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.

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§ 5 Responses to Getting Wellington off the rails

  • Eric says:

    the disadvantage to bus transit is that it is flexible- the buses could be rerouted any time. From a land planning/economic development standpoint, rail is much better because of it’s permanence. that permanence encourages development in a way that bus just doesn’t do. Obviously, this doesn’t mean rail is the right option for Wellington.

    • Bill says:

      Well, yes and no. I understand what you’re saying. For example, in Sacramento, CA, you started seeing denser development around light rail stations. In Washington, D.C., you see the same around Metro (subway) stations in the suburbs. Fixity allows the developers to take the punt and planner to change the rules.
      The counter arguments are:
      1. cities change — the centre of gravity moves — so the system needs some flexibility
      2. planners aren’t perfect, so they will inevitably make some poor judgements and the transport system needs to recover from them
      3. if transport decisions lead to certain land-use patterns (like concentrations of townhouses), then the two trends should reinforce each other; it should be harder to change away from the original transport design, even if it is technically possible.

  • Eric House says:

    yes I am! and yes, Absolutely, the stakes for rail are higher- you can’t put rail everywhere, and the wrong route could be disasterous.

    In the Twin Cities, we are seeing development around the light rail stations, where as routes that are long time bus corridors aren’t seeing nearly the same level of attention, and all seemingly because of the psychology that the bus could be taken away.

    The interesting thing is that if you overlay a current bus route map against a map of the streetcar system from Pre WWII- the core routes are exactly the same. “main” roadways, are going to be main roadways forever, even if the center of gravity moves up and down that road. Residential neighborhoods are HIGHLY resistant to having their leafy street turned into a thoroughfare…

    • Bill says:

      I can see the argument — in economic terms, providing greater certainty about the future, which fosters more investment in the particular configuration. But…can we provide more certainty in a cheaper way? What if, for example, we built just the stations but not the rail lines? Then, the stations can provide transport nodes but without locking us in to specific routes.
      I guess what I’m taking away from your comments is that there is a trade-off. Growth can come from greater investment because of certain, fixed transport networks, or it can come with greater flexibility and spreading investment over more capital goods than just the railroad. Anybody know which works better?

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