More buses or less buses? A problem with truthiness at the regional council

Nicky Hager isn’t the only one uncovering dodgy dealings through email – we’ve recently come into possession of a couple of documents that seem to indicate the Greater Wellington Regional Council might have a problem with truthiness.

You’ll recall that the Regional Council had a big consultation conflab earlier in the year about the buses. The chief element of note was whether Wellington should retain its iconic trolley buses, and many column inches were expended on both sides of the divide as the merits or otherwise of keeping a portion of the public transport fleet emissions-free were hotly debated. If you somehow missed the debate, the trolleys are toast – perhaps the planet will follow.

But the trolleys were only part of the show. The Regional Public Transport Plan also covered significant changes to the bus network, and the Regional Council trumpeted improvements all round. Our contact in the field has helpfully provided the following table about what was planned for the Eastern suburbs … which turns out to have a little bit of cognitive dissonance:

What the web pages say What’s the draft plan actually proposes
more frequent service *reduction in buses per hour of 40% (Miramar weekdays), 43%/33% (Miramar Sundays),
service as now *reduction in frequency of 50% (Strathmore Park Sundays),66% (Miramar weekday evenings)*last bus 30 minutes earlier (Miramar Saturdays), 1 hour earlier (Oriental Parade; Miramar Sundays), 2-2½  hours earlier (Strathmore Park)
no change to hours of operation *50% reduction in hours (Miramar North express)-start and finish times changed by 30 minutes (Beacon Hill shuttle)
some adjustments to specific bus times *29% reduction in hours (Seatoun expresses)
no change proposed to service hours *29% reduction in hours (Marine Parade)

In addition, it’s said that hours of operation of peak-only services will be largely unchanged. Many of them currently finish at 6.30/7.00/7.30, but all the proposed ones finish at 6.00, which is a significant reduction in hours at a busy time of day.

It looks as if the Regional Council might have been a little economic with the truth in order to sugar-coat things. Still, the errors were in the draft of the Plan, and after all the purpose of public consultation is to pick up these kinds of errors and correct them, right?  After all, the person who did the analysis apparently provided a submission to the Regional Council to point out some of the factual deficits, so you’d expect some hasty back-pedalling to tidy up the problem.

However a quick look through the feedback provided by officers to the submissions turned up this gem in response:

Amend the PT Plan to clarify that the proposed network will not reduce service levels, where the services are well-patronised and that corrections be made in the final plan to make clear that the proposed hours of operation do indeed have no change where this is the case.

Which has to win some sort of award for sheer bureaucratic incomprehensibility.

What we think they’re saying is that the Regional Council are simply going to continue pretending that the service reductions – spelled out in black and white – aren’t actually happening, or that they don’t matter, or that there’s nothing to see here so please move along. It looks like a brazen attempt to simply skate past reductions in service levels on major bus routes whilst pretending that things are being improved.

There are some private sector businesses that do this all the time – sometimes the fish-hooks in the deal can only be discerned once the fine print has been read, and there’s a long and celebrated history of companies going “aw shucks, you caught us out!” when it doesn’t work. But a regional council? Surely we’d expect the public servants at the council to … you know, actually tell it like it is. There’s a fine line between spinning the story and simply denying reality, and it looks to the naive observer that the council’s statements are well into the land of fiction.

So should we expect the bureaucrats to be straight about changes to the bus services? Or is truthiness now the order of the day at the Regional Council?




  1. kb, 18. August 2014, 13:36

    Of course they want to reduce bus services!

    It will mean more private vehicles & taxi trips are needed, and hence create artificial demand for their 2nd attempt to build a flyover for their roading construction friends who pay for their political campaigns.

  2. Cr Paul Bruce, 18. August 2014, 19:38

    Yes, it was a moving feast, and there were so many issues within the
    public transport plan, that one had to decide what to focus on. There was a back down with respect to some routes, in particular Khandallah, Johnsonville and the University, where hundreds turned up to public meetings, and consultation is continuing until a resolution with local residents is obtained. The confusing statements with respect to the eastern suburbs, remain and I will seek further clarification.

  3. John Clarke, 18. August 2014, 21:15

    @Cr Bruce – those statements aren’t “confusing”, they’re lying.

    Will you be demanding that the chief executive explain why regional council staff have been dishonest with the public?

  4. nato, 18. August 2014, 21:52

    Typical, the regional council are only interested in motorists.

  5. Tony Randle, 19. August 2014, 9:06

    The core problem with the Wellington City Bus Review is the GWRC decided it would be done on a zero budget basis. The only money to actually improve the Wellington City bus service is the savings from scrapping the trolleys. Otherwise most of the changes involve some area losing service to fund more services in other areas . . . it is a zero-sum game.

    Paul, why can’t you get your fellow councillors who are supposed to represent Wellington City to actually put more money towards the Wellington Bus Service that carries more than half of the regions PT users ?

    Oh, and nato, the regional council is not only interested in motorists . . . it loves the trains – rail passengers get cheaper fares and will get an extra $45M in capital investment over the next few of years.

  6. Traveller, 19. August 2014, 9:14

    Fran Wilde should break her silence and state what’s going on about the bus review … Conflicting statements from her staff are issues which she should be allowing to continue.

  7. Ian Apperley, 19. August 2014, 10:16

    Well, if we needed more congestion in the Eastern Suburbs then we are going to get it. These changes along with the others mooted, are going to lock the entire area up.

    The Regional Council seems to have no control over NZ Bus. It’s that simple. And the City Council has no control over the Regional Council.

    The service gets worse and no one is able to arrest the slide.

  8. Mike Mellor, 24. August 2014, 21:19

    As your helpful – but unwitting! – “contact in the field” I thought a bit of explanation might be in order.

    All the figures are mine, calculated from relevant figures in the Regional Public Transport Plan and supporting documentation: if they’re wrong I’d be happy to correct them, but I’ve had no feedback.

    My submission was intended to highlight two things:
    * that there were discrepancies within the Plan documentation, where the suburb summaries said “no change” or similar (therefore there was no need to worry or to make a submission), but the actual Plan proposed significant changes; and
    * there were lots of mentions of improvements (good), but very little about any service reductions. To my mind a consultation document needs to present all aspects of the options in an objective, neutral way, but this was more like a sales pitch – not appropriate (as Fran Wilde had previously agreed at a GWRC meeting with respect to the predecessor Wellington City Bus Review).

    So I made the submission (to which I’ve had no substantive direct response), and the final Plan does make some changes: issues like Oriental Parade, Miramar North expresses and peak-only services appear to have been looked at, and some (but not all) addressed.

    But, there are still significant service reductions coming for the Miramar peninsula (at least). Using figures from the Plan:
    * on weekday evenings the current bus every 10 minutes (routes 2, 11, 43) is proposed to be cut in half to a mixture of half-hourly route C and hourly route G;
    * the last bus from the CBD every night of the week is a 43 after 11pm, at nearly midnight on Friday and Saturday (strangely, according to the Plan the 43 now stops at 11 Mon-Sat, 10 on Sundays): this is proposed to be cut back, as route Q from Kilbirnie only, to 10 Mon-Sat, 9 Sun, while being described as “the service as now”;
    * the number of morning peak buses per hour from the peninsula is proposed be reduced by between a quarter and a half, to the peninsula in the evening peak by up to a third;
    * the number of buses to/from the CBD on Saturdays is halved;
    * all through buses to Newtown, the hospital, Massey and Victoria Unis are withdrawn (off peak, to get to the hospital from the current route to Miramar terminus, passengers will have to change twice, at both Miramar shops and Kilbirnie).

    It would be very good if GWRC acknowledged that there were downsides to the Plan, and how they could be overcome. As it is, while the 2017 network will bring improvements for many passengers (including those on the peninsula in Maupuia and Seatoun), for many others it is likely to come as an unpleasant surprise.

  9. Kerry Wood, 25. August 2014, 9:58

    We have been hearing a lot about Planet Key lately, less about the even more unpredictable orbit of Planet Fran. We aren’t going to get better decisions until we have better decision-making.

    That delicious piece of gobbledygook is not just a curiosity. GWRC reports are abominably written and lamentably proofed. No wonder Councillors seem to be in a daze. The solution — I have seen it done — is to send all officials on a writing course, starting with the managers who approve such nonsense.

    Then what? Public transport policy as ‘decided’ over the last few years puts all main routes through the most congested roundabout in the city, where it might help to justify a marginal and unpopular project but certainly doesn’t do anything for public transport or city quality.

    On one side public transport runs through two two-lane tunnels, with no segregation, on a route that will inevitably suffer ‘triple convergence’. The new route fills up with existing traffic, from other modes, other routes and other times of day. This route is particularly bad because the main alternative — Oriental Bay — is longer, and drivers will prefer the tunnel.
    What is wrong with the bus tunnel? Not much. It should be able to handle over 20 buses an hour each way, or probably more when proper modelling has worked out the details. No problem, minimal delays. When it does need doubling, a single-lane 450 m tunnel will be enough, far cheaper than anything using the Basin Reserve.

    On the other side, public transport runs on the existing, two-lane, overcrowded route and will remain overcrowded, slow and unreliable. How much money does it take to fail?

    GWRC have to produce a statutory plan, to a timetable. It will just have to be steady-as-Fran-goes until the studies are done, plus bulk writing-courses and bulk report-shredding.

    There is a link to Planet Key here. The NZTA have statutory independence but have to ‘give effect’ to Government Policy Statements. That means Roads of Significance to National and minimal spending on public transport. Even road maintenance is suffering, a classic error.

    Perhaps GWRC and WCC should do what Auckland have done for the City Rail Loop. Plan independently of the NZTA, so they can do the studies properly, then wait for a government willing to fund it directly. In the mean time, triple convergence and fuel price will ensure that RoNS are a waste of money.

  10. Paula Warren, 25. August 2014, 11:00

    The development of a plan that is supposed to guide a major reform of bus services should not be characterised by “a moving feast, and there were so many issues within the public transport plan, that one had to decide what to focus on”. The process should have worked through all the issues, thoroughly considering all the facts and determining how the intent of the council was best met. When a Bill is put through a select committee, we are expected to provide clear and factual information on every issue raised by submissions, and committees look at all those issues and make explicit decisions on them. Perhaps local government needs to re-look at how it does its job.

  11. Claire Rumble, 4. September 2014, 12:57

    Dear journos – it should be ‘fewer buses’ not ‘less buses’ unless the buses are going to become smaller in size.


Write a comment: