Auckland consistently ranks highly in lists of the world's best cities but is never number one. So what would it take to turn Auckland into a first-class city? This week the Herald continues its 10-day series examining some of the biggest hurdles Auckland faces, from housing and transport to entertainment and education. We look at what we are doing, what we need to do, and why Auckland's success matters to the rest of the country. In part six of the series we look at transport.
Auckland's burgeoning Asian population could be a boon for turning our car-dominated city into one more geared for public transport - if customer service gripes and language barriers can be overcome.
The influx from Asian countries with high public transport patronage provides an opportunity for Auckland to transform itself, says a team of researchers led by Massey University transport planning specialist Imran Muhammad.
But the team's study of postings across three Chinese language websites has pointed to a need for better customer service to help newcomers navigate Auckland's "complex and potentially confusing public transport network".
"The research suggests that some Chinese bus users find Auckland bus drivers to be unfriendly and/or impatient," Dr Muhammad and his colleagues said in a paper presented to a Planning Institute conference.
Their study also found a common perception among Chinese migrants that Auckland's public transport was over-priced.
That is reinforced by a survey this year by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers of 32 "cities of opportunity" around the world, which found that only London had costlier public transport than Auckland's.
Auckland slipped to 31st place from 28th in a 2012 survey, although the city's transport authority is promising savings for many passengers when it introduces a simplified zonal fares scheme next year.
Passengers will then be charged just one price for trips of up to three legs taken within two hours - even if they have to change between buses and trains.
The research paper said that although customer service issues appeared less significant than other concerns such as affordability and reliability, they could still undermine public transport use among Chinese expatriates.
It accepted Auckland Transport was addressing some such concerns in its bus network redesign, which will go hand-in-hand with the new fares scheme, but said customer service and language barriers had been "largely neglected".
"Perhaps more bilingual staff and drivers might help improve this situation," the paper said.
Noting that the Auckland Plan had placed a strong emphasis on social inclusion, the researchers said the strategy for that relied predominantly on improving the physical access of communities to public transport.
They said socio-economic limitations on people's access to public transport had been ignored. "The obduracy of Auckland's transport problems contrast with rapid change in the city's population," they said.
"Asia has become the main source of migrants to Auckland, now making up 20 per cent of the city's population.
"This Asian influence presents an opportunity for transformation from an automobile-dependent city to a public transport-friendly city, as in most Asian countries, people made extensive use of public transport."
First Union organiser Rudd Hughes believed most bus drivers were "pretty friendly, given the demands of the job".
"It's a tough job and I don't know what I'd be like if I was driving [the span of] a 14-hour day in Auckland traffic, given the number of cars on the road," he said.
"But my understanding is they are held to pretty high standards - any complaints are rigorously investigated and there are performance improvement plans if people are consistently told they are being rude."
An Auckland Transport spokesman said the organisation did not employ drivers working for contracted bus companies, but tried to get messages about public transport changes out to ethnic minorities by translating consultation material into various languages and advertising through their media.
"Auckland Transport has made a big push in this area - we know we need to communicate with Aucklanders who may not have English as a first language," he said.
"We are aiming to make public transport easier for everyone to understand with a simplified numbering system for buses and branding using various colours for the type of service. Integrated ticketing will also make it easier for people to get around Auckland."