Monday, January 26, 2009

The Winding Road to the Airport

OK, so here are the reasons why Wellington's aiport bus service is much worse than it needs to be.

1. As mentioned in the previous post, you can almost run from the city to the aiport in the time the bus takes to get there. Contributing to this is the 5 or 6 minutes it can take to crawl down Courtenay Place during busy times. This is a problem with the wider transport system and city layout, which is kind of off limits for this post. However, the real drag is the byzantine route the bus takes once it passes through the Mt Victoria tunnel.

Instead of continuing on the direct Cobham Drive-Calabar Road route, the bus veers off on a circumlocution through Kilbirnie, stopping to pick up and drop off local passengers, then takes a scenic loop around Lyall Bay and into the back entrance to the airport through a tunnel apparently explicitly designed for buses. The logic completely escapes me. Why must the airport bus act as a local shopping trolley when the area is already covered by several other services? Why would you build a special tunnel to open up a much slower route?

2. In addition to not being an express airport bus, this is not even a city to airport bus. Rather, it is an Upper Hutt to aiport bus, run by the same company which operates services in the Hutt Valley itself, and from the Hutt to the city. I'm presuming somebody thought this was an appropriate combination of routes when they were handing out concessions.

This means that the Flyer has to work its way in from the Hutt Valley, negotiating Wellington's fickle motorway traffic, and as a result is never ever on time. The half hour intervals it is supposed to arrive are pure fiction. From bitter experience, I've found that you must try to catch the bus before the one that will get you to the aiport to check in on time. When the orange no. 91 does show up, you usually have no way of knowing whether it's erratically early or lamentably late.

3. For all its problems, the bus does get you to and from the airport. Except when it stops running, which is well before the last planes of the evening. During the week, the last bus is at 8:30, while the flights run until nearly midnight. Arrive after this hour, as I have done several times, and you can take a shuttle, which when there is no bus competition will try to charge you at least $18 just to the city, or you can pay $30 for a taxi.

4. The one good point of the Airport Flyer used to be that it had nice spacious luggage racks in the front. Those lugging big backpacks or cumbersome suitcases could dispense with them after boarding and enjoy a reasonably comfortable seat. When I took my most recent trip, I got on to what I found was a slightly newer coach, with more seats, but no luggage rack. With the need to negotiate a steep step half way down the bus and battle along a narrow aisle, I and several other passengers stumbled, staggered, and nearly injured ourselves in the search for a seat.

Reluctant as I am to claim a conspiracy, it's hard to find another plausible explanation. The infrequency, unreliability and poor value of the aiport bus mainly benefits the shuttle services and the taxi companies. The airport company is also unlikely to be too concerned about poor public transport, as it can charge access to the shuttles and taxis, and makes money out of car parking.

But let's take a reality check. Aren't I making a big deal out of nothing here? Why should we care about a bus that runs to the airport, anyway? If you can afford to fly, you can afford to get a taxi, right?

I beg to differ. The airport is the gateway to the city, and is the first experience travellers have of a place. Backpackers, families visting relatives, and others on a budget also travel by air, and failure to offer decent public transport shows a fundamental disdain for their experiences. The $30 it takes to get a taxi into town is not a pittance: two week's coffee, several family meals, or a monthly internet package.

Furthermore, an important constituency of Wellington airport is business travellers and public servants. The fact that transport usually doesn't come from their pocket perhaps encourages the expectation that 'everyone just gets a taxi'. But with Wellington's compressed business district, a single route could easily serve almost all of these people. As economic times get tougher, aren't there potential savings here for taxpayers and shareholders?

In any case, the main point of this post was to point out the ways in which bad public transport is not the inevitable result of difficult geography, smaller population and lower GDP. The really frustrating things about the Wellington aiport service are the route, schedule and vehicles. If public transport is to be improved, these details would be a good place to start, which would at least demonstrate that the idea of a public service is taken half seriously.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Public Transport Gap

When I was in better shape and used to go for longer runs, it took me about 30 minutes to make my way from Te Papa on the Wellington waterfront to the roundabout at the end of Cobham Drive, from where it's only another few minutes to the international aiport (though my route didn't take me that way).

When I recently took the bus from central Wellington to the airport to fly south for Christmas, the ironically-named Airport Flyer took roughly 35 minutes to cover the same distance.

Brisbane's airport is around twice the distance to its city centre as Wellington's, but when I landed there on my way to visit my girlfriend Paola, the trip downtown in the express train took hardly a quarter of an hour.

[Cost of 35-minute ride in bumpy, claustrophobic bus that was a quarter hour late: $6.50
Cost of 15-minute journey in smooth, comfortable, air-conditioned express train that swished up to the platform exactly on schedule: $14]

Every time I go to Australia I get a fresh reminder of how much better their urban public transport is than ours. I only know Melbourne and Brisbane, but I'm reliably informed that Sydney and Adelaide also have excellent public transport for their respective sizes.

Brisbane has six to eight train lines (depending on how you count) spidering out from the city, and linking the Sunshine Coast to the Gold Coast. Its bus network is supported by dedicated busways that run north, south and east of the centre. And while Melbourne has its trams as a showpiece, Brisbane has its ferries.

The 'City Cats' are fast, rakish-looking vessels that trek their way along the inner-city route between the University of Queensland and Apollo Rd near the mouth of the Brisbane river. They have rows of comfortable seats inside, with a big screen showing news and weather. But in all but the most inclement weather, most people prefer to sit outside on the front and back decks, taking in the views and the breeze. The trip along the river is so pleasant that many tourists (including yours truly) ride up and down and treat it as a pleasure cruise.

The great thing is that all services are linked under the Queensland government's TransLink umbrella, enabling a single ticket to take you across all the different transport modes and allowing steep discounts on bulk purchases. For example, just $23 buys a weekly ticket that will give you unlimited travel on any train, bus or ferry within zones 1 and 2 (an area at least the size of Wellington City and Lower Hutt combined).

Compare this with the motley collection of transport providers in the Wellington area and the stingy deals on offer. There are no weekly tickets; the best you can do is a monthly ticket for about $100 for either bus or train, covering about the equivalent area of Brisbane's zones 1 and 2. There are only a couple of combined bus and train offers with very limited conditions, and the Eastbourne and Seatoun ferries are right out of the picture.

I'm also doing Wellington the favour of pretending to compare like with like. To be fair we should note the rather more modern, fast and comfortable nature of Brisbane's transport. The train and ferry services are also supported by an entire infrastructure of stations with broad platforms, seating, shelter, ticket machines, water fountains, and route and timetable maps. Most of the train stations even have staff.

My uncle and aunt who live in Brisbane say that the public transport has been rather neglected over the years, the congestion on the artertial routes is terrible, and the local government is trying to address the problems through misguided, delayed, poorly organised attempts to build more highways. That sounds pretty familiar: I guess everything is relative.

At this point, defenders of the New Zealand status quo will point out the differences in geography, population and economics that mean public transport just can't reach the same standards as in Australian cities. With 1.9 million people, Brisbane is larger than any New Zealand city, while Sydney and Melbourne are much larger and denser again. They also all sit on large areas of relatively flat land, allowing transport to be organised in an efficient, hub-and-spokes system. And of course, Australia is 'richer' than us and can spend more -- though I would point out that Queensland is not one of the wealthiest states and the per-capita income is probably not dissimilar to Wellington, New Zealand's richest place.

I remain convinced that public transport can be a lot better in New Zealand's largest cities, and that its current state is as much a result of attitudes as of intrinsic limitations. But let's accept for argument's sake that we can't match Australia. I can still make a case that the Wellington airport route is a special embarassment. That will be the topic of the next post.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Hell Is Other People

To clarify: I don't mean that. This post is actually about how, despite what Jean Paul Sartre might have thought, and despite their irritating qualities, you can't really do without other people at all.

If you're not a mathematical genius, a gifted artist, or one of the few novelists whose intense introversion actually speaks to the human condition, communicating and getting along with other people is vital to achieving most anything useful.

The older you get and the more you learn, the more you realise how partial is any knowledge, how limited is any talent, how weak and qualified is 'being right'. Even where you might have been ahead of the game in having an insight or drawing a conclusion, it's not worth much unless you can communicate it to other people in a way that makes sense to them. Even then, you probably stole most of it off someone else without realising it.

This all might seem painfully obvious, but for me, last year was a learning curve in a number of ways. I suppose the lessons were there before, but I wasn't mature enough to notice them.

Theory provided small revelations. In development studies, it became clearer than ever that there was no best political or economic system that would solve everyone's problems. The wisest philosopher kings have generally failed to drag the majority along with them. Societies that have managed to achieve material prosperity and a degree of freedom for their citizens have done so by making or doing things that appeal to other people ('markets'), or organising their affairs in a way that the majority -- not just the enlightened few-- find moderately fair and reasonable ('good government').

[We leave aside the useful ability to overwhelm others by superior force, although even that requires teamwork.]

Modern theories on development also give a lot of credence to 'institutions', that mish mash of rules, conventions, and processes, and their observance by groups ranging from school boards to small claims courts to select committees. [How could I have known, when the dark mysteries of world poverty and inequality pushed me towards development studies, that the secret to progress lay in well-run meetings with an agreed agenda?]

Meanwhile, in real life I had occasion to take minor leadership roles in a couple of areas, and was a little taken aback by the experience. I have always favoured getting on with ones's own work as the best way to make a contribution, and been mildly scornful of the 'relationship management skills' that make an appearance in most job descriptions. But the year's experiences forced me to reassess this view.

On the one hand, there are always people smarter and more experienced than you are. When you have spurned the limiting dedication to a single trade, profession or discipline in favour of a cultivated dilettantism, you can be sure that in any field you operate you will always need to relate to those who have greater expertise.

On the other hand, in social and political contexts -- the only ones where I'm likely to be working in the immediate future -- things get done not by people who are 'right' but by those who can persuade others to agree with them.

At work, the project-like effort for which I received the most praise was generally seen as having been more valuable for the process and for the range of people that participated, than for its actual content or conclusions. I had to acknowledge the frightening reality that my most significant achievement was getting people to come to a meeting.

At university, I had an interesting experience of group work. In the past, I'd smugly shunned working in groups, as my instinctive revulsion at writing by committee was backed up by studies which showed that at many tasks, the best individuals consistently outperform most teams. However, development policy is if nothing else about the interaction of groups of people, so I had to acknowledge the raison d'etre.

It turned out that my background and experience made me one our group's natural leaders. I was keen that there would be no hierarchies but that open and constructive debate would trump wishy-washy consensus. However, I was a little taken aback to find that I'm not actually that good at being challenged or taking constructive criticism. Although I had lots of ideas, and some of them were good, they weren't always the best or the only ones. Yet I found I was stuck in contrarian, argumentative mode, what my father used to call 'having to have the last word'.

Worse, I rediscovered a latent tendency towards micromanagement. When tasks have to be to spread around, it doesn't matter whether you know exactly how everything should go (which as we've agreed, you probably don't); you have to trust in other people's ability to play their part in their own style. Sadly, I found that the facile corporatese edict to 'empower those around you' was sometimes a bridge too far.

When we had our anonymised written peer assessments, some adjectives that appeared in mine more than once (admittedly amidst mostly positive feedback) included 'dictatorial' and 'dominating', and I had to acknowledge they were fair.

By the end of 2008, I had to come to the conclusion that, like it or not, 'relating to other people' is a specific and valuable skill that needs to be worked at.

Having said all that, people have tendencies, and mine is that I'll generally behavely awkwardly in groups and will struggle to be a good team player. And the realisation that relatively harmonious collaboration is a desirable goal doesn't have to make it the starting point. Working my way through David S Landes' epic The Wealth and Poverty of Nations in the holidays (review to come), I found a defense of grumpy individualism.

Landes argues that the competitive desire to improve on and outdo one's contemporaries was part of what drove the scientific and industrial revolutions in Europe. Even prior to that period, the existence of many competing political entities in Europe, and the development of cities, provided individuals the option of migration, thus putting a ceiling on political tyranny and allowing the survival of new ideas. Meanwhile, the Chinese Middle Kingdom (technologically far ahead at the start of the Middle Ages) quietly ossified, as any individual genius that threatened the harmony and order of the whole was quietly tucked away or repressed.

There's affirmation there for those of us that are naturally repelled by the stifling conformity -- especially prevalent in the teaching, nursing and management professions as well as in most large organisations -- that is slyly enforced through a rhetoric of team spirit and rears its head most distastefully at 'planning days' or 'retreats'. The lesson from history is that there needs to be room to say: 'this is lame; I'm gonna make a face and opt out'.

And of course, the great irony of cooperation and teamwork is that the strongest and most cohesive team is the one that has just kicked somone else's ass.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Animalitos Great and Small

I have Paola to thank for dragging me along to Australia Zoo and Sea World during my recent time in Brisbane. The stated motivation for visiting the parks was to see 'animalitos', and despite my slightly lesser tendency to melt with tenderness at the sight of a small pet dog on a street corner, I enjoyed it almost as much as she did.

The word which best describes both parks would be 'slick'. Entertainment for tourists is the dominant principle, although both operations push a mild environmental message. The idea in Australia Zoo seems to be that by making snakes and crocodiles part of a showbiz spectacle, people will see what wonderful creatures they are and therefore want to protect them and their environment. However, there's no real link to a wider ecological context, and the razmatazz tends to drown out any other message.

Sea World sticks to the standard tactic of showcasing the most lovable marine animals, and are so successful that despite the environmental angle being even thinner than at Australia Zoo, most visitors who have seen the sea lion and dolphin shows would probably depart feeling inclined to tear apart a drift net with their hands and teeth if necessary.

The photos are 800 x 600 and can be enlarged by clicking.

Close to the best, as well as the most manipulative, spectacle at Sea World was the 20-minute 'Fish Detetectives' show, a semi-coherent narrative about illegal overfishing in which the actors included two sea lions and one seal. Cued by hand signals, and regularly rewarded for good performance by a fish or three, the marine mammals slid, swam, searched, chased, saluted, whispered and embraced, leaving most of the female audience members to file out in a tearful state of joy at their overwhelming cuteness.

As part of the twice-daily show at Sea World, the trainers surf across the pool on the back of the dolphins -- or rather, the dolphins agree to carry the trainers for a short burst in return for generous servings of fish.

But the real stars of the show are the dolphins themselves, who splash, leap and somersault with such enthusiasm that it's easy to forget they do it on cue twice daily.

As we filed out the side of the open-air theatre after the show, a couple of the trainers were taking questions and explaining things to the last handful of people to leave. The dolphins swam right up to edge of the pool and milled about, allowing me to get several close-up photos.

Elephant feeding is a daily feature at Australia Zoo. We just missed forming part of the hundred or so people who lined up to serve each Asian elephant a carrot, which it politely snaffled with its trunk and deposited into its mouth. These animals certainly get their 5+ per day.

At Australia Zoo, visitors can look through glass windows into a small enclosure where animal trainers play with eighteen-month old Sumatran tiger cubs. According to one of the trainers, who sustained a running commentary over the microphone, they work with the tigers daily, encouraging them to engage in natural behaviours of running, leaping and attacking, but also building a relationship of discipline and respect (kind of like coaching the under-16 rugby team).

In the 'Crocoseum' at Australia Zoo, Steve Irwin's wife still carries on the family tradition of baiting a 15-foot crocodile with strips of meat, as well as her and the other zoo staff's presence. In another part of the show, the crocodile attacked a dangling 'leg-like' object attached to the end of a long stick. The trainer doing the running commentary became ecstatic as the croc twisted and battered the object into submission. "Two, three, four death rolls!", he enthused. "Four death rolls -- that's a new record!".