Ambitious plan has wheels

On the face of it, proposed comprehensive changes to Dunedin's bus services have merit.

The changes make up the bulk of those proposed in the $100 million 10-year Draft Otago Regional Public Transport Plan, developed by the Otago Regional Council in collaboration with the Dunedin City Council, the New Zealand Transport Agency, the Queenstown Lakes District Council and bus companies. Public transport systems in the Wakatipu Basin are also considered.

The proposals for Dunedin are the result of a full review of the city's bus network, including services and fares, and some consultation workshops.

They aim to address some of the challenges facing the network, including low patronage, complexity, a low integration with other transport, cost, energy efficiency, the diverse demands of users, and Government funding constraints.

The proposed changes are major.

They include revising the current network of about 140 route variations to a network of 16 routes, which would be made faster by using main roads rather than smaller suburban roads, and which would remain the same regardless of the time of day or day of the week.

The frequencies of services would be stable from 7am-7pm, becoming less frequent at nights and weekends.

The current seven-zone fare structure would be cut to three.

The revised system would include three ''rapid'' (15-minute frequency) routes, which would cover the central city, Dunedin and Wakari hospitals, the tertiary precinct, stadium and Botanic Garden.

There would be three ''frequent'' (20-minute frequency) routes, and 10 ''regular'' routes, running predominantly on a 30-minute frequency.

A ''central hub'' would reduce the number of buses in the central city and allow people to easily transfer between buses, and there would be suburban ''super stops'', with a higher level of service than general stops, in South Dunedin, Green Island, Mosgiel, the Gardens and the university.

The draft plan is bold, and seems to address many of the criticisms of the current system, which is often labelled slow, complex, inefficient, unreliable and costly.

It promises the new system would provide more certainty about routes and fares, and create better travel times by using more direct routes.

Streamlining services would help achieve one of the major purposes of the plan - to reduce a reliance on public subsidies for the system.

And an efficient, and user-friendly public transport system is a vital component for any city.

It seems simplicity is the key to achieving these aims, but there are concerns.

Most pressing will be the issue of how far users are required to walk to their nearest bus stop if services are removed from smaller suburban roads.

That could isolate those with mobility issues (for example in Mosgiel, which has a high proportion of elderly, it is proposed the current 15 routes be merged into one, albeit with a ''loop'' service to link to the main one), and alienate commuters for whom time and convenience are major considerations.

It would be unfortunate if an unintended consequence was to put more people back in cars.

Other considerations include how well the proposed routes integrate with the city's new cycling routes, which are also a costly transport infrastructure investment.

Are the pushes to get people on their bikes and buses complementary or conflicting?

How do schools feel about the plan to cut school bus services and encourage pupils to use the public networks?

Could there be potential conflict with other users sharing buses with schoolchildren en masse?

Could using smaller buses be part of the mix?

And, of course, the ORC is currently in discussion with the DCC about whether the latter should take over the governance of the city's bus system.

On balance though, the ambitious plan has wheels.

But discussing the cons along with the pros, suggesting ideas and making necessary amendments will be vital.

Users and potential users should make themselves heard in the forthcoming consultation phase, so any potential speed bumps can be well and truly ironed out.

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