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Overloading the rapid transit buses – potential foul-ups could cost $300m

by Kerry Wood
The regional council’s Regional Land Transport Plan is set to approve foul-ups costing nearly $300million, which will ensure that the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system is overloaded.

First foul-up: Ticketing (priority 11 in the land transport plan)

The regional council has chosen smart-card ticketing, similar to Snapper. This is incompatible with bus rapid transit because it is too slow: single-door boarding of 100 passenger buses while passengers fiddle with bags and wallets. One light rail manufacturer advertises a boarding rate of 100 passengers in ten seconds, which is impossible using smart-cards.

Another approach is ‘open’ ticketing, not checked at stops but backed up by inspectors and heavy penalties. This is common in Europe, and minimises stop delays, but in New Zealand it needs legislation.

A third approach is common for bus rapid transit and for railways: cash or smart-cards, ticket barriers and boarding from a ‘fare-paid’ area. But nowhere on Wellington’s central area bus route is there space for controlled fare-paid areas.

Second foul-up: Capacity (priority 13 in the programme)

The regional council’s ‘customised’ bus rapid transit system fails at least two of five minimum requirements in the international standard (ITDP 2014): ‘off-board’ ticketing, and level entry at stops with a minimal gap. They are in the standard because passengers must board and alight quickly, and are slowed by steps or ticket machines as they enter and leave.

These are minimum requirements for the most basic level of bus rapid transit. The regional council might as well ‘customise’ a bus by taking off the wheels.

The 2011 Bus Review clearly explained a practical limit of 60 buses an hour in each direction. It proposed about 80 buses an hour in the central city, on three routes: Lambton Quay, Featherston Street and The Terrace. The study was rejected.

With no space for buses to overtake at stops, slow boarding creates delays and long queues. Sixty buses an hour is roughly what the golden mile carries in the middle of the day, still with bus queues. If bus rapid transit is to fix the queues, it must perform better at peak hours than existing buses perform interpeak. With minimum requirements missing this is unlikely.

Inner Wellington still has only one bus route, which will carry 60 rapid transit buses an hour (the limit: needs special care), plus 25 ordinary buses an hour (too many: trouble!). The result is demonstrated daily, but we are assured that bus rapid transit will average 25 kilometres an hour, including stops.

Third foul-up: Patronage Growth

Patronage growth on the scale now seen in Auckland would overload Wellington’s bus rapid transit by 2027, or much sooner with foul-ups.

Auckland’s patronage growth is now over 17 per cent a year on the Northern Busway and electrified railway lines. Patronage at Britomart has grown fourfold in a decade, 14 per cent a year (transportblog 13 December). However, GW remains confident that spare capacity equivalent to 4 per cent growth will be ‘more than adequate’ until 2041.

Conclusion

The Regional Council has consistently ignored two vital but politically unpopular issues: quality transfers and a second public transport route in the inner city.

Now Auckland is showing the way, on both patronage growth and light rail studies.

Wellington needs light rail for capacity, but also a good bus route to fill the gaps. Light rail is little use to Brooklyn, Hataitai or Kelburn passengers.

Fast, convenient transfers must be part of the solution, at well-placed and properly designed interchanges: Kilbirnie, Wellington Hospital and the Railway Station.

Light rail can hardly be opened before 2030: it takes about a decade from the go-ahead.

Bus rapid transit and smart-card ticketing must go on hold, just like the flyover.

Submissions on the Regional Land Transport Plan close on 20 February with the Greater Wellington Regional Council.

Kerry Wood is a retired Wellington engineer with a long-standing interest in transport matters. This article is a follow-up to earlier articles (2 October and 16 September) in which he gave examples of Wellington’s chaotic public transport policy. We invited the Regional Council to respond to these articles, but they have chosen to stay silent.