It's well documented that Wellington's July 2018 bus network changes have been tough on bus passengers but they've also had a negative impact on some of the transport network's most vulnerable users - people on bikes.
According to data obtained from Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) there has been a 60% increase in complaints about poor bus driving around people on bikes since the bus network changes.
In January this year I suffered a close pass by a bus, which was not for the first time. I had it on film so I tweeted the video and made complaints to Metlink (GWRC) and the Police.
In both cases the response to my complaints amounted to nothing more than "the driver has been spoken to" which seems to be the standard response to all but the most serious injury-related incidents. While I honestly believe that the driver in this case should suffer more severe consequences than just being spoken to what frustrates me more is that these complaints are always treated as one-off isolated incidents of poor driving rather than a systemic issue. In particular, why don't GWRC seem to monitor the level of complaints about bad driving and have greater powers via their contracts with bus operators to hold them accountable? You can read the entire Twitter thread discussing this here (this links to the last tweet in the thread so you will need to scroll all the way back up to January 2).
I decided to find out more about the level and type of complaints that GWRC are getting about poor bus driving around people on bikes and what kind of monitoring occurs. In February of this year I made a Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) request for a list of all complaints made by cyclists about poor driving by bus drivers for the last 3 years.
By April I had a useable data set [Note 1] and what I found within it was quite alarming. Over the two year period between January 1 2017 and December 31 2018 there were nearly 400 complaints made via the Metlink Customer Relationship Management system (Resolve) about poor bus driving around people on bikes. That's an average of 16 complaints per month or roughly one every two days. However, in the 18 months before the network changes in July 2018 the average was only 14 per month. In the six months afterwards it rose to 23 per month. That's an increase in complaints of 64% after the network changes. There were also 22 complaints in January 2019, so the trend continues into this year. In my view a complaint every two days about bad driving around cyclists is a big enough problem, but the fact it has risen since the network changes to be closer to one every day is shocking. Don't forget these are only the reported incidents so they are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg [Note 2].
So which bus operators are the complaints about? Prior to the network changes almost all of the Wellington Region bus routes were operated by NZ Bus under the Go Wellington brand, so most of the complaints were about them. As a result of the network changes nearly 60% of the routes are now operated by Tranzit under the Tranzurban brand so they are now the source of the majority of complaints, although NZ Bus still feature heavily. There are also a significant number of complaints where the complainant was not able to identify the bus route or operator and a small number of complaints about other operators.
Who do the complaints come from? One of the few positives in the data is the revelation that a third of all complaints about poor bus driving around people on bikes come from a witness, usually a passenger on the bus involved. People on bikes often feel under siege on the roads so it's heart-warming to know that so many other people are prepared to speak up when they see a bus driving dangerously near somebody riding a bike.
The story told by the data is damning enough but the data set provided to me also contained the full text of the complaints themselves (with redactions to protect privacy). I've read them all and it had an impact on me. Some of the stories are terrible and I sincerely hope that the drivers involved are no longer on our roads. Here's a few examples. I intend to keep publishing these via Twitter because these voices deserve to be heard and they add a powerful and personal dimension to the story told by the data.
Bus driver hit a cyclist and then became verbally abusive towards cyclist, screaming "you're a f**king idiot mate" repeatedly at cyclist. I believe cyclist took a photo of driver. The driver then stopped the bus and made everybody get off at Kilbernie. My fare was not refunded and I had to walk to town carrying several bags. Driver was unapologetic. As a passenger, I was scared at the level of aggression shown and by the fact that the driver didn't check the cyclist was OK. This was totally unprofessional. This incident has made me scared to use metlink. Bus services
Cyclist was near marsden village, customer watched driver overtake cyclist and someone pressed button to get off. Bus then almost crashed into cyclist. Cyclist then got onto path to stay look you nearly hit me and be more careful. Driver told him to f** off and that she was bigger and he needed to watch out for her. So then they went to get off a few stops later and said to the driver look you were wrong, and the driver told them to f** off as well.
I was cycling along Rintoul road and could hear a bus behind me. The bus drove straight past me and the bus stop where an elderly woman was waiting. The driver must have seen the elderly lady at the last minute, as he then decided to stop about 20m down the road. He swerved towards the footpath past the bus stop, despite a row of parked cars, meaning that I was cut off and had to brake suddenly. Despite me braking, he still clipped me as he drove past. It was terrifying and I thought I was about to be squashed against the parked cars with no way to get out. He clipped me pretty hard and then drove on to wait for the elderly lady to walk down to where he had parked. I cycled up to the window and said to him 'you just hit me' and he shrugged.
My message to people on bikes and other members of the public who have logged complaints is please keep it up. It may seem pointless at the time but the data does gets captured and with a little bit of work and a little bit more focus it can and will be a powerful agent for change.
As part of my LGOIMA request I also asked what kind of monitoring and reporting of complaints about driving by bus drivers is going on within GWRC and the answer appears to be 'very little'. An important thing to understand here is that Metlink's Resolve CRM doesn't currently capture what type of transport network user the report is from so it makes no distinction between complaints from passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, motorists or others. That means the type of analysis I've done here can only be done in a one-off, laborious way by looking for search terms like "cyclist" or "bike" within the data.
As far as I can tell GWRC councillors only receive the most high level reporting about the overall level of complaints being received. Here's an example from the March 2019 Sustainable Transport Committee agenda:
According to the response to my LGOIMA request GWRC management receive weekly reporting by operator that shows the type of complaints (e.g. is the complaint about driving, lateness, cancellations etc) but not in a format that allows trends to be easily identified or comparisons made to previous time periods. Also, as highlighted above they aren't able to drill down into the data to find out what type of transport network user is making the complaints because that data isn't collected in a structured way. Although there appears to be regular meetings at an operational level between GWRC staff and the bus operators it's obvious that these conversations are never as specific as "there's been an increase in the level of complaints from cyclists about your drivers" because GWRC staff don't have that information available to them.
My hope is that by highlighting this issue GWRC will start paying some attention to it. In particular I have the following suggestions for them:
My recommendations stop short of suggesting how they could or should make the bus operators more accountable because I'm not a lawyer and the contracts with the operators are very long and complicated. However, even a cursory scan of the contracts suggests there are things they could probably be doing to increase the pressure on operators to make people on bikes safer. It's also a fact that regardless of what the contracts say under section 36 (2) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 "a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the health and safety of other persons is not put at risk from work carried out as part of the conduct of the business or undertaking" [Note 3].
I'm also stopping short of making any substantive comments about the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) and driver wages and conditions. It's really not my area of expertise but surely anyone can see that we need to be able to attract the very best drivers possible to the job and have sufficient drivers wanting to do the job that we can get rid of the ones who are clearly compromising public safety.
Of course the bigger picture here (and getting back to taking a systems perspective) is that buses and bikes just shouldn't be sharing the same bit of road. While they are both essential components of a modern sustainable transport network - and actually complement each other really well in that regard - they simply don't mix together well. Both GWRC and Wellington City Council (WCC) need to be much more focused on getting the infrastructure in place that means buses and bikes are physically separated. That means more separated cycleways, and more bus priority lanes and/or light rail. It also means taking a deep breath and removing on-street parking from arterial routes where necessary to make room. Let's hope that prioritising active transport and public transport are at the heart of upcoming announcements about Let's Get Wellington Moving. And let's make sure that every candidate in the upcoming local body elections (for both GWRC and WCC) knows that we just aren't going to put up with this crap anymore. My message to candidates is either fully commit to prioritising active transport and public transport or don't bother running.
GWRC ran search queries on their Customer Relationship Management system (Resolve) using my requested keywords "cycle", "cyclist", "cycling", "bike", or "biking" for the time period between June 2016 (when the Resolve CRM was introduced) and 11 February 2019 (the date of my request) and excluding rail services. Results were as follows:
Once duplicate case results were removed, this resulted in 815 unique cases with whole or partial text string matches to one or more of the requested search terms. These results include a number of complaints, inquiries and comments about more general cycling issues such as bike racks on buses, folding bikes, cycleways and so on. Personal or identifying details of individuals were removed.
I then refined the dataset further to focus purely on complaints related to 'driving' which is an identifiable sub-set of complaints in the database. I then manually reviewed the dataset to remove a number of complaints relating to motorbikes. I further refined the dataset to include only the years 2017 and 2018 as they were the only complete years in the dataset. This resulted in a final dataset of 392 individual complaints.
I also went through the dataset and coded each complaint as being either received from a cyclist or from a witness e.g. a bus passenger based on the information in the free text fields in the complaints.
GWRC also provided the following notes:
It needs to be acknowledged that the network changes made in mid-2018 were extensive and involved major alterations to the number of routes, buses, frequency etc. In that respect it's very hard to compare apples with apples. It's possible that the rate of complaints per bus kilometre traveled (or any number of other measures) hasn't changed to the same degree. The sort of deep-dive analysis that would be required to unpick this is beyond the levels of time and expertise I have available but is something I hope GWRC might do. However, it doesn't alter the fact that the absolute number of complaints has still risen and that reflects a greater number and/or frequency of cyclists being exposed to bad bus driving.
There are numerous free-text reports within the data of a cyclist being hit by a bus. Were these all treated as Notifiable Events by bus operators and reported back to GWRC (under the contracts) and to Worksafe (under the law)? I intend to follow that up.