People’s Choice propose free public transport within CBD

As part of their never ending campaign for CCC to take over running public transport services within the city, People’s Choice members and candidates have been attacking and criticising Ecan’s public transport operations in a number of fronts in the past three years. This started with the establishment of the Joint Public Transport Committee at Ecan after the 2016 elections and has continued with trenchant but ill founded attacks on Ecan being made at meetings of this committee by the Mayor, Lianne Dalziel, on many occasions, as noted in previous posts on this blog.

Last week Cr Mike Davidson, who is the Mayor’s stepson, repeated the claim that the administration of bus services under Ecan is flawed, making references to two attempts by People’s Choice to have free bus services established in the CBD. The first of these was for the reinstatement of the CBD inner city shuttle service, which was a free service operated by three hybrid turbine-electric buses that ran on a loop around approximately Kilmore St / Manchester St / Moorhouse Ave / Colombo St. The service was stopped after the quakes and the buses were sold by the Council under Mayor Bob Parker. It is important to note a  key difference in this service at the time was that the City Council fully funded the operation to allow for free rides as the funding system of that time for public transport did not allow for free passenger services to be subsidised. Calling for the service to be reinstated with no funding support from CCC and then blaming Ecan when they have stated the funding system of today would not fund free bus services, is quite misleading as it omits important information about a situation that Ecan is powerless to change, and which could not be altered if CCC took over the service, unless they dug into ratepayers funds. Since CCC has set its LTP already with no provision for funding free bus services, they could not immediately introduce funding for a service if they were to take over running bus services.

The second option which is now being campaigned on with Cr Davidson’s recent post is for free bus rides within the CBD using the existing routes, which was said to have been put before Ecan / JPTC at the time of creating the Regional Public Transport Plan last year. Ecan have said the current payment system will not support it, according to the post. The payment system by which the government requires farebox recovery targets (which prevents free bus services from being operated) is a matter of Government policy and is not able to be ignored at will by a regional council. The campaign by People’s Choice is misleading in that most of the service parameters for public transport operation are tightly controlled by central government and are not open for a local body to change.

The other components of the proposal include park and ride facilities on the outskirts of the CBD to allow people to leave their cars in order to be able to travel free on a bus within the CBD. The issue here is that the responsibility for funding park and ride facilities would fall onto CCC as the authority owning the local roads that the buses operate on. The key question fot this aspect of the proposal is how an incentive is created for people to leave their cars at a park and ride and travel quite short distances within the CBD by bus. In other words, this only really makes sense if the CBD is closed to cars, and it isn’t clear whether People’s Choice are proposing that as well. All the current routes are operated by diesel buses and would only become really attractive if they changed to electric operation, but this is not outside the bounds of possibility when new contracts come up.

It is now appropriate to look at which services actually operate within the CBD and whether these services would be able to provide for inner city travel sufficiently well. For this purpose I have drawn in the bus route maps (but not the stops) and screendumped in two halves, one for the north and one for the south of Cathedral Square. For the sake of this discussion we assume the area concerned is within Bealey Avenue / Fitzgerald Avenue / Moorhouse Avenue / Park Terrace (inner city) rather than the vague definition of “CBD”.

CBD Bus Routes North4Aves

These routes are north-east/west of Cathedral Square. We can see that by number we have route 17, Bryndwr/Huntsbury; 29, Airport/City; 28, Casebrook/Lyttelton; 44, Shirley/City; B, Belfast (or Kaiapoi or Rangiora etc) / Cashmere; 95, City / Waikuku; Orange Line, Halswell / Shirley; and Yellow Line, Hornby/New Brighton. With the route coverage we can see there are a lot of gaps, with often the same corridor being used by several routes, rather than them being spread out across all the possible corridors. Part of this is that the city has major one-way traffic corridors that often are not used for bus routes and do not have stops on them. These gaps make the idea of CBD-only bus travel less attractive. The second issue is service frequency. Even at peak times, many of the routes shown operate at a frequency of not more than 2 buses per hour; the high frequency routes being Blue, Orange and Yellow lines which cover only a very limited area of the inner city. In fact the Blue Line is the only route to cover a significant part of the inner city north; both the Yellow and Orange Line only cover one the same lower-right quadrant of it.

CBD Bus Routes South4Aves

Our second map shows routes which are south-east/west of Cathedral Square. There is somewhat of an improvement in coverage, but not in service frequency. The high frequency routes are Blue Line, Orange Line, Yellow Line and Purple Line. The fact more of them exist in the inner city south is due to the fact the present bus exchange is located there. So the routes that cover two or more quadrants are Blue Line and Purple Line, which respectively are north/south and east/west. Purple Line is mostly confined to Tuam Street, and Blue Line to Colombo St. This still leaves a lot of what we would call “CBD”, closer in to Cathedral Square, not covered at all by services.

There is a lot more to service coverage that can be put into a simple map like the above, and a large part of it is probably limitations that CCC community boards have placed on the corridors which the existing bus services can operate on. As well, the inner city has many pedestrian-only areas. An example of the community board input comes from complaints about bus layovers in Rolleston Avenue some years ago prior to the quakes. We can see immediately on the map that there is only one CBD bus route that is operated in Rolleston Avenue these days. In essence the CBD itself is a difficult place to operate buses because there is an anti-public-transport bias from inner city residents and businesses much as there is in other areas of the city where businesses and residents in higher income brackets are hostile to non-motorised or non-private forms of transport. Electric buses may or may not be able to change this perception.

In summary whilst there is possibly a case for inner city shuttle bus services, the extent to which People’s Choice have attempted to paint Ecan as obstructive and incompetent for declining to institute such services is being obfuscated by a number of factors, most of them outside of Ecan’s control. These are:

  1. The limits placed by community boards on the operation of bus services within the CBD due to opposition from residents and businesses. Political opposition is also obstructing improvements to bus services in other parts of the city, such as a route alteration to provide a bus service for residents of the Dianna Isaacs retirement village in Shirley, which was unanimously blocked by Cr Davidson’s Papanui-Innes Community Board.
  2. The funding model for passenger transport services and other aspects of the operational model are set by central government and cannot be readily changed by local councils.
  3. Many of the improvements for which People’s Choice members have campaigned for and lambasted Ecan for not providing, require additional funding that is not immediately available. For example, the replacement of diesel buses with electric vehicles cannot be carried out unilaterally in the middle of a contract without incurring substantial cost to break the contract or compensate the operator. The only reasonable time to mandate new types of vehicles is when new service contracts are put out for tender, which can be many years away.
  4. CCC funded the old inner city shuttle and provided its own buses (the service was operated by RedBus, a Council Trading Enterprise). Those calling for the reintroduction of this service have not offered to fill the funding gap in any way.

My own conclusion is that the charge that Ecan is obstructing improvements to inner city bus services and that this can be improved by changing the management of these services to CCC, is very difficult to justify when all factual information is considered in detail.

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