Wellington Scoop

Complacency about too many buses; why the golden mile needs a strategy

by Kerry Wood & John Rankin
The Wellington Regional Council is proposing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) for the golden mile and to Kilbirnie, to be introduced in about 2022. It seems likely to overload quickly, and yet — two and a half years after publication — no alternatives or improvements have appeared. There is no strategic overview.

The council has dug itself a policy-trap and is still digging. Unrealistic modelling has encouraged complacency, and ill-considered compromises have squandered capacity. Light rail could avoid the trap, but a city’s first light rail route takes a decade from approval to opening. Buses are now the only option until about 2030.

Climate change imperatives and the sheer inefficiency of congested streets are forcing a worldwide rethink of urban transport assumptions. Quality, high-capacity public transport is one obvious choice.

The current PT plan will reach capacity in the mid-2020s

The regional council’s modelling predicted that BRT would almost halve travel times, and yet patronage-growth estimates were unusually low. Auckland’s Britomart has averaged 13% annual patronage growth for a decade, and now electrified rail services and the Northern Busway are seeing even faster growth.

In Wellington, planned peak capacity for BRT is 53 buses an hour, each carrying 100 passengers. A realistic route capacity is 80% of nominal, or 4200 passengers an hour. Projected demand is 3700 passengers an hour in 2021, allowing scope for 13% growth: about twelve months at Britomart.

In practice even this may be optimistic:

• Bendy-buses have been rejected and double-deckers cause stop delays. (Double-deck buses work on Auckland’s Northern Busway because stops are at interchanges. Other buses can overtake, making the delays unimportant)
• A further 29 local buses an hour were to run on the ‘secondary spine’. No second route has appeared and the golden mile will carry 82 buses an hour on opening day: too busy.

The capacity of light rail would be about 400 passengers on each tram (4 pass/sq m), at up to 40 trams an hour: some 13,000 passengers an hour at 80% loading. This seems generous, but at 13% annual growth, light rail would reach capacity in about 2050.

Light rail will take 10 years to plan, approve and deliver.

Light rail can solve the capacity problem but in a new city it cannot be introduced quickly. For example, no regulations exist. Two further difficulties are:

• On-street light rail needs relocation of underground services and street reconstruction, with extensive traffic diversions.
• Too much haste is a risk, because large public projects such as light rail are high-risk unless there is political consensus: that is why light rail in Edinburgh is such a mess.

Planning for adequate capacity over the next twenty years must start now

The next twenty years is the policy trap: what can be done if BRT in Wellington attracts more passengers than planned? The usual solution is more buses. But the underlying problem is too many buses. The policy trap has not been addressed.

A prudent approach

The prudent approach should be to have a strategic plan. It will almost certainly require a second route. In principle, four options seem possible:

1) Reinstate the secondary spine, with two 2-lane bus routes: one for BRT, the other for local buses. It is still a policy-trap because capacity is still limited. Longer-term capacity might have to be on a third route.
2) A single four-lane route for all buses, if such a route can be found. Capacity could be greater than light rail, but in that case major junctions would need flyovers: Whitmore Street for example.
3) Light rail on a two-lane route with local buses on a second two-lane route. This would solve the capacity problem but the difficulty is timing. Light rail cannot enter service earlier than about 2030.
4) A single high-capacity two-lane bus route, intended as a stop-gap until light rail, on a second route, can enter service. The bus route can then be retained for local buses.

If no second route can be found, tunneling or viaducts might be necessary.

Identifying and reserving a second public transport route

FIT Wellington has proposed that buses remain on the golden mile and light rail becomes the primary route, on a new alignment. Ignoring alternatives, light rail would run from the Railway Station on the Quays (few or or no stops) to Cuba Street (interchange at Manners Mall), then up Cuba Street (stops about every 600 metres) to the hospital, Kilbirnie and the airport. Other options exist and something better might be found.

The point here is that light rail in Wellington is practical and may well be necessary: the details are secondary at this stage. With minimal use of tunnels, costs are reasonable at around $500million to the airport, including design and contingency costs.

Short-term solutions can make the golden mile more effective in the mean time

If the choice is a stopgap bus route (option 4 above), options for maximising capacity include:

• Greater priority at traffic signals.
• Use transfers to minimise golden mile bus numbers, as recommended by consultants in 2009 and 2011.
• Maximize bus size, including increasing standing-passenger capacity by using inward-facing seats, or removing some seats. One seated passenger uses as much space as two standing passengers.
• Maximise stop capacity by optimizing dwell-times and ticketing.

Some of these can be introduced well before 2022.

A suggested option for investigation is bendy-buses with rear steering axles, for a better fit on narrow streets. This is illegal in New Zealand, but rear-steering axles are well-established in Europe and should be acceptable here: the steering principle is entirely different. Importing a second-hand double-articulated bus might be worthwhile, even if it never enters revenue service.

Bringing it all together

We suggest buses on the golden mile are an interim solution, followed by light rail on another route, with local buses remaining on the golden mile.

• To deliver adequate capacity by 2030, Wellington needs to make an investment decision by 2020 at the latest. This means putting light rail back on the planning agenda now.
• BRT is still possible but costs and disruption might be greater than for light rail.
• A second bus route is simply kicking the can down the road.

Light rail may not be the final choice, but further delaying the most plausible narrow-street, high-capacity option would be a major blunder.

The writers are members of Fit Wellington: Fair, Intelligent Transport, which is organising a panel discussion on the merits of bus rapid transit or light rail for Wellington. Speakers: Paul Swain, Andy Foster, John Rankin, Demetrius Christoforou. Moderator: Dave Armstrong. This Wednesday: 6-8pm in the Aro Community Hall. Koha $15 ($5 for students or unwaged).


  1. Maximus, 1. December 2015, 7:50

    Routes through the CBD were discussed on Eye of the Fish some time ago, with a series of maps produced that showed the issues. Might be useful to have a look at them:

  2. Curtis Nixon, 1. December 2015, 8:32

    Light rail would run – “from the Railway Station on the Quays … to Cuba Street (interchange at Manners Mall), then up Cuba Street (stops about every 600 metres) to the hospital, Kilbirnie and the airport.”
    Don’t they mean up Taranaki Street to the hospital?

  3. luke, 1. December 2015, 8:44

    go underground: expensive, but Brisbane’s buses are underneath the main pedestrian mall.

  4. Kerry Wood, 1. December 2015, 9:32

    Thanks Maximus; I had not seen this.
    Four lanes for public transport might put the lid on full pedestrianisation of Willis Street and Lambton Quay, but pedestrians and public transport mix reasonably well. The golden mile would be a lot more pedestrian friendly if peak hour bus numbers were cut by two thirds.
    The starting point has to be adequate space for public transport. If no creative solution is possible, light rail might have to go in a tunnel, beneath The Terrace. It could at least stay dry when Lambton Quay floods.

  5. KB, 1. December 2015, 11:01

    Seems like a well thought out post, but has one flaw which negates the bus vs light rail discussion: the evolution of ride-sharing services/autonomous vehicles. A lot of mentioning about having a light rail solution by 2030. By 2030 it’s likely that autonomous cars will be widespread, and the cost of door to door trips in a driverless on demand vehicle will be priced at a similar rate to public transport. Who in 2030 is going to want to take a short local trip by bus or light rail (with the hassle of having to get to and from a bus stop in whatever the weather, rely on the timetable being adhered to, sharing with all manner of other users), when they could pay the equivalent money and get a private trip that picks a user up from their door and takes them directly to their destination in a faster time (no stops). That same cost private door to door option will be able to transport up to 6-8 people for the same cost as one person on the bus. We should be planning for a massive reduction in public transport use by the 2030s, and a large increase in autonomous cars being used instead.

  6. Kerry Wood, 1. December 2015, 16:52

    Curtis: Light rail could run by Taranaki Street, but Cuba Street is equally practical, and a better environment for a bus interchange.
    KB: Not negates: might negate. Fully autonomous cars on real streets might well be part of the solution, but maybe not in an inner city where road space is so tight.

  7. Ian Shearer, 1. December 2015, 17:46

    At the Regional Council’s Sustainable Transport Committee meeting this morning, staff confirmed that weights for 3-axle double-decker buses exceed current limits for Wellington streets, but the Regional Council are now waiting for WCC comments on whether WCC will change the rules so that they can use these over-weight buses anyway. The staff acknowledged that road damage goes up by something like a factor of “cube” for the increased weight. Under the NZTA roading project rules, any road strengthening and all on-going repair costs on non-SH1 roads lie with WCC (i.e. WCC ratepayers) and do not attract NZTA subsidies.

    Bus tunnels in the city will need floor-lowering for double deckers to operate – or BRT buses will need to use the Mt Vic tunnel (with significant impacts on the “rapid” element). Also as mentioned in the story above – double deckers are not fast unloading, even if the ticketing system allows multi-door loading.

    Sounds to me that lots more costs than originally considered are not included in the BRT project budget. Trams are sounding like a much better deal every time we get new info about the project. I look forward to further info on these issues when GW and WCC councillors discuss the buses or trams proposals at the Aro Valley Hall on Wednesday (Dec 2) from 6 to 8pm.

  8. Ross Clark, 2. December 2015, 3:41

    Some stray thoughts:

    1. Wellington is growing, but at nowhere near the rate that Auckland is. The key factor to measure is CBD employment, which drives peak transport demand – how is this trending, over time?

    2. Who pays for this, and why? The city, the region, central government?

    3. How do we control car demand, apart from pricing? The presence of a light rail system does not guarantee that car drivers will shift across – but no-one, as far as I can tell, has looked at what could be done to reduce levels of commuter car parking.

    I know I’ve raised these questions before, especially [2] and [3], so apologies in advance … 😉