Auckland Transport is launching a new system of bus routes to the northwest of the city this weekend, in response to the rapid expansion of development in areas such as Kumeū and Huapai.
Though the Covid years temporarily stymied growth in some areas of the city, new housing and development along state highway 16 has renewed population growth in the Rodney local board area.
One of the region’s least populous local board areas is forecast to increase by 77 percent over the next 25 years – from 76,700 to 135,800 in 2048.
Meanwhile, growth between 2017 and 2021 was about three times that of the wider Auckland region.
What is currently a largely agricultural area is rapidly being swallowed by the unfolding suburbia of the country’s biggest city.
Development on the city’s northwestern fringe and in neighbouring Massey-Henderson – Auckland’s second most populated local board area – has raised demand for transport options to the northwest.
A dedicated busway on the Northwestern Motorway from Westgate to Te Atatu has been on the plans since the previous National government.
However, nearly 10 years on and there has been little movement in this area. An after-work bus trip from the central city to Kumeū still takes about an hour and a half.
But a new bus network focused on West and Northwest Auckland launching on Sunday aims to make life easier for commuters with a new Western Express line connecting Westgate, new bus interchanges at Lincoln and Te Atatū, and the city centre.
Auckland Transport expects a trip from Westgate to Britomart would take 50 minutes in the morning peak, 42 minutes at midday, and 35 minutes during late evenings.
Transport connections to Northwest Auckland have received a fair amount of scrutiny lately.
A rapid transit corridor between the city centre and the Northwest was identified in several versions of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project as an urgent priority to complete.
Meanwhile, the National Party rode into a successful election night last month with options for the Northwest high on its list of transport priorities.
National has promised to use public-private partnership funding to invest in public transport corridors for Northwest Auckland, running a “competitive tender process for the delivery of a rapid transit solution to Auckland’s fast-growing Northwest using an equity financing model”.
The big decisions, such as the exact route and whether this would be a busway or light rail, will all be made as a part of that process.
National campaigned on delivering that within the next 4-10 years at a cost of just under $3 billion.
But with potentially a decade before that option is useable by residents of the Northwest, the new WX1 Western Express will have to fulfil the need for now.
Auckland Transport has announced plans to improve the express service in the next few years with brand new zero-emission double-deckers, services every 10 minutes in the evening, and a new bus station near Gunton Drive.
The service has been modelled on the Northern Express, which at least one Auckland councillor has called the “most successful public transport project in New Zealand”.
North Shore councillor Chris Darby said the Northern Express had exceeded the patronage suggested in its initial business case, supporting its extension.
Mayor Wayne Brown has also gone on record praising the project.
But one big difference between the Northern Express and its soon-to-launch western equivalent is the dedicated separate busway running alongside the Northern Motorway.
In consultation conducted last year on the new express service, a number of West Aucklanders expressed concern over having to change buses to get onto the express service.
Auckland Transport has reported this as a “trade-off” – ‘one seat ride’ into the city bus services being replaced with a transfer.
“While transfers may not be desirable to some, they are essential to create frequency and simplicity,” officials from the agency wrote in the consultation document.
“They enable buses to be utilised more effectively to run more often and provide access to more destinations.”
Some people were disappointed to learn their bus journey would in fact take longer because of the need to transfer, while others noted their commute would be quicker.
A high number of respondents disagreed the changes would improve public transport for them – but at the same time, a similarly high number agreed the changes would improve public transport for Auckland.
Meanwhile, Karangahape Road will be seeing changes to make it more bus-focused. General parking will be removed from the end of this week.
A new bus lane on Newton Road and extended bus shoulder lanes on the Northwestern Motorway all serve to shift the roads just a little more in favour of public transport.
At rush hour, buses travelling in the busy direction will be able to use parts of the shoulder lane to bypass traffic.
Auckland Transport service network development manager Pete Moth said bus lane operating hours currently affect the reliability of given bus journey times on Karangahape Road.
“It is important that road space is relocated to the people who need it most, to boost patronage on public transport and to make buses a viable alternative to travelling by car,” he said.
Parking removal has proven a controversial policy in Auckland, with the likes of business associations worrying it will impact access to their businesses.
There are studies around the world that show much the opposite happening. For example, a street in Toronto found monthly customer spending and the number of customers served increased after the replacement of private parking with a bike lane.
That’s the view Auckland’s transport agency appears to be taking, with city centre programme director Graeme Gunthorp saying more bus priority will give people better access to Karangahape Road.
“AT has seen the positive impact that more bus customers in an area can have on businesses. The more people arriving to an area on bus, the better this is for business,” he said. “There will be more people walking the streets, spending money and enjoying the ambience of café culture on K Road.”
Members of the business community have reported surprise at short-notice changes to parking.
A letter was sent by Auckland Transport last week apologising to local businesses for this.
“It has been brought to my attention that business owners were not adequately informed this work was to take place and on behalf of Auckland Transport, and I would like to offer my sincere apologies for the poor communication,” wrote Stacey van der Putten, Auckland Transport’s executive general manager of public transport services.
Van der Putten said in acknowledgement of the oversight, a grace period on bus lane violations would be in place until early December.
“Again, I would like to express my sincere apology that you were not adequately informed that these changes were happening in your neighbourhood,” she wrote. “We strive to ensure all our customers are up to date with changes to the network, however, we acknowledge that we can always do better – particularly in this instance.”
Waitematā and Gulf councillor Mike Lee said there had been haste and a lack of consultation around this work that was “draconian” for the K Road business community.
“It suggests a panicked response from politically minded AT management designed to pre-empt feared policy directions from the incoming government. But it’s precisely this sort of high-handed behaviour from bureaucrats that is likely one of the reasons why we do have a new government.”
Karangahape Road Business Association general manager Jamey Holloway said the new rules had been a “bit of a bolt from the blue”.
“We were surprised,” he said. “When you’re making changes it’s really important to bring people with you. So we’re hoping we can work with Auckland Transport now to get this done well.”