Auckland has been waiting many years for a public transport system with a transfer ticket. At last there is a sign of progress.

Auckland Transport, a body set up with the Super City, has adopted a debit card that will enable passengers to change buses with ease.

Its "hop card", introduced by agreement with Infratil's subsidiaries Snapper and NZ Bus, sounds like the Snapper card that the former Auckland Regional Transport Agency rejected in favour of a bid from a French provider, Thales.

Auckland has been waiting well over a year for the Thales contract to produce a transferable ticket and will continue to wait for the hop card to be extended to trains, ferries and buses not operated by NZ Bus. But at least that is the plan now.

It is the second promising announcement on bus services in the past two weeks, which suggests the new transport agency has buried its predecessor's attitude to buses and their private operators.

Buses have been the poor relation of Auckland public transport planning for too long. When planners enthused about public transport they almost always meant rail of some description: light, rapid, urban. Nostalgia for a fixed track survives on the new Auckland Council, which has gone as far as to propose a return to trams in its planning discussion paper issued last month.

The document reminds Aucklanders that the isthmus was served by a network of trams until 1956 when they were replaced by buses on the arterial roads that were being improved for increasing numbers of private cars.

The discussion paper asks, "Do you think Auckland should consider re-establishing a tram network as part of a public transport network?" Seriously.

Buses, in this view, are good for delivering people to trains. If upgraded rail services succeed only in cannibalising the patronage of buses on similar routes, Auckland Council planners are unconcerned. They would sooner invest in electric rail than an oil-burning road vehicle. Their discussion paper has almost nothing to say about bus services while it proposes rail to the airport, rail to North Shore and a central city loop.

So it is heartening to see buses receiving closer attention from the new agency set up at arms length from the council to make the practical decisions.

Last week, Auckland Transport announced a realignment of inner city routes and the introduction of a larger circuit along the lines of the successful "link bus" service.

The new circuit will loop from Britomart to Ponsonby, Westmere, Pt Chevalier, Mt Albert, Sandringham, Mt Eden and Epsom before returning to the city via Newmarket and Parnell. Within that route there appear to be several cross-town connections that traditional radial routes from the city centre could not serve.

Frequency is almost as important as the route plan to patronage of any public transport. Ideally, a service should be so frequent (and reliable) that nobody needs to bother with schedules. People want to be able to go to a stop with confidence that a bus will be along in a few minutes.

The inner link service promises a bus every 10 to 15 minutes, the outer loop every 15 minutes. That is just within an acceptable waiting time. Any longer and fewer will bother.

Reliability is harder to guarantee. It could depend upon the traffic, though the advent of dedicated bus lanes should be making the timetables more reliable. Private vehicles appear to be observing bus lanes without over-zealous enforcement and punitive fines for left turning cars entering a lane more than 50m from the corner.

Car users naturally would like to see all public transport off the roads and on to rail, but that is not practical for a city of diverse daily travel patterns. Buses are here to stay. Under the eye of an agency that believes in them, improvements are beginning to happen.