This has been cross-posted to Sustainable Wellington Transport.

Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently consulting on the Wellington City Bus Review. This is mandated by the Regional Public Transport Plan, which requires a review of transport services at least once every five years. The current shape of the network has existed for decades and the city has changed dramatically in that time. For this review, GWRC has chosen to work with MRCagney to produce a recommendation, which brought Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, into our region.

Although the public transport network works, it’s susceptible to reliability problems. Wellington City Council has tuned some of the road network, generating more than enough controversy, and continues to look at adjustments. The proposed routes are a more radical departure from the status quo. The basic assumptions are being questioned. As expected, there have been complaints.

Disclaimer: this post is my personal opinion. Other opinions are valid, but I ask that any points of discussion be backed up with rationale instead of just emotion. My goal for this post is to encourage people to voice valid concerns to Greater Wellington. The bus review is not an all-or-none situation, you don’t vote for or against it, and this certainly isn’t my word versus yours. It’s up to each of us to be constructive.

The most important part of the proposed changes is the definition of the core network and a promise to keep it for the long term. The core routes operate at 15min intervals or better, all day, all week. The goal of this is to take away the schedule. In a high-frequency network, passengers can show up and get on, rather than planning for when the next bus may arrive. As Walker suggests, frequency is freedom. Core routes in the south and east cross over each other, allowing for those high-frequency services to connect town centres in a way that direct buses can’t justify.

The concept of connecting services is woven deeply into the proposal. It is probably the biggest change to the bus network. Transfers are rare within the Wellington regional network and greeted with anything between suspicion and malice. They are a penalty on travel times and directness, and paying for a second ticket would drive passengers away from a service. However, transfers allow for much more efficient service – both coverage and frequency – for the same transport dollar. They also allow for a simpler system overall; the details of a many-to-many network is hard to keep in your head. The counter-argument is simple: “If I only ever use one bus, why should I care about network complexity?”. The answer is also simple: you’re meant to be able to use the whole network.

GWRC has indicated that transfers between buses on the same network will be free. Snapper already handles transfers from one bus route to another for Valley Flyer, so getting Go Wellington transfers in place is simple. Transferring between operators is harder, but not impossible. People who travel longer distances may be able to use daily or monthly passes across services until we have an integrated ticketing scheme in place, which GWRC has signalled for 2016 (see page 11).

There are a few factors that go into making transfers acceptable. After price, timeliness and environment are probably equally important. While it’s easy to show that a connected service, including wait times, may in fact be faster than a direct service, time spent waiting is more strongly felt than time spent travelling, especially if the weather is raging. GWRC promises to provide adequate shelter at transfer points, which must be large enough to hold a reasonable number of connecting passengers. These connection points offer an interesting opportunity for nearby businesses to pick up customers. Being on the core network has definite advantages, especially on the edges.

Outside of the core network, residential services cannot run at core frequency and should not try. Undoubtedly, residential passengers are going to feel put out if their service frequency is listed as lower than present. This was summarised quite elegantly by a friend. People couldn’t care a less if their service improves, but they’ll scream if they are any worse off. Frequency for the secondary and peak services were derived from ticketing information provided by the operators. (See section 3 in the MRCagney report, part 1 and part 2.) There are areas that are truly worse off, but it may be difficult to justify the extra costs to fill in the expectation gap, knowing the patronage isn’t there. Walker simplifies the point in an interview:

You explain that low-density suburbs must choose between cost-effective transit or high-quality transit. Why can’t they have both?

Because the design of the typical low-density suburb makes it geometrically impossible. Yelling at your transit agency or elected officials won’t change the facts of geometry. Once you see that, you can move beyond blame and start thinking about what kind of transit is reasonable in each situation.

In the face of higher demand, increasing the frequency of a secondary service is possible. It’s merely a question of the higher patronage justifying the cost of the extra bus and driver.

There is a looming question of where the buses travel through the CBD. Traditionally, everything runs through the Golden Mile unless it cannot. At peak hour, there are in excess of 120 buses per hour in each direction of the Golden Mile. Averaging one bus every 30 seconds, it’s common to see buses queueing as bus-to-bus congestion causes a minor delay to cascade backward. While there is room for rationalising bus stop distances and positions relating to intersections, or to speed up boardings with technical measures, the Golden Mile cannot scale to higher capacity. The proposal aims for about 60 buses per hour along the Golden Mile – most core routes and most secondary routes. GWRC has not followed the proposal from MRCagney to create peak transfer points with the core network, opting for complete separation of the peak buses from the Golden Mile. This is a point of contention that I have with the proposed changes. Moving peak buses out to the quays leaves passengers isolated and exposed.

Finally, it is tempting to bring the argument of technology into this review. The number of complaints about the future of the trolley network prompted Walker to write a blog post (see point 4), which was then followed up with a full post on the issue. I think it’s wrong to let the existing trolley lines design the network by virtue of existing. Lines were moved during the Manners Mall redevelopment and lines can be moved again. I think the issue is to get the geometry right. After that, we can argue that trolleys are worth running. Similarly, the routes don’t depend on light rail, nor do they exclude the possibility. That’s the benefit of defining the service quality first. How to implement the service should always be a subsequent question.

The bus review consultation is open until March 16, 2012. Follow GWRC’s instructions about giving feedback, or write something free-form and send it in. All I ask is for you to be constructive. We’re building something here.