the armpit isn't right", "Yes I agree with Mollie, it doesn't work it bunches up" and so on. He would be feverishly taking notes and calculating things on a slide rule (pre-computers and even caculators, too, I think) and discussing all these fine points. To get a a new knitting design for jersey right appeared to be only slightly less complicated than designing the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The same is true for public transport. I am no expert but I know that I am no expert ( a good start point for learning) of what involves is a hugely complex network of factors that need to be integrated into one design. These can range from the camber of the road surface, to the relationship of the bus shelter to the most common prevailing winds; the walk/wait/bus journey time ratio to the nearest supermarket (and the shift pattern of the 300 supermarket workers), through to the spacing of toilet breaks for drivers. Then the Council doesn't want to put lights here or there (in case it attracts additional other traffic) and the driver's union won't accept longer than five and a quarter hours without a tea-break, and only by deviating via X road can three long side streets get easy walking distance access to the said route. Then if services are to travel to a pattern (say departing a major work zone at 10 and 40 minutes past the hour) the length of the route is crucial - can it be serviced by five drivers and five buses, because adding a sixth driver/bus will increase costs by 16.5% and acually increase by 33% the actual degree to which the route may depend upon subsidies, which NZTA is trying to tie back.  Forty percent of public transport in NZ is carting school kids, if bus companies can pick up these contracts, they can usually  tender at a lower rate than companies totally dependent upon winning timetable contracts to cover all costs. As I said engineers specialise in joining things together so they fit and in doing so allow effective functions to occur.

Thousands of factors, united ultimately only by the professional dedication, caring and commitment of the administrators, planners, planning engineers and marketing teams  involved.

I hear lots of people say "What we need is commuter rail" or "what we need is smaller buses" or "light rail is what we need for Christchurch" my private reaction is what a ridiculous statement, so childish, so naive. How can you make such silly blanket statements about something so complex? Not that I say this of course, at least not in a dismissive way, there is no point being offensive, in some cases I may politely (I hope) try to make said person realise some of the many factors involved. 

Unless the statement is emanating from people whom we as taxpayers or ratepayers (local tax) pay tens of thousand or even hundreds of thousands (such as the Mayor or CCC CEO Marryat) to know more than us and apply that knowledge wisely. Then I am simply appalled. 

Millionaire entrepreneur Bob Jones claimed he once sacked an executive for multiple spelling mistakes (presumably before spell check). He said something like this -  "I am not paying a salary of $80,000 a year for someone who can't spell." Cruel but true. As far as I am concerned all people employed in the Christchurch City Council and Environment Canterbury (and New Zealand Transport Agency for that matter) are servants and paid to create  (within reason) a financially effective and economically and socially useful public  transport system easily accessible accessible for virtually all residents. We don't need this mode or that mode, we need a fully engineered effective public transport system. And as part of this the various tools for the job are evaluated against a range of factors. 

We have lost so much in Christchurch, a huge amount, slipped so far behind Auckland Wellington, missed so many chances to secure Government and other funding. Lost, too, chances to create an attractive transit supportive infrastructure because we let it be built out. A city  failing to analyse need, allowing posturing politicians and ilk to substitute wish lists for hard core research and intelligent, actively updated, databases. So flaky that months after the earthquake didn't even know where their customer base had  gone, other than random guesswork. We have lost so much I believe because there is such a lightweight flaky commitment to the complex engineering principles of successful  public transport, at almost every level public understanding, administration and professional planning and political  leadership. 

In that vacuum has come those with an agenda for mode - we want buses/light rail/commuter rail. It is a word-wide challenge,  the invasion of the undercover anoraks, in the world of public transport planning. I believe that at both political and administrative level (elected members and paid staff) the Christchurch City Council has been in thrall the fantasies of light rail  at the expense of actively developing public transport.

I say fantasies not in a demeaning way but in the sense all we ever heard was generalities and unsupported claims, often grossly inaccurate statements about overseas city sizes (giving only the population of the hub city administration of much larger metropolitan areas). Nor mentioned are any of the other five or six factors that a very minimum must be there from the very start, in even the most basic equation (route area density, geographic footprint shape and contour; on-street or exclusive carriage way; average inner city parking cost; proportion of  "car less" transfer passengers coming off other systems, such as commuter rail; funding system and local/national split; GDP income per person; national population density and infrastructure costs per taxpayer - and that's just the first five!! or something like that. Rail transport fans often laud greater capacity (in light rail, de facto, this often means standing capacity) and claim less staff, ignoring the greater support staff needed for signals and monitoring and  track and overhead maintenance gangs needed. Not least the greater support and policing staff needed on longer and multi-unit vehicles for public assistance and security, conveniently not added into staff per passenger ratios.**  Buses tend to be self policing, not so lengthy trams and trains.

We paid a Mayor and CEO and a planner $28,000 to go for a "study" tour to four huge US cities and their report was great reading, but little more than interesting journalism, no studied and detailed economic or comparative analysis at all. No reference to cost per passenger or what tax breaks were used to lure development along light rail routes [and 37 other factors]. More of a wet dream than a study

What on earth are we paying for in our rates, taxes and fares to have public transport planning being done at this abysmal level?  

No decent and professional level research was ever commissioned or put forward by any of these lobbyists to see how light rail might work or be socially useful or cost effective in a Christchurch situation, measured against the equated factors above. 

This was neither visionary nor strategic planning, this was travelling blind and wishful thinking. The same sort of bullshit that forecast 300,000 passengers a year on the Heritage Tram back in the 1990s (ha ha ha!) to get Council funding  or keeps suggesting more and more ludicrous goals for annual patronage of buses in Christchurch on the same childish principle "saying so makes it ".  For the last five years - particular -  the city has let light rail wishes replace active strategic implementation of policies, policies already agreed upon, let alone the more far sighted strategies yet to be created. 

In fact what we have had is almost no significant major built infrastructure since the first Bus Exchange in 2000 done on the cheap and - for-seen before building -  as insufficient in size to meet medium term passenger growth.  

All this, "almost nothing" in the midst of a worldwide drive (that first began over 20 years ago) to get public transport out of congestion and into its own segregated lanes and exclusive corridors, and rapid transit busways, with integrated transfer stations (to create multi-directional flow reducing linear direction restrictions). Since first started in 1996 - 16 years ago!! - the Christchurch public authority campaign to introduce bus lanes and transfer stations has managed to create three partly laned corridors (albeit with significant unlaned choke points through retail areas) out of nine expected to be already completed and only one passable bus transfer point - at Hornby - and that, one suspects, mainly pushed along by the supermarket developers! And I forgot, $11 million dollars to extend the tourist tramway - nice enough - but with little added direct benefits, fares unlikely to cover the route extension, no comparable money for helping locally useful public transport.

What is so refreshing about the $100 million being spent at Panmure is the Auckland Transport commitment to - gasp - PUBLIC TRANSPORT (and active modes such as cycling and pedestrian access) and utilising and supporting a variety of modes, whatever is judged most suitable in each situation to accomplish effective "public transport". 

This major project significantly funded by taxpayers contributions through NZTA (part of the $1.5 billion AMETI - Auckland Manakau East Tamaki Initiative) involves conventional buses, commuter rail corridors and what will be undoubtably the single busiest busway in New Zealand  expected to carry 5.5 million passenger trips a year [the Northern Busway from Auckland's North Shore is currently carrying 2.2 million passengers a year

According to Auckland Transport they have reduced a nine minute walk to the station access to a one minute walk and upgrades have led to  increasing patronage at Panmure from 100 passengers a day in 2003 to 800 a day now and this expected to be 7000 by 2026 (More at Auckland Transport, Panmure )

 Photo Per AKT blog (sadly now gone)

Connecting, bus,cycle and busway with multiple locations and Panmure Railway Station, the new bridge being built in Auckland, as part of the $1.6 billion AMETI project to improve all forms of transport movement. 

Planning that will boost Auckland's image. liveability and ability to attract investment far above Christchurch's lack of significant public transport corridor investment - since long before the first earthquake.

*The name is ambiguous -  Reid was  road-worker who fell to his death at this area during the building of this crazy spectacular road, so the "falls" is both noun and verb, a genuine memorial name and inevitably, also, very black humour  

** Auckland has a guard/host person on every 70  seater carriage/unit, of a multi-unit train; transport police, employed by the operating authority, or a subsection of local police forces are an every day factor of life in big public transport systems, notably on longer rail vehicles where adequate driver observation,  and response is not possible.


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