Saturday, September 15, 2012

Timaru goes into Orbit, a great concept for other smaller urban centres too?

Local urban bus services should be a national government priority in towns the population of Gore, Southland or larger according to NZ in Tranzit. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

Plans to replace some bus routes in Timaru with an Orbital route bus are now well advanced, after suffering setback due the diversion of energies forced by earthquakes further north. It has been announced this service could be launched as soon as January. 

The concept of  "circular" route certainly wasn't invented by Metro (ECan),  which also runs the Timaru buses, but was adopted fairly early in the piece,starting in 1999 in Christchurch and has proved a great success, as have similar routes since established elsewhere, even in very large cities.

Like trams or trains, the distinctive branded buses, the regularity of services (though obviously not every ten minutes in a smaller city) and the multiple passenger generating facilities served gives "The Orbiter" style routes a definable and reassuring presence which allows even non-bus using residents some sense of confidence in access and sense of ownership pride in a city's public transport.

The sad thing is that our Government is prepared to pump hundreds of millions of dollars  into motorways and commuter trains for bigger cities and yet offers no support at all for core bus services for the residents of smaller urban centres.

NZ in Tranzit believes any Government should have a baseline strategy of delivering - indeed requiring -  a local bus service in all towns above 10,000 people, to ensure that people with disabilities (physical, mental, language or medical condition), children and teenagers, working spouses (where the partner takes the car), tourists and visitors and - not least - the increasing proportion of the population that is retired,  have access to "independence" transport. That is to say they are not reliant on parents (for kids) or friends or family or dial up the day before support services and do not have to pay more expensive cab fares or Driving Miss Daisy (however excellent the local service) every time they want to make an independent journey. It is degrading not to be able to go when one wants to go or dependent on others, even in situations, such as after an argument or with a person not well liked when it is extremely humiliating to have to ask support "unnaturally". Lack of Government commitment to baseline accessible independent mobility no doubts locks many thousands of older or disabled residents into less than desirable situations of being dependent in ways they do not wish to be, a horrible way to spend one's latter years. Lack of public transport can also add the cost of a second car for many families, where it is only really needed for one spouse (usually the wife) to get to work, whereas that same money less bus fares could be freed up for better things.

A similar principle to that the Orbiter as planned for Timaru, operating 7am - 6pm Monday-Friday and 8am - 5pm Saturday  could apply with a "S" shape or figure "8" shape route, adapted to local conditions running through the town centre and arms curving around to incorporate all major residental areas, hospitals, rest homes retirement villages, high schools, tourist accommodation sectors, major attractions, supermarkets, medical centres, and employment zones. Attention in the planning should be given too to keeping route arms reasonably homogeneous in social composition and to investigating whether any existing school bus run can be  integrated or replaced by the regular public service, or an extension of it at the appropriate time, otherwise offering services at a consistent time each hour between 9 am and 3pm.

Even, at bare minimum, if the parents of the 80,000 country children catching fully funded, free, country school buses were asked to pay an annual fee of $60  (ie about a month's bus/train fare for many city school kids) that would return about $4.5 million, more than enough I would imagine to cover most of a generous farebox subsidy to the 20 or so towns 10,000 -  20,000 in New Zealand eligible, and some support and admin costs. In Te Wai Pounamu four more centres would get assisted bus services, Ashburton, Greymouth, Oamaru and Gore** - the first three in particular have quite extended "suburbs" which spread well away from the town centre. Blenheim is already doing an attractive job (sandwiched between school bus runs it seems) with two orbital routes  but would also be eligible for comparable funding, requiring services operate over a more useful spectrum of time.

Of course it is not really just a "throw away subsidy", because a bright attractive distinctive regular circular bus service, at least hourly in each direction, would stimulate all sorts of flow ons including attracting retired or mobile disabled persons to live or stay in that town; foreign students (whose boarding fees help pay many a mortgage in the cities); help developers sell ownership flats in outer areas; assist tertiary activities of all sorts; encourage tourists without vehicles to stay and spend overnight;  and reduce retaining staff difficulties (particular teenage and part-time workers) at various employment locations. Not least it would return some of the transport tax dollars taken out of country areas to feed city growth and the cost-benefit ratio is more than likely to exceed many other transport projects. Probably local cab drivers would take a bit of an early hit - most likely less part-time work - but I think in the long run this would be replaced by greater "cab in an emergency" or "cab back from the supermarket" (now my daughter no longer needs to pick me up for that trip etc, as more people developed lives independent of  private transport. By way of a personal example I probably only catch cabs in Christchurch 5-6 times a year - but if I chose to own a car instead of relying on buses I imagine I would never catch any.

In the case of Ashburton, it may even be possible a tender to run an early morning service from Methven (to connect to Timaru-Christchurch commuter services as previously advocated) which could then service local industrial areas, before turning at 9.30 am into a suburban circuit including far flung Tinwald, and operating through to about 6.30 pm when, after connecting with an outbound commuter bus from Christchurch it returns to Methven. This is an example of an integrated service (which may even partly replace a fully subsidised contracted school run) which could be operated by a local bus company with a couple of buses to a distinctive livery (albeit signage could be covered/removable over for the bus not currently used, to do contract work) and possibly employing a couple of genial old semi retired drivers doing the bulk of the work.

Sorted!! Ahem.  Amazing how easy it is to sort these things out sitting at a key board! Really.

Core public transport service is an issue of small town viability, image and prosperity, study and work attractiveness. And is an issue of freedom of mobility, dignity and independence for all town residents. Government needs to get on that bus.

**One thing Core District Council does do well (apart from oversize brown trout) is supply an integrated  timetable for ALL bus services tofro Gore. - a public service no council in Christchurch seems willing or able to do, despite past submissions on this issue. Hardly a sophisticated tourist set up for a major city trying to woo tourists, nor a high level of commitment to encouraging people away from car use Canterbury.

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