Wellington Scoop

Four lanes to the planes – not the answer

by Michael C Barnett
One of the issues identified in the Let’s Get Wellington Moving progress report is congestion on the key routes into and through the CBD, resulting in delays and unreliable journey times. It’s a problem that exists for only a few hours per day.

The report gives travel time data for the cross-town route from the Terrace Tunnel to Wellington Airport and along the Quays from the Hutt Road to the Basin Reserve.

Travel times from the Airport to the Basin Reserve for off peak journeys vary between five and eight minutes, compared with 18 minutes at the height of the morning peak. During the evening peak, journeys take an average of 10 to 13 minutes. Comparable peak hour journey times between the Terrace Tunnel and the Basin Reserve range between 7 and 15 minutes, and sometimes as long as 21 minutes. The average off-peak travel time is five minutes.

I live in Karaka Bay on the Miramar Peninsula and I regularly travel this route to the CBD and beyond. During a three-year period from November 2011 to February 2014, when commuting to Porirua on a regular basis, I measured my travel time between Miramar and the Terrace tunnel during both peak and off peak hours. Ten to eleven minutes was the norm during off peak hours in both directions, with travel times as low as 9 minutes up to a maximum of 28 minutes during peak hours. I noticed that peak hour travel times dropped off significantly during school holidays and during the Christmas/New Year holiday period.

A further observation: for 20 hours each day the road space is under utilized and traffic flows freely, slowed only by the sequence of traffic lights. During the night between seven in the evening and seven in the morning this corridor is relatively empty of traffic. So is SH1 between Ngauranga and the Terrace Tunnel during these night time hours – a good time for freight deliveries.

The LGWM record together with my own supporting data clearly show that traffic congestion in Wellington is primarily a peak hour problem. It does not compare with comparable congestion problems in Auckland. And it begs the question: does it justify expenditure in excess of $1billion for more road tunnels and encroachment on cherished town belt land?

Personally, I consider the problem of traffic congestion between Wellington Airport and the Terrace Tunnel is overstated. At most it is a minor inconvenience at peak hours. If you want to see real congestion, visit Lagos, Nigeria. I lived and worked there for two years in the mid 1970s and the Lagos authorities had a problem. Go slow they called it and rightly so. It could take up to five hours to travel from Lagos Airport to the CBD on Lagos Island, a distance not much greater than from Miramar to the Terrace Tunnel. I am not exaggerating.

The one billion+ dollars currently budgeted to expand the road space along the east/west corridor from the Terrace Tunnel to Cobham Drive is a lot of money to spend on a solution to a problem that exists for only a few hours each day and is doomed to fail. As I pointed out in a previous article, there is much evidence to indicate that constructing more motorways and bridges through an urban area does not lead to significant travel time savings nor the easing of congestion. Conversely, there is evidence that total or partial road closure and reallocation of existing road space can lead to a significant reduction in the amount of traffic with no adverse effects. I give the example of Portland, Oregon.

Portland is a city with a population of 600,000 (2012) and is situated on the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. During the mid 20th century, traffic engineers constructed expressways through Portland and divided the community, as they did in other American cities. Harbour Drive, a four lane expressway along the west bank of the Willamette River, was one such expressway. Completed in 1942, it cut off public access to the river in the process. In 1960, a Metro Area Transport Study proposed building another 50 expressways, which would have sliced up the metropolitan area beyond recognition. Then in 1968 the State Highway Department proposed widening Harbour Drive, against growing public opposition that was calling for its removal and replacement with a waterfront park for use by all.

The city traffic engineers objected strongly to this, and a task force was formed to present new proposals for dealing with traffic congestion. De Leuw Cather of San Francisco (the original consultant advisor on the development of Wellington cross town motorway) was hired to study options and concluded that closing Harbour Drive was not feasible. Political debate ensued over the next few years with the traffic engineers continuing to argue strongly that closing Harbour Drive would create traffic chaos.

Finally, in 1974 the road closure proponents won out and a political decision was made to remove the road and construct a park. Following closure, the City traffic engineer went on record as saying “they closed Harbor Drive today and there wasn’t a ripple”. Portland has gone on to develop its transport infrastructure which includes light rail and has become a model of what can be achieved by moving the focus away from the private motor vehicle toward other transport modes.

Here in Wellington, ‘four lanes to the planes’ is no answer. Wellingtonians have asked for fewer roads and cars, public transport improvements, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment. It is beholden on the LGWM team to acknowledge this, abide by its guiding principles and deliver.

Michael C Barnett is a retired Wellington civil engineer with experience in roads, transport and urban development.


  1. Ian Apperley, 17. February 2017, 10:10

    Agreed. We all know that the promises made by politicians (and no doubt about to be dusted off for election year) aren’t practical or achievable. The Emperor’s new clothes indeed. The reality is that nothing is going to change anytime soon given the outrageous number of competing levers that transport has, all being pulled which way with little affect.

    One of the interesting side effects of that traffic is a lot of people are now dodging around Evans Bay and over Mt Victoria at peak.

  2. banana, 17. February 2017, 11:19

    Your peak vs off peak observations are interesting, but it’s not just an hour (one each in the morning and afternoon). I, like you, drive the route daily, and as such offer some alternative descriptions for ‘the peak hour’, with particular reference to the routes (including the alternatives of around the bays and via Newtown past the Hospital) from the Broadway roundabout to the Terrace Tunnel.

    1. anytime from before 7am until (on occasion) as late as 10am.
    2. anytime from 2.30pm (school pickup) until well after 6pm
    3. anytime in the weekend from 10am until late afternoon
    4. anytime it rains
    5. anytime there is an incident or accident
    6. anytime there are road works
    7. anytime a trolley bus is involved – usually in the process of restoring a shed conductor at a busy intersection

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much in favour of multi-modal options as the next person, but the LGWM consult-a-thon needs to get its skates on, as the entire south and east Wellington transport network is stuffed…and that’s a current issue, not a 5 year forecast.

  3. Luke, 17. February 2017, 11:57

    I really like the suggestion of making the bypass both directions instead of the current one way system.

  4. KB, 17. February 2017, 12:05

    Ian’s comment above about people finding alternative routes to avoid the Mt Vic tunnel speaks volumes – but likely the opposite of what he intended. People are also increasingly using Newtown to get to Kilbirnie in peak traffic (Taranaki/Wallace street is now gridlocked in rush hour because of this – it now routinely takes up to 10 minutes to get from Webb Street to the Countdown). People are finding alternative routes that bypass the Tunnel (because the tunnel route is so slow). People are also making alternative plans about what time they commute to avoid the peak time gridlock in and out of the city. These are temporary solutions; as more people follow these trends, then the benefits of these alternatives will eventually disappear and they too will be overwhelmed with traffic. This has considerable negative consequences for vital services like Ambulance, Fire and Police vehicles attending emergencies (previously they were able to use alternative routes, but now those are also disappearing.). By the time these alternatives are also overwhelmed, it will be far too late to start work on at last expanding the tunnel and road widths along SH1 – we will be stuck with years of even worse traffic as expedited work causes even more transport chaos that cant be alleviated by alternative routes. Best to start the work right now while we still have some alternative capacity left to use.

  5. TrevorH, 17. February 2017, 12:11

    This Wellingtonian has asked for a more efficient road transport system, including the second tunnel and an underpass beneath the Basin. As a fellow Eastern Suburbs resident I have noticed that the “peak hour” from the airport to the Basin has expanded considerably in recent years. Traffic starts to back up from 2.30pm. Tradesmen and other service people are starting to avoid coming out East to do a job, it’s just too much hassle. Nothing has been done since we bought a house here in the early 80s to cope with the greatly increased population and business activity. By all means encourage and provide for CBD commuters to use public transport. But a balanced approach is required to serve the wider community.

  6. Mike Mellor, 17. February 2017, 13:42

    TrevorH: a balanced approach is indeed required, but it’s never actually been officially accepted by the pullers of competing levers, as Ian puts it. For instance, what became the Basin flyover for private vehicles, offering negligible improvement for other users, started life in the NZTA/GWRC/WCC Ngauranga to Airport plan as grade separation to improve public transport, walking and cycling. Those aspects all but vanished when NZTA took the project over.

    Similarly, the Bus Rapid Transit proposals, even the supposedly “fully segregated 24/7” ones, have no bus priority at all through the proposed tunnel, and just peak-hour bus lanes through to Kilbirnie. (Alternative facts, anyone?) And of course, as is usual, improvements for other road users are proposed to follow private vehicles getting a better deal.

    So roll on a balanced approach to serve the wider community – it would make a very welcome change from every recent proposal.

  7. Ian Shearer, 17. February 2017, 14:42

    Agreed Mike. Following the recent LGWM project progress report to the GW Sustainable Transport Committee, Councillors have become aware that the Bus Rapid Transit scheme promoted by Fran Wilde and agreed by Councillors has now been downgraded to a “bus priority” scheme. Bus priority is needed urgently – but it is not the solution for our future.

    There were never enough “lanes” through Wellington for a BRT scheme – it was a “cheap” political figment which will cost us dearly in the longer term. Objectives such as reducing the numbers of polluting buses along the Golden Mile were ignored and the non-polluting trolley buses were sunk.

    We will continue to suffer from this madness until they realise that allocating 2-lanes for a high-capacity light rail system (modern trams) to the airport is the only feasible solution for Wellington. These 2-lanes could of course be used by emergency vehicles if needed, solving another problem identified above.

    Come on councillors – we need to start planning for the implementation of trams now. If the LGWM project fails to include this as on of their scenarios we will be stuffed for another 20 years.

  8. Ross Clark, 18. February 2017, 4:34

    As much as it pains me to say this, maybe we should be looking at a tunnelled option for public transport:

    * The problem with light rail is that it will not make overmuch difference to traffic flows unless it is pretty thoroughly segregated, and if segregation can be put in place for light rail, the same can be done for bus services (and needs to be done anyway). If light rail is not properly segregated, it will get almost as bogged down as the buses are now.

    * In a subway or metro system, the major cost is not the tunnelling but the underground stations.

    So … if we want to improve public transport within the city, perhaps the best way is to have extended bus/LRT tunnels, providing an ‘express’ link into the city from outside the currently more congested areas. E.g. from Kilbirnie to Cambridge Terrace (where the lack of building would allow a halt to be provided) and then through the city, stopping at areas which are currently not built on.


  9. Michael C Barnett, 18. February 2017, 5:58

    Banana. I agree, your day time scenarios do occur, but they do not negate my contention that the route from Ngauranga to the Terrace Tunnel and on to Cobham Drive is under utilised during all of the offpeak hours. Spending in excess of $1 billion on more tunnels and carving up Town Belt land along Ruahine Street is not the answer to Wellington’s transport problems. Even if NZTA go down this track (and it seems this is maybe what they are still planning – refer to Lindsay Shelton’s article), four lanes all the way to the planes would not result due to the existing three lane max from the Terrace tunnel. The promised travel time savings would remain an illusion. I agree things can and should be done now. Remove the Vivian Street off ramp and send through traffic in two-way flow along Karo Drive, remove obstacles and allow freer movement of trap around the Basin Reserve and implement measures to discourage daily commuters driving their cars into the city during the morning peak, parking them up all day then driving home during the afternoon peak. That will free up a lot of the traffic flow for tradesmen, freight movers and others who use there vehicle to conduct there business.

  10. Luke, 18. February 2017, 14:03

    Its almost as though nzta don’t want something simple and cheaper like making Karo Drive two-way to be trialled in case it actually works and removes the need for a billion dollar highway to be built.

  11. The City is Ours, 20. February 2017, 0:11

    I spoke with a supervisor at one of the major taxi companies and if we could agree on a flat fare between the Airport and the CBD it would not matter how we got there through the tunnel or around the scenic route.