Wellington Scoop

Learning from Bilbao


by Michael C Barnett
When it comes transport planning and development, what is it about the towns and cities of Europe that sees them streets ahead of us in New Zealand? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that European conurbations existed before the motor vehicle. In contrast, our towns and cities developed when the car was king, encouraging unlimited expansion on open green fields.

Recently my wife Sue travelled to Germany to visit our daughter Amy, who is studying music and sonic art at the Bauhaus University in the small town of Weimar. There she observed that buses and trains were prevalent and getting around was easy and inexpensive.

During her visit she went on a short excursion to Bilbao in northern Spain and upon her return home she raved about what she saw: the museums, the open spaces and the transport system in and around the central city. I had passed through Bilbao myself in 1975, en route to Madrid from Southampton. Sue’s comments made me curious to learn more about this transformation from what I remembered as a rather dowdy industrial town.

Bilbao is a medium sized city of some 380,000 people, tucked into a surrounding urban community. It has emerged as one of the world’s paragons of urban public transport as evidenced by its receipt of the 2000 European Union Public Transit Award. This was in recognition of its well designed public transport system including fare and service integration across the entire network. What Sue had discovered was a city, not much bigger than Wellington, that seemed to function free from the dominance of the personal automobile. Down town cars were seldom to be seen.

A major influence on Bilbao’s development would seem to be its geography. Situated in a valley, the city has nowhere to grow but up. A lot of the new building developments are either renovations of old buildings or new construction replacing industrial structures that are now not much more than remnants of the shipbuilding past of the city. The industrial sector of Bilbao’s economy still exists, but it is now outside the city center. The result of this trend has been an increasingly walkable city that is aesthetically pleasing, not only due to a picturesque landscape, but also the beautification projects the city has undertaken.


In the central city, walking takes precedence and people can be seen in countless numbers walking throughout the city at all hours. In addition to its walkability, Bilbao is blessed with three forms of public transport; an extensive bus system called the Bilbobus, metropolitan rail and light rail. All are quiet, clean, safe, and only crowded during peak hours.


The metro extends beyond the city limits, servicing Greater Bilbao and its residents. This allows for easy, quick and cheap transportation during the day to the coastal beach communities as well as transport for those living in the nearby suburbs. With plans for further expansion beyond two lines, Bilbao transit will continue to be one of the most modern and prized transportation systems in Europe.

Can Wellington learn from the Bilbao experience?

I believe we can, for there are a number of similarities. Geography for a start, within confining topography. Both are port cities. And like Bilbao, Wellington has an existing and well patronized rail system extending beyond the city limits.

What Wellington lacks is modern mass transit system and appropriate fare and service integration across the entire network. Introduction of modern light rail supplemented by a well connected bus network, linking the existing rail system with the port, the hospital and the airport would go a long way to achieving this.

Yes, Wellington could learn a lot from Bilbao, but it will need leadership from the policy makers and a political will to move away from the private motor vehicle as the default transport option.

Read also
Greater Auckland
: Closing town centres to traffic


  1. Traveller, 17. January 2018, 16:33

    If only Willis Street and Manners Street were vehicle free – how much more pleasant the central city would be. The Bilbao photo reminds us how our CBD ought to be. (But instead our streets are over-crowded with diesel buses and diesel pollution and diesel noise…reminding us every day of the Regional Council’s refusal to reconsider its dismal decisions.)

  2. Citizen Joe, 17. January 2018, 18:00

    Yes Traveller, you are spot on, Manners Street has become Wellington’s elongated city centre bus station. It’s not cars that are the main problem but noisy, dirty, diesel buses that choke Manners Street, Willis Street and Lambton Quay. The ‘problem’ stems from transport planners and councillors making travel easier for lazy people who won’t walk ten minutes to the railway station or the southern end of Courtenay Place. The aim seems to be for a bus stop outside every shop and office.

    If instead we had terminals at each end of the CBD with a limited shuttle trolley bus system linking them, Wellington would become a nicer and healthier place for residents, workers and tourists. But we would need a benign dictator to achieve such a transformation rather than the ‘democracy of sloth’ that we have had since circa 1990.

  3. Felix Geiringer, 17. January 2018, 20:09

    It is so deeply depressing to walk along an old electric trolleybus route only to be blasted with noxious diesel fumes by each passing bus. [via twitter]

  4. Michael Gibson, 17. January 2018, 21:12

    Don’t worry, Felix. The hundred new ones coming from England very shortly will be quieter (I think) and with slightly less emissions in spite of not being electric or even half-electric.

  5. Wellington Commuter, 17. January 2018, 23:54

    Just looking at Wikipedia shows that Wellington and Bilbao, although they share a similar mountainous geography, are quite different cities:
    * Wellington City Urban Population Density = 2,300/km2
    * Bilbao Urban Population Density = 8,300/km2

    It seems that Bilbao is a city about the 1 1/2 times the size of Wellington City but packed into the space little bigger than Karori. Given Bilbao is so dense it is understandable why their PT is so good. But Wellington is, despite the efforts of city planners, still a much more spread out city.

  6. Elaine Hampton, 18. January 2018, 12:57

    Michael: slightly less emissions when we had electric trolleys… I don’t see a bonus here.
    Wellington Commuter: you confuse the issue. Take any small European town, they all have subsidised comprehensive, well used public transport. If Wellington has more space and less people, then we could surely do better. What we have is a toxic mess. Our children are going to wonder where our illustrious leaders’ heads were.

  7. Neil Douglas, 18. January 2018, 13:36

    Looking at what comparable cities have done is instructive so thanks Michael for bringing Bilbao to our attention.

    It is worth noting just how recent Bilbao’s metro system actually is, why it was built, who designed it and what it cost.

    The system has been built in stages with the first 27-stop section completed in 1995. Its aim was to regenerate a city where heavy industry had been on the decline and to ease traffic congestion. Architect Norman Foster won a competition to design the mainly underground system. The result is world acclaimed and also loved by locals.

    Today 88 million trips are made a year for a regional population of just over a million (85 trips/person). By comparison, 13 million trips are made on Wellington rail for half a million people (25 trips / person). So 3.3 times as many rail trips are made per person in Bilbao than in Wellington.

    The capital cost is not so well reported. The three stages built up to 2002 cost 900 million euros. That’s about $NZ2.5billion in today’s prices. Given it’s about 50 kilometres in length, it looks a bargain at 45 million a kilometre when compared to the cost of surface CBD Light Rail in Sydney which is around NZ$200million. The Metro was funded by the Basque region through local taxes.

    This link is a good one for those who want to read more on Bilbao’s Metro.

  8. greenwelly, 18. January 2018, 16:56

    I’m guessing that Rail displaces Bus travel as it expands.
    In Bilbao Bus+rail patronage is around 125 million trips per year, or 125 per capita,
    In Wellington Bus and Rail are about 75 trips per capita, so in terms of overall PT usage Bilbao is 60% higher than Wellington,
    Much closer nearer than a direct rail to rail comparison would indicate.

  9. syrahnose, 19. January 2018, 2:24

    As someone who has visited Bilbao repeatedly over last 2 decades, it is a great city that has little in common with Wellington. What is being missed out here is how much EU and Spanish money went towards their project. After Franco, both levels of govt poured huge amounts into redeveloping what amounts to the new Basque region’s main city. That bought off the separatist movement and remains so out of political necessity. Think Barcelona now. The threat remains just as strong, except, unlike Barcelona, Bilbao takes more than it feeds into the tax base.

    The figures are vague in the link above, but you can be sure very little came from local taxes. At least during the early stages of development. Wellington has no sugar daddy to turn to for similar handouts.

    ‘Yet in Bilbao, the city and region’s unique status within a reconfigured Spanish polity engendered a favourable environment for stimulating large scale infrastructure investment. Bilbao is now part of a complex governmental structure occasioned by the rise of both centralizing and devolutionary forces in Europe. To enumerate them, one can identify five levels of government that could have a hand in transportation decision making in Bilbao; from smallest to largest they are the local municipal governments that comprise the Bilbao Metropolitan Area, the provincial government, the BAC government, the Spanish Central Administration and the European Commission. The realization of a Metro system in Bilbao costing some 881 million to develop, and a regional transportation network that now costs over 187 million to sustain annually, has necessitated joint involvement and cooperation between multiple levels of government (EMTA, 2002).’

  10. Brent Efford, 19. January 2018, 11:16

    Thank you, Michael. A great article – and it is amusing to see the straws that the anti-rail naysayers above grasp at in response. On a world scale, Wellington is even more fitted for light rail than Bilbao by any reasonable metrics – yet we remain the only metropolis with a main rail transit system which does not penetrate the CBD and seem happy to continue that way while continuously upgrading car commuting facilities instead. Even Auckland, the ‘city of cars’, plans to have TWO rail transit systems penetrating its CBD within a few years. Worth noting is that the Bilbao tram system, opened in 2002, was built to the narrow metre track gauge. Most new tram systems – and there are many – are built to standard (1435 mm) gauge, but Bilbao’s was built to 1000 mm because that is what the surrounding metro railway is built to, and a unified system in the long run is what the planners anticipated. Wellington would emulate by building our light rail to the 1067 mm gauge. This would allow early use of trams on the Johnsonville Line, use of the existing EMU maintenance and storage depot, and through tram-train services on the other rail lines when the Matangis are replaced.

  11. Ross Clark, 20. January 2018, 4:07

    Greenwelly – within the core urban area (Wellington City less Tawa), there are IIRC about 18m public transport trips per year. That’s the buses within the city plus the J’ville Line, and works out at a per capita use rate of 100 trips/person/year. The values for the wider region are a distinct comparison, as the bulk of PT use there is for journeys into the CBD.

    In those terms, it isn’t doing too badly. But the system would do better if local politicians could grasp the nettle of commuter parking and do something, anything, to control it. This would create a virtuous cycle: fewer cars on the road at the peak would result in the buses working better, and faster, as well as carrying more passengers.

    Syrahnose – thanks for your comments.

  12. Transport sense, 29. January 2018, 9:37

    The important difference between Wellington and Bilbao is that Bilbao has roughly 1 million inhabitants in its greater metropolitan area. It’s population is the size of Auckland in a much smaller area. So, if we have anything to learn from Bilbao it is that we need a lot more people in a much smaller area to justify Bilbao-quality public transport.