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.


stephen said...

Couldn't agree more.

Also, it seems to me that public transport can lead civic development - "build it and they will come" is a viable strategy sometimes, with planning. London was laying down the Underground when it had the same population Auckland does now.

Simon Bidwell said...

Yes, a very good point. It's often struck me that there's a self-perpetuating aspect to the state of public transport in NZ. The claim that no one wants to use it is used to justify the lack of investment, which in turn results in a system that doesn't attract new users.