Wellington Scoop

Ten years to bustastrophe

by Kerry Wood
Five central-Wellington bus problems identified by Opus ten years ago are still unresolved.

The Opus review in 2009 highlighted that additional capacity on the Golden Mile was needed for the following reasons:
• High volumes of buses cause delays on the carriageway and at stops;
• Stops have insufficient capacity, bus drivers often have difficulty pulling in and out of stops and frequently block the carriageway while waiting to access the stop;
• Variation in bus occupancy and under utilisation of capacity on some routes;
• Passenger loading inefficiencies (ticketing, entry/exit limitations, bus stop design); and
• Processing cash payments and giving change on board the bus is slow.

(Opus (2009) Central Bus Operational Review, p 4)

Cascading delay

At peak hours the golden mile bus route now carries about 80 buses an hour, each way. This is a third greater than recommended in the 2011 Bus Review, which explained the cause and described the consequences: ‘Cascading delay’ (MRCagney (2011) Wellington City Bus Review, sn 7.2 p 55).

The proposed solution became the ‘secondary spine’ with a single peak-only bus lane on each of two corridors:
— Northbound: Courtenay Place, Taranaki St, Jervois and Customhouse Quays, Whitmore St and Lambton Quay.
— Southbound: Lambton Quay, Whitmore St, Featherston St, Hunter St, Jervois Quay, Cable St, Taranaki St, Courtenay Place.

The PT Spine Study final report (2013) mentions the secondary spine and explains the need. But nothing happened. The delays are still cascading.

The consultants had understood that delays on this scale make the whole system unreliable (Bus Review p 54):

Scheduled peak bus volumes through the Golden Mile are dramatically exceeding the reasonable capacity of the street as designed. As a result, buses are routinely blocked by one another so that all buses move at the speed of the slowest bus.

Bus Review report to Regional Council

On 9 October 2012, the Regional Council reported to its Councillors (12.497, section 7.1):

MRCagney stated that the optimum number of buses travelling on the Golden Mile per hour is 120, or 60 in each direction. This figure should be seen as an aspirational target. The proposed network design will not be able to attain this optimum but it does not preclude moving forward with the Review.

No justification was given for the ‘aspirational’ claim.

The Bus Review final report was released in 2011, and the 2012 report to regional councillors mentioned extensive consultation (section 4):

Views and preferences are known to Greater Wellington due to extensive consultation . . . Officers consider that, in light of their assessment of significance and the other factors… further engagement . . . is not warranted at this stage.

Not stated is what officers meant by ‘significant.’ Were necessary projects abandoned because of the inevitable complaints about minor changes? (see ‘Value for money’ below)

Complaints were certainly accepted: the Bus Review was gutted. Nearly 40% of routes were either modified or replaced. Route 4 was “replaced by modified routes 29 and 32,” but with no indication of what was done or why. Map comparisons suggest a preference for existing routes, with financial implications.

More changes were introduced with the 2018 timetables; the Bus Review was re-gutted. Jarrett Walker, its architect, objected to a Newsroom article suggesting that he was responsible for bustrastophe. Newsroom withdrew the article and apologised (‘US Consultants and Wellington buses’ Simon Louisson, 2 October 2018).

Value for money

It is as if the Regional Council unwittingly ignored value for money. It never prioritised a split between conflicting objectives, despite revised Terms of Reference introduced part-way through the Bus Review contract. The contractor’s offer of guidance was ignored. Council policy at the time was (WRLTS 2010–40, p 42):

The appropriate role for public transport is to provide an alternative to private cars, particularly for longer journeys where active modes are less attractive. It also has a vital role in providing for people who do not own a private vehicle, are unable to drive or cannot use active modes to access the goods or services they need.

An alternative to cars attracts revenue as an alternative to driving (ridership), with city-wide congestion and pollution benefits, but providing for non-drivers (coverage) is essential but unproductive. In many cities (Bus Review p 8):

…the main objective evident in the network design is to meet the needs of the passenger groups who do not have access to a car, including low-income, seniors, disabled persons, and students. These networks focus on getting a little bit of service to everyone, and may sacrifice most aspects of service quantity, and many aspects of quality, to achieve this basic availability.

This is bustastrophe, but there is a solution (Bus Review p 8):

The only long term solution to this policy conflict arises from observing that when seniors and disabled persons [are] located next to high-patronage public transport, the conflict disappears.

Two indicators support the need for action:

— The Johnsonville Line, between Crofton Downs and Johnsonville, shares a narrow valley with four parallel bus routes, and a fifth in the Ngauranga Gorge.

— Wellington’s bus stop-spacings are too short. The usual average is 400 m or more, but Wellington often uses under 200 m. “Buses should not compete with walking.” (Bus Review, p 7).

GPS 2018

A new development is the 2018 Government Policy Statement on Land Transport, very different from previous statements and built around four new strategic policy directions:

— Safety
Public transport is safer than private cars, so ridership promotes safety.

— Access
Public transport improves access by attracting those who previously used a car, but coverage is also essential. Ridership and coverage are about equally important.

— Environment
Public transport normally uses less energy than private cars; ridership is the first choice, and is more likely coverage to save energy.

— Value for money
Ridership attracts revenue and improves the value for money of public transport.

Under the new GPS, there are external as well as internal pressures to sort out bustastrophe.

Tomorrow: Nine years to nirvana?

Kerry Wood is a retired Wellington engineer and a member of FIT Wellington.


  1. Marion Leader, 15. May 2019, 14:23

    What is being done about the new double-deckers spending so much extra time at bus-stops and holding up all the single-deckers?

  2. Roger Blakeley, 18. May 2019, 14:43

    Transit have had recent cancellations but NZ Bus much worse. They simply have not got enough drivers. When drivers are sick we get cancellations. 63 NZ Bus cancellations on Thursday. NZ Bus have 12 drivers due out of training in next 4-6 weeks. Metlink is working with NZ Bus & Transit on advertising on back of buses for drivers. Metlink going out with ‘driving as a career campaign’. Metlink is looking at timetables to see what it can do. [via twitter]

  3. Michael Gibson, 18. May 2019, 16:34

    Roger, is the contract robust enough for us to stop paying for what must be breaches of the contract?

  4. Dave Armstrong, 18. May 2019, 16:52

    Bus companies which don’t run split shifts do not currently have driver shortages. Your colleagues who took existing conditions out of contracts (I know you didn’t) also to blame. All the bus ads in the world won’t make badly paid split shifts more attractive. [via twitter]

  5. BW, 18. May 2019, 22:15

    Split shifts have worked pretty well in Metro Rail.