Wellington Scoop

How to fix the buses

by Roy Murphy
The Regional Council made four serious and basic errors in the new design for Wellington buses. Thinking that hubs are a solution, thinking they’d save money by taking the cheapest bids, thinking they had to accept whatever vehicles the operators wanted to use, and thinking that cutting out the people who run the transport (the bus drivers) would result in better solutions.

Let’s look at the theory of hub design. In simple terms it is like a bicycle wheel, a convenient central hub with spokes going out in all directions. In theory you can get anywhere in the city with a maximum of one transfer. You travel on one spoke into the hub, then transfer to another spoke to wherever you want to go. For this to work well you need lots of spokes.

When you look at Wellington’s geography it’s a linear city. There are hardly any spokes to take advantage of. There are only three useful routes from the Station through the city to serve the southeast suburbs – Lambton Quay, Featherston Street and Jervois Quay. There are only three useful roads from Courtenay Place to Newtown – Taranaki Street or Tory Street or Adelaide Road.

There are only two useful routes southeast from Courtenay Place – one that doesn’t begin until the Mt Victoria tunnel turnoff and the other round the bays. From the John Street hub there are only two useful routes to further south (if you include the road up to Brooklyn).

What’s the point of having a hub at Miramar? It’s the end of the line in the middle of nowhere. Transferring there to go a little bit further is ridiculous. The same for the Karori tunnel hub. The others are not much better. Wellington Railway Station is the only logical place for a hub, and it has operated as one all along.

Moreover, having a hub increases the wait time. You have to allow at least two or three minutes to unload one bus and then load the other. That’s if they both arrive at the same time, but here they are talking of up to 10-minute waits for the buses to coincide. You’re already looking at nearly 15 minutes delay for passengers. That’s with one transfer, if the system is efficient. With two it could be a total delay of 20 or 30 minutes, with three even more.

So it ranks as insane to suggest that changing buses at the Karori tunnel or John Street is quicker or more efficient. The hub idea should be abandoned. The old system of through buses was better and much more straightforward for the passengers, although the system could probably be refined.

The second error was accepting the cheap bids. It became apparent to the operators that, with all the complications, the only way they could make money was by stiffing the bus drivers and working them to death. The reaction of the drivers was immediate. Many took redundancy and walked. Even though dozens of drivers were shipped in (temporarily) from other cities, the operators are still short handed. But Tranzit doesn’t want a collective agreement because then it’ll have to pay the drivers more and lose some of its profit. Altogether a recipe for industrial disaster.

The third error was removing the electric trolley buses and the plan to replace them with so-called up-to-date hybrids. We know what happened there. The trolley buses were removed before the new buses were ready. (And before the hubs were ready.) Then it turned out the test buses were not up to snuff. Who knows if or when the new buses will survive the testing and be delivered.

Whatever, our environment will not be much better off and we’re still using fossil fuels.

As for introducing big heavy double-decker buses on to Wellington’s narrow winding streets, that speaks for itself. A fleet of jitneys, 10- or 12-passenger vans, running every 5 or 10 minutes would be more practical in some suburbs.

The council’s fourth error was not seeking advice from the people who know most about what’s going on – the bus drivers. And now it is re-arranging the deck chairs while the system sinks.

The council should cancel the whole design and revert to the original, then start again. They could reinstate the trolley buses. They’d have to rehang the overhead wires but everything else is probably still in place.

The council could request a real makeover, such as making it obligatory that vehicles don’t use fossil fuels. Council members should be obliged to go to public meetings. The Council should tap into the experience and skill of the drivers who have to do the work and know the problems.

Light rail should be included as an essential element of the design, and be installed at the same time, not put off for another few years. There is talk of widening the road for extra lanes from Kilbirnie Park to the Mt Victoria tunnel. That will only attract more private cars that will be even more jammed up at the tunnel entrance. Putting a light rail line up to the Hataitai tram tunnel and through to the Railway Station would be a better solution.

A more frequent and cheaper service for passengers should be the goal. It’s no good saying the bus (or train) service is losing money so you are forced to put the fares up. That ensures that fewer people will use it. The aim must be to enhance the overall passenger experience and reduce traffic congestion. A frequent, cheap, reliable service that takes you straight to your destination would attract droves more passengers.

One thing is for sure, you are never going to get people out of their cars with the current design.


  1. Iona Pannett, 25. September 2018, 9:21

    Never liked the bus hubs (which have basically just turned out to be some asphalt and a few basic bus shelters) and said many times that having to transfer buses would be unpopular, so good to see they are being reviewed! [via twitter]

  2. Benny, 25. September 2018, 9:36

    Great sum up Roy! Only one word is missing in your conclusion: “A frequent, cheap, reliable – and clean – service that takes you straight to your destination would attract droves more passengers.”. Sorry, but I’m still cleaner in my electric car than any of the bus around. Other than that, I wouldn’t change a comma.

  3. Ben Foden, 25. September 2018, 9:43

    You can add a fifth serious error to the list – that they didn’t listen to another key group of people – the users / passengers. They sought feedback, mostly after the plans were already set in wet concrete. Then it was ignored wholesale.

    As part of ignoring the passengers, it sounds like this extends to ignoring the travel patterns and needs of the users to the extent the GWRC didn’t have the nearly-fully encompassing travel data from Snapper. They didn’t want to pay for the data, sending people out with clipboards to count passenger numbers at selected points / times / routes, etc.

    The coup de gras to their tattered reputation is for them to then announce they couldn’t possibly predict the travel needs of the passengers.

  4. Citizen Joe, 25. September 2018, 10:01

    Who at WCC approved the resource consent for the hubs and ratepayer spending on them? Joined up government? More like councillors ‘hubbing’ about in their own silos.

  5. Tony Jansen, 25. September 2018, 10:22

    The system we have right now has achieved exactly what was intended (by the previous government), which was to severely damage a largely efficient existing public transport system, and to drive users into private transport choices. A goal fully supported by a collection of old, redundant neo liberal politicians.
    Steven Joyce must be rubbing his hands together with glee. When the National Party took the reigns of power a decade ago I remember them boasting that they were going to destroy Wellington as a city. Well here is evidence of just that, ably assisted by some like minded ex Labour Party cronies. In the GWRC only Cnr Sue Kedgley has voiced any opposition to this process, and her protests fell on deaf ears.

  6. Matthew Gibbons, 25. September 2018, 12:48

    I disagree that bus hubs are always a mistake. I live in Northland and better and cheap transfers to the Karori service are desirable. It makes sense to be able to transfer from Northland buses to the frequent Karori buses that serve multiple destinations in the CBD. Similarly, when I lived in Karori it would have been advantageous to be able to cheaply and quickly transfer to a Northland service that ran through the university. Furthermore, running offpeak Northland buses through the central city is wasteful when there are so many buses running through the CBD. Changing to a Northland bus at the Karori tunnel works reasonably well for me, although the information on bus times needs to be improved.

  7. Mike Mellor, 26. September 2018, 0:38

    There are two more fundamental errors related to the hubbing system. It requires much more reliable operation than the old individual route system, but there was no infrastructure investment (e.g. bus priority, either along the Golden Mile or in the suburbs) to achieve this. This deficiency is compounded by the fact that the operator contracts define punctuality as leaving the origin less than one minute early or five minutes late, passing intermediate timing points less than one minute early. There is no mention of the necessity of maintaining connections – in fact there is an incentive to break them if maintaining them means a bus has to wait for five minutes or more for a late-running connection. (GW has said it won’t penalise operators if they wait for connections, but it’s in the contracts.)

    I agree with Matthew Gibbons about the Karori Tunnel hub: it makes sense to provided interchange facilities where routes cross each other, as the 2 and the 22 do here. What makes less sense are hubs like Miramar, where they are purely termini for feeders – and then have to run NIS a large part of the way to Kilbirnie to turn round!

    And the comment about smaller buses in the suburbs makes sense, but running such small vehicles along the Golden Mile would be a waste of valuable road space, clogging it up with more, smaller vehicles when fewer, larger ones are required. So there would have to be places where passengers transferred between large and small buses, i.e. hubs of some sort.

    Unfortunately, reinstating the trolleybus would be much more than rehanging the wires. What effectively killed them off (apart from lack of political will) was the state of the power supply system, which would require major expenditure. That’s not going to happen, I’m afraid. But the good news is that the replacements (when they have all arrived and are working) won’t be fossil-fuelled hybrids but fully electric battery buses. If they are all as good to ride in as the ex trolley on the Airport Flyer (apart from the horrible black wrapping), things may eventually be not quite so bad after all.

    “In the GWRC only Cnr Sue Kedgley has voiced any opposition to this process” – fortunately, she has not been alone. Former councillor Paul Bruce and current councillors Daran Ponter and Roger Blakeley (not on the council when the new network was adopted) have been very strong and welcome voices in support of a well-thought-out system, implemented properly.

    Finally, “Who at WCC approved the resource consent for the hubs and ratepayer spending on them?” is two entirely separate questions. WCC granted the necessary approvals, as they are obliged to do with projects that conform with normal requirements, but it’s GWRC, not WCC, that has approved ratepayer spending on the hubs.

  8. Lim Leong, 26. September 2018, 8:35

    @Matthew Gibbons @Mike Mellors. While the interchange might work for some people who want to transfer from Northland to Karori, it simply does not work for the majority of Northland/Wilton people who want to go from Northland to CBD and Wellington High and Wellington College students.

    It is now two buses to go from Northland to the CDB with a transfer adding 15 – 20 minutes. It is now over one hour to get from Wellington College back to Northland with transfers and vice versa. You can’t rely on the buses if there is an important school event like an exam. it is now up to 3 buses to get to Wellington High. There is even a family in Northland who has bought a buy a car because buses do not work anymore for them.

    I invite anyone to say the above are good ideas and will encourage public transport. By the way, all these were mentioned at the public consultation during 2014/2015 and everything has been ignored by GWRC.

  9. John Rankin, 26. September 2018, 9:32

    @LimLeong: if a transfer adds 15-20 minutes to a journey, then we are doing it wrong, which is what @MikeMellor says in the first paragraph of his excellent comment. There is a risk that we will choose to eliminate transfers, while continuing to do it wrong — fixing the symptoms without addressing the root causes.

  10. Lim Leong, 26. September 2018, 9:59

    @John Rankin. Transfers do not make sense for very short journeys. There has to be a threshold somewhere as part of the design principles. Northland to CBD is less than 3kms. I question the design to have transfers for such short journey.
    I agree with you for longer journeys where demand aggregation will help with capacity issues hubs may make sense (with the underlying infrastructure support and good time keeping).

  11. KeithWellington, 26. September 2018, 10:11

    Example: The 2 and 22 routes might have a hub that works during low demand off peak, but here is why the evening peak is an issue.

    Pre 15 July there were 41 services thru Courtenay Place – Lambton Quay to Karori, plus 6 from the Railway Station. There are now 40 total to Karori, but 11 of those are now from Brandon Street instead of starting at, or passing through, Courtenay Place. Those used to catching the now 33, and the now 34, south of Brandon attempt to use the 2 bus, as do Northland students because their 22 starts at the Railway Station and doesn’t pass through Lambton Quay. These users have not been factored into the capacity versus demand calculation.

    Would be bus users from the CBD wanting to get to Karori and Northland in the evening peak might wait up to an hour to get on a bus that has room to take them. Two extra buses were added to the Karori route on 6 September, until Dec 2018, reducing the post 15 July shortfall to 7. I have seen fewer passengers fight their way off an overcrowded route 2 bus, than those waiting to get on at the Karori tunnel “hub.” There could well be at same hub those who have caught the 22 wanting to transfer to a 2 but having to also wait in the rain and wind for goodness knows how long.

    Old and new Karori peak hour bus service schedules can be viewed at the ReVolt site.

  12. Mike Mellor, 26. September 2018, 10:35

    Lim Leong: I agree that Northland hasn’t done well out of the new network, but that wasn’t the point that I was making. Whatever the route structure, having interchanges where routes cross is a simple way of improving connections, and Karori Tunnel is a good example of that. Another would be Willis/Ghuznee/Victoria, where GWRC has approval to move bus stops (don’t know whether it’s happened) to provide better interchange between the 7/19e/23e (via Brooklyn) and the 21. The key issue is interchange management, which appears to be non existent at present – 15-20 minutes is a disgrace, and I hope results in a flood of complaints to Metlink. It’s very poor that there are many timetabled connections around the city of over 10 minutes, and one I’ve noticed of 18 minutes – how that was ever thought to be acceptable I’ve no idea.

    But the 22 does potentially link pretty well to much of Lambton Quay by using the many pedestrian links from The Terrace. Unfortunately many of these are hidden away in buildings, and it would be good if GWRC worked with WCC and building owners to waymark these links properly, particularly those that are required by the buildings’ resource consents.

  13. Farmer Bill, 26. September 2018, 10:38

    The seven bus hubs have averaged $1.3million each. That’s $9.2 million in total or $21 per person living under GWRC ‘control’ (450,000) which unfortunately includes me.

  14. Marion Leader, 26. September 2018, 10:57

    Very good points are made by anti-hubbers who are badly affected by 22s. Another point is that the hubs in Central Wellington (the railway station and Brandon Street) add lots to the length of each journey. That is lots of metres and lots of minutes.
    How stupid to turn left at the bottom of Bowen Street when you want to turn right, and how stupid to keep straight ahead at the bottom of Bowen Street and go three-quarters around a central city block in order to be off-loaded half-way along Lambton Quay (in Brandon Street). This must add to the COST as well as being stupid.

  15. Matthew Gibbons, 26. September 2018, 12:35

    Maybe a new secondary school in Karori or Northland, or relocating an existing school there, would be a better option than encouraging teenagers to travel across Wellington each day for their education. The cost of providing peak time buses for these teenagers must be high, and travel times cut into time that could be spent studying or involved in physical activity.

  16. Newtown, 26. September 2018, 13:39

    How can the hubs be so expensive to construct when they’re, as Iona pointed out, brutalist objects of asphalt and simple bus shelters.

  17. greenwelly, 26. September 2018, 13:51

    @Mike, Marion, a better solution might have been to integrate the Cable Car into the Metlink system and have the Northland bus go via there, (thus giving an easy option to get “downtown” as opposed to the Railway Station)

  18. Lim Leong, 26. September 2018, 13:54

    @Mike Mellor. Northland has indeed come out badly with this new bus network. As an able bodied person, I can walk from the Terrace to my office in Willis St. I do admit I curse the GRWC when I am having to walk in bad weather, or when I am having to ferry kids to/from schools by car and adding more congestion to the CBD.
    Another important thing that GWRC has forgotten is there is a small but significant segment of society – elderly, people with disability/mobility issues, parents with young children, young children. For these people, transferring is almost a show stopper for them. I know of elderly people in the local community who are now too afraid to venture out of the house because of the transfer and their own mobility issues.
    One of WCC’s goals is for Wellington to be an inclusive city. This new network is anything but inclusive. It actively discourages people from using public transport.

  19. Michael Gibson, 26. September 2018, 14:46

    greenwelly, I was kicked off a bus at Vic when I wanted to go to the top of the cable-car and the bus was going there anyway in order to turn round. Fixing this would be just commonsense. I wrote to Chris Laidlaw two months ago to point this out; he eventually replied to say it was all too difficult (even if it is just commonsense).

  20. greenwelly, 26. September 2018, 15:11

    @Michael , that doesn’t surprise me, the Council appears to have tied itself in contracts with the bus companies that require infinite “negotiation” to change any more than the colour of the lights..

  21. Helen, 26. September 2018, 16:02

    I thoroughly agree. The lack of factoring the Cable Car into a regional transport network can only be explained by the idiocy of all the choices made in designing the system. There would have been so many benefits if it had been included:
    * a natural hub for passengers from the 22 & 21 buses to swap at – with an already excellent shelter.
    * space for the buses to wait for each other as they’re designed to in the timetable but don’t in practice (but in all fairness if they did wait at the Victoria “hub” the road would be blocked so it’s rational for the drivers to ignore the timetable there)
    * an easy way for Northland people who work in the centre of town to connect to the reduced 22 service (with far better shelter than is provided at any of the Terrace stops)
    * Allow Northland people heading home to get onto the 22 service after it’s passed the Victoria stop, so the service would be much less crowded for the first part of its run.
    * Provide public transport access to the dr & pharmacy at the top of the cable car.

    All for probably less than a minute extra per trip. Sheer lunacy not to have done it.

  22. Michael Gibson, 26. September 2018, 16:20

    Thank you, Helen and greenwelly.

  23. Casey, 26. September 2018, 16:58

    Logical thinking Helen and greenwelly, so subject to spare capacity at peak periods it could be an option. Currently the service is not part of the Metlink network but the WCC would like it to be, as I understand the situation. $10million plus will be needed to replace the cars circa 2024, so the added income would be a plus. Present service frequency is every 10 minutes.

    In 1941, the Kelburn and Karori Tramway Company accused the Wellington City Council of running its buses in direct competition and asked the council to purchase the company, or stop competing. The Council refused to purchase, claiming ageing stock and limited potential earnings.
    1946: Still claiming unfair competition, the Kelburn and Karori Tramway Company took its case to the Supreme Court. The Council agreed to purchase the company. Kelburn and Karori Tramway Company was voluntarily dissolved in February 1947.

  24. Stephen Minto, 27. September 2018, 7:04

    Some existing bus passengers in the outer suburbs are inconvenienced by changing buses. But changing buses happened before to other people. The hub concept is fine and the new routes link local communities better. I tried lots of new buses and they are great. Central Wgtn footpaths less clogged with people waiting for ‘their’ bus. Perhaps fix the complaints by some rush hour express buses that don’t transfer? Lets not go backwards.

  25. Melissa, 27. September 2018, 8:27

    The transfer system is super inconvenient, and more buses are desperately needed. My own 2 cents:

    The 17e from the CBD to Kowhai Park via Brooklyn needs to run more than x4 times daily, coupled with an increase in frequency of the #7 to Kingston via Brooklyn. There is now no 17e service after 5.50pm, as if many people don’t finish work at 6 or later. Wtf?! The 17e is always packed, standing room only, because of the mess that has been made of the #7 route. On the days that I finish work early enough to catch the 5.50pm 17e bus, I have to walk or bus from Cuba St to the top of Lambton Quay to get to a stop that will guarantee me a seat – standing on a bus can be painful for me some days bc of leg nerve damage. The 17e stops at Brooklyn central and many passengers depart the bus there – they wouldn’t have to use the Kowhai Park service if there were enough #7 buses scheduled. Its a nightmare for everyone.

    The transfer system is bolloxed – arriving at central Brooklyn on the #7, sometimes the next bus to upper Brooklyn isn’t for 20/30 minutes. This service was added to compensate for the reduction in frequency of the direct service from upper Brooklyn to the CBD – it is ridiculous to expect people to wait so damn long to transfer.

    On a positive note: It IS nice being able to catch the 29e from Brooklyn to Island Bay or Newtown without going through the CBD.

  26. Boaz, 5. October 2018, 15:59

    Restore the trolleybuses. Trolleybus is flexible, light rail is not. Trolleybuses could be restored for a fraction of the cost of Light Rail.