I am writing to submit my views on the proposed changes to bus routes that have been circulated under the “Change is Coming” proposal document. In my view the premises for making these changes are quite unreasonable and preposterous and will not restore public confidence in bus services in Christchurch City.
Christchurch has over the past 20 years had excellent developments in the bus services which have varied with either support or indifference from central government. When Ecan first took over the bus routes in 1993 the National Government had just forced the bus services of local councils to be tendered out as a cost cutting measure. The services that resulted were of extremely variable quality with the requirement to take the lowest tender resulting in a lot of very old and rough buses on the roads being operated by fly-by-nighters. As time went on and especially with change in government and greater support and funding for public transport the services were improved greatly. A key factor in the development of the Christchurch passenger transport services has been the opening of the bus exchange about ten years ago. Patronage has continued to grow due to the quality and reliability of the service being offered. This continued to be the case until recent times.
Public transport is an essential component of the Regional Council’s social obligation to residents as well as being a core function defined in legislation. A quality public transport network fulfils important social, economic and environmental functions, enabling people to travel at a reasonable speed and within a reasonable timeframe to destinations around the city whether for work, recreational or household purposes. It is an important option for those who do not have access to motor vehicles, who cannot drive or for whom the cost of privately owned transport is simply too great. In order to get this quality public transport system it is necessary to have a focus on time efficient services running at a reasonable frequency and within a reasonable daily timeframe.
The traditional model of provision of service in Christchurch and elsewhere has been based around a central exchange point where all buses cross and where passengers can transfer between services to reach destinations across the city, or walk on to destinations within the city itself. This model is tried and true and has been relevant for many decades. There are secondary transfer options between some services in the suburbs. These are only realistic and reasonable to achieve where at least one or preferably both services that a passenger is travelling between are operated at a frequency of 15 minutes or greater on weekdays, where both services use the same platforms and during daylight hours. For many years there have been various promises all of which have been broken, to provision some of these suburban crossover locations with small exchanges providing passengers with shelter from the weather. However only in two locations has any such pretence of provision been made. One of those locations is Hornby Mall consisting of a few bus shelters, and the other at Princess Margaret Hospital has been provided in part by the hospital itself on its own land and is limited to just a pair of open shelters. A number of other locations use numerous shelters in which passengers can incur significant delays in transferring due to having to walk in some cases hundreds of metres between platforms.
Suburban interchanges are a core component of the “Change Is Coming” proposal. The document is light on detail of how these are to be built so it would seem reasonable that mall premises will be approached to provide these facilities. I would think then that they will only be available during opening hours of the mall. Under the current bus route system passengers do have the option of continuing to the central city bus exchange at less convenient times such as during evenings, or cold winter weather, where they enjoy a superior standard of facilities (of which more below). The great concern about this proposal is that passengers on certain routes will not have this option as they will always be forced to transfer from an outer suburb bus to a route to the city centre at a suburban exchange point. The second and very glaringly unsatisfactory aspect of the compulsory transfer requirement is that it will greatly increase the length of journeys from an outer suburb to the city centre or indeed to any other service which passengers may transfer at the suburban exchange. This is primarily due to some of the outer suburb services operating at a very poor service frequency of one hour during much of the day, 7 days a week. Only at peak times will passengers on those services get a greater frequency of 30 minutes. The rest of the time the hourly frequency will be run regardless of the amount of traffic offering. This means that any passenger who is transferring to an outer suburb service at the suburban exchange will face a delay of up to an hour (in practice this could be between 30 minutes and an hour) which is preposterous. A passenger who needs to travel across town could well be facing hours of travel with having to transfer across three buses with a delay each time. It is important to remember that every transfer is inconvenient because it involves having to get off one bus and wait for another to arrive then get onto that bus. For some passengers such as elderly or infirm e.g. people in wheelchairs, who currently enjoy excellent access to services due to a previous focus on providing buses which can carry them, there will be significantly delays and inconvenience resulting from having to transfer between two or more buses.
These obvious inconveniences through the delays are the reason why this “innovative” new solution being proposed has not been tried in Christchurch before nor anywhere else in New Zealand to my knowledge. Ecan has claimed in publicity so far that the resulting bus services will be better than the ones currently being operated. This is a preposterous claim without any factual foundation. Cutting service frequency of trips to the outer suburbs and forcing passengers to the city centre to incur unnecessary delays will have a negative impact on bus service patronage due to the inconvenience incurred.
At this point I think it is appropriate to focus on the current situation with our Regional Council and how this is clearly impacting on service standards since the earthquake. In 2009 our elected Regional Council was sacked by the National Government and the accountable elected councillors were replaced by unelected unaccountable commissioners hand picked by the Minister to implement that National Party’s agenda in various areas. We know that generally National cares very little for public transport and has focused transport spending priorities away from environmental and social objectives and benefits of public transport provision onto a very short term and extremely expensive roads building programme which will do nothing to address the very high costs to the community of private transport operation. Hence there is now a requirement for a higher farebox recovery target which is mentioned as a consideration in the “Change is Coming” document. The standard of public transport services will continue to slip under National just as it did in 1993 (mentioned above) when services were required to be tendered out. It is important to note that this agenda is being more readily implemented through the current unelected commissioners than it would be if the elected and accountable councillors and their consultation processes remained in effect. It now appears that the focus for public transport has significantly shifted from a quality and convenient service to a bottom of the barrel approach due to the fact that certain groups of customers have no alternative to public transport and therefore have no leverage to get a better standard of service delivery.
Since the February 2011 earthquake this lack of commitment to public transport both centrally and locally has been very apparent in the short sighted decision making processes and resulting cuts and very poor standards of services which have prevailed. It was realistic that bus services were stopped completely for a few days immediately after the earthquakes but it was not reasonable that arbitrary service cuts were imposed and decisions made in which travelling by bus became significantly less convenient for many. The central city bus exchange was inside the red zone cordon so a temporary location had to be found. An arbitrary decision was made to dispense with the exchange operating model of having buses stop briefly to pick up or set down passengers, in favour of two large layovers separated by several kilometres with a shuttle bus between them. Instead of briefly stopping, buses sat on the layovers for 15-30 minutes at a time meaning this period of waiting had to be built into all passenger journeys. Passengers having to transit between the layovers had to catch a shuttle bus running at a 15 minute frequency resulting in further delays. The impracticality of the layovers in accommodating larger numbers of buses meant most routes service frequencies were cut in half. In addition most evening services were arbitrarily cancelled. At peak times the layovers were highly congested with larger numbers of buses. Passengers risked missing their connecting services due to the length of the layovers at busy times having to get off their bus a long way down and hopefully getting to the front if that is where their connecting bus was, before the driver decided it was time to leave. There was only one basic shelter for passengers consisting of an old bus parked next to the layover which was of no help for passengers who had to keep near the back of the layover queue in case their bus turned up and only stayed a short time. The summary of this comment is my belief that the operating model of the previous exchange could have easily been replicated in one location with platforms of a similar size and number to the regular bus exchange platforms, with temporary shelter facilities. Instead the layovers as implemented was a ridiculously inconvenient and significantly time wasting solution and would have significantly deterred many from travelling by bus in that period (along with the inconveniences resulting from cuts in service frequencies and operating times).
The Central Station in Lichfield Street has reinstated the efficient and effective exchange model but with significantly poorer facilities overall than the previous exchange. Instead of undercover heated lounges adjacent to each platform there is only one such facility in the whole site, the rest of the site being served by minimalistic shelters open to all kinds of weathers. There is not even a roof over the whole site as was the case previously. The size of the facility is also significantly smaller and suggests it would be unable to handle larger volumes of passenger traffic. This standard of facility, I believe will not be able to help increase or restore the level of patronage on bus services towards that achieved previously.
I am now going to focus on specific claims being made in the consultation documents which are reproduced as follows:
“More people are now working in the suburbs, and using their local facilities, so while retaining good transport links to the central city is important, we need to reflect this change. Fewer passengers are now using the buses because our current services don’t meet their needs. We need to make changes to encourage more bus usage, increase our financial viability and better reflect the ‘new’ Christchurch.
“This will be a network that makes it easier to travel from anywhereto-anywhere across the city as well as to the central city.”
My specific comments are along the lines that these statements do not accord with the facts. The new service model proposed is to replace a relatively large number of outer suburb routes which travel from the central city along a major corridor and then fan out to their terminuses, with essentially a single route which runs along that major corridor to a suburban interchange. Separate outer-suburb services then operate as feeders to and from that suburban interchange point.
This is being presented as the only way of cutting an excessive number of buses operating these services, yet other options exist. The most obvious possible solution is to eliminate the requirement that most of the services must pass along the same transport corridor through the inner suburbs to the city centre. Examples of these transport corridors are Riccarton Road, Papanui Road and Colombo Street. This means extra services are needed to cover the inner suburbs which are off these corridors. The obvious solution to this is to operate a smaller number of routes which each cover different inner and outer suburbs. The need for people on these routes to reach major corridor destinations such as Northlands or Westgate malls can be covered by transferring to the Orbiter services which works well at least one way due to the latter’s 10 minute service frequency on weekdays. This, after all, is the way people like myself who live in a different part of the city and need to reach one of these malls, do get to them, because we do not live in one of those outer suburbs whose present service travels along that major corridor. I also propose that all orbital-type services such as the current Orbiter and Metrostar and possibly some other services all be combined into two orbital services which would help increase bus access to some destinations not able to be covered by a single route at present, and therefore increase options for passengers transferring at suburban locations.
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1. Change of government policy away from cost cutting and bottom of the barrel minimum service focus, to policy that recognises the widespread benefits of public transport for the longer term.
2. Restoration of the elected Regional Council and full public accountability and consultation in regards to passenger transport services.
3. Retaining the core structure of routes which go directly from outer suburbs to the central city bus exchange at a minimum frequency of 30 minutes, and without requiring bus transfers with their resulting inconvenience and delays.
4. Restoring a central city exchange similar to the previous exchange with fully enclosed platforms, enclosed and heated/ventilated passenger lounges and security guards.
5. Improving suburban bus service transfer by rationalising the number of platforms at each such location and providing at least enclosed passenger lounges in conjunction with mall premises during their normal operating hours. (I realise it would not be practical to provide full security outside mall hours and therefore access to an enclosed facility would be impractical outside these hours. However certain malls have supermarkets and other outlets which are operated in evenings and lounges might be able to be located adjacent to these outlets to make their usage feasible during such times)
As you can see from the length of this submission I have a considerable interest in the bus service operations. I rely heavily on bus services for travel all around the city and I do believe that greater effort is needed to restore public patronage on these services than what is being proposed in this document.
So there you have it.