How future-proofing has extended a 16-minute Wellington bus journey to 45 minutes

Wellington citizens are re-discovering the joys of public transport, as the Greater Wellington Regional Council undertakes what it says is the first major change to the Wellington region’s public transport in 30 years.  A new bus contract, among other changes, “will future proof us for the next 30 years as commuter demand grows”, the council says.

The council promised

“ … to deliver a brand new network of services. The new network will give more people access to frequent services, will provide more weekend and later evening services for 15 suburbs and new services for 11 suburbs.

“More cross-city routes, e.g. from Johnsonville to Island Bay and from Karori to Seatoun, will mean fewer services will begin or end in the CBD, resulting in less bus congestion and quicker journey times”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Wellington ratepayers are being asked by the regional council to dip into their pockets to meet an average 5.9% increase in rates – an increase more than twice the inflation rate.  In some parts of the region (Kapiti, for example), the average increase runs into double digits, drawing an anguished response from Kapiti’s Mayor K. Gurunathan.

So how has the change gone down with citizens and ratepayers?

A couple of Wellington writers have offered some perspective:

First, Daryl McLauchlan in The Spin-off:

“I hadn’t paid much attention to Greater Wellington Regional Council’s controversial plans to change the bus routes. Every year or so, for as long as I can remember, the council have announced a bold strategic vision to revolutionise the city’s transport infrastructure: they’d cancel a few services, increase fares and lay off a few drivers, and everything else continued as normal. Until this week.

“This week saw the greatest transformation of Wellington’s public transport infrastructure ever! Seven years of planning! New routes! New timetables! Double decker buses! Massive driver redundancies!

“No route or timetable has gone unchanged! And this has gone about as well as these things ever do, with confusion and massive delays and cancellations and commuter rage”.

McLauchlan notes the new bus system is based on a hub with spoke topology similar to those in international cities with robust public transport.

“If you want to travel from one suburb to another you take a service to the closest hub; transfer; take a second service to the next hub and then transfer again to a third service. The goal here is to reduce the number of services running through the centre of town. Which makes sense!

“If you have fewer, more crowded buses – some of them double deckers – running through highly congested areas you’ll move more people through faster than many half-empty buses will.

“It’s a model that works pretty well in huge population centres like Melbourne where the connections are regular and frequent, but hasn’t worked well in Wellington; at least not yet, with waits for connecting services leading to a massive increase in total travel time for some passengers, and overcrowded buses driving past stops teeming with waiting commuters. It’s been the worst kind of infrastructure change”.

The terms and conditions that presumably enabled Tranzit to undercut operators like Mana Bus during the tender process (according to a  Stuff report) are another issue – they are said to impose work days up to almost 14 hours a day.

Moreover the bus drivers’ union has released documents showing how Tranzit worked with the Ministry of Social Development to recruit people who were unemployed as drivers.

The Ministry of Social Development has admitted it played an inappropriate role in helping secure contracts for those on the dole to get behind the wheel – while existing bus drivers were looking for work.

Dave Armstrong, who is billed in The Dominion-Post as the Voyager Media Award Opinion Writer of the Year Humour/Satire, offered in his weekly column a sample of Facebook posts, comments and tweets on the new bus system.  Of the 39 he cited, two were favourable, 37 not. Samples:

“I saw a No 1 driving through Mornington today. That’s so lost it’s almost cute”.

“Buses didn’t come this morning! Many people were waiting. Late for work and just mad”

“My 16-minute journey now takes up to 45 minutes”.

“ My poor driver was clearly from out of town and panicking on the hairpin”

“New drivers are so terrified of the winding and narrow 22/13 route they’re either crawling it or not showing up”.

“A usually 20-minute ride home took over an hour tonight. Not cool”.

Chris Laidlaw, chairman of the GWRC, insists the council’s investment through to 2021 will result in a modern, integrated public transport, the best in the country, “and one we can be proud to call our own”.

Politicians may be pardoned a degree of hubris from time to time.  Questions linger though: how did Greater Wellington regional councillors achieve such an extraordinary transport cock-up?  Did they familiarise themselves with the new routes and schedules? And will they be offering themselves for re-election?

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