Mahu City Express bus at Matakana's Sculptureum (Photo: Mahuexpress.co.nz)

How the Mahu City Express is making outer suburb commuting a car-free reality

Commute Week: When Julian Ostling moved to Warkworth six years ago, he was surprised to find there was no way to bus into the city. Fast-forward to today and Ostling’s private bus company – the Mahu City Express – runs from Warkworth to the CBD six times a day, five days a week.

Theoretically, getting from Warkworth to the city should be a little under an hour’s drive. But at 8am on a Monday, that’s a whole different story. Once you pass the tolls and reach Oteha Valley and Greville Road, the rush hour traffic hits with full, congested force. If the weather’s bad, it’s even worse – trips can take almost two hours.

As house prices in Auckland continue to go through the roof, more people are choosing to live in the city’s outer suburbs, sacrificing an easy commute for affordable housing. Warkworth, which sits approximately 70 km north of the CBD, is just one of these many suburbs, with an average three bedroom house costing just $722,200 (to put this in context, the Auckland-wide average according to a 2017 suburb report is over $900,000). There are no public transport links to or from Warkworth, meaning the only real choice for residents is to drive, something British expatriate Julian Ostling hadn’t anticipated when he moved to New Zealand six years ago.

“We decided to live up in Warkworth as it’s about an hour out of Auckland. When we were in London, we were living about an hour out of London and we found it to be quite a nice balance,” recalls Ostling. “So we chose Warkworth thinking it would be a nice place to live. But when it came to getting to work, there was no bus. I had to drive and I thought that was crazy. I started driving and realised how horrible the traffic was. I thought there must be a way you can make a bus work – there are hundreds of people commuting from Warkworth into the city every day.”

Julian Ostling (left) started Mahu City Express less than three years ago and has built himself a dedicated customer base (Photos: mahuexpress.co.nz)

Eventually, Ostling ended up running an informal carpool for his fellow Warkworth residents. He rented a van and charged passengers $10 each way. The carpool was a success and it quickly got him thinking about what it would take to actually set up a bus. “I kept doing the maths and doing the homework to see if I could make it work, and I came to the conclusion that if you aren’t driving the bus back empty as bus services [often do], then you could possibly make it economically viable.”

In October 2015, Ostling bought a 16 seater bus and launched the Mahu City Express. Running six times a day – three in the morning between 6-9am, and three in the evening between 4-7pm – the bus service takes you from Warkworth to the CBD for a flat rate starting at $15. But it hasn’t always been this way. Just last week the service only ran four times a day – this week’s increase was purely based on public demand. “Because we’re small and have a tight customer base, we can talk to them and find out what they want more of and be a lot more responsive,” says Ostling. “We’ll change stops and respond to feedback [about trips].”

That doesn’t mean the Mahu City Express is another Uber-style service with passengers hailing rides whenever (and from wherever) they please. It’s not like UberPool, for example, which matches you with riders heading in the same direction so you can share the cost of the trip, or Auckland Transport’s Smart Travel app which connects people with like-minded locals travelling to similar destinations.

(Photos: mahuexpress.co.nz)

Ultimately, the Mahu City Express runs like a classic bus company with set bus stops running at set times, and while Ostling says he did look at the possibility of on-demand services, he found that when it came to commuting, it was the last thing people were looking for. “[Commuters] just want something that’s completely predictable and consistent so they can stumble up the road with their eyes closed, get to a corner and stand there and a bus will arrive,” he says. There’s no decision making involved. No mental strain. It’s just there.”

Since many of the Mahu City Express’s passengers are regulars all working the 9-5 grind, Ostling says it’s natural that everyone eventually gets to know each other, with people chatting and socialising both on and off the bus. “That was one of the nice things about carpooling. It was just a group of us going down every day and we’d have quite a nice time, even though we’d be sitting in traffic,” he says. “I really wanted to maintain that when I started the bus company. [So now] we have these little groups of people who see each other all the time and chat about their weekend which is really nice to see.”

“We do things like Magnum Mondays where everyone gets an ice cream in the afternoon for surviving the first day of the week, and Fizzy Fridays where we serve some drinks and bubbles to celebrate the end of the week. We also have social events and we’re actually doing one in a few weeks with a dinner.”

Left: Warkworth residents commuting to the city in the morning / Right: ‘Fizzy Friday’ on the bus (Photos: Facebook/Mahu City Express)

Later this year, Auckland Transport is set to finally launch bus services in the Warkworth region as part of its New Network. The new buses will continue to serve the area currently served by the Kowhai Connection – an on-demand public transport service that’s been on trial in the Matakana/Warkworth region with the help of AT – and will include a new direct bus service from Warkworth to Hibiscus Coast Station. There won’t, however, be any type of express service, which means those who want to get to the city will still have to switch over to another bus.

“I think it’s good for the budget conscious or people going to the Albany shops, but I wouldn’t want to get a bus to Silverdale and then get another bus to the city for work,” he says. “When I was living in London, I had to change trains and I thought: ‘If I could just get on one train, go to sleep and wake up London, that would be awesome’.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do [with the Mahu City Express]. It’s a better way to spend time, and you can get stuff like emails out of the way. And you’re not travelling in a cold, unfamiliar environment. You’re travelling in a friendly, social environment… and you don’t have to stand and bounce around on a hard seat. It’s really a first-class travel experience.”

Read more from Commute Week here


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