Saturday, October 08, 2005


bus system design

I have always used public transport. Until I moved to New Zealand, I never even owned a car. Even with a car, I ride the bus daily. Wellington is a small city (a town really), but there is little parking, and I hate driving.

I like the idea of traveling by bus (in the absence of an underground train), but I don't like the Wellington bus system, which suffers from a couple of design flaws. A couple of events this week have highlighted that money won't fix a flawed design.

Problem one: incomprehensible fare system. Wellington uses a strange system of charging fares based on "sections." Other cities around the world charge a flat rate for a ride, or use a zoning system where it is obvious if you are in the inner zone or an other geographic zone, based on commonly understood geographic boundaries. Wellington's sections are mysterious invisible lines that cut across bus routes, slicing them into segments. You pay according to how many sections you cross, if you can figure that out. Each route would seem to have a different arrangement of sections, as far as I can determine. It is with great difficulty that one can find a map showing how sections are divided on a bus route. The Byzantine system requires a dedicated employee to get on buses to inspect tickets to make sure passengers haven't entered a section they haven't paid for. I was encouraged this week to see an expensive new signing system for bus schedules introduced. But still no information on where the sections change, and how much it costs to go from one destination to another.

Problem two: trolley buses. Wellington is one of few towns that decided to replace railed-based trams with tram-like buses, locally called trolley buses. They look like buses, they jerk around like buses (unlike the smooth ride trams), but they don't have the freedom of movement of buses. They are tethered to unsightly electric cables overhead, which means that each trolley bus must follow the one in front of it. If one trolley bus is delayed, or broken, all trolley buses behind it must wait. There is one set of cables, so none can pass. It has the disadvantages of a subway train system, except that it adds to traffic congestion at the same time. Yesterday, a rain shower knocked out the electricity for the trolley buses, though the rest of the town was unaffected. Dozens of trolley buses were clogging the streets, stranded like beached whales. Older trolley buses have a regular tendency to become disconnected from the overhead power cables while in operation, which stops the bus and requires the driver to get out and reconnect the cables, dodging oncoming traffic. Wellington is buying new trolley buses, which will hopefully stay better connected to the cables, but the essential problem of the trolley queue remains.

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