I give up on Wellington buses

15/10/2012 § 15 Comments

I drove to work today. I parked in my new dedicated parking space. My Snapper card did not leave the wallet.

Why did I not bus to work? Because I’ve given up on Wellington buses.

I have calculated that it takes me an average of 40 minutes to get from home to work (or the reverse). That’s about 15 minutes of walking, 5 minutes of waiting, and 20 minutes on the bus. Times vary a bit for each component and for the overall time. I’ve made it in under 30 minutes, and sometimes it takes nearly an hour.

By car, it takes me 15 to 20 minutes. That’s a savings of 20 to 25 minutes each way, or about 45 minutes per day (3.75 hours per week, 172.5 hours per year — less the days I don’t go to the office).

As it happens, I can monetise the time savings. I’m on salary and bonus, which means my income is variable and depends on how much and how hard I work. That 45 minutes a day doesn’t just represent time spent with family, as it would if I were on a fixed salary. It represents cold, hard cash money. And it means that taking the bus is actually really expensive.

Why am I bothering to tell you all this? I don’t really think you’re interested in my commute — my narcissism is not so grand as that. No, my reason is this: Wellington buses don’t work very well, and it is only by seeing their failure at the individual level that we understand how they fail us systemically. I’ll tell you my individual story and hope that you tell me yours. Then, we’ll all patiently explain to the Council and the bus system that their product is junk.

I don’t know why public transport in Wellington is so difficult. If we take the point of view that the bus company has optimised its objective function subject to constraints, then we can only conclude that their incentives do not align with mine. I’m trying to get around town with the lowest cost (time + money). I don’t know what they are trying to do. Sometime I think someone somewhere has just dreamt up a system, and now the job of the bus company is to run that system regardless of its efficiency or efficacy.

If that’s the case, the proposed light rail to nowhere makes perfect sense.

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§ 15 Responses to I give up on Wellington buses

  • detmackey says:

    Do you need to make any adjustments for other utilities? I walk the half hour to work, and the half hour back. It’s a nice walk partly through the gardens and makes up my exercise requirements. If I took the bus or drove, I’d still feel like I needed a walk after work, so the cost to me would include both financial and time costs.

    • Bill says:

      I did give those non-monetary benefits some thought. The walk at either end of the commute isn’t that nice — it doesn’t take me through the gardens. It also doesn’t seem enough to make much difference in fitness. I figure that one extra 45-minute or 90-minute exercise session per week could make up for it, and I’ll still come out ahead.

  • wellygnome says:

    I gave up on Wellington buses 2-3 months ago. Walking to uni is both good exercise and the optimal strategy for avoiding wasted time.

    With respect to the bus company incentives not aligning with commuters, how could we expect any different when a regional council is involved?

    Decentralising the schedule and not punishing bus drivers for being human beings would be a nice place to start.

  • Tom says:

    You mention a 15-minute walk to the bus stop, which suggests that you’re likely to be on the outskirts of an outer suburb, given that GWRC’s aim is to have most people within 10 minutes walk of a high-frequency bus route, and that’s achieved for most of the city. Low density suburbs are difficult if not impossible to serve with cheap, quick, regular bus services, especially where the street network is dominated by cul-de-sacs (as in many post-war suburbs) or convoluted topography (as in most of Wellinington).

    Jarett Walker, a consultant who worked with GW for the recent network review, said in an interview (http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/03/teaching-language-transit/1438/):

    “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.”

    Most transit guidelines suggest no more than 5 minutes walk to a bus stop or 10 minutes to mass transit (rail, subway or LRT) if the commute is to be attractive for most passengers. To make the route economically feasible, you’d need an average density quite a bit higher than quarter-acre suburbia, and with greater density concentrated closer to the stops. This needn’t mean Hong Kong: parts of Thorndon and Mt Vic approach a feasible density.

    You’ve essentially chosen a place to live that will be fundamentally difficult to serve with good, cheap public transport. Urban design and transport planning cannot be divorced, and for transport to be attractive, affordable and sustainable we need to guide greater density where it can suit a transport route and limite development on the outskirts. Combine that with low fare subsidies and low fuel prices (by international standards), so unless you’re able to live without a car at all (and thus avoid the sunk costs), bus travel will never be best for you on a narrow economic basis. Either that, or choose a more urban lifestyle.

    • Bill says:

      @Tom – I’m in Karori, which for some reason gets treated as an outer suburb even though it’s fairly close and reasonably large. It isn’t a quarter-acre paradise (most house sections seem to be about 600 m2, and there are town houses and apartments). For me, it is between 5 and 10 minutes between home and the bus stop, depending on whether I’m going uphill or downhill.

      I work in Thorndon, so I tend to catch the #3 and get off on Bowen. It is close to 10 minutes from work to the bus stop, either uphill or downhill. I could take the #17, which puts me nearer to work, but takes longer to get there because of the route. The time seems to be the same with either bus.

      By your metric (5 to 10 minutes from the bus on each end of the commute), I seem to be poorly located. Your position looks to be that I’ve chosen badly. My position is that I live in the largest suburb and work in the CBD, so I should have better service.

      There are several things the bus company could do to speed things up, regardless of topography and density. First, there should be express buses from Karori Mall to the train station. Second, the bus drivers should not be ticket-sellers — that slows everyone down. Instead, in addition to Snapper cards, single-trip (and daily) tickets could be sold from machines. Then, passengers could board using both front and back doors and do so more quickly.

      Finally, the unreliability of the timetable is frustrating. In theory, the #3 is a high-frequency line. When I have to wait 15-20 minutes for a bus, it doesn’t feel like one.

  • I think the costs are stunningly high, too. It costs me on the order of 120 dollars a month just for the 10 km round trip to work each day.

    It’s why I’ve bought a motorbike – actually, the subject of an upcoming blog post!

    • Bill says:

      Ooh, a motorbike. That would be my first choice for transport, really. I can’t wait to read about yours.

  • Rob Edward says:

    Bill, have you considered an e-bike? I’ve just ditched the car for one. They really have matured as a product from a few years ago when they were gutless and very limited in range. You would have a very quick ride down to Thorndon and the motor would flatten the hill on the way back home. I am going to rely on a combo of city hop, busses and the e-bike for a year and see how that goes.

    • Bill says:

      No, I hadn’t thought about it. They sound good for flattening out the hills. I just wonder about riding in a suit, especially on some of our more blustery days. I might not be presentable by the time I get to the office. Let us know how it works for you.

  • […] My last post was about switching from buses to the car for getting to work. It has generated discussion (and thanks, everyone, for stopping by and contributing) and given me food for thought. […]

  • paul scott says:

    Down here in Christchurch they were so determined to force us on to buses, They actually built bus blockades to stop motorists on major routes. That is the Council pushed out a barricade, towards the middle of the road on a major driving route and this represented a bus stop.
    It cut two lane traffic down to one, and when the bus stopped at 4.55pm for one passenger, a line up of tens of cars had to wait stopped.
    At the same time they contrived the lights at intersection to read green if an empty bus came along.
    I did surveys to show that about 450 people went up that road for every single subsidised bus client.
    But it was of no avail, they told me that Christchurch had a pathological car culture and it had to be stopped.
    Soon after that the Traffic general in Christchurch City left for a job in airlines do you believe, [ a man who specialised in political dogma to reduce traffic flow ] and then they pulled down the stupid bus blockades and traffic could move again.
    Mind you we had to do a a lot of work to convince the idiot mayor Bob Parker.

    • Bill says:

      I was in Ch’ch when they made those bus route changes. I remember thinking how stupid it was to widen Fendalton Road to two lanes, and then have the bus stop in one of the lanes to plug up traffic. Car ownership and use does seem to be treated as a weakness at best and a pathology at worst.

  • Matthew Proctor says:

    I live in Northland, about halfway down the hill. It takes me about five minutes to walk to a stop on Glenmore Street, and then about 15 minutes on the bus to the top of Lambton Quay at peak time. This 20 minute trip is faster than the 30 or so that walking would be, and in addition the bus trip isn’t lost time like walking would be; that’s valuable reading time.

    I heart Wellington buses. I am routinely confused as to how I seem to be the only one.

    • Bill says:

      Thanks for your story, Matthew. It’s good to hear that the bus works for you.

      What I hope is that these stories of public transit — the good and the bad — can be used to reinforce the things that work and improve the things that don’t.

  • Elizabeth says:

    What you need to do is consider that maybe a walk and bus ride regularly is better for your health and good exercise and just get over this problem you have due to the buses being very good. Perhaps you just need to consider that it is easier catching a bus than worrying about driving to work.

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