The Wellington bus network is melting down and commuters are losing their shit

This school holiday Danyl Mclauchlan caught the bus to Wellington Zoo. It was not fun.

Update 19/07: This post has been amended to include a response from Greater Wellington Regional Council, which oversees Wellington’s bus network.

“Please,” I pleaded, standing in the door of a bus at Wellington’s Railway Station, my six-year old daughter’s tiny hand in mine, “We just want to get to the zoo.”

“I don’t go to the zoo,” the driver replied and she shifted her bus into gear; but then she took pity on us and picked up a pamphlet: the new map of Wellington’s transport showing a dense schematic of brightly coloured lines and examined it. “You need the Kingston bus,” she said eventually, screwing up her eyes and pivoting the map and turning her head to one side. “Number 23.”

I glanced at the timetable beside the bus stop. The Kingston bus wasn’t on it. “How do we catch the Kingston bus?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted, glumly. “None of us know anything. It’s chaos.” Then she flipped a switch and we jumped back as the doors hissed shut and the bus pulled away from the curb.

I hadn’t paid much attention to Greater Wellington Regional Council’s controversial plans to change the bus routes. Every year or so, for as long as I can remember, the council have announced a bold strategic vision to revolutionise the city’s transport infrastructure: they’d cancel a few services, increase fares and lay off a few drivers, and everything else continued as normal. Until this week. This week saw the greatest transformation of Wellington’s public transport infrastructure ever! Seven years of planning! New routes! New timetables! Double decker buses! Massive driver redundancies! No route or timetable has gone unchanged! And this has gone about as well as these things ever do, with confusion and massive delays and cancellations and commuter rage.

Many of us build our routines around public transport, so when it changes we react with anger and fear. There’s no avoiding that. And massive change like this, change that sweeps away our understanding of how to navigate around our own city, will always provoke a backlash. I’d even gotten used to the inaccuracy of the electronic timetables: I’d figured out that a minute on a Metlink timetable lasted, on average, about a hundred seconds, so a bus estimated to arrive in ten minutes would probably take closer to twenty and I had time to go to a cafe and read a book. Now even these cynical assumptions were thrown into chaos.

An hour and a quarter into our trip to the zoo – a trip that takes about twenty minutes by car – found us standing beside a flimsy perspex bus shelter in Newtown surrounded by a crowd of fellow bewildered, angry parents and sullen, fractious children, all trying to get to Wellington Zoo. Into this tinderbox of rage strode a friendly Metlink employee. “Howdy!” he called. “Do you folk all know where you’re going?”

I felt sorry for him. When the shouting died down I said, “But it’s not your fault. You didn’t design it this way.”

“I can feedback all these, um, comments back though,” he replied, looking a bit shaken, even threatened by the exasperated mothers crowding around him. “I can certainly see why a direct route to the zoo might make sense.”

“There’s no direct route from the hospital to the airport either,” another commuter snapped, shaking their head. “Madness.”

The bus network used to rely on long routes that started at one periphery of an outlying suburb, wound through the city and then terminated in an antipodal suburb. As Fairfax journalist Henry Cooke put it, in response to a tantrum I threw on Twitter about the lack of a direct route to the zoo: ‘I think Wellington has had this beautiful tapestry of weird routes that has made offpeak journeys between random parts of the city relatively painless for years but also results in a confusing timetable, empty buses and too-long waits in peak, so some rationalisation needed!’

The council’s solution is a hub and spoke topology similar to those you see in international cities with robust public transport. If you want to travel from one suburb to another you take a service to the closest hub; transfer; take a second service to the next hub and then transfer again to a third service. The goal here is to reduce the number of services running through the centre of town. Which makes sense! If you have fewer, more crowded buses – some of them double deckers – running through highly congested areas you’ll move more people through faster than many half-empty buses will.

It’s a model that works pretty well in huge population centres like Melbourne where the connections are regular and frequent, but hasn’t worked well in Wellington; at least not yet, with waits for connecting services leading to a massive increase in total travel time for some passengers, and overcrowded buses driving past stops teeming with waiting commuters. It’s been the worst kind of infrastructure change: the kind that inconvenienced me personally.

Metlink aren’t working in the dark here. They have huge volumes of data from their network’s Snapper system which records exactly where and when their customers are travelling; and they have sophisticated models to optimise their network. A spokesman for the council advised me that their modeling predicted that only 5% of passengers would need to transfer; and the timetables are designed so that buses should arrive shortly before connecting services depart.

But public transport is famously chaotic, and the map is not the territory. Everyone who uses Wellington’s buses is familiar with the phenomenon of the ghost bus; the bus that appears on the schedule and pops up on the electronic timetable, and as its arrival time nears you and your fellow passengers cluster at the edge of the stop, expectantly; but it never comes; the bus vanishes from the timetable and the next one reads: due in thirty minutes, and you all shuffle back to the shelter of the nearest building or tree, imagining yourself warm and dry inside the ghost bus, heading home, while the rain beats down on you in remorseless, endless icy sheets and the wind howls, and the longer you wait the more its howling resembles a form of speech; a demented, unhuman litany edging closer to a moment of comprehension that will shred your sanity like wet tissue. This phenomenon does not have a negative weight in the transport planner’s hub and spoke model. The model predicts everyone painlessly transferring to the scheduled bus and going home.

The council has estimated that it will take about six months for the flaws in the new network to sort themselves out. Which seems like a long time! The question now is whether the new system will normalise: whether the services will start running on time or, at least, reliably not on time; whether the new drivers will acquire a basic knowledge of the network, and the geography of the city, and whether Wellingtonians will grudgingly acclimatise; or whether the new design is inherently flawed.

We ran into another helpful Metlink employee on the trip back from the zoo, and I was a lot less understanding than in my earlier encounter. We were on Lambton Quay, checking the schedule for our sixth bus trip of the day; we’d spent literally hours hanging around bus stops, waiting, my daughter sitting cross-legged on the seats reading a book while I paced and tweeted and seethed.

“It has to be this way,” the Metlink staffer explained brightly in response to my near-hysterical tirade, “to conform to the North-South spine topology.”

“I don’t care about the topology,” I snapped. “I’m just tired and I want to go home.”

“Where’s home for you?”

“Wadestown.”

“You want the number 14 bus-”

“I know what bus I want.”

He looked at the timetable. “And that’ll be here in ten minutes.”

“That means it’ll be about twenty minutes. Maybe.”

He gave me a furtive, guilty look, but then spied a very pretty woman standing below the timetable with a perplexed air and hurried towards her. She immediately started yelling at him: he was trying to tell her about the spine topology when we left to find a cafe.

*

Greater Wellington Regional Council respond:

This is the first major change to the Wellington region’s public transport in 30 years and will future proof us for the next 30 years as commuter demand grows.

These new routes were designed to get more people to the places they want to go through a more connected and frequent network. With changes of this scale, we expect there may be some bumps on the road before we get up to speed and ask that you are patient and bear with us.

We have more than 130 Metlink staff – dubbed “AmBUSsadors” – helping passengers understand the new routes across our network on any given day. According to the opinion piece, Danyl Mclauchlan was approached by two of these during his journey, who offered assistance. We ask that anyone having trouble with the network speak with our AmBUSsadors, or call our Metlink team on 0800 801 700 for help.

For people wanting to travel to the Wellington Zoo from Wellington Railway Station, simply catch the number 1, or 3, bus to Wellington Hospital, and catch the number 23 bus from there to the zoo. If you use Snapper, you will be able to transfer between these buses for free.

We apologise for the inconvenience caused to some passengers during the transition and are working hard to ensure the new network helps Wellingtonians stay on the move.


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