The 'crisis' of our urban bus networks: Hundreds of services cancelled every day

6:00 pm on 6 April 2023

Hundreds of cancellations every day are revealed in a RNZ investigation of bus services in Auckland and Wellington.

On an average weekday last month in February, 1085 Auckland buses listed in timetables failed to show up.

In Wellington, an average of 448 daily cancellations left passengers stranded.

The data, revealed in an RNZ investigation launched today, is evidence of urban bus networks in crisis, according to critics.

"I'm sorry that the bus system is not delivering for everybody in the way we want it to," said Wellington Regional Council's transport chair Thomas Nash.

Cancellations upon cancellations

RNZ's probe of bus services covered every service in Auckland and Wellington on every weekday in February. We removed the data for two days in Auckland where widespread flooding had a big impact on services, and for both centres on Waitangi Day.

On the worst day in Auckland, one in every nine scheduled buses didn't arrive. On Wellington's worst day, one in six was cancelled.

Each cancelled bus trip leaves passengers at each stop on its route waiting for another bus to come.

The live graphic below shows the number cancelled so far today.

Auckland transport commentator and blogger Matt Lowrie, who's written about the city's transport woes for more than a decade, described Auckland's services as "a system in crisis". He worried the constant cancellations could put public transport use into a death spiral.

"We need to do a lot better job at how we run buses so that we can get better transport outcomes."

Public Transport Users Association Jon Reeves said unreliable bus services push people into cars. "It means people are deciding to drive their cars rather than take the bus and take the risk of not getting to work, university or to a medical appointment or a hospital."

The bus companies that operate many of the routes that were cancelled admit there is a problem.

"We need to have buses turning up," said Ben McFadgen*, chief executive of the Bus and Coach Association.

"In order for people to catch public transport, they need to have confidence in it."

Image of a ghostly bus

RNZ's investigation examined all public transport bus services in Auckland and Wellington on weekdays in February. Photo: RNZ / Composite image

'I would describe them as great'

Auckland Transport metro optimisation manager Richard Harrison, however, insisted the city's bus system was in good shape.

"I'm a user of the bus services, I would describe them as great. They're constrained, they're challenged, but we're still running 12,000 services a day."

When asked whether "great" was a disconnect with the reality of daily cancellations frequently in excess of 1000, he explained Auckland Transport had spread trip suspensions and cancellations across the network.

Commuters at an Auckland bus stop told RNZ when they can, they prefer to use different ways to commute. "I've been cycling, but my bike got a flat tyre yesterday," said one commuter, who said the infrequent buses influenced her switch to a bike.

"I just drive now because there's no point. Every bus that goes past me is full," said another commuter, on a rare non-driving day.

Fewer services

The figures could be worse for both Auckland and Wellington.

Both cities trimmed bus timetables in late 2022 due to frequent cancellations.

Wellingtonians used to get an average of 3621 trips on weekdays. Roughly 143 trips were removed but driver shortages meant an additional 448 trips on a typical weekday were cancelled.

Prior to Auckland Transport removing or pausing certain services in the latter half of 2022, Aucklanders expected an average of 12,696 weekday trips. In the month of February, weekday trips averaged 10,669.

Infographic about Wellington buses
Infographic about Auckland buses

The cuts to Auckland's bus timetable were intended to be temporary but cash woes could see them become permanent as the council aims to cover a $295 million budget deficit, with Auckland Transport asked to save $25 million.

The proposed budget currently out for consultation says by not reinstating axed services, $21m would be saved. North Shore ward councillor Chris Darby said Aucklanders should not be happy with this reduction of service.

"That is unsustainable," he said, citing the most recent statistics he had been sent by Auckland Transport showing that in the first week of March public transport was back to 81 percent of what it was in the same week in 2019, prior to Covid-19 lockdowns and many switching to flexible working models.

Auckland's 'March madness' added to passenger frustration. Typically Auckland's busiest month for bus commuters, passengers are frequently left standing at bus stops as fully-laden buses pass.

In preparation for a busy March, Auckland Transport asked people to 'keep Auckland moving' by not actually moving at peak times.

Check back for more coverage of the issues in the coming days, including our worst routes for cancellations and a deep dive into our driver shortage.

Data notes: Auckland data obtained from Auckland Council's GTFS API and LGOIMA requests. Cancelled trips based on an 'effect' of 'No Service' and text indicating a cancellation. Wellington data obtained from Metlink's GTFS API of trip cancellations and LGOIMA requests.

* McFadgen was chief executive of the Bus and Coach Association when interviewed by RNZ for this story in February. He has since left the organisation.

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