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Cool climate move or hot air? Waiheke unveils new electric buses

For a whole lot of Auckland notables, the hottest ticket in town this week has been a trip to see the unveiling of Waiheke Island’s new electric buses. Alex Braae was there to see it.

For dignitaries around Auckland, ribbon cuttings this year have been few and far between. And who wouldn’t want a morning out on Waiheke Island? 

A whole horde of them turned up for the launch of several new electric buses to the Waiheke Bus Company fleet. A phalanx of councillors, local board members, the mayor, no fewer than two local MPs, business leaders, top bureaucrats, a diplomat, and even members of the public were there. 

The first thing many attendees from the mainland noticed was that the Fullers ferry took them out of a miserable rainy morning at Auckland’s wharf, and deposited them in the gorgeous Waiheke microclimate. Then at the Waiheke terminal, a trio of sleek new electric buses purred softly up to the curb, with the destination a charming winery. 

The new buses – some of which will be manufactured locally by Bay of Plenty-based Kiwi Bus Builders – will replace some of the most ageing and decrepit old rigs in the wider Auckland fleet. Over the next several years, the whole fleet will be replaced with electrics, to go with the wider Electric Island goal, an ambitious plan to eliminate petrol and diesel vehicles entirely from Waiheke. 

Cath Handley, the chair of the Waiheke local board, said in her speech that the new buses would give residents real choice about whether their travel produced emissions. Some electric car drivers might have chosen not to take the bus, on the grounds they were old and ran on diesel. Around 6% of private cars on the island are now electric. 

The buses were even adorned with artwork from kids at the local school. The winning entry was unveiled by newly minted Auckland Central (which includes Waiheke) MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who ripped the curtain away to reveal a quite beautiful scene of a dirt road running through rolling hills at sunset. 

Chlöe Swarbrick unveiling the winning piece of artwork from a Waiheke Island student (Alex Braae)

So with all those good stories, why did it all feel a bit overblown? Was the ratio of dignitaries to public impact maybe slightly too high?

Transport currently amounts to 43% of the total emissions of Auckland city. Buses contribute to about 1% of the city’s total emissions. Waiheke has – at most – about two dozen buses trundling around the island. The emissions savings are going to be basically negligible from the new buses. 

Pippa Coom, the Waitematā and Gulf ward councillor, said that the change was consistent with what Waiheke residents had been pushing council for, and fitted in with the vision of making the island a sanctuary both for nature and for people to live more sustainable lives. 

And what about the rest of the city? Councillor Richard Hills, chair of the climate committee, said the current timeframes on electric buses are “not where we want it to be”, and that he would prefer to see a deadline put in place next year against the purchase of new diesel buses. He added that bus fleets were one of those areas where emissions actually were possible for the council to control, and there would be an impact on human health and general pollution too. 

Old and new buses on Waiheke Island side by side (Alex Braae)

“We’d prefer if, working with the government and Auckland Transport, if we could get the whole fleet electrified by 2030 or 2035 at the very latest. So it is a big ask, because the capital cost is so much more expensive than a diesel bus, but we’re trying to convince everyone that to pay a bit extra, over time the operational costs will drop down quite a bit,” said Hills.

Seeing the interview with Coom and Hills taking place, mayor Phil Goff bounded over and jumped in on a question about the dignitary-to-impact ratio, and whether the brouhaha was all worth it. 

“Oh, I think it’s a big event for us to celebrate. Making Waiheke emissions free – a big step towards it is these first six buses. And nobody press-ganged anyone to come here. They came here because they thought it was a big occasion, and we should celebrate it. And we should highlight what we as a council wants to do, what Auckland Transport wants to do, and what the Waiheke Local Board wants to do.” 

Fellow councillors and the general public are also part of the audience for these sorts of launches. The 10-year budget is going to be up for consultation early next year, and since Covid-19, things have been extremely tight. Hills said that while people are generally on board with more environmentally friendly policies, that costs money, and he will have to convince his colleagues to open the purse strings. 

Everyone acknowledged that the celebration was about an aspirational moment, rather than a move that will actually break the problem of the city’s emissions once and for all. And politicians really like celebrating aspirational moments, because they’re a good way to send a message about priorities. 

But what about the actual buses themselves? Will they be able to navigate the narrow hills of Waiheke with ease? A few nearby bus experts noted the height and weight of the vehicles – there may be a couple of trees that need to be trimmed back, and they’re likely to put more pressure on the roads than the previous models did. 

Allen Davies, the oldest bus driver on Waiheke Island (Alex Braae)

One person who won’t be complaining about the new purchases is Allen Davies, 82 years old and sharp as a tack, who has spent 17 years driving buses around Waiheke. “Oh, they were some real old dungers,” he said of the old buses in the fleet. “Their age caught up with them – that was their problem, really.” Apparently Waiheke had been something of a dumping ground for old buses no longer wanted in the rest of the city. 

He’s yet to drive one of the new ones, on account of a cast around a broken wrist. But he’s eagerly waiting, having heard how the other drivers are finding them. “Everyone’s driven them and they’ve loved them.” Each bus has an individual driving profile, and he’s looking forward to getting to know them all. 

It feels good to go to celebrations of nice things happening. And there’s plenty of impactful stuff that more bus electrification could achieve, not least on Queen St, where the diesel particles from fumes clog the lungs. As the ferry sailed away from sunny Waiheke, and back towards the heavy clouds hovering over the Auckland CBD, it was hard not to think about how far the journey still has to go.