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Wellington.Scoop » Smaller might be better

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by Michael Barnett
Before selling and moving downtown, most weekdays I would go to Freyberg Pool for my daily dose of exercise. Some days I was swimming, other days I was going through my gym routine, and every day I was having coffee at Bernie’s at the Bay. To get there and back, I took the Miramar Heights bus (route 24), which picked me up and dropped me off at the top of Awa Road, from where it was only a short walk down the hill to my home in Karaka Bay.

The ride was comfortable, quick and scenic, especially on the section through Maupuia, up to the prison atop Mount Crawford and down Nevay Road with its panoramic views of the city, Lyall Bay, airport and entrance from the harbor to the east. Best of all, the bus picked me up and dropped me off outside the Freyberg complex and I didn’t have to lug my gym gear all over town.

This service runs once an hour throughout the day and I traveled off peak to take advantage of my free gold card. I noticed that when I was traveling on the heights at this time of day there were very few passengers – four or five by my count and that got me thinking. Is it economical for a large city bus to cross this narrow and windy road? Couldn’t residents of Maupuia and Seatoun Heights and other hillside suburbs be better served by smaller vehicles offering a low-cost taxi-bus service to a nearby transport hub.

Nestled in the bowels of the Greater Wellington transport plan is an on-demand trial in Tawa using small feeder buses. The service will be demand-driven, providing flexibility for route coverage and scheduling. Its aim will be to provide shorter journeys connecting major hubs and support first and last mile journeys for people connecting to and from hubs (e.g. train stations) or to local destinations such as stores, supermarkets, medical services and other places. This is a great idea and deserves our support.

Such an idea is not new. It’s been an alternative form of transportation in major American cities for decades – Boston, New York and Newark to name a few. Called Dollar Vans or Jitneys, they are usually modified vans similar to shuttles and operate in urban neighborhoods with poor public transportation. Passengers ride them at designated stops along their route or hail them as a shared taxi service. The two common names – dollar van and jitney – appeared simultaneously. Travelers cite cost and greater frequency as factors in choosing jitneys over larger bus service.

I had my own experience of a similar service while visiting Cuzco Peru in 2009. I kept a diary and this is what I wrote:

I developed a certain admiration for the transportation system in Cusco. The system revolves around its taxis and buses, which are incredibly cheap. 3 soles is the standard taxi fare to anywhere in the city, although the taxi driver may try to charge you more and it is beneficial to work out the fare before you get into the taxi. 60 centimos is the standard bus fare, regardless of the distance travelled. What I liked about the system is that you rarely have to wait more than a minute for a bus or a taxi, as they come by all the time.

These buses offer a very quick and convenient way to get around Cusco. They don’t state their destination, rather they operate under quaint names such as Cristo Blanco, Batman, Pachacuteq to name a few. Initially it took a bit of time to figure out which bus was going where. However, it didn’t take long for me to figure out the system, especially on the roads I’ve traveled. A feature of the service is that you wave at a bus you want to catch and they seem to stop almost anywhere. They work with a conductor and a conductor. The latter is always soliciting passengers and when the bus stops he jumps up and mumbles a mouthful of Spanish that I don’t understand, gets carried away inside, while the driver accelerates just as quickly. It helps to know where you want to disembark and have your ticket ready, as it is collected at the end of the trip, not when you board.

Another feature of traffic in Cusco is that street parking is not a problem, as I rarely see cars parked on the street. This is probably because the majority of vehicles are taxis and buses and they are always on the move. Keep in mind this is a poor society and I suspect owning a car is beyond the means of all but the very wealthy.

Wellington Transport Authority is set to introduce dramatic changes to Wellington transport with major investment in walking, cycling and the rail network, including light rail, initially from the station to Island Bay via Newtown and an all-electric bus network. Eventually, a second light metro line serving the eastern suburbs is also planned.

Exciting things.

However, there is a missing link – ways to get people to and from their homes to nearby transport hubs over rolling hills with narrow winding streets, park and ride is the option usually considered , but such facilities are unproductive, expensive to build, and people still have to use their cars to get there.

A jitney service of the type described might be just the answer. More cars on the road, freeing up much-needed road space for vehicle-dependent businesses and emergency vehicles. It seems to me that such a service would contribute to meeting one of the primary objectives of Let’s Get Wellington Moving.