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The US consultant behind Wellington bus nightmare

Simon Louisson, a former bus driver himself, digs into the background of Wellington's much-maligned bus network redesign. He finds the US expert who advised the change considers passenger outrage a welcome part of the process.

Jarrett Walker and Associations (JWA), the US company that has united Wellingtonians in their loathing for the chaotic new bus network has also redesigned Dublin’s network and has met an even more rigorous negative response.

But it’s not just the redesign that is behind the debacle. At Parliament’s Transport Select Committee hearing on Thursday, it became clear that the genesis of the fiasco is the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) imposed on local authorities by the former National Government.

Jarrett Walker, head of JWA, is one of America’s foremost advocates of public transport over cars, but he sees the intense reactions of Wellingtonians and Dubliners as a welcome part of the process. His stance opposing ride-sharing has led Tesla manufacturer Elon Musk to call him “a sanctimonious idiot”.

Walker takes a very binary view of change. In his blog he says cities should either totally revamp a network or leave it as it is.

Walker, who is in demand in the US as a speaker on transport and writes a blog, boasts he has never had formal training in transport issues but came to fame with a book, Human Transit. In 2000, he helped redesign Seattle’s public transit system, and claims Seattle is one of the few cities in the US where bus use is rising.

His company, Jarrett Walker Associates, is very comfortable with the neo-liberal mantra of user-pays, and a strong commercial imperative underlies much of its design work.

A recent survey has shown that the necessity to change buses, sometimes several times, at wet and windswept hubs is driving Wellington commuters to use cars. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Impetus to change Wellington’s bus network emerged in the 1990s from a Public Transport Spine Study that ultimately rejected the introduction of a light rail system advocated by leading transport groups in the city, opting instead for bus rapid transit.

Brisbane-based consultancy MRCagney, which describes itself as one of “Australasia’s leading transportation consultancies with a reputation for delivering excellent outcomes on complex and unusual projects”, was bought into the project in 2010. It, in turn, brought in “internationally recognised expert Jarrett Walker” to design the network.

Walker takes a very binary view of change. In his blog he says cities should either totally revamp a network or leave it as it is. Like most consultancies, his company invariably advocates a complete overhaul of any system they are asked to review.

Currently, the company is working in Philadelphia, where its suggested transport solution is “a complete new network redesign” that includes ditching the city’s famous Route 15 tram.

Walker’s firm has also been employed to revamp Dublin’s bus system, and the public response of Dubliners to the plan will resonate strongly with Wellingtonians. Like Wellington, patronage on Dublin’s network, which allowed most people to get from A to B on one bus, had been rising steadily. As in Wellington, the plan is to scrap this well-functioning linear system for a hub-based system.

"When I prepare government clients for a network redesign, part of my job is shock-therapy: they need to know who will be yelling at them, and what they’ll be saying, and how unpleasant that will be."

Jarrett Walker Associates says its plan is to “optimise routes to improve services to better match demand”. There will be a main spine with an orbital service that is in turn served by less frequent local buses. It all sounds very familiar.

While Dublin seems to be going through a more rigorous public consultation than was carried out in Wellington, the reaction there has been even more vigorous. There have been public protests, vociferous opposition at dozens of meetings, prominent stories in the media, a strong union campaign, and attempts by the opposition Fianna Fail party to stymie the overhaul altogether.

Thomas O’Connor of the Irish National Bus and Rail Union stated: “Dubliners don’t want to interchange”. In 30 public meetings, he had not heard one positive comment about the proposed changes.

Walker’s blog makes for interesting reading. Changing bus networks is, he admits, “fiendishly hard to do politically”.

“When I prepare government clients for a network redesign, part of my job is shock-therapy: they need to know who will be yelling at them, and what they’ll be saying, and how unpleasant that will be. Because if they are not ready to sit through some of that, there is no point in beginning.”

Margaret Cousins (Upper Hutt Council), Wellington Mayor Justin Lester and Kevin Lavery (Wellington City Council CEO) at the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee: Walker says councils just need to "ride out the storm". Photo: Lynn Grieveson

He says it is difficult for those promoting change to be heard above the noise of opponents. In Dublin, he claims, the new network will let the average Dubliner get to 20 percent more useful places in 30 minutes, but supporters of change don’t speak up because they take it for granted the plan will proceed. Meanwhile, people who don’t like it think they need to scream bloody murder.

Walker’s confidence that all councils have to do is ride out the storm and everything will be all right has clearly had an impact on Regional Council chair Chris Laidlaw and CEO Greg Campbell, who have both staunchly backed the new system. They told the committee that the chaos was caused by unforeseen problems such as driver shortages, and the incumbent operator NZ Bus performing poorly.

Critics, however, point out that the Wellington network had developed organically over many decades and functioned well. Participation rates were famously high and patronage growing. There was some bus congestion in the central city, but this could have been easily resolved by terminating some buses at Courtenay Place and the Railway Station.

The Regional Council also claimed that projected growth in passenger numbers would be overwhelming, but their own figures showed only moderate growth of 10 percent over six years.

These minor issues were the excuse JWA needed to completely start afresh.

The No.8 Kowhai Park bus was one of those scrapped in the move to a hub design: commuters now have to take two buses to get home from the central city. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Walker denies Wellington’s challenging weather makes a hub system inappropriate, even though a recent survey had shown that the necessity to change buses, sometimes several times, at wet and windswept hubs was driving people to use cars. He claimed  that Copenhagen, which has 157 days a year of snow or rain, has a flourishing hub-based system.

His home town, Portland, Oregon, had, he said, almost exactly the same climate as Wellington and “I change buses in the rain all the time. In fact, sometimes I ignore my infrequent direct bus to the office and instead take two frequent buses, because with so much less waiting, I get there sooner.”

Walker says what is happening in Dublin has happened to some degree on every project he has worked on over his 25-year career. He says:

•    "people assume the plan is more final than it is, so they feel they need to gather forces in angry meetings to attack us, when in fact we want their detailed comments so we can address them;
•    we consult the public about the plan and they tell us, as we’re consulting them, that we’re not consulting them;
•    people say that while we’ve consulted some people, we haven’t consulted everyone in the right way, which is often a valid complaint;
•    some people hear only that “there won’t be a route 54” and begin holding rallies to “Save the 54” without knowing or caring what service is proposed to replace the 54;
•    media headlines often inflame this confusion, with headlines about bus lines being “scrapped”;
•    people attack the whole plan because one local detail isn’t right;
•    unions representing bus drivers, understandably seen as experts in some circles, often put out their own messages tied to their own interests; and
•    people attack the consultant. (It’s not the first time my tiny 10-person firm has been called 'corporate'.)"

The solution he sees as straightforward. “What’s happened next, in all my projects, is that we collected the comments and fixed what was fixable, which turned out to include most of the details that had most inflamed people. In most cases that addressed enough concerns that the plan moved forward and was a success.”

Walker said furores such as that happening in Wellington and Dublin made him happy because “it means people care”.

Asked to comment on the implementation of the Wellington redesign, Walker seemed at pains to distance himself, saying in an email, “Unfortunately, I have not had any role in Wellington since 2012, and have not had time to study recent events there closely enough to have an opinion.”

While JWA’s work had involved developing a network redesign proposal, “I had no role in the public consultation at that time or in anything that has occurred since.”

Walker says new networks aren’t always fixed because “elected leaders panic at this point and stop the plan, leaving all of the existing problems in place.”

There was no evidence at Friday’s select committee hearing that the Council was panicking. When councillors and staff got a roasting, chair Chris Laidlaw and CEO Greg Campbell doubled down.

When National MP Nicola Willis commented that the whole exercise had been a disaster and asked what would they have done differently, Campbell claimed the planning and the process had “worked exceptionally well’ although “some really unexpected issues emerged.”

National MP Nicola Willis told the select committee "lives have been tipped upside down" by the bus network changes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

He added, “I think I would have liked to have seen less transfers”, but asserted that would have contravened the principle behind PTOM, which demanded cost neutrality.

Imposed by the former government, the PTOM has two overarching objectives:
•    to grow the commerciality of public transport services and to increase incentives for services to become fully commercial; and
•    to grow confidence that services are priced efficiently and there is access to public transport markets for competition.

What this top-down, neo-liberal model has done is force councils to divvy up their public transport services through a tender process, with cost considerations outranking quality, service or protection of employees’ working conditions.

Many in the Wairarapa, while feeling some pride that local firm Tranzit had won 60 percent of Wellington’s bus routes, evinced surprise given the level of service disruption prevalent in the Wairarapa, where Tranzit is also known as a hard-boiled employer.

Laidlaw said PTOM “does need work …  It’s a difficult framework in which to work. We are encouraging the government to have a very hard look at it.”

When committee members queried government officials about PTOM, Ministry of Transport deputy CEO Kirstie Hewlett would only say the intent was to give councils flexibility, and an evaluation would be made but it was too early yet to assess it.  

Campbell told the select committee that, while there were issues “the data shows the network can operate efficiently as designed”. He claimed the changes had bedded down well in Porirua and the Hutt Valley, but Labour MP Ginny Andersen soon disabused him of this, listing a litany of problems that equated with Wellington’s.

Campbell then claimed the Council had been blindsided by “exceptional events” such as a driver shortage, which was caused by poor employment conditions and the upheaval of the operating contracts.

Laidlaw said he couldn’t think of anything in particular they could have done differently, but did add:  “Perhaps we should have had more scrutiny of the design itself. Maybe at that point, we could have reviewed that with the users.

“For the rest, it was a process that was signed off by our partners. It was subject to intensive discussion.”

Repeatedly questioned about accountability, both he and Barbara Donaldson, chair of the Council’s Sustainable Transport Committee, were silent.

Seemingly following the JWA songsheet, Campbell was “somewhat hopeful” a lot of the dissatisfaction would diminish. Many complaints arose from people who had been personally affected but financial constraints meant not all customer preferences could be met.

Willis said lives “had been tipped upside down” by the new network, and asked what confidence the Council had that they could implement and run a serviceable network. Laidlaw gave no assurance, saying only: “The confidence will be borne out when the service is running at an operating, serviceable level.”

Meanwhile, the Council has promised it will institute penalties for non-performance on the four main operators from Monday when the grace period expires, and produce a system review before Christmas. For Wellington’s many angry bus passengers this tepid response is likely to only add fuel to the fire.

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