Wellington Scoop

Smart transport – Melbourne shows us how it should be done

by Ian Apperley
I’ve been watching the hundreds of thousands of words and scores of articles chronicling the disaster that is Wellington transport. I’m an analyst by trade, so it’s fascinating to watch. It’s also incredibly frustrating to see the same issues play out again and again.

I recently spent a few days in Melbourne; it’s been a little while since I travelled back there, and I know the city well. The difference in transport in Melbourne vs Wellington is stark, and it got me to thinking and writing. I haven’t written for a while. I think I got to the point after nearly a million words over three years that I felt as if I were beating my head on a brick wall. There is a writer’s block; then there is the writer’s despair.

Melbourne has largely got transport right. They haven’t managed to make it perfect. However, compared to where we are it’s very advanced. These were some of the takeaway points for me.

Landing in Melbourne in peak rush hour was a worrying prospect because Melbourne has few public transport options from an airport that is 23 kilometres away from the CBD. Despite that, the travel time was about thirty minutes.

If we compare that with Wellington, using some poetic license and a bit of imagination, you would likely triple that time over the same distance. Currently, as the bus issues continue to bite, the travel time from airport to CBD, around seven kilometres, is up to forty-five minutes at peak (according to Google.)

In fact, for the analysts amongst you, I suggest downloading “Google Traffic”, adding your work address and home address, and setting notifications to on. It’s very interesting to watch Wellington transport in real-time. What is fascinating is that Google is learning about Wellington. It is now normal during peak times to see Google redirecting Eastern Suburbs traffic through Newtown or over Mt Victoria. A problem we see overseas is that as arterial roads become increasingly congested, Google routes traffic through suburban streets, leading to obvious unintended consequences.

Melbourne CBD is a criss-cross hatch of streets and was quite devoid of cars. That’s because they have been smart about a few things. Delivery is generally done off the main roads, they created hubs for couriers on the edge of the city where packages are dropped then moved by bicycle or moped, and aside from trams, the very heart of the city is car-free. There is very little street parking for cars, but it does exist.

Compare that to Wellington’s always-congested CBD that is filled with cars and smoky buses and the contrast is startling.

Melbourne cycle-ways largely seem to work and appear to be safe. They are between the curb and parked cars. However, a 500mm curb is between the car parks and the cycle lane. That means that cars parking have a guide and passengers can open their doors without taking out passing cyclists. The cycle-lanes we have here are amateur in comparison. Island Bay is a classic example of how not to do a cycle-way, and we are in danger of getting more of the same low-quality, high-risk, poorly laid out shambles.

We used Uber to get around most places in Melbourne for one reason only. It was cheap, and this is something that I have been saying for years, there is a point where ride-sharing kills public transport. Melbourne Uber comes in different flavours. One of which is a shared service, much like the airport shuttle. You put in your destination, and the driver may pick up and drop off people along the route. It’s kind of fun from a meeting people perspective.
The cost is far cheaper than public transport. It cost us $2.50 (each) to travel around seven kilometres across Melbourne and took about fifteen minutes.

As a comparison, I looked at travelling from near Wellington airport into the CBD by bus, around the same distance, and the cash price was $6.50 per person. Worse, that took me through a hub, and off-peak had a travel time of nearly fifty minutes as opposed to around fifteen minutes in a car.

Melbourne has many ride-sharing services, and by gaming the system, you could lower that cost even more with many startups offering several free rides when you sign up or heavily discounted services.

It is only a matter of time before the same sharing service arrives in Wellington putting further pressure on roads and taking people off public transport due to the cost differential.

Finally, Melbourne has been brave and followed a trend set by larger European cities. Within the greater CBD, public transport is free. Trams within the core-city boundary are free twenty-four seven. This has driven up patronage and reduced congestion.

It is something that larger New Zealand cities should consider because the cost of congested streets is horrific not only from an economic perspective but also a health and pollution perspective.

Melbourne’s CBD is geographically like Wellington and we could learn a lot from their transport infrastructure and approach. It begs the question “How are we getting transport so wrong?” That’s a simple question to answer. When you study complex systems, it becomes apparent.

In any system, you have inputs, levers, processes, and outputs. When a system is sick you get wildly fluctuating outputs, they almost appear random, or death dives where the output is choked.

Congestion in Wellington is wildly random with a long-term trend to increased pollution, lower economic health, and eventual collapse. The system means that no single person or entity can be held accountable. The WCC pulls levers; the GWRC pulls levers, the NZTA pulls levers, central government pulls levers, along with a myriad of other parties that do the same. It produces a system that is unhealthy, uncontrollable, expensive, and choked.

While the current disaster revolves around the bus network, a complete shambles, the city is also not getting ready for the future of transport. Public transport and roading is stuck in the 1950s and shows no signs of moving on from that ethos.

I commented to my partner that it would be good if we could send all the city councillors, regional councillors, transport officials, and every other person in the transport design area to Melbourne to live for six months.

Then repatriate them back to Wellington to fix this mess.

Footnote: The number of near-autonomous cars in Melbourne is on the rise. The car we got to and from the airport self-drove on the freeway. It was interesting to watch. It stayed in its lane, monitored all the traffic around it and adjusted its speed and position accordingly, aside from the beginning and end of the journey the driver was surplus to requirements.


  1. Jonny Utzone, 25. October 2018, 12:40

    Melbourne is flat and has 4.8 million people. Wellington is hilly and has less than 500 thousand.

  2. Graham Atkinson, 25. October 2018, 12:51

    What isn’t mentioned here is the level of subsidy which Central, State and Local Government in Australia pour into public transport hence the low fares and high frequency networks.

  3. Hmm, 25. October 2018, 15:57

    Our current system is far too complicated and slow. I’d suggest two Hubs – a Hub at Courtenay place and a Hub at the Railway station (pretty well as previously). Paying buses go from the suburbs to one of these Hubs where everyone gets off. Then the inner city would gave a free and very frequent (5mins?) untimetabled bus loop which allows people to move easily and quickly between these Hubs and around the city. People travelling through from one suburb to another suburb on the other side, could use the free loop bus and then get on a paying bus on the other side of the city to go out again. Cars could be actively discouraged in the inner city if the free bus was very frequent.

  4. Dennis Boolieris, 25. October 2018, 17:05

    Buses are dinosaurs – the ubers will replace them. There is already an increase of them in Wellington as more people are switching.

  5. Citizen Joe, 25. October 2018, 21:03

    Wasn’t walking and cycling a joy today in Wellington city with the bus strike? We should have more bus strikes! A shop keeper and a cafe owner commented on the lack of noisy diesel buses brrrming past their doors.

  6. Gillybee, 25. October 2018, 22:42

    The key point in this article is Wellington’s lack of an overarching body with the authority to plan effectively. We won’t get change until we make a political, industrial and public commitment to integrating the whole transport network: including roads, rail, public transport, bikes & pedestrians.

    It’s not the 1950s we’re stuck in (when we future-planned and invested in public utilities) but a 1980s mindset that imposes a market-driven solution on every aspect of public life.

    With the urgent need to cut our CO2 emissions within a decade, decent transport planning would be a positive step in the right direction.

  7. Ross Clark, 25. October 2018, 22:44

    It was cheap, and … there is a point where ride-sharing kills public transport. Melbourne Uber comes in different flavours. One of which is a shared service, much like the airport shuttle. You put in your destination, and the driver may pick up and drop off people along the route. It’s kind of fun from a meeting people perspective. The cost is far cheaper than public transport. It cost us $2.50 (each) to travel around seven kilometres across Melbourne and took about fifteen minutes.

    Fascinating … because this sort of ride-sharing could work well for point-to-point journeys which do not have to go through the central city (Karori-Northland, e.g.) and where direct bus frequencies wouldn’t be nearly strong enough to make the market work.

    The success of the shuttle ‘mode’ over the years, has come because there is a market niche between buses and taxis which someone identified and was able to fill. And – key in the current discussion – they eliminate transfers.

  8. Mel G., 26. October 2018, 6:32

    I wouldn’t credit Victoria with supreme transport planning! Look at the debacle over their East West Link! Makes Wellington’s Basin Reserve Flyover look like a BYO tea party. It cost Victorians $1 billion due to one political party scrapping the contract the previous political party had just agreed! And what did the public get? Nothing for a billion dollars! But that hasn’t stopped the miffed bunch resurrecting the $22 billion road project (just over a billion per km which makes LRT in Wellington look a ‘bargain’ at $100 million a km). A resurrected Flyover for the Basin anyone or perhaps a $2 billion tunnel?


  9. Elaine Hampton, 26. October 2018, 13:37

    I think – having seen Women in Black, and 1959 Sydney with trolley buses – that having dumped our trolleys we have moved backwards, pre 1959, with a 1980’s market driven mindset over layered on top. An overarching transport plan is needed with regard to the recent IPCC report, and no whinging about the cost of petrol. Bike, walk or get a scooter, push the WCC and GWRC to man up and sort out this mess we have in Wellington.

  10. michael, 27. October 2018, 9:31

    Wellington “has missed the bus” big time.
    In the short time the new system has been in, many of my workmates have given up public transport and gone back to cars, as they cannot afford to be constantly late for work. Unless the Government takes over and sorts this mess out, it is going to get worse. Wellington’s transport system needs to be controlled by one entity, run by transport experts not incompetent politicians who have proved they have no idea of what they are doing. Everywhere I have been that has successful public transport systems they are cheap (or free), very efficient and meet the needs of the public.

  11. Jonny Utzone, 27. October 2018, 17:43

    One thing Melbourne has is a ridiculously simple 2 zone fare system with free travel on trams in the city centre. Their myki system cost a squillion. Wellington has snapper developed by NZBus but now GWRC is getting involved so start getting worried!

  12. Michael Gibson, 28. October 2018, 7:38

    I plan to speak to Tuesday’s GW Transport Committee on “The unsuitability of having a hub-based transport system when the height of the Council’s aspiration is the improvement of timely departures from 91% to 95% (refer Press Release dated 22 October 2018)”
    If anyone has a note of the standards or guidelines from cities where hubs are working properly I should be pleased to hear from them.

  13. Lim Leong, 28. October 2018, 9:34

    @Michael Gibson. The key messages to take to the committee meeting are:
    1) “On Time departure” is a meaningless KPI from a customer’s outcome perspective. The correct KPI is “on time arrival” time at each stop vis a vis the time schedule.

    2) I believe @John Rankin’s definition of “on time” is a good starting point – “between 1 minute early and 2 minutes late” at the stop that you are waiting. Please bear in mind that this sort of network wide consistent on time performance will need a lot of the underlying support infrastructure and it will take years to achieve this level of performance. Now is a good time to start to lay the foundation for the underlying infrastructure.

    3) If the designers are hell bent on a hub and spoke network design then please apply some common sense. 3 – 4 hubs at strategically placed locations are more than enough for the size of Wellington city itself. It is stupid to force transfers for short journeys.

  14. Lindsay, 28. October 2018, 10:30

    Has anyone seen the Brooklyn Hub? Our little suburb now has three bus stops where previously it had one. Absurd.

  15. Neil Douglas, 28. October 2018, 12:02

    Lim/Michael – you may wish to refer GWRC to international best practice which is a lot tighter than their current bus reliability measures. Compare and contrast with London, Sydney, Melbourne in this paper.

  16. Andrew, 28. October 2018, 13:33

    Lindsay, there are three where there were two. The one uphill from Jo’s is now downhill from Jo’s, with a protruding platform that narrows the road significantly. In fact I wonder if the resulting lanes and parking outside the Wing on Chang were measured prior to starting as it is now extremely narrow with buses passing. Brooklyn is now a bus park at certain times of the day…

  17. Lim Leong, 28. October 2018, 16:25

    @Neil Douglas. A superb piece of work on KPI. Thank you very much! It really goes to show that there is no lack of local talent, knowledge and skills on transport planning and design. GWRC would have benefited a lot by using local talents (local consultants who have extensive international experience) instead of relying so much on overseas consultants.

    @Michael Gibson. It is definitely worth mentioning that there are scientific frameworks for measuring PT network performance and GWRC does not need to look far.

  18. James S, 31. October 2018, 11:45

    The other fantastic thing about Melbourne transport is a mobile phone app that actually works. You can put in an address, it knows where you are and it will give you a choice of routes with accurate times for the next bus, tram or train.

  19. luke, 31. October 2018, 12:53

    plus one card works on eveything, even the trains. And public transport is cheaper than driving or getting an uber unlike here when there are 2 or 3 people.