Changes to bus system need to be big and bold

Posted on August 9, 2011 by

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Nothing is ever easy, and when it comes to sorting out public transport in Christchurch these days that is certainly an understatement. Our public transport system has to deal with a mostly closed CBD, stuffed-up roads, a mish mash of new business hubs, changed travel patterns, a lack of a central hub, and increased congestion. Right now, ECan are putting in place a new system to cater for this changed situation (they are even fast-tracking the consultation process). In fact, they are spending over $40 million making changes to our bus system so routes can best serve the changed city, and the Christchurch City Council is building a ‘temporary’ bus interchange on the site of the proposed underground interchange. Now, while I can see plenty of merit in this it also leaves me with a strange worried kind of feeling in the pit of my stomach. How far down this road should we go? Should we instead start looking at jumping to some big changes? Sure, we must get the basics right but right now I can’t see many people starting to use public transport unless some real drastic progress is made. You know, the kind of progress that makes people go ‘wow’.

I have speculated in the past about rushing in temporary rail services, particularly as it is a nice coincidence that Addington is virtually the centre of business at the moment, and services from Rangiora, Rolleston, Lyttelton and maybe even Prebbleton could terminate there, integrating with the bus system.  I still stand by that idea, with a view to incremental improvements as the city rebuild rolls along. My point has always been that to get people using public transport in the current environment, and to make it further stand out as a crucial part of the rebuild of the city, we need to start looking at some out of the box ideas (well, in a Christchurch context at least).

When it comes to the bus system, while I think a reboot of bus routes and a temporary central interchange can only be good things, I just don’t think it will be enough to be a game changer, and I sincerely believe we need a game changer. Christchurch’s bus system was making okay progress prior to the earthquakes, although that progress was coming perilously close to stalling. However, much of what had been promised a few years ago was lacking funding and any sort of forward motion. Remember bus lanes? What about bus priority signals? That long talked about park and ride in Rolleston? How about those suburban interchanges that everyone was so enthusiastic about?

In the current environment I am slightly apprehensive to suggest we fast-track some of the aforementioned improvements given that some people will always say there are other priorities. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. How about fast-tracking bus lanes by simply banning on street parking along key roads at certain times through some make-shift signage, markings and media releases? They can simply be upgraded later. Ditto with park and ride facilities. Rangiora, Rolleston, Kaiapoi, and Lincoln should have park and ride at least but there is no reason why places like Belfast, Halswell or Prebbleton wouldn’t be suitable as well. A no brainer should be regular express bus services along key routes, or at least a plethora of them during rush hour. In fact, I believe that could be the single biggest thing ECan could do to improve bus services. I enjoyed catching an express service in the past, but was always frustrated that they were very limited.

ECan looks like they are going to have more routes focused on suburban hubs, but the last time I looked there were no quality interchange facilities at any suburban centres. Proper suburban interchanges, perhaps temporary at first, are going to be crucial if we want people to use this ‘new system’. You can’t expect people to be impressed when they have to cross a busy Riccarton Rd to change services (there is no safe crossing there and at a number of similar suburban locations) or wait for buses in the cold wind and rain (or even in the hot summer sun for that matter). That $40 million will be money down the drain and people will continue to stay away from the buses.

My point is, it is all very well changing the system but if it is not quality then people probably still won’t use it. Getting the funding to not only fast-track changes in routes but also fast-track some real proper improvements that will result in a substantial up-shift in quality of service is going to be crucial. Imagine a new interchange opening in Riccarton where people can safely, and in comfort, wait for buses. Imagine what people will say when they can catch express buses that utilise bus lanes and bus priority signals? Good impressions last and word spreads.

So who on earth is going to pay for all this? The fact of the matter is that public transport seems to be on the outer at the moment in New Zealand. We have all heard the Government say that there has in fact been substantial funding towards public transport but unfortunately for Christchurch that is largely restricted to the urban rail systems in Auckland and Wellington. Christchurch doesn’t have an urban rail system (the tracks sit there all day, used by freight but never taken advantage of for other uses) and there hasn’t been any alternative investment in public transport infrastructure to match the rail spending in Auckland and Wellington. In fact, as mentioned above, Christchurch has had a lot of its earmarked public transport improvements cut. Of course, no such bad luck for Christchurch’s motorway projects which are full steam ahead with little or no delay, the earthquake seemingly having further helped justify them. Surely, with all that in mind there must be an equal justification for key public transport projects to be funded and fast-tracked in Christchurch, especially given the recent events. Well, you would think so wouldn’t you?

To sum up, some of the key projects that I believe must be rolled out as part of any system improvements include the following:

  • Bus lanes along key corridors
  • Bus priority signals
  • Suburban interchanges
  • Express bus network
  • Park and Ride in satellite centres and outer-suburbs
  • Cycle and Ride facilities at key nodes
These are all things that were on the agenda in years past and for some reason or another (usually lack of funding) were delayed and/or cancelled. They are the types of improvements that were needed, and still are, and would make a significant change for the better to the existing system, and would also fit in with whatever future direction is decided upon following the completion of recovery/rebuild plans. They are the kind of things without which I believe we will see little further use made of the public transport system, no matter how much we change routes around. They are the kind of things we could do with seeing as soon as possible, to get people using public transport and improving its image, performance, efficiency and reliability.
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