Missing the bus
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.