11 Apr 2023

Why are Auckland’s buses so routed?

7:21 am on 11 April 2023
Several buses in a row, one in each row is a ghost bus.

Photo: RNZ / Composite image

Who, or what is to blame for the current problems with bus services?

A bus rumbles past morning commuters at a Mount Eden bus stop, its sign bluntly declaring it is too full for passengers.

Among those waiting is a man who recently moved to the area. "I can never catch it," he complains.

If he can't board a bus he walks to his job in Parnell. Today, as a second bus passes with no room on board, there is a resigned slump of his shoulders as he sets off on a 40 minute walk.

Another commuter says sometimes three full buses pass before he can squeeze onboard. Does it make him late for work? "Yeah, I've already told them I'm going to be late, which is not ideal."

Asked what rating out of 10 he would give Auckland Transport's bus services, he replies: "Would a negative one be possible?"

RNZ's analysis of Auckland's buses during February showed on average more than 1000 buses are cancelled each weekday. This comes on top of a reduction of about 1000 daily trips after timetables were slashed in late 2022.

Is it too much to ask for a bus system which works reliably?

Read more from this series:

  • Hundreds of services cancelled every day
  • Wellington's most-cancelled bus routes
  • Auckland's most-cancelled bus routes
  • Why bus drivers keep quitting
  • Should offshore companies run our public transport buses?
  • University of Auckland's transport and infrastructure expert Tim Welch says the argument New Zealand cities were built for cars, "couldn't be more wrong". Originally they were built for people, horses and carts. It's only in the past 70 to 80 years that cars have become dominant.

    Harbours and hills can be a challenge for public transport, he says, but our topography isn't so extreme as to make a reliable bus service unfeasible.

    Auckland Council's North Shore ward councillor Chris Darby agrees. He often hears the argument that Auckland's two harbours pinching the land and its spread out suburbs are the problem. "Other jurisdictions around the world, they've got similar challenges of geography, but they provide world class transport systems."

    So, if topography isn't the problem, what or who is?

    Governments, deregulation, privatisation, policy and PTOM

    Labour and National governments have been responsible for policies which have contributed to the current bus crisis.

    The bus driver shortage is the main reason why so many buses are cancelled, forcing passengers to crowd onto fewer services. Across Auckland and Wellington, almost 500 bus driver vacancies remain unfilled.

    First Union researcher and policy analyst Edward Miller says driver pay has taken a hit since deregulation. In the 1990s, drivers were paid 66 percent more than the minimum wage, he says.

    Numerous changes happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s under both Labour and National governments. The ability for private operators to compete to run urban bus services was opened up by the Transport Services Licensing Act. The Labour Relations Act got rid of compulsory arbitration and the Employment Contracts Act in 1990 put an end to compulsory unionism.

    By 2019, most bus drivers around the country were paid around 10 to 15 percent above the minimum wage, says Miller.

    To be back to pre-1990 levels the hourly wage for drivers would sit at $37.86. Currently, the plan is to reach $30 for urban drivers.

    "There has been this long, gurgling sound as the trucking industry has taken bus drivers," says Miller.

    Outline of a person standing in front of a bus

    Photo: RNZ / Composite image

    Adding to wage issues since 2013 was the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM), introduced under the National government. This solved what Auckland transport blogger Matt Lowrie described as the ability for bus companies to "rort the system" with councils but it created another problem.

    Under the model, councils put units of routes out to tender but the model prescribed 60 percent of the decision of who to award a contract had to be based on cost.

    "Of course, the lowest bidder won contracts in pretty much every single case," says Public Transport Users Association national coordinator Jon Reeves.

    "Bus drivers wore the brunt of it by getting a low hourly rate and very bad penal rates."

    In his view, the model has been a major issue affecting driver levels and pay doesn't reflect on the dangers and responsibilities of the job. "He potentially could kill 50, 60, 70 people and you're giving the poor guy or woman maybe $20, $30 an hour. That's a lot of responsibility for not much money."

    A new model, the Sustainable Public Transport Framework, is being rolled out, which doesn't require councils to prioritise cost.

    Auckland Council's John Watson, who chairs the council's transport committee, describes PTOM as part of "a race to the bottom" for driver wages which made a significant contribution to the exodus from the profession. He's hopeful the new framework could help in another way. It allows councils to own services, something he thinks is worth investigating.

    "When you look at what's happened overseas where there's been kind of widespread privatisation of various PT [public transport] services, the results have often proved counterproductive, as opposed to countries where there's a strong local or governmental control and direction of public transport."

    There's also hope the bus driver shortage will be addressed through immigration, although a full suite of drivers could still be months away.

    The Labour government opened up an immigration pathway for drivers, which has allowed some drivers to be recruited. However, a setting requiring immigrant drivers receive the median wage of $29.66 which kicked in 27 February means many companies would need to pay immigrant drivers more than some local drivers are currently paid.

    The Labour government has also put money forward to top up driver wages. Over four years $61 million has been set aside, which is meant to contribute to an increase to $30 per hour for drivers in urban centres.

    Bus against Auckland skyline

    Photo: RNZ / Composite image

    Council bureaucracy?

    When asked to point the finger of blame for the current state of bus services between PTOM and Auckland Council's controlled organisation, Auckland Transport, Lowrie is hesitant to single one out. Auckland Transport, he says, focuses on trying to get the most bus services at the cheapest cost to ratepayers.

    Beyond the driver shortage there are projects which could improve bus journeys that sit squarely with councils. Lowrie, who's written extensively about Auckland's transport issues for more than a decade, worries Auckland is moving too slowly on these.

    Auckland Transport unsuccessfully tries to keep everyone happy, he says. "It's a jack of all trades, master of none scenario where they're trying to appease everyone and in doing so they are upsetting everyone because they compromise everything so significantly, that it becomes almost pointless."

    A single person raising concern about a project which might free up roads can cause the project to grind to a halt, he says. More business cases or consultations get done, and projects get delayed for so long that yet another business case is needed. Delaying a project can be seen to be politically safer than pressing go, he says.

    Bus lanes in New North Road, for example, have recently been delayed, after an open letter from Mayor Wayne Brown was sent to the agency asking for less change.

    Sometimes, projects get fed through the Auckland Transport "complicator", a tongue-in-cheek description of what becomes a handbrake on progress. "Maybe it's a simple project of adding urban cycleways, it now becomes complete road rebuilds with healthy water upgrades. We should be doing these things, but that's what's often slowing things down."

    Lowrie believes on top of bureaucracy there are some staff with "somewhat malicious intent" who try to stop projects. He feels Auckland Transport's previous chief executive didn't do enough to remove obstacles.

    "What tends to happen is people who tried to deliver things get moved on or get made redundant and the people who obstruct things, who refuse to adhere to policy, get promoted."

    New chief executive Dean Kimpton should be aiming to clean out deadwood, Lowrie says.

    "A lot of those are quite senior positions."

    Councillor Darby says a culture reset is required and he hopes Kimpton will "turn the place on its end".

    Some parts of the organisation are doing great work, he says. "But it's got trainer wheels on in some other areas."

    The pandemic

    A finger of blame can also be pointed at Covid. When borders closed, so did the flow of people willing to work for low wages.

    "We relied too heavily on being able to get cheap labour from immigration to fill those roles rather than having anything that was set to try and address those driver wages," says Lowrie

    Covid also caused a hit on council finances, which has led to a scramble to cut costs in the upcoming budget. Auckland Transport has been asked to cut $25 million from its books. One of its plans to do this is to not reinstate the trips it "temporarily" cut from timetables.

    The proposal leaves Darby cold. "That is unsustainable and I do not think it can endure the budget reset process. We are going to have to do something about what is signalled in the draft budget as it sits at the moment."

    It's us, we're the problem

    There's another potential culprit in the room - the public. Whether it's in protesting too much, not protesting enough, or a reluctance to leave our cars at home and embrace patchy public transport options, the public plays a part in sending a message to politicians and bureaucrats.

    It's members of the public who can slow down the introduction of bus lanes which could speed up the bus network. Often the loudest voices in consultations come from business owners complaining of losing customer parking outside shops, and residents complaining of off-street parking disappearing.

    Double decker buses can carry up to 110 people. A bus lane catering to just 50 full buses a day could improve the lives of 5500 passengers. Scott Caldwell, a spokesperson for Coalition For More Homes, says there's a conspicuous silence from bus commuters when consultations on new bus lanes roll around, creating an illusion the public doesn't want them. He would like to see an end to consultations first, and a shift to opinion gathering after lanes have been put in.

    Auckland Council transport committee chair John Watson, speaking about the council's climate goals, points out there are some good networks in Auckland which aren't as affected by the current reliability issues with capacity to carry more passengers.

    More people using services would indicate that when a service runs well, there's demand for it.

    "People's behaviour does have to change, we can't just wait for nirvana."

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