Miss­ing the bus

New Zealand Listener - - EDITORIAL -

The adage that if you don’t know where you’re go­ing, any route will get you there seems to have been the blue­print for the Greater Welling­ton Re­gional Coun­cil’s cat­a­strophic new bus “ser­vice”. A cynic might sus­pect a se­cret agenda to slash the use of buses. Less pa­tron­age cer­tainly ap­pears to have been the out­come af­ter just nine weeks of the new timetable. Dis­tricts had their bus fre­quency cut by as much as 40% and now, un­sur­pris­ingly, Welling­to­ni­ans re­port greater traf­fic con­ges­tion from a re­turn to cars. This week, deal­ers re­ported a spike in lo­cal sales of mo­torised scoot­ers.

Near-daily head­lines about the chaos have made Welling­ton buses a na­tional laugh­ing stock, yet it could hardly be a more se­ri­ous fail­ure of pub­lic lead­er­ship.

En­vi­ron­men­tal and pop­u­la­tion pres­sures make ef­fi­cient, af­ford­able and pop­u­lar pub­lic trans­port one of New Zealand’s most ur­gent pri­or­i­ties.

In­stead, from what re­gional coun­cil­lors have said in pub­lic and stake­holder meet­ings, the start­ing point was to make sub­stan­tial sav­ings. In­deed, the suc­cess­ful ten­der­ers so dras­ti­cally re­duced drivers’ pay and con­di­tions that many took re­dun­dancy. The con­trac­tors were forced to bring in and some­times pro­vide emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion for out-of-town and in­ex­pe­ri­enced drivers.

This man­ner of “sav­ings” has re­sulted in a queue of mishaps: an in­crease in bus ac­ci­dents; in­stances of drivers tak­ing wrong routes, run­ning out of fuel, miss­ing stops and get­ting lost; dou­ble-deck­ers los­ing power; even a driver hav­ing to aban­don a bus be­cause it was stuck in a tricky street.

Sta­tis­tics aren’t yet avail­able, but from the vol­ume of me­dia com­plaints, thou­sands of peo­ple ap­pear to be reg­u­larly in­con­ve­nienced. In an ex­tra­or­di­nary act of what has been seen as pas­sive ag­gres­sion, the city con­trac­tor re­sponded to over­crowd­ing com­plaints by re­duc­ing bus seat­ing. This is de­spite the fact that stand­ing dur­ing bus rides on the cap­i­tal’s wind­ing, hilly streets is clearly risky.

The drivers re­port be­ing forced to work much more over­time and a ros­ter of split shifts with a seven-hour stand-down pe­riod in the mid­dle of the day.

There is anec­do­tal ev­i­dence of ab­sen­teeism and a pro­duc­tiv­ity slump. But too of­ten, buses are late, can­celled or go past frus­trated com­muters be­cause they’re full.

That Welling­ton Mayor Justin Lester has now pub­licly urged re­me­dial ac­tion from his re­gional col­leagues sug­gests those politi­cians are dig­ging their toes in. So far, only a few routes have been re­stored, and the re­gional coun­cil­lor in charge of trans­port, Barbara Don­ald­son, has re­fused to at­tend more pub­lic meet­ings, say­ing she dis­likes peo­ple’s be­hav­iour at them.

Given the re­gional coun­cil in­cludes prom­i­nent for­mer Labour MPs Chris Laid­law and Paul Swain – the lat­ter, a for­mer union­ist, helm­ing the crit­i­cal phase of the re­design – this treat­ment of low-paid work­ers is all the more dis­grace­ful. Of the coun­cil­lors, only Swain, for­mer Green MP Sue Ked­g­ley and Daran Pon­ter have been forth­right in ad­mit­ting se­ri­ous er­ror. Oth­ers have been ei­ther stonily silent or, as with Don­ald­son, inanely de­fen­sive, say­ing “panic won’t help”.

Ac­tu­ally, panic may be a rea­son­able re­sponse for those who now de­spair of get­ting to work or ap­point­ments on time, and for par­ents of chil­dren and young teens whose bus routes are no longer de­pend­able.

The re­gional coun­cil promised last De­cem­ber its new fare struc­ture would ad­van­tage chil­dren, stu­dents, the el­derly and the dis­abled. Yet in its cuts, it has seemed obliv­i­ous to the fact that mak­ing buses scarcer will al­ways dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurt pre­cisely those peo­ple – and par­tic­u­larly those on a low in­come. The cuts mean many now have to catch mul­ti­ple buses in­stead of one. City coun­cil­lor Si­mon Woolf cites the case of a stu­dent, whose pre­vi­ous trip to uni­ver­sity took one bus and 45 min­utes, who now needs three buses and 90 min­utes.

In nu­mer­ous cases, peo­ple are now forced to walk sig­nif­i­cant ex­tra dis­tances, made worse late at night when per­sonal safety is a con­cern. The uni­ver­sity and the hos­pi­tal are now sig­nif­i­cantly harder for many peo­ple to bus to than pre­vi­ously.

It’s too early to quan­tify the lost pa­tron­age. Woe be­tide the re­gional coun­cil if it turns out the rev­enue short­fall will be borne by ratepay­ers rather than the con­trac­tors. The lost pro­duc­tiv­ity and sheer stress from this fi­asco will never be known. Yet the les­son is clear: an en­vi­ron­men­tally, eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially vi­tal ser­vice was hope­lessly com­pro­mised be­cause costs were pri­ori­tised over all other con­sid­er­a­tions – even hu­man de­cency.

In an ex­tra­or­di­nary act of pas­sive ag­gres­sion, the city con­trac­tor re­sponded to over­crowd­ing by re­duc­ing bus seat­ing.

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