Driven to distraction, there's the Rub

In the first of a series focusing on Dunedin and its people, ODT reporter David Loughrey casts his quizzical - some would say quirky - eye over a public transport system about to be left blinking in the harsh light of public scrutiny. On an epic, but remarkably efficient, voyage from the suburbs to the city he found the spirit of Dunedin in the darkened streets of Mornington.

To those brought up in the era of the cheap motor car, public transport is a little like a sibling who has not lived up to his promise.

His occupation is less responsible, his home in a poorer suburb, and his wife dowdier and less sophisticated than your own.

He is loud and poorly dressed, and holds opinions you dropped some years ago; opinions that now embarrass you.

But he is family; he has a certain worth, and you would never hear a bad word spoken of him.

Dunedin's needy sibling is about to undergo something of a revamp, as transportation boffins work on the draft Otago regional public transport plan.

While more than one million trips were taken in the last financial year, patronage has ''plateaued'', and the Otago Regional Council sees significant barriers in the way of a good system.

Consultation begins on July 21; the idea is to develop a quicker and more regular system that reduces travel time, with less time spent touring the city.

The New Zealand Transport Agency requirement for urban buses (or Rub, to insiders) has something to say on the matter of quickness.

One of the Rub's more basic measures relates to acceleration - buses must be able to lurch from 0 to 50kmh in 30 short seconds.

In comparison, the Porsche 918 Spyder manages 0 to 100kmh in 2.4 seconds.

But the Porsche would make the grade on neither the requirement for slip-resistant flooring (standardAS3696.13), nor the requirement of space for 25kg of strollers, prams or mobility devices.

The bus routes for Dunedin are laid out in the Go Bus timetable.

A maze of red, blue, green and yellow lines colour a document not wildly dissimilar to Henry Charles Beck's seminal London Underground Tube map.

It flattens Dunedin into a two-dimensional maze of squares, circles and intersecting lines, all with sometimes tenuous links to the thick, multi-coloured spine that is George and Princes Sts.

These are the ''complexities in the network'' the ORC is keen to fix.

The bus system, of course, is designed for humans, and it is the human experience in which we are interested.

Dawn is the best time to catch a bus.

The thin morning air provides the already remarkable aspect from the hill suburbs with something more; thousands of winking street lights - the background for dark silhouettes of brick and plaster standing sentinel on every street, place and avenue.

A battalion of chimneys backs them up.

But there are matters of practicality that must be observed.

There is bus money, a route, and a timetable to be negotiated.

Timing with public transport differs from the timing of personal transport, being far more strictly deadline driven.

Late exits from home are punished by an enforced wait for the next bus; waiting is part of the experience.

A cartographer mapping the islands of human life waiting by the bus stop on Glenpark Rd in Mornington recently would have drawn a pleasingly straight line of souls.

And islands they were - for there are tacit rules of the bus stop.

One person sits in the half-a-seat provided in the shelter.

The next person stands outside the shelter, about 1.5m away.

The third person stands 1.5m to the left, and the fourth 1.5m to the left of them.

None talk, eye contact is discouraged and all face forward towards the road.

This pattern is pre-understood, requires no verbal communication, and is quietly but rigorously adhered to by each new arrival.

And how pleasing it is to stand amongst one's fellows; brothers and sisters all, fully versed in the behavioural patterns of Dunedin.

There is no communication stronger than such unity of intent, and no amount of facile chatter could carve a stronger bond in the heart of a community.

This is what makes us the people of the South; standing at the apex of a decent, reserved civilisation.

A fare of just $2.70 for a trip to the university is taken by a driver with bright green fingerless gloves controlling a metal change tray, a ticket machine and about 10 tonnes of bus.

The bus heads to town, with (initially) 12 souls gracing its seats.

The New Zealand Transport Agency requirement for urban buses (or Rub, to insiders), has something to say about these seats.

It says leg room is an important feature for passenger comfort and should be 250mm, measured horizontally from the front edge of the seat squab to the seat-back in front.

The height from the floor to the top of the front of the seat cushion should be between 400mm and 500mm, while the height to the top of the seat-back (excluding any grab handle) should be 900mm.

More passengers embark as the bus roars through the semi-darkness; one woman has a mobile phone conversation that lasts the whole journey, another has dark hair and a red coat.

A Muslim woman in a head scarf, a schoolboy reading a book and an Asian girl with sparkly shoes add to the mix of human cargo, all carrying their hopes, failures, pride and pretensions as the bus roars past the pharmacies and convenience stores of a city gearing up for a new day.

As the bus passes the university, it is comforting to pull firmly downwards on the stop cord.

The New Zealand Transport Agency requirement for urban buses (or Rub, to insiders), has something to say about these devices.

It says bus stopping request devices shall be of a high-visibility contrasting colour to the surround, and with the surface on which the surround is mounted, and may take the form of finger/thumb/knuckle push button and horizontal cordage along the windows of each side of the bus. Cordage alone is not acceptable.

But the journey is over.

It was quick, clean, warm, efficient and cheap.

The bus stop was just down the road.

The travellers were reserved, quiet, decent, sensibly dressed, and at no time encroached on each other's personal space.

And all those aspects are the building blocks for a truly great Dunedin public transport system.

- david.loughrey@odt.co.nz

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