The design overhaul of the Auckland bus network may be bold, but is it good?

In their pursuit of an abstracted planning perfection, the designers have seemingly been prepared to sacrifice some people’s experience for the sake of a cleaner looking system, argues miffed North Shore bus user and design lecturer Peter Gilderdale

When a huge new public transport initiative rolls out, as it did recently on the North Shore, the public expectation is inevitably intense. “How will it affect my everyday?” “How much faster will it be?” The pressure on the designers to get it right is therefore equally high. Hence it must be pretty dispiriting for Auckland Transport’s planners to hear that a poll of over 300 people on Neighbourly shows that just 17.2% believe they are better off under the new network, and 60.2% say their service is worse. The poll was hardly scientific, but the longer it ran, the higher the dissatisfaction level.

While I’m delighted for the people who do have a better service, I am not one of them. My own commute now takes, on average, 12 minutes a day longer. This may not sound like much, but it adds up to more than a working-week’s-worth of time over a year. And if large numbers of people are experiencing something similar, it raises the question of why. How can it be that a system that AT touts as a “simpler bus network,” with more frequent and “better connected” services, can be failing to deliver for significant numbers of Aucklanders? I suspect that the answer may have something to do with the fundamental design processes that were used.

The principle behind the new network involves shoehorning services into four basic categories:  Rapid, Frequent, Connector and Local/peak. For the Shore, that means a rapid network down the busway, which then connects to feeder routes. As a system, is a beautifully simple and elegant solution to the problem of how to organise a network. And it fits really well with the way that planners look at these things. As far as I can tell from searching educational literature, planners operate at a very macro level. They see transport as a part of infrastructure. They deal in complexity, and they design structures and systems that deal with variable peaks and flows. A successful system in such a framework is one that, seen as a whole, is simple, elegant, and cohesive. In other words, there is an aesthetic pleasure to be gained from building a system like this one.

In saying this, I feel a twinge of lingering guilt. Back in the 80s and 90s there were baby boomer designers who behaved similarly. We framed ourselves as the creative doctors who dispensed dollops of design wisdom. We came up with beautiful creative solutions, and the clients paid the bills. So what if they didn’t quite work? They looked good and we won awards!

Happily, the profession of design has moved on from this ‘heroic’ type of approach. We have, perhaps belatedly, discovered the importance of the end user. There are now whole new genres of design called things like Service Design, User-Experience Design and Co-Design. These involve putting the user at the centre of the equation, and creating systems that optimise customer and user experience. They involve user testing, and sometimes even see designers and users working alongside each other in the design process.

I’m guessing the design of the AT network didn’t involve very much of this. Granted there was public consultation, but, as anyone who has been made redundant knows, consultation is only about the details of the roll out, not the decision itself. That is already locked in. In 2015, the AT consultation process gave people the chance to respond to a document that heavily played up the benefits of the new system, with its frequent expresses and local bus routes. As I remember, it gave no clue as to how the texture of people’s everyday would alter as a result.

Just imagine if, instead of this impersonal consultation process, the system’s creators had sat down with a decent sample of users from all over the Shore to find out why they took the bus and how the new system would alter things for them. They would have discovered that people take the bus because it is a more relaxing than taking a car. That they enjoy reading a book, and that they like predictability. Then the researchers would have asked these people to consider a system where they would have to get off their bus mid-way through their journey, sometimes walk across an overbridge, wait for an unpredictable period for another bus to show up, and then wait some more while they watched their fellow passengers tagging on for a second time – a combined process that would add anything between two and 30 minutes to their journey. Would the system have survived the consultation process if users had properly realised how it would impact them? I doubt it. But instead, the designers’ own belief in the beauty of their “bold” new solution seems to have blinded them to any criticism of the flaws in its central premise.

So what would a better central concept have been for this new system, if it were to take users into account? Maybe if the planners had started with the premise that no one’s journey would be longer as a result of any change, then we would have had a very different looking design – and one that might have encouraged more people onto the bus network. But that is not what happened. Instead, in their pursuit of an abstracted planning perfection, the designers have apparently been prepared to sacrifice some people’s experience for the sake of a cleaner looking system. It just looks like they have sacrificed more people than they perhaps realised.

One has to ask whether there is a way to avoid big design ideas going rogue, and losing touch with the people they are intended to serve? I don’t have definitive answers to this, but to get the ball rolling I am going to make a couple of suggestions. Firstly, I think that if someone is going to pitch a bold and radical new solution, that person has to be prepared to live or die by it. It could be labelled a Fall-On-Own-Sword-Initiative (FOOSI) from the start. Knowing your job is on the line would hopefully discourage lead designers from ploughing on regardless when users identify problems (as they did, in this case, back in 2015). Secondly, the creators should not be the arbiters of the project’s success. Instead, this should be measured by an independent external body, which determines an appropriate period for teething troubles to be ironed out and then evaluates success based on improved functionality for end users.

Had such a body existed, right now AT would be figuring out how to retain the bits of the system that work while dismantling the sections that give commuters slower journeys.  But, without such a system of protection, many North Shore commuters are no doubt going to either suffer through gritted teeth, or else give up and reach for their car keys. Hopefully some of them start actively protesting. If several thousand people each sent the Mayor a bill for the productive hours they have had wrested from them, it might have an effect. Or not. But at least Council would have to spend time dealing with the correspondence, which might give us all the dubious pleasure of watching them have their time wasted just like they and their planners are currently wasting ours.

Dr Peter Gilderdale is a design lecturer at AUT and lives on the North Shore. He’s a specialist in typography and design history, and is interested user experience design.

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