Wellington Scoop

Looking for solutions: Wellington’s six top transport challenges

Transport is the perennial contentious issue in the capital. From court cases about the Basin Reserve to arguments over the Island Bay cycleway, barely a mayoral term goes by without some part of the community up in arms about transport issues. This time around, new councillor Chris Calvi-Freeman has the transport portfolio, and has inherited a whole collection of long-running challenges.

He has a pretty impressive CV in the transport area, so we broke out the patented Wellington.Scoop Magic 8-Ball to assess the odds of him solving some of them.

Basin Reserve
The Save The Basin campaign notably won their argument with the Transport Agency, so now there’s a negligible-to-zero chance of a flyover being built at the Basin. There’s also an involved consultation process called Get Welly Moving that’s talking to anyone and everyone about what the correct solution is, which Calvi-Freeman appears to support. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Basin suffers from congestion at peak times, and that whatever solution is eventually proposed isn’t going to please everyone.

There’s plenty of dogma from the pro-car lobby, and some pretty entrenched positions from the anti-car lobby, so there’s practically a guarantee that whatever compromise is achieved will be attacked from at least one of these quarters.

Magic 8-Ball says: Calvi-Freeman has a good-to-excellent chance of helping to solve the Basin’s woes, with a heavy caveat of “may not be friends with everyone afterwards”.

With the widespread support that cycleways are now receiving around the council table, progressing the campaign to make the city more cycle-friendly looks assured. However, Island Bay is a salutary lesson in picking the right projects and building community support for what can be fairly far-reaching changes – there are plenty of councillors who will be gun-shy when the next project comes along, given they either took a beating or witnessed a beating over Island Bay.

And no matter how firm the political support, cycleways will always be challenged by Wellington’s geography – it’s hard to physically fit dedicated cycle lanes, space for cars, adequate parking and enough room for the odd pedestrian into our narrow corridors. So the choice of project and getting some early wins on the board will be critical.

Magic 8-Ball says: More cycleways are a certainty, but Calvi-Freeman should probably avoid the temptation of trying to build one to his house.

Miramar’s airport parking woes
The council have been dragging their heels on sorting out the parking issues in the residential streets surrounding the airport for years now, and have even been taken to task by the Coroner after a cyclist death in the area. There have been media reports of bad parking, worse behaviour and abandoned vehicles, all of which has largely bounced off the bureaucratic deflector shields at the council.

Under Andy Foster’s reign, a few token efforts were announced, but this problem is ripe for Calvi-Freeman to stride in, sort it out, and look like a decisive transport leader. Despite all the protestations about “issues”, how difficult a problem can it really be?

Magic 8-Ball says: Act early for the quick win.

Light rail
Celia Wade-Brown’s 2010 campaign promise came to nothing on her watch, but a putative light rail system from the railway station to the hospital and the airport appeared to grow new legs during the election campaign. A coterie of city and regional councillors are now supporting the idea, and it might actually have the political will to make some progress.

The challenge is the light rail advocates themselves – they seem to think it’s only an engineering or political problem, rather than a financial one; if they can just throw one more overseas case study or nicely-drawn route map on the table, the stars will magically align. The real problem is that the primary beneficiaries of the system – the eastern suburbs – already have a workable bus network. So while light rail would improve the quality of service, it’s hard to see how that would justify the possible quarter of a billion dollar price tag. Calvi-Freeman will have to tread carefully in what could become a rancorous and very time-consuming debate. Light rail might be a headline-grabber, but there are probably bigger fish to fry in Wellington’s transport network.

Magic 8-Ball says: Don’t confuse the nice-to-have with the need-to-have.

Cars, cars and more cars
Irrespective of the pro-cycling and pro-public transport stances of the newly-elected council, the NZ Transport Agency’s road-building efforts north of the city will start to show effect within the next triennium. All the additional motorway capacity on the Kapiti Coast is likely to result in more people jumping in their cars to head into town, and some projections show people moving from the train to the car – presumably because driving could be cheaper and faster. If that’s the case, then the number of vehicles arriving on Wellington’s CBD doorstep could significantly increase, creating more congestion problems with limited space to solve them.

This is emphatically not a problem of the council’s making, but Calvi-Freeman will need to demonstrate that there is a plan – any plan! – to address what could be a growing congestion issue.

Magic 8-Ball says: When handed lemons, start hunting for lemonade recipes.

Trolleys and climate change
This is another issue that isn’t of the council’s making, but which will have wide implications for how people think about public transport in the city. The intended decommissioning of the trolley bus network and its replacement with diesels is unlikely to go over well with the greener-leaning sections of the community, who – if not yet a majority – are a very substantial minority. Hand-waving about future hybrid and battery buses is all very well, but right now there’s a certain pie-in-the-sky quality to promises about technology that seems some way short of mainstream.

Calvi-Freeman can’t do anything directly to save the trolleys, but – along with Cr Sarah Free – he needs to demonstrate that he’s collaborating on a plan to reduce the city’s carbon emissions at a time when the Regional Council seem dead-set on increasing them.

Magic 8-Ball says: Delegating the problem to the Greens has never looked so attractive.

Of course, our quick round-up leaves plenty of other gripping transport issues unaddressed; what about the pedestrianisation of Lambton Quay? Whither the second Mount Victoria tunnel?

Everywhere you look in Wellington city, there’s either a transport problem that needs to be solved or a potential opportunity that could be grasped – and with it, a community or a lobbyist or a special interest group that’s keen to say what should be done.

What there isn’t is consensus. So Calvi-Freeman – and sidekick Sarah Free – will have to adeptly navigate the political shoals to move their transport agenda forward, in a way that takes the community along for the ride. The important journey in Wellington is not from one side of town to the other, but from where we are today to where we want to be tomorrow. Calvi-Freeman has the CV and the expertise, so there are reasonable grounds to hope he’ll be able to help the city get at least part of the way.


  1. Ian Apperley, 28. October 2016, 14:10

    Councillors are heavily conflicted in the transport area and the chance to make changes also relies on central government, other Councils, and the GWRC. Points for enthusiasm from Chris though.

  2. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 28. October 2016, 21:19

    So, no pressure then. 🙂

    I’m taking the weekend off, but I promise to achieve miracles from Monday onwards.


  3. Henry Filth, 28. October 2016, 21:33

    “The important journey in Wellington is not from one side of town to the other, but from where we are today to where we want to be tomorrow.” Public transport doesn’t get me around Wellington very well, especially from side to side. Tomorrow, I want to be able to get around Wellington easily, cheaply, and conveniently. Is that so unreasonable? So outlandish?

  4. fed up, 29. October 2016, 1:05

    The council need to build a 3 level car park in Miramar, either off their own back or in private partnership. They could even lease a floor to the film industry.

  5. Glen Smith, 29. October 2016, 11:43

    PCGM. Interesting article but your assertion that across town rail would primarily benefit the eastern suburbs is false. The main purpose of rail (likely ‘medium weight rail’ to integrate into our existing network) would be to allow potential rail users north of the city to access the southern CBD (rail currently effectively only services the northern CBD) and, as Henry Filth indicates, to allow rapid transit for ALL across town commuters (now the majority based on traffic flow data) by decreasing the 5-10 minute station transfer penalty and up to 30 minute across town bus penalty down to a consistent 7 minutes (modelling for Quays based rail- Daryl Cockburn and Neil Douglas scoop article 2013). However taking this rail line to the east is logical as this would service the airport ( 5.5 million passengers in 2015 generating 13,500 daily vehicle trips and projected to rise to 10 million passengers generating 22,500 daily vehicle trips by 2030- source Wellington Airport Master Plan) and open up the large flat areas of land in the eastern suburbs (only about 10 minutes from the CBD) to future TOD’s (Transport Orientated Development-planned intensification of housing around high quality transport spines) encouraging active low impact transport modes. This will be essential once growth in Te Aro starts reaching capacity and will prevent Wellington from experiencing the housing shortage and escalating prices seen in Auckland from lack of planning.
    In terms of the financial ‘challenge’ this depends on whether you undertake the usual short term blinkered analysis or whether you look at all benefits of rail (reduced congestion, pollution, land use, parking, policing, accident, pollution, climate change, active healthy lifestyle – see http://www.vtpi.org/railben.pdf for an analysis of US rail- at least 112 billion economic benefit from 12.5 billion public subsidy) and take a long term view- With long term growth in the east/ airport a high quality dedicated PT corridor this century is inevitable- the financial analysis should compare the cost of achieving this now (when it would relatively inexpensive by incorporating this into planned Basin/ Mt Victoria transport changes) versus the cost to our children/ grandchildren of somehow trying to retrospectively add this later this century. Sadly I suspect short term selfish planning will prevail and the buck will be passed to future generations. The other reason for taking rail to the east is that this is the only likely destination where a high quality dedicated corridor (which is where rail stands out over buses) is achievable (and relatively easily achievable at that).

  6. Mike Mellor, 29. October 2016, 16:47

    The primary issue that light rail should address is not access to/from the eastern suburbs (though that would be nice), but congestion and reliability along the Golden Mile. GWRC has acknowledged that 60 buses an hour per direction is the limit for reliable operation of buses, but it is proposing that in the new network from 2018 the number of buses will be 50% greater than that in the peaks.

    So the new network will be unreliable from day 1, and because of its new interconnected nature that unreliability will spread throughout the system – a bus running late from Karori will affect passengers all the way through to Strathmore and Seatoun, and late running from Churston Park will ripple through to the south coast.

    To get reliability one of two things is needed: either another route through the city, or larger vehicles. The former is a hard nut to crack, given the reluctance to give over more road space to public transport (despite Golden Mile buses using just two of the dozen+ traffic lanes through or round the CBD), so larger vehicles are the answer. Double-deckers are planned for the main north-south spine but tunnels rule them out on the main east-west spine and GWRC is not allowing longer buses, so a higher-capacity modevsuch as light rail is logically the only option left if we want a system that works.

    Without that public transport will become less attractive, leading to greater road congestion. Let’s hope that the new city and regional councils and NZTA recognise through the Let’s Get Welly Moving process that serious thought is needed to produce workable solutions – because we haven’t got one yet.

  7. Elaine Hampton, 30. October 2016, 9:39

    The problem with the Basin is the 4 lanes into 2 at the tunnel, and the Taranaki Street lights. So not the Basin at all.
    Wellington needs to move forward and stop dissembling. Stop the backward looking diesel buses with their particulate matter pollution, bus pollution, ramping up the cost of light rail with nonsense regarding new tunnels, new roads dragging thousands of cars into Wellington which is essentially a walking city centre. In other words a 21st century solution, not cobbling bits and pieces together to quieten lobbyists. As my granny used to say, ‘cheapest is dearest in the end’.

  8. Kerry Wood, 31. October 2016, 9:12

    Two magic misfires here.

    On light rail: Don’t confuse the nice-to-have with the need-to-have.

    As Mike puts it, the problem is at least as much capacity as commuting. Congestion on the inner city bus route is well beyond good practice and approaching a hard limit. The golden mile is carrying peak passenger flows of 5000-6000 passengers an hour, when good practice is a maximum of about 3000. Capacity is higher when buses can overtake at stops, but that would be very costly on parts of the golden mile. Replacing all golden mile buses with light rail is probably unacceptable (too many transfers), so the minimum solution is two extra lanes. That might be buses on the golden mile and light rail on the waterfront.
    The good news is that light rail carrying up to 3000 passengers an hour is probably cheaper than buses (considering both capital and operating costs), and certainly cheaper at 4000/hr. This is why the tramways Union are a bit ho-hum on trams: the biggest single cost is the driver.

    Don’t confuse glamour with practicality.

    On trolleys & climate: Delegating the problem to the Greens has never looked so attractive. It is probably too late to save the trolleys, but saving the overhead may still be worthwhile. Battery buses may be viable by the time Wellington can get them. But if not, trolleys on the roof are an easy option. Battery buses can then recharge on the move, much more effectively than recharging at the terminus. For charging all battery vehicles, a existing network of heavy-current DC electricity supply is a lot cheaper than separate new power supplies at each charging point. Then scrap the trolley wires when they are no longer needed, say by 2030.
    Don’t give up.

  9. Keith Flinders, 31. October 2016, 12:30

    Battery buses may seem like the ultimate answer to addressing the pollution issue and as a replacement for the trolley buses. If only they were in terms of cost and service durability.

    To have a battery bus that will run all day on relatively flat terrain requires 600 kilowatt/hr battery capacity. Such buses cost NZ$1.2million each and will require battery replacements in their service lifetime costing more than the initial bus cost. Certainly battery costs are likely to come down from the current cost of $1000 per kw/hr.

    From the information I have, the Wrightspeed converted buses will have a 40 kw/hr battery, hence not enough to drive them up slopes, and which will require regular recharging during the day using the onboard LPG generator. These conversion are hybrid ones, not electric. Apparently the plan is to use the onboard generators to recharge the batteries at the end of the working day too. In terms of economics I can see why the cost of providing charging stations for 150 buses is not commercially viable, but using LPG instead is bad for the environment.

    As for hybrid buses, they are nearly as polluting and cost more to maintain than diesel ones.

    Thanks for those patronage figures Glenn Smith, and agreed Elaine your granny was correct. This city lacks any forward vision in respect of transport matters and the least cost is seen as the best. Even the current trolley buses have components that have been running in earlier buses from 50 years ago.

  10. Rumpole, 1. November 2016, 11:22

    Did GWRC consult the public about disposing of the trolley buses? An answer from the chairman or councillors would be appreciated.

  11. Casey, 1. November 2016, 17:32

    Trolley buses are owned by NZ Bus, an Infratil company, so it is their option as to do with them as they see fit. Cost of converting them to hybrids, over $300,000 each I believe, will be reflected in the contract price for routes they get to keep from 2018 onwards.

  12. Rumpole, 2. November 2016, 13:04

    It’s not for NZ Bus to decide about trolleys. GWRC should have a separate contract for this popular non-polluting transportation.

  13. Keith Flinders, 2. November 2016, 23:18

    Rumpole, there are many who agree with you in respect of the trolley buses, but we who are not privy to the contracts between NZ Bus and the GWRC have no idea of what has been agreed to. We can but hope that those elected last month call for a delay in signing new contracts due to start in 2018. NZ Bus retain most of what they currently have in respect of Wellington city routes without having to submit a tender.

  14. City Lad, 3. November 2016, 16:17

    I’ve heard the trolleys are being disposed of before May next year. To keep their noses clean, our elected representatives will likely support their chairman in this matter. But the smell of emission fumes will clog their nostrils.

  15. Kay, 5. November 2016, 16:46

    Re Rumpole’s query. There was consultation on the trolley bus decision months ago with many submissions pointing out why hanging onto trolleys until a better electric system was available would be best option. Reasonable support from most councillors but Fran got Australian promoters of bus alternative to fly over for a snow job and the vote changed and went against trolleys.