Wellington Scoop

The public transport myth

by Conor Hill
Many Wellingtonians have (or, prior to bustastrophe, had) a smug view of our public transport system. It was seen as pretty useful. In reality it always been poor if compared to a half decent European city.

Instead of comparing ourselves to good exemplars, we look at other New Zealand cities which have appalling public transport, and measure ourselves by that woeful standard. It’s a recipe for mediocrity.

From where I live, I can get a bus into town only every half hour at most times during the week, and travelling from my home to either of my nearest suburban centres by public transport is almost impossible. If I want to catch a bus and a train, I have to carry cash and a snapper card. This was all true both before and after bustastrophe. Doing anything other than peak hour commuting from a suburb to the city is pretty terrible.

The worst bit about this is that Auckland is fast catching us, and within ten years will have better public transport than Wellington.

Auckland’s bus network redesign has mostly worked, boosting patronage. Auckland has one massive project and three significant new public transport infrastructure investments. These are the city rail link, the eastern busway, the northern busway extension, and ongoing station upgrades (Puhinui being the most recent $60 million announcement).

This millennium Auckland has completed Britomart, the northern busway and integrated ticketing as well as rail electrification. Wellington’s only major investment has been electrification of the rail network, paid for by central government I think. Integrated ticketing seems to be an ongoing mess, and getting some kind of mass transit from the cbd through to our southern and eastern suburbs is a never ending battle.

All of this adds up. In the past 10 or 15 years, public transport patronage per capita in Auckland has almost doubled, while in Wellington any increase has been fairly marginal. While there’s no shortage or worthy potential investments in Wellington – increased bus frequency, light rail to the airport, electrification to Otaki, integrated ticketing – there appears to be limited desire or ability in Wellington to do these.

Auckland is totally destroying Wellington in the public transport sphere. Our public transport is stagnating, while Auckland’s is transforming. While Auckland is by no means a finished product, Wellington acts like one, and it is to our detriment. The first step to fixing this stagnation and mediocrity is accepting that it exists, and did so prior to bustastrophe.


  1. David Mackenzie, 14. November 2019, 10:01

    The prior to bustastrophe system was not good. It was what we were accustomed to and knew how to make work well enough for our purposes. Now the system is simply bad in terms of frequency of buses and choice of destinations.

  2. Shandy, 14. November 2019, 10:43

    Can’t believe we still don’t have integrated ticketing, that’s been talked about for at least a decade, how long can it possibly take?

  3. Dave B, 14. November 2019, 14:27

    Good work Conor. Telling it like it is, not like certain spin-doctors would have us believe. Good article with a much-needed message.
    Now it just needs the decision-makers and funders to listen. [Read today’s announcement by the LGWM decision-makers/]

  4. PCGM, 14. November 2019, 15:36

    I’d suggest that the overall transport story is even worse than that. As far as Wellington City is concerned, the last significant investment in anything new was the cut-and-cover of Buckle Street prior to the WWI commemorations … and that was approved by Helen Clarke’s government! Since then, nada.

    Of course, the Matangi trains and the electrification upgrades on the Kapiti and Hutt Valley lines have cost real money, but replacing old-and-worn-out with new-and-shiny hardly counts as the pinnacle of innovative transport strategy.

  5. luke, 14. November 2019, 16:20

    The last government made it clear Wellington could have more roads or nothing. Wellington chose nothing, the best decision of two very poor options.

  6. Northland, 14. November 2019, 17:13

    True – there should be more frequent buses and better inter-suburb routes. Can we get some of the LGWM funds to support this ?

    Also I thought the pre bustastrophe routes supported the goal of travelling from one suburb to another better, as they did at least connect two suburbs rather than terminate in the city.

  7. Henry Filth, 14. November 2019, 23:02

    “Wellington’s only major investment has been electrification of the rail network. . . “ At the risk of sounding a bit of an idiot, which bits of the Wellington rail network weren’t electrified?

  8. Ross Clark, 14. November 2019, 23:11

    Two comments:

    1. The problem with a lot of the proposed road investments is that they are there to support road traffic which could never use public transport – e.g. light and heavy commercial flows. What do we do about that?

    2. The more useful statistic, in talking about Auckland, is to reduce it to demand per capita. For the Wellington urban area excl Tawa, the level of demand is about 110 trips/person/year, if the Johnsonville Line traffic is included. For the old Auckland City as-was, the equivalent value is about 70 (?) or so trips/person/year (journeys both starting and ending in the isthmus). For the Wellington region as a whole excl the Wairapara, demand is sitting at around 90 trips/person/year; for the new Auckland City, the rate of use is about 60 trips/person/year.

    If anyone can provide better data than these, please do.

  9. Peter, 15. November 2019, 0:58

    “Wellington’s only major investment has been electrification of the rail network…” Conor, this is wrong. Wellington’s suburban lines have been completely electrified since at least the 50s. The only major investment in rail recently has been to extend the Kapiti line one stop north to Waikanae, and the new Maitangi trains of course.
    I agree with everything you’re saying though. For too long we have accepted mediocrity.

  10. Conor, 15. November 2019, 9:02

    Apologies Henry and Peter, Peter is correct regarding electrification.

  11. Cr Daran Ponter, 17. November 2019, 16:37

    @ Conor. Auckland has made some really great strides in public transport in the last ten years – investment in bus ways and rail have seen a big uplift in patronage, but off a relatively low base. There are some things we can learn from.

    Wellington patronage growth on bus (Wellington City) is now growing at approx 4% per annum. Rail patronage in the peak is growing at approx 8% per annum.

    We need a renewed emphasis on mode shift and holding or lowering fares in order to get even greater mode shift.

    @ Shandy. More like three decades. However, the full integrated ticketing programme – called NEXT – is half way through the tendering process. All going to plan the new full integrated ticketing system will start rolling out in 2022 on rail, followed later on buses and ferries.

    The full integrated ticketing system will be account based. This means that you will be able to use your own bank cards, cell phones etc in preference to stored value cards (though stored value cards will also be available).

  12. Roy Kutel, 18. November 2019, 6:51

    @DP let’s not forget the great strides in public transport in Wellington. The only difference was that in Wellington the strides were backwards! Shows the advantage of a dedicated Transport Authority rather than a GWRC led by the transport uneducated and inexperienced (and to add insult to injury paid ridiculous remuneration). Abolish GWRC now to stop Wellington going further backwards in bus and train provision and stop my rates bill being unaffordable.

  13. Potamous, 18. November 2019, 6:59

    Show me how the bus scheduling and routes will be fixed, not how people will pay for it (“again” as they already paid once).
    We had a fully integrated ticketing system – it was called cash. The banksters and middlemen didn’t profit every time you used your own money.

  14. Dave B, 18. November 2019, 14:48

    @ Potamous. A fully integrated ticketing system would mean you only need to buy one ticket to get from A to C, even if you have to change from train to bus at B. Wellington does not have anything as user-friendly as this, and even paying cash you have always needed to pay 2 separate fares.
    Where fares are distinctly unfair, are when you want to travel from say Porirua to Lower Hutt by train. You get charged 2 separate fares to go into Wellington and out again, even though the as-the-crow-flies distance is way less than the trip you have to make. Ha ha, bring on the Grenada-to-Petone Rail Link! (Or else make the daytripper ticket much cheaper and available in the a.m.peak)

  15. Manny, 18. November 2019, 16:04

    The fares are unfair.
    In a fair world people wouldn’t pay so many times for public transport.

  16. Potamous, 18. November 2019, 16:09

    Dave B – integration of ticketing was never the reason why the bus didn’t show up, didn’t show up on time, or why ghost buses started showing up.

  17. Kelly M, 18. November 2019, 17:06

    Yip Manny the public pay so many times. They pay for their loss of trolley buses, pay to take down the infrastructure , then pay for the new buses, management, roads, bus stops, consultations, administration, junkets round the world for politicians etc. Fares are unfair.

  18. Conor, 19. November 2019, 8:39

    One of the points is that even if the routes and scheduling are “fixed” to resemble the former state, the former state was still pretty abysmal by world standards. As evidenced by half hour frequency and inability to travel to nearby suburban centres both before and after bustastrophe.

  19. Lezie McGrind, 19. November 2019, 9:07

    Conor it’s still bustastrophe in the talkfest phase so we haven’t seen the after/end of it yet.
    Agree with you Manny as the fares are unfair.

  20. steve doole, 24. November 2019, 1:43

    Potamous has spotted the biggest weakness of ticketing systems. Cash is easier to understand and keep track of.
    Dave B indicates fare regimes are constructed for either bus or rail, not both on the one journey, and in Wellington, the fares charged are for the services used, rather than distance between start point and end point, ie your real journey.
    Simplifying fare calculations is one approach. Dropping prices of go-everywhere day tickets would be easier.

  21. steve doole, 24. November 2019, 7:24

    London buses have one fare no matter how far you travel on that bus, which seems fair as the further you travel, the more of your time is used.
    Could Wellington move away from the user-pays model for fares, largely based on distance (zones), to a fares model that values every passenger journey the same, or perhaps a fares model that reflects benefits to other road users, mainly car drivers, by bus users. Does NZTA allow other fare models?