Wellington Scoop

Light rail instead of a flyover: we need Plan B, because there’s no Planet B

Basin draft 3 small
Click here for large version

by Brent Efford
The board of inquiry rejection of the flyover on the north side of Wellington’s Basin Reserve – the sort of highway structure that more advanced cities overseas are tearing down, often in favour of light rail – has unleashed a Chicken Licken torrent of catastrophising and hand-wringing.

‘It’s a big blow for our whole transport network. It won’t be very rapid going round the Basin Reserve, let’s put it that way … I don’t know what the answer is.” – Fran Wilde Dominion Post, 23/7/14

The Regional Council chair’s statement is a remarkable admission of the arrogance and ‘highway hubris’ that has taken over Wellington’s infrastructure planning. Its ‘business as usual’ – continual highway expansion – has received a reality check and this is deemed a “crisis”.

Frustrating the highway lobby’s justification for more roads, road transport volumes appear to be plateauing and the Millenials are less inclined to take up driving and car ownership in the numbers that their parents and grandparents once did.

And those same grandparents, now a growing demographic baby boomer bulge, aren’t going to be daily car commuters – if indeed they keep on driving at all.

Now, if you want a real “crisis” consider the steady input of carbon into the atmosphere as a result of human activity and the probability that we are now locked into a global temperature rise of more than two degrees C, at which tipping point Planet A may not be able to support most species and, with no Planet B, mass die-off, including of humans, becomes inevitable. Sure, not in our lifetime – but still our responsibility. No one likes to think about this too much. Denialism is the comfortable option.

Of course, Wellington is only one of many thousands of cities doing virtually nothing to meet the challenge. But we do have more low-hanging fruit than most: huge local renewable electricity generation, an electric rail PT spine which is already about 90% of the length it ultimately needs to be, and an electric trolleybus system which could morph into a 100% electric PT system.

True, the Regional Council is developing a climate change strategy (http://www.gw.govt.nz/help-develop-gwrc-s-climate-change-strategy/). What hypocrisy, therefore, for the council to be promoting road traffic growth – the inevitable outcome of current highway expansion programmes – at the same time as it is in denial about the electric (light) rail expansion that it proposed as recently as the 1999 Regional Land Transport Strategy.

“Predict and provide” for roads (and the resulting emissions); “predict but don’t provide” for efficient and emission-free public transport.

Regarding the Basin Reserve, a few minutes doodling based on a knowledge of possible alternatives produces a Plan B – or it could be C, D or … But, it depends on switching from a ‘continuous growth’ model of road traffic to ‘stability’ and even ‘reduction.’

Unloading the state highways by attracting more travel to electric rail will (a) reduce road congestion, (b) be more cost-effective and (c) actually move us towards reducing carbon emissions: a real win-win-win.

To be competitive with the road spine (SH1 and 2) the PT spine must be continuous and have equivalent reach. All this means that the recent PT Spine Study, which appears to have been set up to “clear the way for motorway construction” (as Prof Peter Newman put it) needs to be scrapped (as he recommended) and the ‘completed rail spine’ aspiration of earlier regional council studies re-established.

A light rail spine through the Basin Reserve area, coupled with roading improvements which would still achieve a modest increase in capacity/speed, could be achieved as per the drawing at the top. Note the improvements for cyclists and pedestrians and the creation of a boulevard and linear park using Kent/Cambridge Terraces freed from SH1 traffic and extensively greened, and the improved ambience for the Basin Reserve.

But this cannot be achieved with ‘bus rapid transit’ because:

• the number of buses required will make traffic signal priority at the intersects with SH1 impossible,
• BRT is not compatible with the ‘completed rail spine’ model, and therefore is incompatible with the aim of unloading SH1 by providing an attractive choice, and
• busways are just specialised roads, still asphalt-covered, unlike tram tracks which can be laid in grass.

Oh, and the amount of work to be done should cost less than a flyover, too.

Brent Efford is the NZ Agent for the UK-based Light Rail Transit Assn. This article was first published in the KiwiTram newsletter. .