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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Susan said...

You know what the real problem is here - it is that the taxpayer is picking up the tab for the hundreds of public servants who go in and out on government business with their taxi chits. It would only take a week when everyone was forced to take the bus (including the politicians) and it would miraculously come right. Auckland and Christchurch have much better services - Auckland's especially - but they are serving a tourist and other population that outweighs the people with expense accounts and taxi chits. Pity one of those holier than thou green party politicians doesn't get on to it!

Simon Bidwell said...

Oops, you commented before I had finished the post! Might read a bit better now. Yes, Auckland has an actual express bus service (although at $15 to $14 for Brisbane's brilliant express train, it's hardly a giveaway).

I'm not sure what engenders the disdain towards the Greens. Green politicians -- in parliament but also in the local bodies -- are the only ones to consistently push for better public transport. Have a look at their policies sometime -- they make cogent arguments for public transport in the context of the environment, health, urban layout and the coming challenges of peak oil. If they had more political power I'm sure there would be improvements. But given the prevailng attitudes they probably feel like they're beating their heads against a brick wall.

Paola said...

Simon, you forgot to mention that Brisbane, besides the Air-train ($14), has the bus service ($10) that operates 24 hours. It leaves the passengers in the different hotels and other accomodation in the CBD, and the closets suburbs such as Kangaroo Point and New Farm.

Simon Bidwell said...

Yes, this is true, and given the longer distance it has to travel, it compares very well with the Wellington bus service ($6.50) or the shuttles ($15 if there are already passengers and you bargain; otherwise $18). The shuttle service is theoretically door to door, but this can mean you have to wait while it takes a long convoluted route to drop off other passengers.

Erlkoenig said...