Getting Wellington off the rails
02/05/2012 § 5 Comments
Wellington transport is frustrating. Part of the problem is topology: narrow, high ridges and narrow valleys bunched up by the sea. The two larger valleys, Hutt and Karori, are naturally accessible through narrow corridors. However, public works projects aren’t known for just accepting the natural contours of the land. So, another part of the problem is the will or the money to make the transport system — roads and buses, mainly — more efficient.
Ways for improving transport in the central city are under review. The work is focus on the transport spine between the rail station and the hospital. There are eight options under review:
- Two high quality on-street bus options along a central alignment (essentially the Golden Mile) or along a waterfront alignment (essentially following the Quays), with both options then continuing south along Kent/Cambridge Terraces, through to Adelaide Road.
- Two bus rapid transit options along the same two alignments as above. Bus rapid transit involves buses running in an entirely separate space on the road from other traffic
- Two light rail options along the same two alignments as above.
- A heavy rail extension underground along an alignment to be determined.
- A heavy rail extension at street level along a waterfront alignment.
First, a note about language. In several places, the announcement notes that these are ‘high-quality’ options. For example, in the above list, we have ‘high quality on-street bus options’. So, what, the ‘low-quality’ options were all ignored? Of course not — this is just an annoying bit of marketing.
Moving on, it is curious that half the options are for buses and half for trains. This is probably not coincidence. It is likely meant to show everyone that they are taking an even-handed approach to assessing the options: ‘Look, see! Half the options we considered were your preferred method, whichever that is.’
I’m very glad to see that various bus options are being considered. I have nothing against rail. I really like using light rail. I’ve lived in a couple of cities with it, and it has been fast and useful. However, the presentation by David Hensher at the New Zealand Association of Economists 2010 conference made me rethink whether they are good investment. He made the point that dedicated bus routes can provide all the same benefits of rail, but with more flexibility. They are more scalable — it is easier to add or remove buses from the route. If the route turns out to be a poor performer, it can be changed more easily. The buses and drivers can be moved between the dedicated routes and the local ones — one of the problems with Wellington rail has been getting enough drivers all the time. Essentially, if rail is a good idea, then dedicated bus routes will be even better.
The other problem is the one that this transport spine study doesn’t address. Wellington, like Christchurch, is based on a hub-and-spoke idea of the city. There’s a centre city, and transport is organised around getting people in and out of the centre. As a city gets bigger, however, more traffic is trying to get from one suburb to another. Take my kids’ (field) hockey games. There is no turf in my suburb or in the neighbouring ones. To get to any of the three turfs, I have to go into the centre and then back out. It’s a half-hour of driving to any one of them, and no hope of using a bus to get there. What Wellington really needs is a ring road linking the outer edges of the suburbs. Yes, there’d be some difficulty cutting across or through the various hills, but it’s nothing that engineers haven’t sorted before.
The study is looking at $105m per km to build underground rail, which would lock us into that one route. We would be better off figuring out the network — the web or grid — that makes transport easier no matter where you want to go in the city. The added benefit is transport that is less fragile in case of disaster. After the Christchurch earthquakes, that certainly has to be a consideration.