If Auckland Transport has been reading our mail, and doubtless its own, it will know there is outrage over its decision to paint all municipal buses the same colour. Hardly a day goes by that the Herald does not receive at least one letter on the subject. It is not just the colour that concerns the correspondents but what this decision says about the relatively new creation known as AT.
It is one of the non-elected bodies set up under the Super City to run services at a safe arms-length from local politics. The Auckland Council and the Government appoint its board but cannot interfere in the operational decisions the board and its managers are trusted to make in the interests of the service. The board's decision to paint the buses is a classic illustration of how misguided corporate thinking can be when the body is using public funds.
Auckland bus routes are served by private companies contracted to AT. The private companies have their own livery, well known in the suburbs where they have been based for a long time, much longer than AT has been in existence. The main fleet, once publicly owned and uniformly yellow, was painted a variety of colours a few years ago, reflecting the destinations. Bright blue went to North Shore, bright green went to Waitakere, myriad colours in a Pacific motif went to Manukau.
Too little credit was given to the Infratil-owned company, NZ Bus, when it gave different parts of Auckland a distinctive colour scheme. It is only now that AT is imposing a uniform dark blue, that many of those writing to complain are saying how much they like the existing colour designs. They are not only attractive, they help people recognise their bus at city terminals.
If AT was a commercial operation like NZ Bus it would not have needed public acclaim at this late stage to tell it the existing bus colours are popular and working well. It would have done some solid customer research before it decided two years ago to impose one colour on all its contracted bus fleets. This, it now explains, is part of a plan to launch a "consistent brand" for all buses, trains and ferries in the region's integrated public transport scheme.
This, it insists, will help "market" Auckland. Really? Uniform red buses have helped promote London, and yellow taxis do the same for New York, but AT's chosen colours, blue and grey, do not sound likely to distinguish Auckland to anybody. More likely AT wants to promote itself. It is a proud new organisation on a corporate model and has come to believe it needs and deserves a higher profile. Its transferable fare card is called "AT Hop" and it is now issuing its own gold card to pensioners.
As the bus companies' contracts come up for renewal, they will all have to paint their buses blue and grey and bear the AT logo. The cost, reckoned at $9000 a bus, will be borne by ratepayers. Corporate hubris in the public sector can always pass on its costs, and since these bodies are protected from political interference they cannot be punished by voters either. AT looks determined to make us grey and blue.