Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Busism" - The Hugely Expensive Underfunding of Bus Systems

Buses bunching on "The Orbiter" circular bus route in Christchurch ensuring a service every ten minutes becomes two buses every 20 minutes or even 3 buses arriving simultaneously after 30 minutes. Despite the fact this system was carrying patronage levels about almost 20% of Wellington commuter rail before the major earthquakes it has never received even a tiny portion of the $600 million plus of taxes invested in Wellington rail. To "busists" - the transport equivalent of racists or sexists - buses aren't worth it! Yet probably a mere $20 million Government grant invested in added bus lanes. queue jumper lanes and other infrastructure, and a sophisticated computer system could probably produce accurate consistent unimpeded running, reliability (including transfers) and add up to another million patrons a year. 

Attitudes are slow to change and recognise we now have the conceptual understanding and the multiple technologies to deliver excellent quality bus services every bit competitive with rail in 90% of situations. 

NZ in Tranzit says it won't happen as long "busism" rules the roost, the Councils, the media, the Government departments which control the purse. 

Never under estimate the power of prejudice to cause damage and loss.

I think there is a huge - and largely unacknowledged - prejudice against buses.

It is a prejudice costing billions of people living the world over, access to quality public transport,  

It is a prejudice that robs thousands of cities of a powerful tool for city growth. It is a blindness that  may be hastening the browning of our planet

It is a prejudice that undermines social equality and a consistent and fair distribution of social wealth and shared resources, not least between cities and provincial towns.

It is a prejudice whose gross distortion permeates the policies of all political parties in NZ, not least Labour and Greens who might otherwise thought to be campaigners for progress, social equality and environmentally effective transport.

It rules the policies of our National Government and its off-shoot branches, such as Environment Canterbury.

I call this prejudice "Busism" to bring to the fore its common structure with racism and sexism

A close friend with a life long commitment to social justice takes great umbrage at me drawing a comparison to "sexism" and "racism". She rightly points out the hideous and appalling abuse of humanity brought about by ethnic superiority, the brutalisation, enslavement and often wholesale murder of one race (or more) by another; OR just as horrific the tens of thousands of women once burnt as witches, and the hundreds of millions still locked in systems where they can be treated as objects for sexual abuse without security or right of redress, denied education other than to be as breeding cattle and domestic slaves.

I appreciate this, I am not claiming "busism" to be such an evil. But I will still say "busism"  shares a common underlying structure to sexism and racism.

As with all prejudice, "busism"  consists of one sector controlling and utilising most of the available resources at the expense of depleting other sectors of needed resources [in this case we are talking sectors of transport]. It then creates laws and policies,strategies that direct resources away from this disadvantaged sector making it impossible to work effectively, fostering in the process a social stigma that the disadvantaged sector is inherently inferior. 

In the USA, as in many other countries, it means millions of people who are already disadvantaged and on lesser or even minimum wages must spent three hours or more of their working day just getting to and from work, or indeed live in areas so underfunded for public transport they barely get offered a service.  It is system that could soon generate similar effects in Christchurch under Metro proposals.

Xiamen, a major Chinese city has recognised free run for its express buses beats a motorway jammed with cars  any day and has built its busways as an elevated runway. Christchurch planning authorities still seem to see buses as undeserving of sections of entirely segregated corridor, albeit in a small city such as ours not quite so glamorous at that above! Photos by Karl Kjellstrom Courtesy of ITDP

In New Zealand as elsewhere buses are left to battle on-street congestion despite clear evidence of their superior ability if given unconstrained corridors to move thousands of people quickly and directly from one immediate location to another. Yet in our country as in most "developed" countries, billions of dollars have been poured into motorways and commuter rail systems. In contrast buses have been starved of the infrastructure funding and political commitment needed to give them effective quality and infrastructure quality and the social standing to transform our cities in the way of which they are showing themselves capable of doing overseas. 

In our own country "busism" sees two cities, Auckland and Wellington, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars for commuter rail from central Government - funded by the whole country - whilst all other cities and provincial centres are starved for equivalent and realistic funding to sufficiently lift buses out of  sixty years of steady degradation and decline.

Despite the fact buses carry approximately 120 million passengers a year in New Zealand, against railways carrying less than 24 million passengers, it is rail that swallows by far,far,the greatest portion of taxes. And yet, placed under close analysis, rail rarely does as effective a job as buses, with thousands of people driving to stations (or having to bus there!) essentially subsidising its lesser effectiveness and needing vast areas needed for car-parks. Passengers often wait 15 or 30 minutes between services even on busy lines and millions of passengers walking longer distances to access commuter rail.

Commuter rail is a hugely valuable asset in built up urban areas but really only a valuable tool in limited circumstances - spending the same money [or often less per kilometre] on segregated bus corridors (which can feed from multiple suburban locations and drop of at multiple other locations) is far more effective - on Auckland's North Shore buses on the Northern busway every three minutes or so to the city in peak hours - and unlike the city's rail system go to many city destinations without need for further transfer.


Whilst local Government in Canterbury under Mayors Garry Moore and Bob Parker, and various district Mayors; and Environment Canterbury under Sir Kerry Burke and now Dame Margaret Bazley have been happy to see almost $300 million of Canterbury taxes fed into enhanced rail and bus systems for Auckland and Wellington they have not even been able to see where buses are going overseas, and seek some comparable (if lesser) funding to enhance bus travel in Christchurch. 

In Christchurch a lobby within local Government (including Mayor Bob Parker) helped fuel a fantasy of light rail that would have seen $2 billion spent on a light rail and rail network that brought public transport close to less than a third of city population - and then to spend $40 million on buses for the other two thirds.

Yet if even a small portion of that fictitious $2 billion had built bus corridors and bus stations, bought land for corridors and designed intersections and traffic controls with bus movements considered equal or first priority, most people could get anywhere, at predictable times and in predictable pattern, in a city at journey times typically shorter than car travel and parking times.

Although our taxes helped pay for every second whistle stop station on the Kapiti line and Johnsonville lines to upgraded and the platforms extended for the Matangi Trains (in some cases exceeding a million dollars per station) in Wellington region, and billions are spent on motorways the idea of Government funding infrastructure such as a bus lane alongside Clarence Street traffic here is not on!!  Busism. And in this they are typically support by years of local councils believing two or three roadside car parks (even in areas with drive in-apron areas) still must take precedence over bus routes used by thousands per day. Again,busism

Choke-point roading locations (notably where radial roads and bus routes cross the Four Avenues or pass Shopping Malls) are not earmarked for bus priority lanes, queue jumper lanes or even widening. The City Council led by the same Mayor who pushed to spend $400 million creating a 7.5 kilometre tram line down Christchurch's busiest suburban road hasn't managed to create anything more than three part-time bus laned roads (two of them partly bus laned by NZTA) with some major choke points left intact.  

Even today whole new subdivisions have been and are being designed in outer suburbs without central busways that by-pass congested entry points and run consistently and on time to the central city and elsewhere using electric buses with gliding smooth acceleration and deceleration (and no rough or abusive drivers) and centralised (railway type) integrated movements and security control.

Local and regional Government don't even seem to understand the need to create the basic building blocks of modern public transport in Christchurch. 

Most administrators and elected politicians are old school, still anchored in the late 20th century in their prejudices and vision. Their images are tied to the thirty year old musty, lumbering, noisy, black smoke emitting buses of forty years ago; the exposed waiting for buses in all weathers in open bus stops and an often windswept cold Cathedral Square. They see buses like that particularly silly woman, Margaret Thatcher, did, as "looser cruisers" or as our own Mayor implied (after an ill informed trip to the USA) the last resort of "the young, the poor, the elderly and drink drivers who have lost their license"


Underlying the present disastrous attempt to create a multiple suburban  hub and spoke system, there is also "busism". 

As a result of funding cuts and the earthquake Christchurch Metro is trying to create the sort of sophisticated system that relies upon good infrastructure support on all routes to maintain consistent times; that relies on transfers with highly developed integrated system-wide scheduling and high frequency levels on all interacting services. 

This transfer orientated system relies upon safe comfortable transfer stations and the necessary roading space for multiple services to interact (and safe pedestrian zones). 

A high quality integrated system  relies upon a sophisticated computer modelling of people movements and subtle adjustments of a centralised computer control. In other words instead if spending hundreds and hundreds of millions on rail,a city needs to spend scores of millions to create a simple integrated route pattern grid that flows like clockwork - easy to understand, use, it takes you in any direction, it vastly increases choices and per se frequency. 

Fantastic !! Except Ecan - Metro is trying to introduce this as a money saving exercise!!  

How bizarre. 

Anyone with 2 cents of business acumen would look at this proposal and say "You are under capitalised". 

You are coming in at such a low level not only will this scheme fail it will probably do enormous damage to the status, trust and use of buses for decades to come. It is an idea that has huge potential to create a better bus system but it needs millions invested and levels of research and planning and infrastructure quite clearly beyond the funding capacity or even the basic political commitment of current local bodies.

Like all amateur businessmen or businesswomen, probably the bureaucrats dream of starting small and growing a good bus system and customer base. It is crap! It barely works for one business in a hundred let alone a city wide mass transit system that must start from the very beginning with a substantial base

The rush of the puppet Government imposed upon Environment Canterbury appears to be mainly to bring Christchurch back into line with National Governments brutal (high by overseas standards) farebox strategy as fast as possible. 

This is rather than to seek an adequate emergency funding platform from the Government as part of the post quake recovery to help sustain an effective urban public transport system regrow itself across the next ten years.

National's attitude to public transport apart from rail seems exceedingly negative; the attitude of ECan and Christchurch City Council seems riddled with "busism" - buses don't count, buses aren't worth it, Wellington gets a further $88 million dollars of taxpayers's money for rail carriages to carry 12 million commuter trips but Christchurch - notwithstanding the huge added earthquake damage suffered - gets nothing remotely similar  to assist its 17 million trip bus system re-jig itself.

All "busism".

Quality bus on a RedCoach longer distant  commuter coach in USA but even conventional urban buses seem likely to move towards the three seat width and a wider more comfortable seat with arm rest separators and wi-fi access as western obesity grows and bus size gets bigger and longer. 

There is absolutely no reason that public transport needs to operate on a single strata/single service level consumer choice, as long as the amount subsidised per rider by taxes and local rates per remains constant. One size suits all is rarely attractive to consumers but imposed by inherent attitudes of "busism" - keeping buses in their place!


  1. You are absolutely right. Rest assured that that the rail bias is very noticable here in Wellington too. Our bus service has been staved of funds but bus usage continues to grow from under 20M trips in 2001/02 to over 24M trip in 2011/12, a 21% increase.

    Meanwhile the rail service has received literally 100s of millions yet has only grown from 10M trip in 2001/02 to 11M trips in 2011/12, a 10% increase.

    The Wellington Regional Council (who now own the rolling stock and stations) still plan to invest several 100 million more in additional rolling stock etc for a service that fails to meet it's patronage targets yet leaving nothing for a bus service that is still growing. The Wellington Spine Study is to look at future investment through the CBD but there is no funding capital to support any improvement in the latest 10-year plan.

    This is an insane and ultimately unsustainable situation.

  2. Very interesting analysis into "busism". Would be interested to see more on the social attitudes to the bus and how these might stop funding.