Wellington Scoop

Fixing the buses, again

by Kerry Wood, FIT Wellington
The Regional Council is working to improve Wellington’s buses, but seems too complacent. An important new policy, from LGWM, is for more people in fewer vehicles, but (once the covid pandemic restrictions have ended) this cannot be delivered without radical change.

Planning documents referred to here are the 2014 Regional Public Transport Plan (PTP) and the 2015 Regional Land Transport Plan (LTP). The LTP’s 2018 ‘Mid-term update’ anticipates only minor changes.

Multiple problem-areas need attention:

1. A grossly overloaded golden mile

The 2011 Bus Review is clear (Section 7.1) that a conventional bus route should not carry more than about 60 bus/hour, to avoid ‘cascading’ stop delays. The golden mile now carries over 120 bus/hour at times. Delays cause bunching, which causes delays…

LGWM is planning to upgrade the golden mile, minimising delays between stops, but does not address delays at stops. The ‘secondary spine’ proposals in the 2013 Spine Study were never followed up.

The logical solution is light rail, but when?

2. Conflicting objectives

In 2011 the Bus Review identified conflicting objectives, which are still in the PTP plan:

The public transport system in the Wellington region needs to serve a dual strategic role.
• To provide peak period congestion relief and access to employment opportunities.
(Ridership: attract more passengers and reduce traffic congestion)
To provide community access to services and facilities, particularly for people who do not have access to a private motor vehicle. (Coverage: minimise walking distances)

The Bus Review accurately describes both problem and outcome (Section 2.2):

These two ‘roles’ routinely push network design in opposite directions. Patronage goals for public transport inevitably conflict with social service goals, and quantified hard choices are often needed to resolve the conflict.
The traditional (coverage) roles of public transport require focusing on the need for the service rather than the demand for it… 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.

The Regional Council shows a heavy bias towards coverage routes, including at least one Core route (long distance and high frequency). Route 22 is a Core route from the Railway Station to Kelburn (VUW), running every ten minutes off-peak. From VUW to Mairangi it runs every 30 minutes, and from Mairangi to Johnsonville it runs hourly. This is a Targeted route, wandering around a well-served area and ignoring greater needs elsewhere.

3. Incoherent planning

Regional Council planning documents are remarkably complex but contain little real-world guidance. A route survey reveals multiple policy-gaps (Route 25, southbound, first 3 km):

• The average stop-spacing is 240m, when upwards of 400m is usual. The first two stops are only 160m apart. The terminus is well-placed but the first stop is too close. The Regional Council has no stop-location policy.
• Too many delays are caused by parked cars. The Regional Council and the WCC have no parking policy for bus routes.
• The route is 500m longer than it need be, wasting both bus and passenger time to shorten walking distances. The Regional Council has no route-design policy.

LTP Working Paper 5 (2015) Objective 5 is a high quality reliable public transport network. Two of four expected outcomes are: Increased public transport use, and Improved public transport accessibility for all.

Applying Objective 5 to Route 25, it needs:
• A longer deviation, to improve accessibility.
• No deviation, to improve route quality.

This exemplifies the ‘quantified hard choices’ anticipated in the Bus Review (Section 2), and suggests widespread inefficiencies.

4. Targeted planning

The Regional Council’s Core and Local routes are muddled, but targeted routes are worse:

Targeted services provide services to areas or link destinations where there is not enough demand to justify core or local routes, or where normal services cannot meet the peak demand. (PTP p 34)

‘Not enough demand’ is meaningless unless a minimum ridership is set, but where is it? The Targeted objectives are a jumble: Peak-only; School buses; Night services; Special events; and Total Mobility services (mostly using taxis).

Why are night services separated from the corresponding day routes? Why are costly school buses needed in inner Wellington? Additional buses on conventional routes would be cheaper and more effective.

Appendix 1 of the PTP shows 37 targeted routes, all peak-only, but the Bus Review warns against such services (Sections 2.3 & 4.3):

• The high cost of purchasing, maintaining, and storing a vehicle used only for 2-3 hours/day, as opposed to one used for 15-18 hours/day.
• The long “dead running” involved in one-way commute runs.
Peak-only services should exist only where the all-day network is insufficient to meet peak demands. Otherwise, they add too much complexity and inefficiency to the network.

How are 37 costly and inefficient routes justified?

Targeted services are justified in appendix 4 of the PTP, from the Land Transport Management Act 2003:

People who the regional council has reasonable grounds to believe are the least able to travel to basic community activities and services (for example, work, education, health care, welfare, and shopping)

A table on p136 of the PTP identifies six groups of transport disadvantaged people: those having physical or mental disabilities; over 65; without driving licences; those on low incomes; those living in ‘high-deprivation neighbourhoods’ and those without private vehicles.

5. Resolving the conflicts

The PTP is riddled with material built on the conflicting objectives in Section 2 above, when much more cost-effective approaches are possible. Changes will be a political decision, and LGWM’s more people in fewer vehicles is already pointing the way.

The Bus Review states (Section 2.2):

The only long term solution to this policy conflict arises from observing that when seniors and disabled persons located next to high-patronage public transport, the conflict disappears. Obviously, nobody should be coerced, but people should be provided with clear information about the mobility consequences of their choice of retirement location.

‘Ridership’ routes attract ‘coverage’ passengers but coverage routes remain under-used.

Redesigning Wellington’s buses to provide a modern ridership-and-coverage service looks very promising:

• Faster and more frequent services, attracting more passengers and increasing revenue.
• Attracting car-users to public transport and reducing congestion.

New policies can achieve a quality, ridership-based system, as well as meeting existing needs:

• Determine, within reason, who will be sufficiently disadvantaged to need assistance, and how much. Satisfactory solutions can be as simple as public seating, about every 400m, so that less-able walkers can take a rest.
• GW has a Total Mobility scheme (PTP, page 127). It is largely taxi-based, but mini- buses or even electric scooters could be added. A single minibus could operate several local, low-frequency feeder routes, say on an hourly cycle.

It will be a challenge, and the experts are MRCagney, who have done some excellent work for LGWM, such as figure-of-eight feeder routes to light rail at Miramar.

6. Hubs

Hubs are very unpopular in Wellington, understandably; the reason – bad design of both hubs and routes.

Hubs are routine in quality public transport systems, and Auckland and Christchurch are much better. Many European cities are better still, and Mees suggests Zürich as a model for Wellington.

Two basic requirements are that all core routes run at the same frequency and meet at the same central hub, allowing reliable transfers (this matters less at higher frequencies). If that frequency is 10 minutes, other routes can run at 20, 30 or 60 minutes, but not 12 or 15 minutes. This is not met by present-day core routes.

The proposal made in the 2011 Bus Review met these requirements very well but was rejected by the Regional Council, clinging to conflicting objectives.

Kerry Wood is a retired Wellington engineer and a member of Fair Intelligent Transport (FIT) Wellington.


  1. Peter S, 12. May 2020, 17:14

    Hmmmm, this article is in TLDR territory. It’s all very well criticising the PTP and LTP, but there is no magic solution, is there? I have trouble believing that light rail will solve everything. What’s wrong with double deckers or bendy buses? The biggest problem is the lack of a “grade separated” route through the CBD. Until we have that, any form of mass transit will likely spend more time stopping than going when in the CBD. Currently we have pedestrians, cyclists, buses, and private vehicles competing for right of way through the CBD. Adding a light rail route at ground level will just exacerbate that.

  2. Kerry, 12. May 2020, 20:18

    Peter: There is a magic solution, in Section 5. The Regional Council can make its buses cheaper and more effective. They commissioned an excellent report, the 2011 Bus Review, but then chose to ignore it.
    LGWM have commissioned a study by the consultant who did the Bus Review (Report 12 on the LGWM website). One plan is to adapt Taranaki Street to suit light rail, with five times the people-carrying capacity it has today, all done without grade-separation.
    In the meantime, segregated golden mile bus lanes can relieve golden mile problems, and better suburban routes can make the buses much more effective.

  3. Northland, 13. May 2020, 8:28

    Kerry, with the level 2 Covid policy, buses are dead. Reduced to 40% seating capacity and no standing. I am a regular bus user, but at least I have the alternative of a 45 minute walk home from work. Most people are going to be stuffed.

  4. greenwelly, 13. May 2020, 9:03

    The Regional Council needs to come out and publicly recommit to its future electric bus plans, I have a funny feeling that operators will use the uncertainty to delay capital expenditure on falling patronage….

  5. Kerry, 13. May 2020, 10:49

    Northland – That is the problem now, but it will be long gone by the time the Regional Council can solve its bus management problem.

  6. P Barlow, 13. May 2020, 13:31

    There is a strong need for a temporary cycle route through the city from Hutt Road to the hospital in Newtown. This will alleviate the pressure on the buses in light of the social distancing requirements, and it will get more people safely to work in a reliable manner. The Regional Council has been fully aware of the restrictions on bus capacity due to social distancing since Alert 4. No assurance has been given to action this while other cities including Auckland have installed temporary cycle routes for similar reasons. Quite a simple plan.

  7. Ross Clark, 13. May 2020, 22:19

    What I can see happening? Car use will recover well before PT use, which – due to changes in working patterns, as we all get used to home working – may not recover at all. We could be seeing a huge shift in the journey to work, especially when we travel in and out.

  8. Northland, 14. May 2020, 18:11

    The bright side of Covid is that New Zealand is effectively taking a crash course in remote working and there will be a huge increase in people doing such, and also more flexibility in working hours. Whether that is enough to offset 40% seat capacity on buses etc, I’m not at all sure.

  9. Daran Ponter, 18. May 2020, 23:47

    @ Greenwelly – don’t be so sure.

  10. greenwelly, 19. May 2020, 10:57

    @Daran Ponter, Would be very happy to be proven wrong.
    I have noticed a Yu-Tong E-bus (non-DD) being used (tested?, its in Auckland metro blue) on route 7 in the last few weeks – presumably Transit. But other than NZBus’s trolley conversion, I’ve seen no signs of movement from them.