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Light rail by 2028 – why we need to start now

by Kerry Wood
Wellington needs light rail, but waiting for more passengers to choose overloaded public transport is not the best way to get it.

Ridership growth can be boosted by Transit-oriented Development (ToD), but this too needs quality public transport.

The reason for needing light rail is that three public transport problems have combined over decades, and must now be solved together. Wellington needs a step-change:

* The central-city bus route is overloaded, making good timekeeping impractical.
* A second bus route cannot be a long-term solution, and there is no space for a third public transport route in the ‘pinch-point’ at Lambton Quay, Victoria Street and Jervois Quay.
* Light rail on a second route solves the capacity problem but needs good connections with buses, and good connections need far better timekeeping.

A realistic time to introduce light rail is 2028, when the new bus contracts end.

The target looks ambitious, but now is the time to start.

Some cities bettered it in pre-GPS days.

— 95% of all services, throughout each trip, no more than three minutes late.

— No services more than 30 seconds early at any stage.

It is time to bite the bullet.

Design and construction are the principal costs of light rail. Operating costs are generally lower than for buses, because high-capacity vehicles need fewer drivers. On routes busy enough for light rail, operating cost-savings often outweigh capital charges, making a ‘costly’ technology cheaper than the buses that were replaced.

FIT estimates, from overseas data, that Wellington will need around $900million for a nine kilometre line from the Railway Station to the Regional Hospital, the Zoo, Airport and Miramar. This corridor links the three busiest destinations in Wellington (CBD, hospital and airport), as well as shopping centres and densely-populated suburbs.

Managing costs by staging development can be high-risk for such a project:

Too much cost-cutting, as Wellington is seeing with new bus routes.
A too-short initial route. Overseas experience points to a first line at least five to eight kilometres long, or in Wellington from the Railway Station to at least Kilbirnie. This ensures time-savings on light rail that outweigh best-practice connection delays.

Deferring investment may cost more — in delays, lost revenue and congestion — than is gained by deferring investment.

If planning began at once, light rail could be introduced as the present bus contracts end, in 2028. Planning could focus on quality routes for buses and light rail, maximising ridership, quality connections and good preparation.

A rail-based option is itself an advantage, because construction costs are a long-term commitment to quality public transport. Light rail stops push up land values because householders can be confident that they will need fewer cars, or no car.

A dedicated light rail lane has three times the people-capacity of a reliable bus lane, and ten times the people-capacity of a motor traffic lane. Road space is scarce and light rail uses it very effectively. Present-day ridership on Lambton Quay is already enough to make light rail cost-competitive with buses, at least in the inner city.

Transit-oriented development (ToD) supports public transport ridership using medium-density and mixed-use zoning, concentrated around selected stops. It is a reorienting of urban planning to take advantage of a high-capacity, high-quality public transport route, fully integrated with much-improved buses. See www.tod.org [1].

ToD needs something more than the usual planning requirements. Guidance is available [2]from the Ministry for the Environment. Factors given by MfE include local character; connectivity; density; mixed use; a high-quality public realm; integrated decision-making; and user participation.

ToD benefits include:
Greater density (within reason) brings healthier living, with less need for cars and their associated problems: congestion, crashes, carbon-emissions, noise and pollution. Cars dominate streets when other uses would be safer, cheaper and more effective, bringing far better public health.
Walking, cycling and public transport bring better health because of frequent, routine exercise.
Local trips are shorter in denser areas, making travel easier and safer, promoting healthy activities such as walking to school. Streets are designed for safety from both traffic and crime.
Greater density pushes down land and infrastructure costs, with scope for affordable housing.

An good example of a large, varied ToD project is Vauban [3], population 5500. However, most of it is not affordable housing: it is too popular for that.

ToD sizes can be very variable, from a single apartment-block to many hectares. The most promising ToD site in Wellington might be the area studied in the 2008 Adelaide Road ‘framework’ area [4], extending from the Regional Hospital to the Basin Reserve, and from Government House to Wallace Street. A light rail stop near King Street and a good planning approach could be ideal project triggers.

The northern subdivision at Lincolnshire Farms [5] might be a large-scale ToD option, although the route would be costly. High-speed light rail (~80 km/hr) could run 15 kilometres to the Railway Station in say 20 minutes. 

Other likely sites at or close to light rail stops include:

Luke’s Lane, redeveloping existing buildings at the Te Aro Park hub.
Martin Square, just north of Puke Ahu.
South of Constable Street, between Riddiford and Daniel Streets.

Wellington City’s early modern development (1905–50) was broadly similar to modern ToD, around the the old tram routes (from 1904) and the Kelburn Cable Car.

With no cars, there was no scope for sprawl. Cost and walking distance encouraged density. People walked to tram stops, often using short-cut footpaths down hillsides. The same paths led to local shops and perhaps a church or pub. Many such suburbs are still largely intact.

The last Wellington tramway closed in the 1950s but vintage trams have left their mark. Surviving footpaths are still good shortcuts, often with a bus stop at the bottom. The main roads to Wadestown, Karori, Brooklyn and Kilbirnie were all built at a suitable grade for trams, as was the Mt Victoria ‘bus’ tunnel and approaches. These are tram suburbs. Old routes are still visible as bus-shelters, substations retained for trolleybuses, or blobs of denser housing on residential-density maps.

Trams were very costly in 1904 but there was no alternative: very few cars, no buses and ineffective horse-trams. Electric trams became commonplace, worldwide. Many systems were retained and progressively upgraded, and some became pioneering light rail systems. All-new light rail is now mainstream, world-wide, including the United States but notably in France (‘le tramway’). New Zealand is a late-comer, but Auckland Transport and Minister of Transport Phil Twyford are onto it.

Wellington now has an opportunity to reintroduce the modern form of a very successful old technology: light rail. In 1904 it was the only option, but today buses will suffice on most routes. A single light rail route will be sufficient, arranged to also take transferring passengers from lesser bus routes (however, most new light rail systems soon opt for at least a second route).

Reintroducing on-street rail, together with ToD, could revitalise a broad corridor through eastern and southern Wellington, from Miramar to the Railway Station, past ToD ‘stepping stones’ in multiple shapes, sizes and densities.

Modern trams can again reshape the city, this time changing the emphasis from cars to people:

Better public transport access to the city centre, Wellington Hospital and Wellington Airport, as well as lesser centres along the corridor.
More coherent public transport: integrated, fast and reliable, with much-improved ridership.
An end to the costly treadmill of motor-traffic growing in lock-step with road ‘improvements,’ while crashes, true costs and sustainability are all ignored.
Less congestion as growing public transport ridership frees up clogged streets, followed by easier and safer walking and cycling, on newly-available space.
Local reshaping of the city. Light industry in the Constable Street area might quickly disappear as light rail pushed up land values and TOD housing took over (although the light industry will need to go somewhere).
Much-improved public health: perhaps the biggest benefit of all.

A quality public transport system in the Wellington City Council area could be faster, cheaper and more reliable than at present, with major external benefits. Many factors would contribute, from lower fuel imports to meeting climate-change obligations; and from cheaper housing to better health.

Some 25 years ago, a published aerial photograph showed a large European housing area, under construction. Light rail had been extended a stop or two, and a tram was waiting at a new terminus in the complex. The caption explained that decision-makers were determined to have quality public transport running before the first show-homes were ready. Purchasers were to be in no doubt that quality public transport would be a fact, on the ground.

Those decision-makers understood ToD.

Kerry Wood is a retired Wellington engineer and a member of FIT Wellington.