Wellington Scoop

Missing the smart city solutions

by Ian Apperley
In the latest debate on how to solve our traffic woes – in the form of the “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” campaign being run by the NZTA – Wellington is missing the Smart City solutions that could help deal with congestion.

Transport planning seems to be dogged by dinosaur thinking and ideology. On one hand, government agencies have a tendency to revert to 1950s thinking – building more roads. On the ideological side, special interest groups are one-eyed in their approach to transport, often then tying up progress for years.

Wellington has some unique transport issues that need to be solved. Traffic flows from the airport to the motorway have become increasingly worse over the last few years as the airport grows. Public transport within the city has, in my opinion, decreased in quality and attractiveness to consumers while increasing in cost. The single motorway into the city from the north is a gridlock nightmare during most rush hours, and a single accident anywhere in the network causes chaos.

Adding to the CBD congestion is the fact that since the November 2016 earthquake, a large number of carparks have been lost and not rebuilt. Most inner city congestion is caused by people moving around attempting to find car parking spaces. The answer to that problem has been for the Wellington City Council to put up car park pricing. Hardly an ingenious solution.

Cycling is not the whole of the answer, yet the ideological side thinks that it is.
Building more and wider roads is not the answer because evidence shows that they will simply fill up as quickly as you build them.

Congestion charging provides an immediate relief, however over time congestion returns to previous levels as we have seen in large international cities.

When we examine how smart cities around the world are dealing with the transport issue, we see solutions that our local councils and the transport agency are simply missing.

Wellington has excellent internet infrastructure and it is more common now for employees to be able to work remotely. Given that the majority of Wellington CBD workers are office bound, encouraging companies to make work from home standard, will reduce congestion. Likewise, agencies could take a lead in not only promoting, but mandating, that their employees work from home, even one day a week.

New traffic light technologies also allow for far better transport flows. A company called RapidFlow has been working with Pittsburgh city to implement the new technology. Using artificial intelligence, RapidFlow allows each set of lights to determine when they change colour based on real-time traffic flow rather than the old approach of set and forget.

The results are impressive. The system reduces travel time by 25%, braking time by 30%, and idling time by 40%. The CEO of Rapid Flow says:

“Each individual intersection watches the traffic approaching it and in real time, it builds a timing plan, a sort of plan of how much green time it’s going to give to each approach, so that the vehicles it’s seen through its detection get through as efficiently as possible.”

The intersections communicate with each other, allowing traffic to be managed in a real-time basis across an entire city. In a place like Wellington, which is small and compact, this type of technology could be very effective.

Future development would allow for transport users to enter a predetermined route into a smartphone and that information being passed to the network in advance. RapidFlow expects this could cut travel time by a further 25%.

Another issue is called “the last mile”, and in Melbourne pilots are underway to combat it. For example, a courier needs to find a parking space and then leave the vehicle to drop a package up to the 16th floor of a building. The pilot is looking at creating hubs for couriers on the edge of the CBD where the package is dropped then delivered using non-road delivery methods. For example, bicycles, couriers on foot, and trolleys. Other cities are examining the use of drones to do the same thing.

Enabling public transport within the CBD using Uber-like apps is another solution that the Regional Council couldn’t get their head around two years ago. The idea was simple.

By taking GPS real-time data from buses and trains and making it publicly available, a community group could create an App that showed exactly where your bus was in transit, arrival times, ETA, and how congested the bus was. The cost of a first version was around $100,000.

That doesn’t of course solve the problem that public transport has suffered from, which is shrinking margins and contracts created by those who most likely don’t ever ride the service. If you could call it a service. Changes to Wellington public transport are anecdotally increasing congestion and future plans most certainly will.

The Regional Council instead chose to persist with the fixed signs around Wellington that, apparently (the jury is out) show real-time information. The cost of that system? A cool $22 million.

Autonomous vehicles provide the best path forward for transport, not just for cars. Yet there has been a huge reluctance by the government to invest in this technology. Autonomous vehicles would significantly reduce congestion while increasing safety.

What is clear is that more of the same won’t work. More roads won’t work, more cycle lanes won’t work, and thinking in 1950s terms will produce more of the same. We need fresh thinking and leadership or we’ll all be choking in smog while businesses fail and CBDs die.


  1. Helene Ritchie, 29. November 2017, 9:52

    Excellent lateral and researched thinking Ian.

    And there’s the Miramar/Eastern suburbs ferries-why not? If Sydney can have ferries as an integral part of their one ticket integrated system, we can too, can’t we?

    And light rail/ mass transport from the airport,and in the meantime only multiple passenger taxi allowed; the airport carpark
    as a park and ride destination for locals when they aren’t working at home!

    Planning could start with the premise that no new arterial roads will be built…Then we would create a very different network…and city. They might be added as a last resort not a first resort….

    We need to look ahead, not behind!

  2. Mark, 29. November 2017, 13:12

    Rethink transport. Think 3-dimensionally? Go up. Two examples.
    (1) The impact of rapidly developing flying car technology on domestic airports, roading investment and residential growth in the regions – is mind boggling – the commute to work (and back home) just got redefined (see https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/05/tencent-leads-90m-investment-in-lilium-german-flying-car-company.html).
    (2) Don’t think rail, think “Light Rapid Transport” (LRT). All LRT lines use fully automated and driverless rubber-tired rolling stock closer in size and scope to a people mover system, and are elevated and grade-separated from the roading system (ie above the ground – crossing roads and water). Being driverless also substantially reduces the operational costs (allowing more investment into capital development).

  3. TrevorH, 30. November 2017, 7:59

    Some excellent ideas Ian. Reducing the need to commute to the CBD is crucial and working from home is one means of achieving this. Businesses and agencies might also be encouraged, by eg rates’ reductions, to devolve to the suburbs; Wellington should be viewed as the collection of interlocking villages which its topography suggests. It could also be useful to look at staggering school hours around the city since since congestion is often greatly alleviated during the school holidays. Nevertheless we cannot avoid the need to complete SH1 and the tunnels along it to the airport given its expansion and developments like Shelly Bay now approved.

  4. Simon, 30. November 2017, 15:44

    Helene: you were a councillor for 30 years, so clearly the current problems are the result of the decisions you made. One would have thought that some common sense would prevail in what is an important debate – Sydney has 437,000 workers per day, 372,000 of whom commute from outside the city and 615,000 visitors and students per day. That’s around 2M trips per day, 2% of which were by ferry.
    According to https://www.wellingtonnz.com/life-in-wellington/facts-and-figures/ 23,000 people commute into the CBD every day – 2% of which is ~500. I suspect that is lower than the patronage on the East West ferry – in other words, there is unlikely to be demand in Wellington for more ferries.

  5. Michael Gibson, 30. November 2017, 17:50

    Simon, I can say that Helene is badly missed on the WCC. When was the last time you heard any of the present councillors ask a searching question?

  6. Simon, 30. November 2017, 18:16

    Michael, that may well be the case, but ultimately we need to judge our politicians on outcomes. In the transport area, the WCC, both collectively and individually, have failed.

  7. David Bond, 1. December 2017, 19:13

    Futuristic solutions are great to dream about but how relevant are they to the real world, the here-and-now? Nobody really knows for instance, how the various autonomous-vehicle scenarios being touted-about are actually going to play out. Predictions are rife that they will replace conventional public transport, leading to simplistic calls for an end to further investment in these modes. On the other hand predictions that they will lead to more-efficient use of road-space and therefore require less-roading, curiously does not seem to elicit equivalent calls for curbing current road-spending.

    As for flying cars, tele-working, smart-roads, and monorail-pods – sure, all these concepts can be shown to work in limited form, but are we wise to use them as an excuse to go no further with what we already know is tried-and-proved?

    So what exactly is tried-and-proved?

    More large-scale road-building? The above article rightly calls into question the efficacy of continuing with this approach, but it is the one we are in-actuality still slavishly following.

    What else? Bicycles, e-bikes, walking – fantastic for replacing a portion of motorised journeys but these can only ever be a small part of the solution.

    Well here is a fact straight from GWRC’s 2015 Regional Land Transport Plan:
    “The rail network accounts for around 45% of journey to work trips from local authority areas other than Wellington City to destination workplaces within the Wellington CBD, highlighting the importance of the rail network as a means of transporting people to/from Wellington CBD and taking pressure off the strategic highway network.”

    This is an admission by the GWRC that the existing, un-futuristic and often un-sung regional rail-network actually makes a massive contribution to regional mobility! But here is the rub: It only does this *where it exists*, which is between regional cities/suburbs, and the northern edge of Wellington’s CBD.

    So why, since rail is so completely tried-and-proved-to-make-a-huge-positive-impact, are we not looking to extend it over that major missing corridor, the City-to-Airport? Why are more road-tunnels, flyovers and motorways the only option under any real consideration here?

    Or if we are so confident that futuristic new modes will soon obviate the need for rail, let’s also stop planning for new roads which are tried-and-proved generators of more traffic today, and also less-likely to be needed in the automated utopia of tomorrow. Why not simply shrug our shoulders at our current problems since they will all be fixed by technology in just a few short years. . . Apparently?

  8. Mark, 2. December 2017, 21:45

    @DavidBond: Light Rapid Transport (fully automated, grade separated, driverless rubber-tired rolling stock) is already proven? It’s been in use in Singapore for decades [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_Rail_Transit_(Singapore)%5D. This form of transit has many advantages over traditional steel rail systems, in high density areas – which is why it’s used in Singapore. Given LRT is a proven concept, why use traditional light rail – which is rarely grade-separated, and in many cases includes street running sections that create conflicts with pedestrians and cars? Isn’t it better to go up?

  9. David Bond, 7. December 2017, 13:48

    @ Mark: Because a rapid transit system based on rubber-tyred rolling stock cannot inter-operate with the regional rail system we already have and which cries out to have its reach extended.

    The only way a continuous rapid-transit spine can be provided is either, 1) by extending the rail system we have as I outlined above, or 2) by implementing a “tram-train” system whereby tram-like vehicles can share tracks with existing rail. There are pros and cons with each of these, but in my view an extension of what works so well over much of the region already, needs to be seriously considered.
    LGWM was remiss in not doing this.

  10. Mark, 7. December 2017, 20:25

    @DavidBond: I am not sure what you mean by “inter-operates”, but if you mean users can seamlessly move from one to the other, then again you need to look at the Singapore example, where people easily move from the Mass Rail Transit (MRT) system to the LRT system within the same nodal station. In Wellington that would be our sole train station and would require users to go up a lift or stairs to access the LRT. A bit like accessing the UK’s underground (but you go up instead of down). I don’t think you need to be to hung up over a transit system being continuous? Mixed transit systems can work just as well. Using electric powered rubber tyre rolling stock means its quieter than rail (steel on steel), so more appropriate when moving between density populated areas\buildings. That’s one of its advantages over rail. The others, are probably cost and grade separation. The later (grade separation) means you are not confined to existing corridors or taking up space on roads cars could use. Think bus lanes above the roads. Also, its construction would probably be less disruptive to existing transit. Surely it makes sense to use a modern transit system that has been (future) proven?

  11. David Bond, 8. December 2017, 13:34

    Mark – good on you for thinking about this. We certainly need ideas that are not just “more roads”. However, a few points:

    1. Transferring from one public transport mode to another is fine for minority-flows, but you should try to avoid imposing it on major arterial flows which is what this would be. London has gone to great lengths to eliminate the need for thousands to transfer from train to Underground by firstly implementing ‘Thameslink’, now ‘Crossrail’ and next-to-come, ‘Crossrail 2’. Expecting arterial flows of passengers to interchange is 1920’s thinking!

    2. Grade-separation and wheel/track type are two different issues. Steel-wheeled or rubber-tyred metros can both be elevated or tunnelled as desired, although ramp-gradients can be steeper for rubber-tyred. On the other hand conventional rail is much easier to cross on-the-level if it is decided to do this. Otherwise there is nothing mode-specific about grade-separation, and I am not sure that elevated systems of any type would be popular in Wellington given the Basin precedent.

    3. Rubber-tyred systems do tend to be quieter, although there are many techniques available for quietening and vibration-isolating of steel-wheels+rails also. I am not sure that rubber-tyred systems are cheaper overall however, as-evidenced by the relatively few systems in operation or being proposed (plenty in Wikipedia about this).

    Anyway I hope this explains why I advocate sticking with and expanding the rail system we already have.