Stop the bus….

So its all go for a central bus hub, super stops and express routes as the all new improved solution to the problem of the low patronage of the public transport system in Dunedin in addition to the congestive nuisance and ecological impact of large 12 metre, 12tonne buses cruising up and down the central city corridor.

To clarify:

(1) The central hub will be a $4 million central city bus depot; the $4M does not include the inevitable cost overuns that will be absorbed as unforseeable, nor does it include the loss of parking revenue from removing a number of parking bays.

(2) The “super stops” simply means fewer stops at which they hope more people will gather given fewer bustop options. Which, means more people being forced to walk the extra distance from their present more convenient stop that is now removed.

(3) “Express bus routes” means buses will take the most direct route from point A to point B regardless of where passengers might actually live and start their journey.

To review:

(1)  in order to reduce the environmental impact and inner city congestion created by convoys of mostly empty buses traversing the central city corridor, the Council will create a central city depot where all these buses can congregate for a while for ‘smoko’ along their journey through the central city corridor. Could you repeat that please? it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

and (2) in order to attract more people onto the bus service they are going to be given further to walk from their home to their nearest stop. But, if that happens to be a superstop at the university or Cargills Corner then you may well have the enticement of a toilet while you wait for your bus. Sounds irresistable; is that a public toilet down by the campus? open all hours? Should be popular, although not necessarily the exclusive reserve of bus patrons I would imagine and not exclusively for the purpose intended. Anyway, the super stops should give the local street artists a reasonable bit of a canvas to work on and supporting the arts has to be a good thing.

At this point, I should declare my interest. I did work for Citibus for 16 years from the mid 90’s to the early teens, the last 3 years of that as General Manager. So I am very familiar with the challenges faced by public transport.

But ORC’s latest strategic plan also shows that as a politburo they have little understanding of the dynamics of marketing a public transport network in the 21st century. If the question they asked themselves in starting this Plan was “How do we make public transport more relevant and useful to more people?” then I do not think the answer would be: “We will make the service quicker by offering fewer pick-up points. To that end we will condense the routes down to only main roads. Although this may well mean many potential customers having to walk further, in all weathers, to their nearest stop, the politburo believes that will be more than compensated by actually having a shorter driving time.”

Really??

Imagine if Council restructured the refuse collection and required us to wheel our recycling bins to main roads and ‘super pickup points’ thinking that this would increase the number of people using recycling bins. Yet this is the essence of the Otago Regional Council’s new strategic plan for public transport.

While the ORC goal for the proposal is reducing the reliance on public subsidies for the system, the reality is that if passenger revenue declines faster than reduced operating cost then there is one of two options:

  1. a) Ratepayer subsidy increases to compensate or
  2. b) Services further decline in an ever-increasing downward spiral.

Have the ORC’s previous attempts to reverse the downward patronage trends just been a succession of one-dimensional hit and hope ideas? They have adjusted timetables, introduced a new pre-paid card system and put bike racks on the front of buses, but the fundamental system of an end-to-end, large vehicle, through-route service, designed well over 50 years ago for very different circumstances, has remained sacrosanct.

If the intent of the ORC/DCC is one of making a service more cost efficient, more user-friendly and less reliant on public subsidy, then maybe they should be looking beyond the one dimension of main roads vs. residential streets. They could consider issues such as:

  • Targeting the primary market

Public Transport only represent 3% share of transport usage and with that low figure it is usually not analysed any further although there is a general perception that it is a mode of transport for the elederly and disadvantaged.

The Household Survey shows that actually 13-17 year olds were most likely to have used public transport in the last month (49%), followed by those 18-29 years old (32%). 15% of 13-17 year olds had used public transport on 20 days or more in the last month, implying it was used regularly on weekdays.

Public Transport should be understood as having a primary function of enabling youth to integrate with the community.

The casual users.

 The bus user /non-user is not a black and white issue, it is many shades of grey: The MoT Household survey 2010 showed that:

  1. 22% of Dunedin residents had used the bus in the last year, but not in the last month.
  2. A further 23% had used it for between 1-9 days in the last month.
  3. Another 3% had used it 10+ days in the month.

Casual users are existing customers; they do not require to be introduced to a new transport system, they are already familiar with it; the ORC/DCC need to understand the usage with the goal of developing strategies to increase the frequency of use. But this new ORC proposal risks alienating the all-critical 23% of residents who are reasonably regular, casual users rather than looking for real innovations to increase the frequency of their patronage.

  • The bus size.

The ORC stipulates the need for 39 seat buses on all contracts in a ‘one size fits all’ policy. My own research as GM of Citibus prior to its sale was that, over the day, the average passenger loading per trip leg was between 5 and 6 people. Bus size is an economic issue that has not been addressed by the ORC. While there are 26% of the residents requiring bus transport over the month, that is certainly not all day, every day, across every route.

Blind Freddy can see that running 39 seat buses all day, every day, on all routes, is poor economics. A quick head-count on the buses running along the main street any time of the day, any day of the week certainly confirms to anyone that this public transport system just doesn’t make any kind of sense; not economic, not environmental, marginally social. Furthermore many residential streets, where the potential customers live, are unsuitable for large vehicles and smaller vehicles would provide better access to the customers. Good economics is a question of ‘cutting your cloth’ but rather than cutting your cloth in terms of a blanket reduction in customer service, as the ORC propose, I would suggest cutting your cloth in terms of vehicle size would be a more logical approach.

  • The driver standard.

 While ORC contracts are highly detailed on the technical specifications of the vehicles to be used, they just make token generalisations about driver service standards. In a highly competitive tendering environment, the bus companies have no option but to exploit this opportunity and keep driver wages as low as possible, which is counter-productive to ensuring all drivers are skills-trained and motivated to provide high standards of service. We need to set much higher standards of customer service for the drivers if we are to attract customers to the service, but in practical terms, that requires appropriate training and consequently reward for that service. If we want motivated bus drivers we have to respect their self-esteem; we cannot pay less to those who drive busloads of people than that which is paid to those who drive truckloads of sheep or logs.

  • The ‘through-route’.

 We need to dispense with the ‘through route’ system from end to end of the city. That is a relic of mid-last century that will always create unnecessary inner city congestion, particularly with buses sitting idling in the centre city to catch up with their timetable. Smaller “neighbourhood” contracts into the city on a loop service would enable a much closer relationship between operator/driver and customers for improved service opportunities; and the lower capital cost would open up the tender system to smaller, local bus operators rather than relying totally on the big north island based operators.

  • The central transfer station.

Instead of the proposed single central city bus transfer station, (how can that reduce inner city congestion?) consider the benefits of two transfer stations, one at either end of the city, with a main-street minibus shuttle service linking them. A peak time five-minibus shuttle, two up, two down, one at a transfer station, would create an inner city shuttle service every few minutes along the CBD between the Exchange and Campus, with much reduced environmental impact compared to the current volume of 15 or more large capacity buses in the same corridor at one time on a through route service. The present pavement protrusions along the main street could be used to quickly hop on/ off then the present bus stops, no longer needed for large buses to load/offload and sit idling to catch up with their through-route schedule, could be converted to short term parking bays. The on-bus advertising revenues from these very high profile buses would subsidise their costs and speed of embarking would be improved with a swipe card entry.

Public Transport is, and will remain, the primary back up to private vehicle transport in most cities. It is an essential service for the younger generation. There is also the opportunity for public transport to be a useful inner-city shuttle service for all residents.

The new proposal of the ORC is no more than illogical tinkering with a system that was designed mid last century for a completely different transport environment. We now need a clean slate review that builds from the statistical facts about our city’s public transport needs in the 21st century. And any planned changeover from ORC management of the contracts to DCC management of the contracts is pointless or, at worst, counter-productive unless the DCC redirects their focus away from a vision of Dunedin as a bicyclists’ paradise, puts their total transport plan into perspective with the actual facts and responds to the regular transport needs of 26% of its residents and occasional use of a further 22%.

Public Transport is a communal mode of transport; bicycles are a very individual mode. Yet in spite of the available research, the current DCC policy planning and budgeting seems to be starting from a vision of thousands of bicyclists peddling along Dunedin roads and then working backwards, committing millions of dollars to build the infrastructure to accommodate that vision. This does not appear to be a Council that has the mindset to resolve the problems causing the declining patronage on our community’s public transport system.

footnote: I have formally presented this proposal both to the DCC and the ORC within the “public consultation’ phase of their Transport Plans, and received responses from both effectively dismissing my contribution. Politburos are required to invite submissions, but these are not reviewed by impartial independents, they are reviewed by those who developed the strategy who then have no obligation to deviate from their mindset as a result of submissions.

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