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Engaging with Metlink about the buses – on Facebook

by Mark Cubey
Last night saw the launch of Metlink Live: On Our Way, a Facebook forum “developed to listen further” to concerns about changes to Wellington’s public transport network.

This new initiative offers digital, live-chat sessions that let communities question the Metlink transport team, and share experiences so they might more clearly understand issues faced by passengers.

It’s a good idea, in theory. Facebook is where people are at, so Metlink had to go there, and this kind of forum is a good way to collate concerns about specific areas of the public transport mess, provide information, dispel misconceptions and commit to resolving issues within a timeframe.

Some of that happened last night in the first such forum, on Kilbirnie issues.

You can look at how it went at facebook.com/MetlinkOnOurWay (now with over 300 comments).

But Facebook is messy, kind of like the bus system, and being there for the live aspect was like going to an annoying real life public meeting with lots of shouting all at the same time, with sideways crossfire, and people not keeping to the brief.

Also, the planned 30 minutes was never going to be long enough for what turned out to be a flood of questions and comments (the session was sensibly extended to 8:30pm) with some participants complaining after ten minutes that their questions weren’t being answered Right Now.

And online you don’t get the same kind of moderation of serial complainers, time limits to questions, or the gales of laughter or waves of derision that can enliven real-life community events. But at least I didn’t have to sit on an uncomfortable chair and then attempt to get home on the bus.

This first online forum followed a fractious community meeting on Kilbirnie and its surrounds, on Sunday at St Pat’s College.

Metlink noted public responses from that meeting, and framed three core Kilbirnie problems for this online meeting: problems transferring at bus hubs, issue of capacity and overcrowding on buses and timeliness – buses running late or, worse, early. These are all significant.

But as Frank Lawton pointed out in a response to a Metlink post on the Kilbirnie public meeting, they don’t address higher level matters such as “the extent to which the hubs are a problem and a disincentive for people to go by bus” and “your contracting of the operators is not as flexible as you need it to be.”

Or indeed, if the changes are needed at all, which has been a common complaint since the changes were introduced on 15 July.

Metlink has a standard response:

“The introduction of the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) by central government was to future proof it for expected growth of the region. We are expecting passenger journeys to grow from 38 million to 42 million in 2024.”

This is why the unpopular bus hubs and route changes have been introduced, and the reason why Wellington will not be returning to its former system.

Metlink’s response to complaints about bus cancellations, lateness, driver unfamiliarity with routes, drivers playing radios, overcrowding on buses and so forth has often been “we will take it up with the operator”.

There are two operators: NZ Bus, which still runs most of the routes through Kilbirnie, and newcomer Tranzit. Negotiations between Metlink and the operators are not going to be carried out in public, and making changes to established contracts (ie. increasing bus frequency, changing routes) is not something that can be imposed unilaterally by Metlink.

However from October, they will be able to penalise contractors for failure to deliver on the agreed services.

What else is likely to happen?

There is a lot of concern about the unsuitability of Hataitai Village as a transfer point (semi-hub?), and while Metlink seem convinced that capacity didn’t warrant the retention of the #14 service continuing to Kilbirnie from Hataitai, pressure from the public and GWRC councillor Sue Kedgley may yet bear fruit on this issue.

As is the case in most areas, the Kilbirnie bus hub is a temporary solution, with the finishing of the eventual site delayed by the excavation works being carried out by Wellington Water.

The hub will not be in a final form until the end of September, and it’s too soon to tell how this will work. Or not work – having shelters adjacent to the entry and exit points for the Mobil service station always seemed like a weird move. It’s a real shame that the council couldn’t kick KFC and Mobil off their current sites and turn the area into a full-facility luxury Bus Shub (with spa). Opportunity missed.

Metlink’s commitment is that

“When properly working, on average you shouldn’t have to wait more than five minutes to make a timetabled connection to another bus at a sheltered bus hub.”

That’s a bold claim, and they will need to be held to it.

Real Time Information is obviously a huge priority problem for Metlink as it is causing difficulties all across the network, with online and roadside signs still not providing the same information. The technology fix must surely be resolved soon … though “ghost buses” (when scheduled buses… disappear) were a problem even before the changes were introduced.

Late or early running buses are causing ongoing frustration, which Metlink acknowledge. Some services have run late as drivers get used to the new routes (this is a Tranzit and NZ Bus problem, not Metlink).

Some timetables have needed fine tuning so buses don’t bunch up and run late. This was always going to be required; there was no way of accurately testing this, despite claims that this should have happened. (The time taken getting on and off double deckers though… how easy would that have been to work out?)

Many passengers would have been used to buses arriving late, or not at all, before this change happened, but this really needs to be sorted.

Metlink says that overcrowding in the Kilbirnie area has been caused by “smaller-capacity buses sometimes being deployed at peak times, as well as cancelled services and buses not running to timetable” and that they are “working with operators to introduce improved depot management practices to ensure only bigger buses are used during peak services”.

They are also deploying extra back up buses between Lyall Bay, Haitaitai and the Wellington train station to provide more capacity.

Expect this to continue with the “fine tuning” that people on the forum were complaining about. We’ll see if it works.

In the meantime, watch out for people who might need a seat or disabled access or general assistance on a crowded bus. Because optimum capacity is the new reality; the days of catching a fairly empty bus whenever you wanted to are probably over.

There were other specific issues raised in the forum, and this long piece would have to be much longer to deal with them all. And I haven’t even touched on the problems that drivers are facing in trying to cope with the exigencies of the new system, and their stalled negotiations with their bus company employers. Another time.

I should note though how impressed I have been with the audience engagement team at Metlink, who appear to be playing the best and most transparent hand they can, dealt to them from a stacked deck.

They engaged helpfully and courteously with complaints on Twitter pretty much from day one of the Great Change, and so it was on Facebook with this forum.

It took a while (I asked how many staff were working on it, but haven’t heard back), but they are eventually getting to everyone who contributed last night, including responding to an enquiry from Sarah Free, the only WCC councillor to participate.

She asked about the standard time frame for getting back to people who have tweeted, emailed or written with issues.

The answer: “We do aim to get back to any requests within ten working days.”

So, let us know, at news@thewellingtonapp.co.nz, if this is happening. And with anything else you want to say.

Lastly, a suggestion for future forums: make it one question per post to keep the discussion simple and clean. Long lists of questions all in the one Facebook rant are really hard to deal to. Less is more.

The next online (bus) stop for Metlink Live is Karori, on Monday 3 September from 7:30pm (again, only for 30 minutes, but we will see). With the planned reinstatement of the 18 route, this may be a simpler discussion. Maybe not.

Or, if you’re in the western suburbs and prefer face to face, there’s a community meeting tomorrow night from 7:30pm at Karori West School, 19 Allington Road.

More will follow in the coming weeks.

If there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that people are engaging with each other about their community in a way we haven’t seen in Wellington for years.

Mark Cubey is Editor of the Wellington App, where this article was first published this morning.

15 comments:

  1. Lim, 29. August 2018, 19:24

    @Mark. I am afraid I have quite a different impression of the Facebook Live session. It was nothing more than the usual Metlink PR spin and to show that “it has consulted with the public”. There was absolutely nothing from Metlink to explain why a hub and spoke network design will work at all in Wellington. Anyone with a bit of network design knowledge can easily see that all the symptoms that we are seeing are caused by a deeply flawed network design. We are now into month two of implementation and it is still having teething problems after 8 years of planning. Even my kids are saying these are not teething problems!

    The following are prerequisites to make hub and spoke transport network work:
    – Multi lane roads
    – Dedicated bus lanes
    – Multi lane roads at hubs where parallel buses can pass each other
    – Purposely designed and built hubs where people can feel safe and be sheltered from the elements
    – Excellent time keeping for 99% of journey

    Can GWRC tell the public it has all these prerequisites to make hub and spoke works for Wellington?

    Notwithstanding the above prerequisites, does GWRC really expect people to transfer for a journey less than 3Km knowing that you have over a 50% chance of missing your connection due to flawed network and poor time keeping. Can GWRC point to an example anywhere in the world which has a similar geography and topography to Wellington’s where hub and spoke works WITHOUT all the prerequisites?

    Until GWRC can answer the above questions, all the consultation sessions are nothing more than PR spin and people are not stupid.

     
  2. Trish Fenaughty, 29. August 2018, 20:09

    It takes time to order buses and the regional council made the timetable the way it was knowing that the companies would not have all the large buses they needed. I am saying this just to correct the lies that have come from some councilors so that people understand again, that it was the regional council that allowed this mess to happen. Even when both companies get those requirements sorted, there will still be major issues with the bus network for several reasons:

    Driver shortages due to people leaving the job because they lost terms and conditions when the new contractor came in. Those who remain and the new people from out of town filling in the gaps now find the work very stressful. A reduction in the frequency of the service makes the job much more stressful packing people on the buses. Angry customers, lots of complaints, health and safety concerns are driving some people away.

    Buses are also off the road due to being smashed up by people not familiar with the roads or tired and stressed. It isn’t going to get better until the driver shortage is fixed and the service frequency is increased to what the networks actual needs are.

     
  3. Lim, 29. August 2018, 21:17

    @Trish. I agree with you that GWRC has not managed employee relationships well on top of a flawed network design and a botched operational implemention worthy of a case study for MBA students on how not to do things so badly. For the record, below are objectives for the new network straight from the GWRC web site:
    1. More routes, more often, means more options for customers.
    2. We’ve listened to customers and designed a network of bus routes where more people have easier access to more services when they want to travel.
    3. There are new weekend services, travel times are faster on key routes and more people have direct routes to important destinations, like Wellington Hospital and Victoria University.
    4. The New Bus Network will make taking the bus around Wellington easier and more convenient.
    5. With a more flexible service in place, more people will choose the bus for their daily travel, creating more demand and less congestion. A win-win for all who travel.

    Can GWRC tell the public which if ANY of the objectives have been met by this new network back up real world data rather than usual PR Spin?

    There is so much data stored within the Snapper system. A data analysis of the above objectives is more than possible. Why don’t we get some real world data analysis rather all these PR Spin?

    Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me !

     
  4. Lim, 29. August 2018, 22:02

    Another point. Blaming the POTM for a fundamentally flawed network design is diversionary at best and avoiding accountability at worst. POTM is a business and financial framework. It is the job of the network designers/transport planners to design something which is FIT FOT PURPOSE under the POTM framework. There is no logic in blaming POTM when you design something which fails to take into account the infrastructure prerequisites in order to make hub and spoke model work.

    Also where is the due diligence that some other network design might produce a far better outcome while still fitting within the POTM framework? This is failure on the duty of care coming from the network designers/transport planners on producing something which actually works for Wellington. No amount of PR spin and shifting blame can mask the design failure.

     
  5. Zoodoomo, 29. August 2018, 22:59

    Trish. Sounds like you are a bus driver. Which one of the companies do you work for?

     
  6. Ian, 30. August 2018, 7:41

    @Lim – we know who POTUS is. Donald keeps reminding us! But you may need to start a competition to define POTM for us.
    “President of the Metlink” is a possible starter, but there are other definitions! Are you a candidate for this position?

     
  7. Jane, 30. August 2018, 8:58

    I think Mr Cubey must be living in an alternative reality, or is friends with somebody at Metlink. The people who commented and asked questions on the Facebook forum were asking questions that they have asked many times before, and for which they have no confidence in getting a straight answer. It became obvious at Sunday’s meeting at St Patrick’s College that the GWRC councillors and staff are utterly at sea. They have created an indescribable mess, they have inconvenienced thousands of people, and they have proved they have no competence in a variety of areas.

    Regarding the Hubs. A lot of people who catch the bus or transfer at Kilbirnie are aware that the stormwater works are significant, and require extensive work. That the stormwater works have delayed the Kilbirnie Hub is not one of the biggest issues. What is a bigger issue is that other hubs were not completed when the new services began. Some are still not completed. Meanwhile, people are standing in the rain, waiting for delayed or non-existent buses. What has been a major issue at the Kilbirnie temporary hub (at Pak and Save) is that they didn’t move the live departure board.

    I think a lot of people have sympathy with the problems that have faced the Metlink media/comms team. We appreciate that they are in an office somewhere, and have no control over where buses actually are. They can’t magically conjure up a missing bus. And yes, they have been polite. However, a lot of their advice has really got on the wicks of people who are, every day in many cases, having their commutes to work, their journeys to medical appointments, or other commitments derailed by an inadequate bus service. Chirpy comments from Metlink like this generic example, repeated day in, day out, begin to grate: ‘Hi Craig! We’re sorry you’ve had this experience [i.e. standing in the rain for 45 minutes while two or more scheduled services fail to appear, or are too crowded to board.].Let’s see if we can find a better travel option for you.’ Equally irritating is one response a friend received the other day ‘Perhaps try an earlier service’ – well, yes, good idea. A lot of people are trying earlier services. But, if you have to get children to school, or have other obligations, sometimes it’s just not possible to be on a bus at 7am to ensure you can reach your destination … especially after 10 or more years of being able to get a reliable bus at 8.15am.

    Metlink staff are also making an assumption that everybody has an internet-enabled phone, and is able to do use it. This is not the case, and not just because some people are Luddites.

    It is a shame that Metlink staff (and in some cases, drivers too) are getting the flack for something that isn’t their fault. Personally I have been really impressed by the patience exhibited by many passengers when their new driver gets lost, misses stops, etc. But in terms of communicating with Metlink, people are really irritated, and rightly so (as we’re still paying for our journeys) that the Metlink approach is one of bright and breezy stock answers, which promise a lot, but deliver nothing. A number of people expert in media/comms, and call centre management have commented that the Metlink strategy has been wholly inadequate and ineffective.

    The point of the forum on Facebook, which seemed to cause Mr Cubey so much rage, is to let people record their frustrations, in writing. This is a form of evidence, and it is important that passengers realise that their struggles shared by others. And, as we are the ones who are still paying for this terrible bus service, I think we can become heated if we want.

     
  8. Lim, 30. August 2018, 9:04

    @Ian. No interests in politics (not yet anyway) and Dr Google can easily explain what POTM is.

    In my professional life, I have led some very complex design and implementation of nationwide data transport networks involving people, process and technology. I speak out because it pains me to see a functional network get butchered and replaced with something which failed even basic design principles.

    It infuriates me to see all sort of PR spin put on this new network which does not live up to professional engineering codes of conduct. The fallout of the debacle has also affected badly a segment of society who can’t afford cars and rely on public transport.

     
  9. Glen Smith, 30. August 2018, 9:08

    Lim. As you say the PTOM is a business framework that gives direction on how to implement the transport network design decided by our local body. It doesn’t determine the network design. The newly imposed and fundamentally flawed Hub and Spoke design that unnecessarily forces transfers and huge delays on large numbers of commuters is purely down to out local planners and ultimately, as our elected representatives, our Regional Councillors.
    Planners are right that the previous status quo was unsustainable, largely due to inadequate capacity across the CBD to cater for required growth, and changes were required. However the ‘solution’ of trying to increase capacity by aggregating demand and imposing transfers, rather than increasing across town capacity by adding an additional corridor and extending our higher capacity rail network, is purely due to our planners non objective personal biases. If they disagree they should be able to supply modelling and research that demonstrates a Hub and Spoke design is both necessary and superior to the alternative (of adding a rail corridor). And as you say they should be able to supply real world examples of where a Hub and Spoke design has been successfully implemented in a city of Wellingtons size, topography and compact transport architecture.

    They won’t be able to. The Hub and Spoke design is fundamentally flawed and needs to be rethought. Regional Councillors, the planners and management are answerable to you. They provide information on the available options and make the decisions on which is best. Time to act on our behalf, tell them they have got it wrong and demand that they supply a costing for some less stupid alternative designs.

     
  10. Graham Atkinson, 30. August 2018, 16:07

    Would you please stop referring to there being two operators in Wellington – there are THREE, NZ Bus, Tranzurban and Mana/Newlands all of whom operate services through the CBD and various suburbs. Within Wellington City, NZ Bus are the largest provider, followed by Tranzurban and then Newlands

     
  11. NigelTwo, 30. August 2018, 16:51

    @Graham. Isn’t Uber in there too?

     
  12. D Boyle, 30. August 2018, 18:27

    If I acted like these people I would be fired.

     
  13. Hugh Rennie, 30. August 2018, 19:15

    The economic cost of this shambles in Wellington city is huge. It comes from GWRC taking overall control when not competent to do that. GWRC aimed for a “Big Bang” implementation (which is all ego and razzmatazz and not the effective and efficient way to phase in change). It has applied “big city” techniques like hubs which are not workable in a small town like Wellington with low bus frequency and small numbers of transfers. It pushed out a competent and experienced operator, and experienced (in many cases dedicated) drivers and other staff – mainly to take control for GWRC. Then it egotistically and grandly over-promised it would be better when it was never going to be as good as before. Most of the huge cost of unused buses (the new ones before launch day, the old ones now), discarded skilled drivers, needlessly replaced signage, massive (and often untrue) promotional claims and launches, etc etc falls directly on those who live in Wellington. It has fallen especially unfairly on experienced staff. It will now come to fall on ratepayers as GWRC has nowhere else to pass it to. Core services like real time signage should have been converted to state of the art new technology like that of Connectionz in Christchurch. Now we just get the bill!

     
  14. Roy Kutel, 30. August 2018, 20:09

    Is anyone in GWRC qualified in transport planning? I recall Dr David Watson who managed GWRC transport planning up until he was shown the door around 2008 (?) had a PhD in bus scheduling. Does anyone know what his replacement Wayne Hastie is qualified in?

     
  15. Ayn Randy, 1. September 2018, 16:29

    As everyone freezes and gets soaked waiting for buses that may never actually come or are completely full if they do, I wonder who made the very deliberate decision for the customer to bear all the inefficiency of the network instead of the operators providing a service? And why? [via twitter]