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 ( 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. .



  1. KB, 5. August 2014, 17:18

    While I agree wholeheartedly about the absurdness of the flyover and increased highway building in most circumstances, I would caution that investing in light rail for a city of Wellington’s relatively small size might be foolish at this stage.

    Technology is moving incredibly rapidly at present, and one of the main benefits of rail (being greener) will most definitely disappear within the next decade as electric cars become an obvious replacement for the internal combustion engine.

    And indeed, along with electric cars the prospect of driverless cars is heading for us fast, with the prospect of very cheap door to door personal transport likely to soften demand for public transport significantly. Also, the effect of ride services like uber internationally are proving to be very popular.

    In a roundabout way I am really saying that light rail is likely to be a foolish choice in the long term for Wellington, and we may have to plan for cheap, abundant, intelligent car-based transport systems. This doesn’t necessarily mean more roads, but instead smarter roads, with computer controlled cars likely enabling an extra lane on existing motorways.

  2. Elaine Hampton. President, Mt Victoria Residents Assn, 5. August 2014, 17:33

    BRREO – Basin Reserve Roundabout Enhanced Option.
    This is a 21st century solution which accommodates traffic, buses, light rail, cyclists and pedestrians at grade. Also it will work with one tunnel or two, which ever the case may be.
    It will preserve the ceremonial route along Kent / Cambridge Tce. and enhance the tree lined streets.
    This has been validated by professional N Z T A traffic engineers. And it is very economical, under $10 million.
    It is a plan that befits a capital city that is connected, not disconnected by motorways.

  3. Guy, 6. August 2014, 7:14

    KB – there is a really good post written about driverless cars and the economics of the car-based transportation systems over at the Old Urbanist website – – I would really recommend people to have a read of that. For my part, I would just point out that there can not, at present, be a full replacement of petrol-driven cars with electric-powered cars, due to issues with the batteries – there is simply not enough lithium on the planet to be able to satisfy that demand, so we need to also come up with a better battery to make electric cars more widespread.

    Regardless of the above comment, the continued survival of the human race on this planet needs a wake-up call whereby we do not all have cars, but instead utilize public transport more. We will only do that when PT has reached a stage where it is faster, more convenient, and less costly than using a car – if it does not meet those goals, it is bound to fail. To that end therefore, solutions like Brent Efford’s proposal need to be found – not just here at the Basin, but everywhere. Factors like the use of Hania St are the way we need NZTA to be looking at the problem, thinking outside the square, orthodox mentality of a flyover, and towards a more imaginative future.

  4. Trevor Albert, 6. August 2014, 10:09

    Elaine, I’m no fan of the flyover, but BBREO is a horrible idea too. The roundabout situation on the Basin is already a clusterfail. More lanes and narrower lanes make it horrible for cycling and public transport. And the idea of more cars on asphalt around the route is pretty appalling for the amenity value of the area. I’m not sure NZTA would accept your perspective on their assessment of BBREO either.
    I’m really hoping that the Council and the Agency can come up with something smarter than just piping more cars around that choke point. At grade or on a flyover, pushing more traffic at the Basin is bad news. Making it a key public transport route with dedicated lanes, supported by a network of secondary semi-arterials for cars could be an option. But let’s not jump into a plan that was built specifically to challenge the flyover, rather than fix the myriad problems of Wellington’s broader transport network. BBREO sucks.

  5. nato, 6. August 2014, 16:51

    Great idea Brent Efford!

  6. Mike Mellor, 6. August 2014, 18:02

    Part of NZTA’s problem is that their flyover proposal largely ignored the GWRC/NZTA/WCC Ngauranga to Airport Corridor Plan’s only transport requirement for the Basin: to improve facilities for public transport, walkers and cyclists. Brent’s proposal fixes the main public transport issue (though the school bus stops can’t be dismissed that easily – get that wrong and people will drive their kids instead – but there are issues with walker and cyclist provision.

    Subways/bridges have to be very well designed indeed to provide a safe and convenient foot/cycle link; and the plan doesn’t show how to walk/cycle to/from the Mt Vic tunnel; or how to access the Basin’s southern entrance; or get between the schools and Mt Vic (i.e. across eastbound SH1). All of these are very important flows. Fix those, and we’re looking good!

  7. Brent Efford, 13. August 2014, 22:49

    Mike – pedestrian subways don’t have to be narrow, dark holes, like many at railway stations on the Kapiti and Hutt railway lines. The pedestrian access at Wellington Railway Station is a better example. The one shown on my drawing would only need to be long enough to pass under two traffic lanes and not very deep – footpaths could easily be ramped down to it. The pedestrian links should follow the shortest route as far as possible.
    The entrance at the south side of the Basin Reserve would be as now (the current footpath around the perimeter of the BR would remain).
    I agree that crossing the Mt Vic tunnel road is an issue, and the pedestrian severance between Mt Vic and the schools/Adelaide Rd needs to be eliminated. Short, light underpasses similar to the existing pedestrian crossings, with lowered footpaths, would seem to be the answer.
    This would enable school bus parking to be provided in Ellice St, giving easy bus access onto SH1 north and south, and Adelaide Rd. When this is fully developed, many kids would use the tram stop immediately north of the Basin Reserve, anyway (and I would point out that most schools seem to manage OK without any special bus provision!).
    I have updated the drawing to show this more explicitly.

  8. Mike Mellor, 15. August 2014, 15:42

    Brent: agreed that subways don’t have to be dark holes, but light, wide, airy ones are the exception – and cost more! It’s also hard for the total length to be short – a subway with a floor that’s say 3 metres below ground level (perhaps not enough for a light, airy one) needs ramps about 30m long at each end, unless you also raise the road, as at Wellington Station, which can have its own negative effects. So the total minimum length of a decent subway and approaches under a two- or three-lane road is getting on for 100m (the Dufferin St side of the Basin, opposite the schools, is about 160m long), and the route to Ellice St would go under two such roads. That’s a long way, and I’m not sure how easy bus access would be, particularly through residential streets.

    I can’t make your new plan large enough to read the detail, so I still can’t see how pedestrians reach the southern entrance to the Basin from Adelaide Rd (no suitable crossings were shown in your earlier version), – and I think we should look at improving poor school bus facilities where necessary, rather than reducing one of the better ones!

    I still think the basics of your design are good, but (subject to being able to read the detail) I’m not sure that it’s good enough yet for pedestrians. Just as with vehicle flyovers, good practice internationally is to remove pedestrian subways from the urban environment wherever possible rather than build them, and light rail can be an excellent way of facilitating that.

  9. Sridhar Ekambaram, 15. August 2014, 21:26

    There is only one problem with pedestrian subways. A lot of people can’t be bothered to walk down stairs at one end and then up the stairs on the other end, especially if they have to first walk for sometime to get there in the first place. They would rather just walk across the road when they presume it is safer.

    Making subways more easily accessible to most pedestrians and barriers to crossing the roads will make it more viable.

  10. Brent Efford, 15. August 2014, 22:56

    Sridhar: agreed stairs are verboten. Only gently sloping footpaths (and perhaps raising of the road above, if practicable) is what is required, and would be quite feasible at the eastern side of the Basin Reserve. The east end of the Railway Station subway is a good example.
    Mike: If not that, then what? There is no likelihood that SH1 will cease to run through the area and pedestrian crossings are hardly a satisfactory long-term solution where both pedestrian and traffic flows are heavy. The Railway Station subway was built for a good reason!

  11. Mike Mellor, 16. August 2014, 18:51

    Brent: for pedestrians, crossings properly designed with pedestrians in mind are often a more satisfactory solution than subways, which seldom follow desire lines; take up an awful lot of space; present access and security issues; and cost an awful lot of money (and will probably be filled in again in more enlightened times, as happened, for instance, when the modern Croydon tram system was built).

    In my experience the current crossings actually work reasonably well, so, without the traffic induced by the flyover and with the positive benefits of better public transport (something on which, astonishingly, NZTA chose not to present any evidence to the Board of Inquiry), I can’t see any real reason why they can’t continue to function as they currently do.

    So why not add them to your plan, instead of the subways? (But that still doesn’t solve the bus issue.)


Write a comment: