Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Time for bus IT system to get real

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Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

In the "not before time" category, Auckland Transport is advertising for a new board director with "exposure to and understanding of information technology area". After my latest bad experience with "The Real Time" passenger information system, I'd suggest what AT needs is not just a computer-savvy director, but an IT-skilled manager or two as well.

Last Saturday, I drove into town for a 4pm show and ended up paying $18 for parking in a nearby hotel.

The next day, with a 5pm appointment at the Town Hall, and determined not to be stung twice, I decided to practice what I preach and use the Outer Link bus instead.

The AT app on my tablet said there was a bus due at the top of my street at 4.25pm, which was perfect.

Ever nervous of AT's eccentric technology, I was there 10 minutes early. My fears were justified, The bus was listed on the indicator board, but instead of a time due, it had the mark of the dreaded asterisk alongside.

For seasoned travellers, this either means the bus is about to come around the corner, or it has already been and gone. I shuddered with the cold and indecision. Was it 10 minutes early, or already gone? A couple of minutes later my mind was made up for me. The bus had disappeared from the electronic board. It announced the next was 20 minutes away.

I ran back home, grabbed the car, and drove back to the main road, just as the phantom bus drove past! To add to my grumpiness, I ended up trailing it into town.

Flicking through my files I found this, from April 2004. That's when the Saab ITS real time passenger information system was still a novelty under trial. I wrote how, heading home one night, I got to the Link stop to find "the electronic signboard warning that the next one was not due for 13 minutes. So I started walking. I was barely 100 metres into the trek when a sleek grey Link sailed past."

The original cost of the real-time signalling system was around $7 million. Since then there have been endless upgrades, and expansions and fine tunings. Yet 10 years on, it continues to confound and frustrate.

It's not as bad as it was 10 years ago, but why isn't 100 per cent accuracy - or close to it - the accepted benchmark. GPS technology is now an everyday part of modern living. It can pinpoint everyone carrying a mobile device with alarming accuracy. Yet AT still fails to be able to tell its customers with a reassuring level of accuracy when the bus they are waiting for will turn up. Which takes me back to the new board member. The advertisement also emphasises the objective "to ensure diversity". Trawling through the CVs of the present board, the lack of IT skills doesn't stand out as its most obvious shortcoming.

To me, what's lacking, as far as diversity is concerned, is a regular user of public transport.

In the year to May 2014, 71,774,868 journeys were made on Auckland's trains, buses and ferries. Very few of these, I'm wagering, by AT directors. I'm told that "board observer" Kylie Clegg, who was appointed in February 2014 as a sort of "intern" board member, travels from Orakei by train to board meetings. Councillor Mike Lee has also been seen on a bus. But for the rest of the board members, I'm guessing public transport as a way of regular commuting, is a novelty.

Indeed the board's newest member is Mark Gilbert, who was managing director of BMW Group in New Zealand and Philippines and president of the NZ Motor Industry Association.

True, AT is in charge of local roads so why not a car industry representative? But in the interests of diversity, why not a public transport user as well.

It might come as a surprise to AT and Auckland Council, but their public transport users are not necessarily just losers who have failed to make the company car park. Members of the law and accountancy professions and assorted academics catch my bus.

Another daily user is someone with the very IT skills being sought. Without lowering their standards, they will have no difficulty finding a candidate with the required skills.

What a user-director would bring as a vital bonus is the end-user experience of which the BMW dealer and the professional directors have no knowledge.

To them a Hop card is a novelty to show around at a cocktail party. It's not a constant reminder of a missing bus and a wayward IT system.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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