Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Hidden Cost of Bus Lanes

The Papanui Road bus lanes appear to be working, not least the vastly improved safety zone implicit in the cycle lanes. Despite some publicly expressed worries, and the vaguely confusing, vaguely zig zag quality of the road corridor itself the underlying concept seems simple and sensible. The lanes precede queue points at traffic lights, in both directions (according to the time of day) and to achieve this the centre line permanently shifts along the course of Papanui Road to accommodate both a lane of in and outbound motor traffic and a combination of bike and bus lane heading into the sticking point.

The saga of bus lanes in Christchurch is a sad one, bordering frankly on the pathetic. Some decades after other small cities began building bus lanes (by way of an example I recently came across the first bus lane in Gatineau, Canada, a city two-thirds the size of Christchurch was created in 1971) attempts were made to bus lane Riccarton Road in 1997. So fierce was the shopkeeper opposition that transport planners had to retreat licking their wounds. Bus and Coach Association (BCA) excutive director John Collyns told a city transport committee in 2003 - six years ago - that Christchurch was lagging behind other cities, citing 52 bus priority projects already operative in Auckland, with 25 more planned in the next two years (The Press 11/6/03). However before bus lanes came trialling the bus boarder - an intrusive device in the middle of Hills Road allowing the bus to stop without leaving the lane, and the queue of cars behind it to stop as well! This was a 18 month trial, presumably with the hope of saving on the cost of bus lanes, which City Councillor Chrissie William's identified in an opinion piece in The Press as a big city device, used in narrow streets of high congestion, not appropriate to Christchurch. The rabbit's flightpath doesn't normally include Hills Road, but he recalls a Saturday afternoon trip, when Hills Rd traffic is constant, and the minute and half debate/argument between the driver and a passenger who had joined at the bus boarder, about the fare or route direction (rabbit was too far back in the bus to hear which). Thinking of the long queue of cars banking up behind the bus - on a Saturday afternoon for heaven's sake - the rabbit's insight?  "This system is never going to work!".

Decades behind many other cities, and 12 years after the first attempt on Riccarton Road in 1997, finally Christchurch get's its first corridor long bus lane's on Papanui Road. When a reporter interviewed a passenger, on opening day, and she said the bus trip was the same speed as it always was, Christian Anderson Council Project Manager responded "It is really about getting consistent times down Papanui Road, rather than trying to make it faster" (The Press 7 /10/09).

The cost that worries the rabbit is the inordinate amount of time the city is taking to arrive at a mass transit strategy capable of lifting public transport's share of peak hour commuter traffic up above the 4.5% figure. This is world class only in one way - it is an inordinately low percentage for a city of our size!    And the hidden financial cost - the lost opportunities to date, the tens of millions in potential Government funding towards commuter transit projects that Christchurch had a strong political case to receive when Wellington and Auckland received hundreds of millions between 2000 and 2007. Christchurch received no comparable funding because we had no plan and no projects to fund, even the Bus Exchange being funded locally.  

And the cost to the future when this city finally wakes up to realise rail and light rail are (a) hugely expensive (b) can only benefit a small portion of commuters, and even more so in a city of our geographic footprint (b) can not be effectively built in places that can be utilised by both local commuters and tourists, the latter fundamental in most cities to sustaining mid day and off peak use that helps sustain light rail (d) that will, unless routes are expensively long (including operating costs), not travel far enough out from the city centre to make park-and-ride a cost or time effective option for city or individual commuters. Meanwhile opportunities to create rapid transit corridors - segregated from traffic in part - are constantly eroded.  The City Council itself has thrown away the Edgeware Pool site - perfectly located as an Edgeware transger station along the path of the easiest, most cost effective, and least intrusive potential rapid access corridor, between Northlands and the city.

Many of the cities that years ago adopted on-street bus lanes (road markings only) are moving towards creating such bus corridors, not least the aforementioned Gatineau utilising the land beside a rail corridor to build an 17km bus only east-west traverse of the city.
[More about why Gatineau chose busways over light rail, click title box above]

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