Wellington Scoop

Building roads – by stealth


by Glen Smith
The slick artist’s impressions in the ‘transformational’ transport plan put forward by LGWM present a vision of Wellington that reflects the type of transport solutions the public have long sought for our city. And the aims, including more cycling and walking options plus ‘moving more people with fewer vehicles’, appear laudable. However we know that artist’s impressions rarely reflect reality, and that LGWM consists largely of the NZTA, renowned for pursuing road-based solutions, and the Regional Council which has a poor recent record in transport planning.

Phil Twyford and central Government, while commendably committing substantial central funding, appear to be aware of this and have stopped short of endorsing many specific details of this group’s indicative plan. This caution is wise because critical examination suggests the likely outcome could be four-lanes-to-the-planes, bendy buses only as far as Newtown and, in the fullness of time, a Basin flyover.

In the artist’s impressions, cars have magically disappeared from city streets, presumably indicating motorists have moved to other transport modes. Walking is good for shorter distances and cycling in good weather, but public transport (PT) has to be the backbone for longer or bad-weather trips. Coaxing drivers from their beloved cars means PT has to be as attractive as driving.

Examination of the LGWM plans raise severe doubts that this will be achieved.

Brent Efford notes that 75% of our regional population live in areas north of the CBD serviced by rail transit spines, and these areas supply the majority of peak commuters to the CBD (page 7 section 2 of the LGWM proposal.) The efficiency of these rail corridors means that 46% of morning peak commuters from the north use PT.

However egress data from the Station shows that rail only really services the northern CBD, with almost all transport trips from the north to the southern CBD or suburbs south of the CBD (and vice versa) occurring by car. Traffic flow data shows that these ‘across town’ commuters are in fact the majority of cars approaching on the motorway from the north in the am peak and this supports Brent Efford’s claim that ‘the mass car commuting by the 75% … is the cause of most of the traffic congestion’.

Fixing this problem requires a regional approach to PT and a ‘mass transit’ PT corridor to service these across town transport trips. The LGWM team wisely recommends this but the question has to be asked if this planned corridor is optimal and therefore attractive enough to entice motorists from their cars.

The proposal appears to address several of the key barriers to mass transit. It notes that rail is close to capacity north of the station and it plans ‘increased rail capacity’, although no details are given and rather than a co-ordinated approach this will be ‘progressed outside the LGWM programme’. And it recognises (finally) that the Golden Mile has inadequate capacity for predicted PT growth, its multipurpose environment unsuitable for rapid ‘across town’ mass transit, and wisely recommends adding a Quays route (albeit with, in my view, some poor design).

However these improvements are overshadowed by major flaws in the mass transit proposals, both in overall network design and in specific route and mode options, that will, in my view, jeopardise its chance of being implemented in full and, if achieved, severely limit its effectiveness.

The major network design flaw (and, in my view, the fatal flaw) is failing to remove the potent mode transfer penalty at the station while at the same time adding transfer penalties at ‘hubs’ south of the CBD for a large percentage of PT users. This is due to the failure to adopt a logical regional transport design of continuous ‘lines’ (of either bus or rail) from one regional peripheral location, across the CBD and on to another regional peripheral location. Instead, the proposal adds a third separate mode (either light rail or trackless trams) as a middle section of our regional transport network which PT users have to transfer to/from, producing a disjointed network of ‘broken’ regional lines that will impose large numbers of potent transfer penalties on a high percentage of PT users, and likely severely limited PT uptake (see my article of 2 April).

There is no evidence that a logical regional transport network design has been probably investigated, modelled or costed. It certainly hasn’t been presented to the people who should be making the decisions, the public and our elected representatives.

There are also major problems with the proposed mass transit route.

From the Quays, there are two roads running south with adequate width to accommodate a dedicated mass transit spine- Taranaki Street and Kent/Cambridge Terraces. These are also the major routes for car users from the south and east to get to the CBD and for motorway traffic to reach the southern CBD.

The Taranaki Street route, which the proposal recommends, runs more centrally across Te Aro flats but is further from Mt Victoria and Oriental Parade, and misses the Te Papa/ Conference Centre/ Embassy Theatre area.

The major problem with Taranaki Street is finding a route east. Anticipating this before the Arras Tunnel was built, I wrote to the NZTA with some simple concept plan advocating a Taranaki Street rail route and recommending that the opportunity be taken to add a rail tunnel parallel to Arras tunnel under Memorial Park. This was ignored.

The LGWM proposal shows mass transit following this Arras Tunnel route and then across Sussex Street but with no indication of how this will be achieved. A surface rail route across Memorial Park would be difficult and disruptive and unacceptable. Retrospectively adding a rail tunnel parallel to the Arras Tunnel is possible but would require Memorial Park to be re excavated.

My suspicion is that the plan will be to run mass transit through the Arras Tunnel in the same transport corridors as the bidirectional SH1 traffic that is planned and shown on the Basin images. There are difficulties in running rail and cars on the same corridor space through tunnels and this, along with cost and difficulties in achieving a high quality corridor along other sections of the proposed route to the east, could be used as an excuse to choose trackless trams (read bendy buses) rather than light rail.

Buckle Street then becomes the point where the Mass Transit corridor crosses SH1 and the ideal is grade separation. It is difficult to see how this would be achieved, so this crossing is likely to be at grade, impairing the performance of both modes.

Dedicated mass transit along Sussex Street would occupy two of the street’s potential 4 lanes (potential 13m width) which, assuming we want two traffic lanes in each direction for future growth, would make the best design for obtaining grade separation of north-south from east-west traffic impossible. That design is an Option X layout which takes all north-south traffic around the west of the Basin and uses the natural land contour to achieve grade separation by means of a short trench at the eastern end of Buckle Street. In the Basin artist’s impressions, traffic flow from Sussex St to Cambridge Terrace has been removed completely. Where this traffic has been diverted to is unclear.

Mass transit is then planned to travel along northern Adelaide Road, a major car thoroughfare for most traffic from Newtown and the South. To achieve dedicated corridors 3-3.5m wide in a Street 16m wide (kerb to kerb) along with a minimal 3m wide cycleway requires removing all street parking for businesses, the central car turning lane (impeding free traffic flow) and having only one 3-3.5m wide traffic lane in each direction for cars and presumably buses. It is unclear how a dedicated mass transit corridor would negotiate the tight John Street intersection to reach the hospital.

At this point (after the 2024-2029 indicative timing schedule) mass transit will have reached the hospital and the second Mt Victoria tunnel/ Ruahine St/ Wellington Road changes will have been completed without a mass transit corridor and with no hope of ever retrofitting one. With no mass transit corridor to the east, almost all eastern commuters will be in their cars moaning about the even greater congestion at the Basin and across Karo Drive. Meanwhile, depending on what Government is in power, planners will be trying (and I say trying) to push through the route via Newtown.

The proposed route via Newtown faces huge logistical problems. To get dedicated lanes along Riddiford Street, FIT proposes that all street parking be ‘moved off-street …..[so that]… four lanes are available from Mein St to Rhodes St: two for light rail, one for motor traffic, one for cycling (both ways). The other motor traffic lane can go in Daniel St.’ It wasn’t felt that this plan, which removes all cars from Riddiford Street except one lane and forces cars in the other direction to go down a narrow residential street, would present ‘any particular problem’. It will be interesting to see how long the planning process for this takes, if it ever goes through at all.

But this is only the beginning of the problems. It then has to navigate Mansfield St (one car lane and parking on at least one side removed), Roy St (parking on at least one side removed in a residential street with limited off street parking), the Zoo (huge disruption during tunnel construction then loss of parking), across Queens Drive (huge disruption during tunnel construction), Coutts St (major intersections in busy commercial centre, loss of parking both sides of road including by Rita Angus and outside residential houses), crossing to Rongotai Road (loss of parking on at least one side of whichever residential cross road or roads are chosen), crossing Rongotai Road, crossing SHI (again), navigating both roundabouts on Cobham Drive, navigating Miramar Ave (busy multipurpose street with multiple side road, shop and garage entrances) with loss of all parking and likely the central median (impeding traffic flow), following Hobart St (probably loss of parking both sides of a residential street) before crossing Broadway and presumably ploughing through the shops at the end of Hobart Street and the golf course to reach the airport.

Due to these huge barriers, and the inevitable change in Government with likely different transport funding priorities, I believe this planned route will never be achieved.

We will be left with a separate disjointed trackless tram corridor just from the Station to Newtown that will present transfer barriers at either end and fail to attract PT patronage. Poor uptake will lead to questioning of the entire plan and in the meantime, with congestion mounting, car pundits will be crying out to complete the Terrace Tunnel/ Karo Drive section of the ‘four lanes to the planes.’ With an Option X layout being made impossible and tunnelling under the Basin problematic, the only option left at the Basin will be a flyover which they’ll again try to push through against all the opposition.

The net result will be exactly what was planned by NZTA originally – a flyover, four-lanes-to-the planes and buses (bendy ones) just to Newtown – only achieved in a different order and over a longer time period. Phil Twyford and our coalition Government need to be aware of this inadvertent (or perhaps deliberate) planning trap that has been set by LGWM and ensure they don’t fall into it.

There is an alternative which would be easier, shorter (about 2km shorter), faster (due to high quality segregated corridors), almost certainly cheaper (some costings would be nice), more easily consented (avoiding essentially all residential streets and busy multipurpose spaces) and, by achieving a high quality corridor consistent with ‘track sharing’, would support a more logical regional network plan of uninterrupted lines across our region. That route is a direct SH1 route from the Basin to Kilbirnie in conjunction with the planned road changes and via a multipurpose second Mt Victoria Tunnel.

One of the additional key advantages of this route is that it is intrinsically tied to the advancement of the Mt Victoria/ Ruahine St/ Wellington Road changes so that if these are pushed through (as they will be) a high quality PT corridor to the east is automatically achieved at the same time. The current government should rapidly progress the investigation, detailed planning, costing and public consultation on this route so that it can be consented, making it difficult for any future government to reverse.

However don’t hold your breath that this will happen. What we have learned from the flyover, the Arras Tunnel (pursued without a parallel rail tunnel), the removal of our trolley network and the recent bus debacle, is that investigating options in a thorough and objective manner, and then presenting them to the public, is not something our planners appear capable of undertaking.

I will watch as the scenario I outline in this article comes to fruition and then say I told you so.


  1. greenwelly, 23. May 2019, 16:35

    How many times has this thread (in one form or another) been beaten around…
    Light rail on the wrong track
    Getting it right, with minimal transfers
    But, hey, one more time to clock up 50 posts 🙂
    [You’re right – this continues to be one of our most popular topics.]

  2. Steve Doole, 24. May 2019, 3:11

    Good points Glen.
    Perhaps LGWM found achieving consensus was too hard.

  3. Alana, 24. May 2019, 13:15

    Excellent information. This will help preparing public submissions if they are permitted.

  4. D.W., 24. May 2019, 14:53

    According to the 2013 Census (the 2018 being unavailable) of the 29,000 car drivers who commute into Wellington from north (i.e. excluding South and SE suburbs), only 4,500 (16%) went to a job in the south or south east of Wellington. Lots more, 20,000 (71% of the total of 29,000) went to a central city job. Yes, rail had a bigger share of central city jobs, carrying 12,000 (60% of rail + car driver) passengers than to south/south east – destinations for which the rail share was just 4%. If rail carried 60% of these trips as a result of building a tram/train or a LRT, then rail JTW trips would divert 2,700 car drivers (say 1.5 million trips each way per year).
    If LRT or tram-train cost $1.5 billion in capital costs, the cost per diverted trip from car would amount to $666 (6% discount rate and 30 year life)! That’s one hell of a subsidy don’t you think?

  5. Glen Smith, 24. May 2019, 20:07

    D.W. Interesting figures. Can you give a link to your source. These figures likely give false economics for several reasons
    1. The figures quote ‘central city jobs’. The ‘CBD’ is commonly defined as a large area stretching from north of the Station to around the Basin while rail only services the northern section of this area. A large number of the 20,000 ‘central city’ trips are in fact outside the rail catchment and should be included in the ‘south and southeast of Wellington’ total.
    2. Your figures only look at trips to work while mass transit will service ALL trips for any purpose. It is better to use the more comprehensive and accurate figures which are broken down in the LGWM data report from 2017.
    If we take the sum of the combined 2 way volume of SH2 (Ngauranga to Petone) and SH1 (Ngauranga Gorge)- (table 4 page 14) as the total cars approaching/ leaving the city from the north (likely an over-estimate since some will be SH1 to SH2 traffic and vice versa) and take the cars travelling through the Terrace Tunnel as ‘across town traffic’ (likely an underestimate since it doesn’t include cars taking a Quays route or exiting earlier to the ‘midcity’) then around 50% are ‘across town’ cars who are potential mass transit customers (not the 16% you quote). Taking the absolute Terrace Tunnel figure in 2016 of 41,350 and applying your 60% (likely optimistic but then as I say Terrace Tunnel traffic is an underestimate of total across town commuters) gives around 25,000 transport trips diverted to mass transit.
    The transmission gully project (which you no doubt support) is spending $3billion for an estimated 18-22,000 daily trips in 2026 but you baulk at spending $1.5billion on likely 25,000 mass transit users (2016 figures). The word hypocrisy springs to mind.
    All this isn’t relevant to this article. The government have wisely decided to dedicate this money. The issue is how to spend it to get the best possible public transport network.

  6. Michael Barnett, 24. May 2019, 21:18

    Hi Glen. “You say I will watch as the scenario I outline in this article comes to fruition and then say I told you so.” I would be willing to bet you will be shown to be wrong. A direct route for rapid (mass) transit as you suggest in whatever form eventuates needs to go along a corridor of maximum population and activity density.

  7. D.W., 24. May 2019, 21:36

    @ Glen – the ultimate source is the 2013 NZ Census. You can access processed origin destination by travel mode from the GWRC website (technical reports about their transport model). I didn’t include car passengers but they don’t contribute car vehicle trips as such.

  8. Glen Smith, 25. May 2019, 9:41

    Michael. Areas of high population and activity obviously have to be serviced by a main line. But they don’t have to be (and can’t all be) on the same line. As an analogy let’s take the Lower Hutt/ Petone area. We could divert the Kapiti line back out to this area before heading into town to create a mystical ‘String of Pearls’ (trying to connect everything on one line) and force Upper Hutt commuters to transfer to it at that point but that would be stupid. Do you think Hutt commuters would be happy with the unnecessary transfer? Do you think Kapiti commuters would be happy with the detour? Do you think this network design would improve PT uptake? Lower Hutt/Petone sits naturally on the Hutt line.
    Yet this is exactly what is proposed. Newtown sits naturally on the southern line. The combined population of Island Bay/ Berhampore and Newtown is over 20,000 – enough to be designated a city (before the criteria was changed in 1989) and easily large enough to justify a separate frequent southern line. Yet you want to detour the eastern line via here (at extreme difficulty and expense) and force Island Bay commuters to transfer to it. Really?? Do you think eastern commuters are going to be happy with the detour? Do you think Island Bay commuters are going to be happy with the transfer? This design is stupid.
    When we talked previously, one of your main motivations was preventing the proposed Mt Victoria Tunnel/Ruahine st changes, meaning rail had to go somewhere else. I ask you to look at reality, accept these changes are going to happen, then reassess which route produces the best, and most easily achievable, network design.

  9. William C O'Donnell, 27. May 2019, 10:50

    You know what should have happened – they should move the railway station to where they are building the Convention Centre, or at least have a Dual Line or Crossing Loops running up to there so trains from the three Wellington branch lines can have the ability to penetrate further in the city. This is where the OLD Te Aro Railway Station was, nearby anyhow; & add further stations/stops @ Queens Wharf,@ The Town Hall, & the Te Aro or Courtenay Station as a final stop and then those commuters who now have to get a bus/taxi/ walk up to the southern part of the city would not have to leave the trains. Almost ALL office dwellers in the northern part of the City, Basin Reserve- Hankey St- Webb St- Aro St- & all points north of that line would be within a 10 min walk of Public Transport. As Courtenay Place is/will be a hub for buses/taxis etc they can fan out from there instead of from the bottom of the city at Thorndon.

  10. William C O'Donnell, 27. May 2019, 11:12

    Also a major gain for commuters would be a one-card transport payment system for ALL commuter transport from Palmerston North down, presuming we are going to get the Capital Connection included in the portfolio. So transfer from trains to buses, to ferries to Light rail to Airport Flyers (in whatever form), even taxis could be included in the mix very easily, as long as the swamp people in their Ivory towers can let go of the reins & allow others into their realm of influence. I know that is a utopian vision of complicity, but that’s only way it will work. Unless by compulsion & tolls at gateways such as Johnsonville/Petone/Onslow Rd/Ngaio Gorge Rd/ Churchill Drive just south of Bowen Hospital. This is my favoured option, as it then gets all the taxation required to pay for the PT required. Excess is taken up in the cost of the fares on PT. Regional petrol taxes are a punitive, blunt axe way of raising funds. This way, I, up in Feilding, will not be taxed for a product I will hardly ever use, and if I do, I will pay my share when I use PT, or my car, to access the city/airport.

  11. Keith Flinders, 28. May 2019, 12:51

    Interesting points Glen Smith raises, but surely the light rail route needs to be along the streets where most intending passengers are going to want it, and hence replace a massive number of buses. This is why the route through Newtown has been suggested. Ultimately a light rail bypass route through Haitaitai can be added, as can one to Karori to replace the 512 diesel bus movements each business day.

    Running light rail up Taranaki Street, and then east to a new multipurpose tunnel alongside the Mt. Victoria one, ignores what we already have, the existing tram, now bus, tunnel. Light rail could instead go Courtenay/Kent/Pirie/existing tunnel/Haitaitai. Or if Pirie is too steep then via Elizabeth/Brougham as the trams once did.

    Has the idea of using Tasman/Tory streets as a mass transit priority route been floated ? Grade separation for west bound State Highway 1 traffic already in place. Certainly there is an issue with light rail returning from Newtown trying to turn the tight corner into Courtenay Place. No reason why these returning services couldn’t be routed down Cambridge Terrace though.

    I’m certain that I will be dead and buried by the time light rail ever gets the first track placed. At least another 10 years of waffle ahead, whilst this city succumbs to gridlock every day, not just the weekends as now.

  12. steve doole, 30. May 2019, 5:56

    Hi Glen, Is there any merit at all in advancing road and rail together across Te Aro, ignoring the route for now?

  13. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 30. May 2019, 10:50

    “I will watch as the scenario I outline in this article comes to fruition and then say I told you so.” (Glen)
    “I’m certain that I will be dead and buried by the time light rail ever gets the first track placed. At least another 10 years of waffle ahead…” (Keith)

    Dear Glen and Keith. Thank you for your contributions. I will do my utmost to prove your above assertions wrong. Best wishes, CCF