Gridlock
There is no denying that Tauranga has a major traffic problem.

Each day motorists are battling queues – and it's all coming at a huge cost for families and businesses.

Alternative transport is the likely answer to these woes but exactly how is the city going to make it all happen and get people on board?

As part of Gridlock – Tauranga's No.1 issue, we investigate where we're at with getting commuters out of their vehicles.

And we reveal new figures which show just how many people are now catching the bus and whether recent changes have made a difference.

In the gridlocked city of Tauranga, more people have started catching the bus.

But the ride over the past five months, since the launch of a new network, has been anything but smooth.

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council, which oversees public transport in the city and wider region, has come under fire from an incensed public.

Disgruntled bus users have made more than 1000 operational complaints since the December 10 launch.

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The most common complaints have been late or missing buses, buses not stopping, and driver behaviour.

The regional council has also received hundreds of pieces of feedback about infrastructure issues, school buses and service change requests.

Monitoring data over a two-month period showed more than 18 per cent of the buses arrived late.

The council has acknowledged the difficulties and issues. It ran a series of advertisements earlier this year saying, "We are sorry".

Its general manager of strategy and science, Namouta Poutasi, has said that the council is pleased with the progress it is making with the new bus network.

"But know we still need to do some work in gaining back the trust and loyalty of our bus users."

A new bus network that launched in Tauranga last year came under fire immediately from frustrated passengers. The regional council is now looking to recover the trust and loyalty lost. Photo / George Novak
A new bus network that launched in Tauranga last year came under fire immediately from frustrated passengers. The regional council is now looking to recover the trust and loyalty lost. Photo / George Novak

Despite the setbacks, new regional council data supplied exclusively to the Bay of Plenty Times shows improvements are being made when it comes to how many people are using the buses.

•In the 10 days following the launch of the new BayHopper urban network last year (December 10-19), there were 45,703 bus boardings.
•That was 1000 more boardings than the 10 days immediately before the launch.
•Fast forward to March 10-19 this year, and there were 47,090 boardings – an increase of 1387 (three per cent).

Every bit of progress, no matter how small, is a win in what Tauranga City Council has called the most car-reliant city in New Zealand.

The city council says Tauranga's population is predicted to grow to about 180,000 people with 50,000 new homes needed over the next 30 years.

It says Tauranga has the highest car use of any city in the country with about 91 per cent of trips to work being made by private motor vehicle.

The role buses need to play in changing that is significant.

Over the next decade, the regional council has the goal of growing bus boardings from 2.5 million to more than 3.5 million a year, across the Bay of Plenty region.

The city council, charged with providing bus infrastructures such as bus shelters and bus lanes, has its own role to play.

Pāpāmoa East resident Daara Parkinson is a regular public transport user.

"Saves me a bit of coin, it's just extra savings plus less miles on the car."

The Bay of Plenty Times first met the 36-year-old on a bus. It was on the day of the new network launch in December last year.

Daara Parkinson has persevered with the new bus network and believes the average number of people catching the bus in Tauranga is increasing. Photo / George Novak
Daara Parkinson has persevered with the new bus network and believes the average number of people catching the bus in Tauranga is increasing. Photo / George Novak

Parkinson used to catch a 6.25am bus from near the Pāpāmoa Four Square, which took about 50-55 minutes to get into the CBD, where he worked.

On the day of the new network launch, however, he took the new 30X (Golden Sands Express), leaving at 7am from Pāpāmoa East and travelling into the city.

It took an hour and five minutes that first day, at least 10 minutes longer than Parkinson's old route did. Not exactly promising for an express service.

But as he got off the bus on Willow St, he told the Bay of Plenty Times he was willing to persevere with the new network.

Four months later, we checked in on Parkinson.

He said he started catching an earlier bus soon after the new network launch, leaving Pāpāmoa East at 6.45am and transferring at Bayfair to another bus, which then took him into the city.

"The 7am was probably a little bit late, just because of the traffic and everything."

Parkinson's morning bus commute got better after that change, he said, and it started hitting the 50-minute mark, "which is pretty good".

In February this year, his partner started working in town, so now they carpool to work, leaving no later than 7am. It takes 35-40 minutes (via Hewletts Rd and the Tauranga Harbour Bridge).

Daara Parkinson is a regular public transport user in Tauranga and has persevered with the new bus network. This is why.

Parkinson still catches the 30X bus to and from work on Wednesdays, however, as he starts later.

He leaves at 8am and is in town before 9am.

Parkinson said in the past couple of months the 30X has improved its route into the city, going down some back streets to avoid areas of congestion.

He said the average number of people catching the bus was increasing "for sure", although there were still some days when it was "pretty lean".

The regional council bus data supplied to the Bay of Plenty Times shows that between December 10 last year and April 16 this year, there were 532,451 boardings on the BayHopper urban network.

Monitoring data for 49 routes on that network between February 1 and March 31 this year showed 23.8 per cent of buses were arriving at their stops early, 58 per cent were on-time, and 18.2 per cent were late.

A bus is considered early if it arrives one minute before the scheduled time. It is considered late if it arrives five minutes after the scheduled time.

The data also shows that there have been more transfers on the new network – 15.8 per cent of bus trips involved a transfer in the first three months of this year.

Bay of Plenty regional councillor Stuart Crosby, chairman of the regional transport committee, said prior to the new network, bus patronage was declining over the past three years.

"So something had to be done."

Bay of Plenty regional councillor Stuart Crosby, chairman of the regional transport committee. Photo / Andrew Warner
Bay of Plenty regional councillor Stuart Crosby, chairman of the regional transport committee. Photo / Andrew Warner

He acknowledged the new network got off to "a bad start" but believed it was improving and said it needed to continue improving.

"It was incredibly disappointing with the rollout of the new system and all the problems, and I have no doubt that a lot of our existing and potential user-base lost confidence.

"And so we worked hard and quickly to improve the system and now we need to get the confidence back that the network is becoming more reliable. People need reliability."

Crosby said the priority was to get the basics right, which, first and foremost, was a reliable timetable.

Then the city could start looking at some of the supporting infrastructure – bus shelters, for example.

"The big ticket items like the big transfer stations – they won't happen tomorrow. They're a three-to-five year piece of infrastructure."

Crosby said the most challenging goal was to ensure there was an advantage to going on a bus, rather than in a car.

"...now we need to get the confidence back that the network is becoming more reliable. People need reliability."

He said the city council was currently working on bus priority at intersections, and bus lanes.

"For me, that will be the key to really growing patronage."

Crosby said the background of public transport in Tauranga was that it was designed, in the first instance, for the young and the elderly.

That needed to now move on to "point-to-point workers", he said.

There should be buses that go from A to B, and then B back to A, without shuttling all over the city, Crosby said.

Larry Baldock, chair of the city council's Urban Form and Transport Development Committee, said he believed the two main bus interchanges being planned for the city (one by Bayfair/Arataki in Mount Maunganui and the other in the Tauranga CBD), were crucial.

He said progress in finding land for those two interchanges is being made.

"Clearly we still have to nail down where and we've got it down to some good options..."

Larry Baldock, chair of the city council's Urban Form and Transport Development Committee. Photo / File
Larry Baldock, chair of the city council's Urban Form and Transport Development Committee. Photo / File

Bicycles

Heidi Hughes walks the talk, so to speak. Or, rather, she bikes.

She is an outspoken sustainable transport advocate who works with the group Greater Tauranga.

Hughes lives close to most of the amenities she needs and works from home in Mount Maunganui.

Her transport is mostly local by bike (short trips here and there) and if she has to go further, she has an electric car powered off solar panels on her roof.

The Bay of Plenty Times asked Hughes this week how she was finding Tauranga's cycling infrastructure.

"Locally it's okay, but any further afield it feels dangerous at the moment."

She said the No 1. priority, in her view, should be a separated cycle network.

Hughes believed there were different solutions for different roads such as separated cycleways on main arterial routes, for example.

Shared paths and off-road options are needed around the city too, she said.

Heidi Hughes is an outspoken sustainable transport advocate who works with the group Greater Tauranga. Photo / File
Heidi Hughes is an outspoken sustainable transport advocate who works with the group Greater Tauranga. Photo / File

The city council has said that an in-depth study on traffic growth in Tauranga (Tauranga Transport Programme) estimated that by 2031, to ensure travel times for motor vehicles are maintained at reasonable levels, the city needed to increase the number of people walking and riding bikes for transport in peak traffic times to 14 per cent.

At the time of the study, only 1 per cent to 3.2 per cent of journeys to work were made by bike, and about 4 per cent of journeys were by walking.

The council has spent about $11 million on the city's public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure within the past year, according to its acting general manager of infrastructure, Martin Parkes.

And the $11m would have been more had the council's decision to put roading projects on hold not been made on March 13, when it entered a stalemate with the New Zealand Transport Agency.

The city council plans to spend up to $100m over the next decade implementing the Tauranga Cycle Plan, of which at least half would be covered by a transport agency subsidy.

Over the next three years, the plan will put kilometres of separated cycle lanes in areas where lots of people can use them to get to work and school: Mount Maunganui, Omanu and Arataki, the CBD to Greerton, and the Bellevue, Matua, Otūmoetai areas.

From 2029 onwards, other suburbs around the city will get the same.

The council has spent about $11 million on the city's public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure within the past year. Photo / File
The council has spent about $11 million on the city's public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure within the past year. Photo / File

Larry Baldock said the Cycle Plan was progressing "slowly".

He said the major routes still needed to be identified, and those first three main areas connected.

"We have some of it planned, but it's a bit piecemeal still.

"We need to figure out the spine, basically, the main spine of it. And then we'll get it pieced together and start getting on to it."

Baldock said, in his opinion, getting the cycleways off the road and separated as much as possible, was crucial to the success of the plan.

He said some councillors had gone down to Christchurch to have a look at its cycle network "and were quite inspired".

Hughes said if Tauranga was going to achieve that 14 per cent alternative transport figure, it had to be through a combination of buses, bikes and walking.

"I think if we got a combination of all three and we really put our efforts into it, we could get up to 20 per cent, easily."

To get to that point, she encouraged car commuters to try biking to work at least once a week.

"Then you'd be doing it 20 per cent of the time, and if it's 20 per cent of the time, and everybody did that, then it's achievable.

"Give it a try, take it slowly and have fun with it."

Trains

High-speed passenger rail between Tauranga and Auckland – is it possible?

Last month, the Bay of Plenty Times reported that the regional council was leading an investigation into both passenger and freight rail in the Bay of Plenty, including looking at the viability of a rapid passenger rail system in Tauranga.

A freight train crossing the railway bridge at Maxwells Rd in Otūmoetai, Tauranga. Photo / File
A freight train crossing the railway bridge at Maxwells Rd in Otūmoetai, Tauranga. Photo / File

Stuart Crosby said at the time that the investigation was overdue and that the council would not do anything that would "impinge" on freight rail capacity as this would exacerbate existing traffic congestion.

He said passenger rail needed to be considered with an open mind.

Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns immediately poured cold water on Labour's initial $20-million pledge to link passenger rail services between Tauranga and Auckland when it was first announced in Tauranga ahead of the election in 2017.

He still has doubts as to how it would work.

All of the Port's growth has been via rail and sea over the past few years and more than half of its cargo comes in on rail, Cairns said.

He has previously said that if the port was not able to have that cargo on rail, it would mean at least another 500,000 journeys by trucks on the region's roads each year.

Cairns said between Tauranga and Hamilton – where the high-speed passenger rail service would run, before travelling on to Auckland (the golden triangle) – there is only a single-track rail line.

He said there couldn't be a slow-moving freight train at 80km/h using the same line as a fast 160km/h passenger train (which is what has been proposed).

"It just isn't feasible on a single-track line."

Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns has doubts about the proposed high-speed passenger rail service between Tauranga and Auckland. Photo / File
Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns has doubts about the proposed high-speed passenger rail service between Tauranga and Auckland. Photo / File

Cairns said around the world, generally, those two rail services would run on separate lines.

In 2017, Labour pledged $20m to establish the first stage of the passenger service proposal – estimated to cost $10m.

If demand was there, Labour would then look to invest in stages two and three of the plan, delivering services travelling up to 160km/h throughout the wider region.

The additional $10m would be invested over five years for operating costs.

"It just isn't feasible on a single-track line."

Transport Minister Phil Twyford told the Bay of Plenty Times this week that the Government was committed to regional passenger rail, including in the golden triangle between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.

"I agree with Mark Cairns that moving freight by rail has many benefits like reducing emissions," he said.

"That's why we instigated the Future of Rail review to make sure we are taking a long-term, joined-up approach and have started making funding available for rail projects through the National Land Transport Fund for the first time."

Twyford said the Government had already taken the first step in linking up the golden triangle and had funded Hamilton to Auckland commuter rail to harness the growth potential of the corridor. This service is expected to start in 2020.

"Investigations into rapid rail between Auckland and Hamilton are under way and a future link to Tauranga will be considered as part of this work."

Transport Minister Phil Twyford, during a trip to Tauranga last year. Photo / File
Transport Minister Phil Twyford, during a trip to Tauranga last year. Photo / File

Councillor Rick Curach, deputy chairman of the city council's Urban Form and Transport Development Committee, said last month that residents had pushed for passenger rail for some time and that the limited capacity for additional train lines could be increased by double tracking sections on the line to allow trains to pass each other.

Meanwhile, KiwiRail has said that there is the capacity to run a passenger train between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, but its speed would be restricted due to the high volume of freight traffic on the line.

The Tauranga to Hamilton line would also need upgrades to allow a passenger train to safely operate at a speed fast enough to tempt commuters, the national rail operator said.

There were limitations to what upgrades could be made to the network's existing infrastructure, including the Kaimai Tunnel, to enable faster speeds.

KiwiRail would need to undertake detailed survey and engineering investigations to determine costs for this upgrade.

Heidi Hughes also believes the passenger rail project is possible.

Heidi Hughes of the sustainable transport advocacy group Greater Tauranga supports passenger rail being introduced in the city. Photo / George Novak
Heidi Hughes of the sustainable transport advocacy group Greater Tauranga supports passenger rail being introduced in the city. Photo / George Novak

She said currently there was no mechanism for making a comparison between the cost of rail transport and the cost of road transport – factoring in the price of the road toll, widening work, parking infrastructure etc.

Hughes said that is what is necessary to sway the sceptics.

"They're not looking at apples for apples and until it's possible for them to be able to compare roads versus rail in their costings, then they're always going to come up with something that says rail's too expensive."

E-scooters

Late last year, Lime – an electric scooter rental company – presented to Tauranga City Council about bringing the service to the city.

Lime's New Zealand launcher Hank Rowe said at the time that the company wanted to launch in Tauranga as soon as it was given a permit.

He said Lime was talking to the council about signing a Memorandum of Understanding similar to that signed with Christchurch City Council.

Bike-sharing company Onzo, which also provides e-scooters, has also presented to the Tauranga City Council's transport committee.

Phil Consedine, the city council's acting manager of transportation, said last month that the council had not yet received any application from either organisation to operate in Tauranga.

"We are watching closely what is happening with e-scooter schemes in other cities in New Zealand, in particular, Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin."

Lime scooters have a maximum speed of about 25km/h and have caused controversy in Auckland with confusion over the rules for use and injuries.

Lime scooters have been rolled out in other major cities around New Zealand, but not yet Tauranga. Photo / File
Lime scooters have been rolled out in other major cities around New Zealand, but not yet Tauranga. Photo / File

Helicopters

A growing transport trend among Auckland's wealthy has yet to reach Tauranga, despite the city's growing traffic woes.

The Tauranga City Council has not had any applications for helipads on residential land in the past five years.

No such applications have been granted since Tauranga Hospital's helipad was built in 1999 on land with underlying residential zoning.

Meanwhile, in the Super City, consents have been granted for nearly two dozen private helicopter pads in the past six years, with more than 20 in Waiheke alone.

- Additional reporting: Samantha Motion

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Read here for a story about a Tauranga woman who found a way to beat city traffic, only to cop abuse from people not impressed with her actions.
Read here for a guest editorial by Heidi Hughes, who gives her opinion on why Tauranga is struggling with traffic, what needs to be done and who needs to solve it.
Read here for Kiri Gillespie's opinion piece, where she braves the haters and confesses her role as a cyclist, and a driver.