Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Bryan Leyland: Things you know that ain't so - trams, trains and buses

"Things you know that ain't so - trams, trains and buses are the only solution to Auckland’s congestion problem”.

All the mayoral candidates, the Council and its planners are wedded to the idea that Auckland’s congestion can only be solved by crowding people within the existing city boundaries and increasing congestion to force people to travel by trains, trams, and buses. The cost will be enormous and increased congestion is certain.

Nobody, it seems, is looking at what modern technology will soon bring to personal transport and what is happening overseas. If they did, they would soon realise that providing door-to-door public transport and encouraging ridesharing is the best way of getting people out of their cars. It will reduce congestion and eliminate the need to squander billions of dollars on obsolete modes of public transport.

Minibuses with flexible routing, ridesharing and carpooling are the way of the future. Minibus based transport is a viable proposition in many overseas cities. Poda-podas in West Africa, dala-dalas in Tanzania, jeepneys in the Philippines, and tuktuks in India are the predominant form of public transport. In South Africa they provide 60% of all public transport. They pick up passengers along the road and drop them off at their destination. Because they respond to demand, they concentrate at places where they are most needed – without a single transport planner being involved!

A recent article in The Economist says that uncoordinated minibus (jitney) services like this are operating profitably in New York, Dallas, Phoenix and other US cities right now. In New York rides cost two dollars and the service is both cheaper and faster than a subsidised bus at three dollars. So technologically advanced minibus services that take advantage of smart phones, GPS and route optimisation would, for sure, be successful in Auckland. 

Imagine that Auckland had a coordinated minibus service using modern technology. The minibus location, the number of passengers and their destinations is monitored by a central computer that decides which minibus to send to pick up a new passenger and sends empty minibuses to an area where demand will soon increase. During the rush hour, the minibuses would feed some passengers to express buses and provide door-to-door service for others. Outside peak times, frequent minibuses would replace expensive virtually empty buses pounding up and down fixed routes at infrequent intervals. 

A user would download an app onto their smart phone and register their name and credit card. When they need a ride the app will send their location, name and destination to the central computer which tells them when the minibus will arrive. The cost of the ride will be deducted from the credit card. Eureka! Public transport that does the same job as a car or taxi for a fraction of the cost!

Minibus drivers would contract to a central coordinator. Little formal regulatory input is needed because the system would allow people to provide feedback on the driver and the bus. Any driver or bus with unfavourable reports would rapidly drop to the bottom of the queue – or right off it!

The low cost and door-to-door convenience of the minibuses would get a very large number of people out of their cars. Congestion and the need for downtown parking would be reduced. Looking further ahead, we could soon be using driverless minibuses that would be even cheaper and safer.

Compare this with expensive trains and trams that only serve a fraction of the population, and buses that cannot provide door-to-door transport. It would end the ever-increasing expenditure on roads, trains and buses because it would carry many more passengers on existing roads. It would also reduce expenditure on fuel and motor vehicles.

Auckland is in the perfect position to lead the world on this. We have a tech savvy population that is often used by overseas developers to test out new technology and we have many firms that have led the world in developing advanced software. And we have the ideal pilot project – the airport shuttles.

If the airport shuttles can be made more efficient and cheaper, they become a viable alternative to very expensive trains or trams being promoted for airport transport. So let's get the shuttles onto computer optimised routing to see just how well the system works and how much more efficient the service becomes. If it is a success then it will be easy to extend the computer coordinated system to cover the whole of Auckland. 

Implementation should be left to private enterprise because those promoting it will need to be ingenious, adaptable and fast moving. But Auckland Transport would need to provide the support needed and allow the minibuses to use bus lanes. 

It is blindingly obvious that before we commit more expenditure to what soon will be obsolete modes of transport, we must consider the modern, technology-driven, option.

The only fly in the ointment is the deluded Council and it planners that, in spite of the evidence from overseas, continue to believe that trains and trams are a viable option and will do everything they can to block the modern alternative. But with elections coming up, the solution is now in the hands of the electorate.

The rewards are enormous, the risk is minimal and the cost is probably negative. What are we waiting for?


Ross said...

Thanks Brian. I've been discussing these ideas with friends for years. Uber and similar services combined with minibuses. Great. Owner operated, computer coordinated. No public money required. What's not to like? I've also been irritated for years seeing huge buses trundle around all day, mostly empty. Trains are even worse. Sigh.

Warren Sanderson said...

Ross - Have you ever noticed that most cars trundle round 3/4 empty - 1.2 person occupancy is the average and the cars parked or moving are not space efficient in a city of Auckland's size. Please bear in mind that all roads are subsidised more than 50 % by ratepayers and taxpayers. Petrol tax probably doesn't cover even half the cost.

In Auckland the Northern Busway takes more 40% of people who cross the Auckland Harbour Bridge each day. Think how many more lanes would be required if everyone drove. And rail metro patronage is growing strongly and will continue to do so when the City Rail Link is completed. Bring it on - the sooner the better.

Warren Sanderson said...

I do not deny that vehicles of one sort or another will be a significant part our transport mix but merely bulding ever-widening motorways to accommodate more and more vehicles has not reduced congestion and is highly destructive of the "quality of place". Continual widening and flyovers usually benefit those further out, to the detriment of those living closer in to the city centre. A single or double rail track is akin to laparoscopic surgery when compared to a new motorway and better still if it can be put underground.
And the evidence from overseas clearly shows that many cities are investing in metro rail as a necessary part of the effective city transport solution. Modern metro rail is certainly not an obsolete transport mode as your writer suggests. London's new Crossrail is but one example.
Most importantly,the Government really needs to review its funding mechanisms for public transit in Auckland without delay.

Bruce Tichbon said...


You are so right. New technology and new thinking is urgently needed. Its exciting that there are transport alternatives that potentially have such low cost of entry.

The trouble is we are being led by politicians who want to maximize votes and bureaucrats who want to maximize empires. Add a good dose of ideology to both and you have lost the ability for most to think clearly. This is roughly the same lot that gave us leaky homes and the current housing crisis.

paul scott said...

I read an amusing and sad comment about this business.
An Auckland blogger said he was upset to find out that Auckland voters were as stupid as
the rest of New Zealand.
Hard to know where to start.
It is amazing we will vote for stuff that is a proven failure and misuse of capital funds.