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Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

OPINIONOpinionNovember 9, 2022

I have no choice but to use public transport in West Auckland – and it’s unbearable

Image: Getty / Tina Tiller
Image: Getty / Tina Tiller

Public transport sounds cheap, modern and eco-friendly – until you have to rely on it. Then it’s just a living hell, especially in West Auckland.

I wake up. I check the Auckland Transport app to see if any trains are running from West Auckland to the CBD. Most are cancelled. The ONE train that is running means I have 25 minutes to shower, get dressed, make my lunch, and get to the train station. Five minutes later, as I race through my morning, it shows up on the app as cancelled. Phew. I can relax. My only option now is to book a taxi on the Auckland Co-Op Taxi app. There aren’t any in my area but there’s one only 25 minutes away. It eventually shows up (it’s rush hour after all). We sit in silence in traffic for over an hour. Luckily I pay only 50% of the normal price, because of my brand new disability. 

I grew up in West Auckland and got my driver’s licence on my 15th birthday, because public transport was so dire in the area at the time. Twenty-something years later, you’d expect it might have improved, but it’s even worse. 

As a result of the lack of public transport options, I have been a regular driver ever since — part of the elite cohort of people who can go wherever they like, whenever they want to. 

I am no longer in this cohort. 

I was recently diagnosed with adult-onset epilepsy after a bout of Covid, so I can’t legally drive for at least 12 months from my last seizure. Being suddenly unable to drive has been devastating. Ethically I have no problem with the restraints, as the last thing I want is to put anyone on the road at risk, including myself. 

But the reality of living without a car in West Auckland is bleak, verging on impossible. 

Car commuters in Auckland think they have it tough, but they should try public transport (Photo: Getty Images)

I live near a bus route, but the bus is infrequent and unpredictable – there are no bus lanes, and it’s a torturous three-bus journey to my workplace in the CBD, taking at least 90 minutes for a journey that’s just 25 minutes by car. Most West Auckland roads don’t have bus lanes, and are already congested, so when traffic is bad, or there’s an incident, or just a little light rubber-necking (for example everyone slowing down to examine someone changing a tyre, or a chip packet blowing along the footpath), it’s even longer and more unpredictable. Most West Auckland bus stops are just a sign, providing no shelter from the weather. I also get terrible motion sickness on long bus trips with the constant braking and acceleration. 

The solution, surely, is to take the train, so I bought a silly little e-scooter and can now scoot to the train station pretty quickly (an otherwise 35-minute walk). From the nearest station, it should be an easy 55-minute journey (45 minutes with the upcoming opening of CRL in 2024).

But due to a subsidence issue, the train frequency was recently cut by three quarters, with the Western Line trains reduced to a single track and only running every 40 minutes instead of every 10, plus a transfer required at New Lynn, where there’s another wait of about 15 minutes. Due to single-tracking and speed restrictions, there is often another long wait that makes everybody reach desperation point at Baldwin Ave or Newmarket.

It’s a painful, nearly two-hour trip, and that’s if the train is operating. The morning of writing this, every single train on the Western Line before New Lynn was cancelled, and no rail replacement buses were provided. But even at the rare times that rail replacement buses are provided, many of them are coach-style buses with steps, so you can’t bring a scooter, bike, pram or wheelchair on board, making disabled people and parents even more isolated and inconvenienced. 

How do people live like this?

I was always one of the driving oblivious. My sudden disability has given me a horrifying glimpse into the lives of the people who rely on public transport their whole lives. People who use wheelchairs, who have children in prams, who cycle as much as they can but can’t do dozens of kilometres every day — these people are left adrift. What are non-drivers supposed to do? Just eat shit and suffer? Will this be me?

The ruthless frequency of the closures on the train line blows my tiny little mind. Current planned closures include all train lines for several months at a time between 2023 and 2025. I feel like I’m having a stroke when I think about the momentous occasion of the opening of the City Rail Link (which is supposed to open our lives and shorten our journeys), then read about how they’re taking the opportunity to immediately shut down a third of the rail network. 

Reconstruction of Auckland’s tracks (like this one at Puhinui) will see schedules disrupted until 2025. (Photo: André Brett)

This is in addition to the infuriating “standard” shutdowns on public holidays, weekends, and over the Christmas and New Year period. People with epilepsy, with other disabilities, or without cars for whatever reason still need to exist and get around on weekends, public holidays and over summer. We pay tax, we pay rates, and we subsidise actual functioning public transport for people in fancier suburbs, while our basic transport needs are ignored. 

West Auckland is bearing a large proportion of the brunt of the densification of housing, but there is no accompanying transport infrastructure; barely any bus lanes and barely any buses; a cycleway that involves cycling unprotected on large stretches of busy main roads in weather that can be brutal; a train system that is completely broken, and no way for most people to get to or from the stations (if the trains actually show up). Why no shuttles?

The plan for how all these extra people are going to get in and out of West Auckland seems to consist of planners covering their eyes and going LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU. There’s no apparent plans to improve transport or town infrastructure, while people in sparsely-populated inner-city suburbs enjoy their frequent buses and thriving town centres.

Even for those who can drive, planning seems chaotic. Recently there was a month-long closure of Henderson Valley Road, stop-go roadworks on Border Road related to the new housing developments, and huge delays on Pine Ave during construction of a roundabout, all at the same time. Those are the three major road routes, and it seems unfair to trap us in West Auckland with our depressing town centres, high crime rates, condescending liquor licensing rules and people on meth spitting at you in the street. 

Is this our thanks for saving the planet?

We’re asked to give up our cars and take public transport to save the planet, while Auckland Transport and KiwiRail abandon us. Halving public transport fees to get more people on trains seems pointless when they then plan to cancel all the train lines for several months without increasing the frequency, convenience, or quality of bus services. 

I have been shaky with rage these past few weeks over the inadequacy of public transport. I don’t get to just hop in a car and bypass the system. And I’m dreading summer. Not only will I be trapped by the “standard” rail closures, but West Auckland has some of the best, most beautiful and popular beaches in the country, with no public transport to get to them. 

West Auckland treasures like Piha Beach, pictured at sunrise, are the sole domain of those with cars. (Photo: Getty Images)

I have investigated this at length, but still don’t understand why the trains need to shut down over summer and on public holidays. Want to get to an event? Forget it. Want to go the beach? Shut your face, it’s not an option. Want to see your friends or family? Fuck up and suffer. Need to get to the pool (with an hours-long waiting list if you want to go to the ONE West Auckland pool) or the airport, or the doctor? Pay through the nose or stay home. 

I have two old friends who have been overseas for years and have recently come back for a holiday over spring and summer to see family and friends. None of us have cars. We will probably not be able to connect in person without paying an extreme amount of money. With a doctor’s appointment for epilepsy once a month at $65 my funds are diminishing quickly. 

Honestly, at this point it feels personal. The moment I lost the right to drive, I also essentially lost the ability to take a reliable train or bus, which should be the most normal and natural thing in the world in our biggest city these days, especially with climate change, massive housing intensification in the area, and people begging each other to cut our emissions wherever possible. Instead I am spending a fortune on taxis (even with the disability discount) and clogging up the roads. 

I once lived in rural Japan in a sleepy town of only 17,000 people, at the end of the train tracks, where the train only came every hour between 5am and 11pm, but in three years, it wasn’t late or cancelled or closed even once – all repairs and maintenance were done at night, on time, and as a priority. I imagine the railway staff in Japan would have terrifying nightmares about inconveniencing train users – for KiwiRail and Auckland Transport it’s just the norm. Big shrug. Nothing to see here. 

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