As Tauranga's population swells and the city's roads continue to clog with congestion, journalist Kiri Gillespie caught the bus to and from work for four weeks to find out how feasible commuting via public transport is. Here she documents her experiences and whether she'd do it again.
I am what could be considered an ideal target market for public transport.
I don't live too far from Tauranga's CBD. One of the city's two bus-only lanes is on my route to work. I don't have children to pick up and I'm mobile enough for the walk to and from the bus stop. Most of all, I believe in public transport.
Well, I want to.
The introduction of fare-free buses in the Bay of Plenty provided an opportunity to test out the bus system before a new Bee ticketing system comes into effect on Monday. So I challenged myself to commute by bus for four weeks, while they were free, to discover the benefits and pitfalls of life as a bus user in Tauranga – New Zealand's most car-reliant city.
It wasn't what I was expecting.
The sun hasn't yet risen and it's freezing in Welcome Bay. I eat breakfast and look at my phone. A Transit app shows me in real-time what bus routes are available and how far, in time and kilometres, the nearest bus to take me to work will be. I have 12 minutes to catch the Number 40.
My husband leaves at the same time to drop me off at the end of the road before he heads off in the other direction. It saves a couple of kilometres' rural walk in the dark.
The Number 40 is the only bus in and out of Welcome Bay and as it happens, there is a bus stop right outside the NZME Cameron Rd offices on its route. Perfect.
I aim to get to the bus stop by 7am to catch the bus that arrives a few minutes later to start work at 7.30am. Failing this, another 40 usually arrives about 7.25am. Depending on which, my typical commute time could range from 15 minutes to 30 minutes as congestion builds through the morning.
Getting home is less precise. I wait for the Number 40 bus at the bus stop outside work anywhere between 5.30pm and 8pm before walking 20 to 30 minutes home. I don't mind the exercise but when it has been exceptionally dark and stormy, I'll admit I have asked my wonderful husband to pick me up from the bus stop.
This daily schedule has essentially been my routine for the past four weeks. I drove to work twice during that time when weather had been particularly bad and I needed to be on time.
And there's the rub. More times than not I've been late to work, arriving halfway through our morning news meeting. It's awkward but at least my team seems to understand.
First day of getting to work via a bus
On my first day of this bus challenge, I miss the first bus. I sit, waiting in the dark and cold but not too worried as I know another will come in about 25 minutes.
By the time it does, the sun has risen and a swarm of school kids have now joined me.
I stand roadside and wave down the bus but watch in disbelief as it glides on by. It's still cold and I've already been waiting for nearly half an hour. I can only think the driver must have thought I was a school student.
I email work that I'm going to be late. Hardly a great start to the Day 1. My toes feel like ice cubes. And so I wait, again.
It's a cold, clumsy start to this four-week challenge and as I'm about to learn, it's a sign of more to come.
However, once I eventually make it on board, my frustration and the cold seeps away and I relax knowing I have very little else to do until my stop. I pull out my book, read and chill out.
We cruise through the traffic, stop at a few stops, and then whizz by the seemingly endless backlogged traffic by Hairini Bridge. I've been part of that traffic before. This is definitely a better feeling and most definitely a swifter mode of transport.
Not having to drive means I'm immersed in my book when my phone buzzes with an alert to tell me my stop is not far of. A helpful aspect of the Transit app is being able to mark your destination point and being alerted when you are two stops away.
But that's where the positives of the app begin to dwindle.
Missed or missing buses
It's the end of the day during the second week and the app tells me the next bus is 8 minutes from the bus stop across the road. Brilliant. I knock off and head over with 2 minutes to spare before the bus arrives – or so the app says.
Zero minutes. Still no bus.
I start to panic and get angry, asking myself: "I haven't missed it again have I?"
The app changes its time to 2 minutes again. I'm confused. However, it's not long before I spot the bus coming towards me down Cameron Rd. I wave out, hop on and head home, still confused.
It was not the last time that app would prove to be troublesome.
Other attempts to catch the bus home were, according to the app, up to 10 minutes early or up to 20 minutes late. A lack of bus shelters meant I was often waiting in the dark and rain, which led to its own issues in trying to wave down drivers.
On the Saturday night of the third week my husband and I head to a friend's birthday party by catching a bus into town, then another to Mount Maunganui – why not? It's free.
We arrive at the Welcome Bay bus stop with 6 minutes to spare. The zero minutes arrive - the bus doesn't.
We wait some more, still no bus. I check the app which says the next bus is 36 minutes away. Frustration bubbles up again but we wait 10 minutes just in case "it might just be late".
We eventually order an Uber. While we wait for that the Number 40 bus drives by, with the app saying the next bus should be 15 minutes away. What was going on?
The delay means we miss the connecting bus at Tauranga's CBD – I can still see the vision of it driving away as we run after it. We wait in Willow St bus stop for the next bus, a few metres from a drunk man and a pool of vomit. The app says the next bus will be there in 25 minutes' time. We wait and wait. We know we're in the right spot because we saw the last bus leave from it and the app says so.
After 30 minutes, the app indicates the bus has arrived and left already. That would have been the last bus for the night. We wait some more but were forced to catch another Uber, so much for free transport that night.
During the challenge, I found the bus matched the time given on the app only 60 per cent of the time, if I'm generous. Sometimes it was only a few minutes out so no big deal, but other times the difference was ridiculous. Fortunately, there was usually a 20 to 30-minute time window before the next bus arrived, so I got to my destinations eventually.
I understand the app relies on others using it at the same time to offer real-time tracking of buses. The app regularly tells me I'm "awesome" for using it and therefore helping other bus users, but surely a GPS attached to the buses would be far more reliable?
Why catch the bus?
By using public transport, not only do I save on petrol money but I'm doing my bit to reduce congestion and negative environmental impacts.
In my view, cars are not the only way forward for a city; there need to be more options but people also need to take them. If I can contribute towards a thriving and busy public transport network, then all the better.
This was a real opportunity for change, for many of us.
It's a shame not enough people seemed to know, or care, that buses were free but that's a story for another time.
During those four weeks, I was heartened to find most buses busy with people. Too often I hear people complain of empty buses but I regularly had to seek a seat when heading to work.
Usually, my commute involves a car or a bike. Often I bike but the combination of winter storms and 15th Ave roadworks has left me opting for four wheels instead of two lately.
Watching from the bus window, I compare both modes of transport to the regular bus commutes. Bussing, with the advantage of the bus-only lane, was definitely quicker than driving, and much dryer and warmer than biking. However, I was reliant on the bus being on time, then a 20-minute walk home from the bus stop.
Little did I realise when I began how much of an issue timing would become during this challenge.
The cheerful greetings from bus drivers, frequency of buses and warm, clean interiors were big positives. But missing the bus - either through my own fault, the bus being late or the bus not showing up at all - was a constant.
Four weeks of catching the bus has taught me a few things, especially patience and gratitude to an understanding work team for my consistent tardiness. I hate being late.
Time can pass very quickly, and slowly, while waiting to catch public transport. Was it worth it? I'm still not sure.
As I rolled past all of those vehicles on Turret Rd on those morning commutes, virtually all I saw were cars with just one person behind the wheel. No surprise Tauranga City Council last year named the place the most car-reliant city in New Zealand
Granted, private vehicles have their place. It's just not feasible for tradies, families, or people working crazy hours to rely on alternative transport options but what about the rest of us? If we're honest with ourselves, many of us don't have much of an excuse for not using public transport.
As I write this, towards the end of the four weeks, I'm undecided whether I'll catch the bus again as a regular commuter. It saddens me to say that. I want public transport to work. As a city, we need it to. Our population is expected to balloon to 180,000 in 30 years. But I've found buses, or the app needed to catch them, too unreliable too often. Perhaps on days when I'm not time-poor, I'll wave down the Number 40 but for now, it's likely I'll be back on my bike.
Cars aren't the only answer but we've got to ensure we make it easy for people to realise it.