by Michael C Barnett
Last week I went to a meeting of the Regional Council’s Sustainable Transport Committee. It meets every six weeks to debate transport issues and decide policy. If you want to say something about any item on its agenda, you can contact the Council and speak during the public participation section.
On this occasion a key item of interest to me was the Let’s Get Wellington Moving Programme and an update from the Project Manager Barry Mein. I made my request to speak and was cordially invited.
The location of these meetings rotates around the various councils in the region and last week it met at the Porirua City Council.
I live in Karaka Bay on the Miramar Peninsula and to get there on time I left home one hour earlier. I underestimated my travel time for on this particular morning traffic was unusually heavy. It took me 40 minutes to cross the city and get on to the motorway to Porirua. I arrived a few minutes late and waltzed into the council chamber, just as former councillor Paul Bruce was presenting an impassioned plea for the council to reconsider its decision to replace trolley buses with new hybrid vehicles. I was sympathetic with his plea and grateful that I wasn’t too late to present my case for getting Light Rail back on the planning agenda.
As I grabbed my breath, Paul was being questioned by several councilors as to why he was challenging past decisions of the committee on which he’d been a member. Did he have new information? I can’t remember his response, but I gained the impression that some, though by no means all, were intent on pushing ahead with implementing past decisions.
My turn came next. I was there in my capacity as convener of FIT Wellington, a small group of professionals who are strong advocates for fair and intelligent transport decisions for Wellington City and the region.
With only three minutes in which to present our case, I got straight in by saying I had read the LGWM progress report and supported its 12 guiding principles and key findings, which indicate that Wellingtonians want public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment.
“These are desirable goals and we at FIT support them.” I said.
I then told the committee that FIT sees light rail along high population density routes as a key component of any modern transport system. I expressed concern that the LGWM project team does not intend to review the findings of the Public Transport Spine Study (PPTS) with respect to light rail, which we consider has serious flaws in relation to the benefits of light rail.
The route selection is poor, involving a Y shape with one leg going to Hataitai/Kilbirnie and one leg going to Newtown. The consequence is to impose an unnecessary $200M cost on light rail for a second Mt Victoria tunnel along a route that doesn’t align well with high growth areas such as Te Aro, Newtown and Kilbirnie. As a consequence the modelling does not pick up higher patronage benefits from growth areas.
Also, questionable assumptions in the modelling seriously understate the benefits of light rail. It assumes few people shift out of their cars on to light rail and it ignores international experience that introducing light rail can achieve an immediate growth in public transport patronage of up to 25% due to increased service standards, which result in reduced congestion for all road users with significant time saving benefit. The PPTS ignores land use benefits and value uplift from intensification around light rail transit nodes and corridors as experienced overseas. It ignores the greater capacity of light rail.
A light rail route from the railway station via Newtown to the airport would have three times the peak hour passenger capacity of a four-lane Mt Victoria tunnel. This is because light rail would have the peak hour passenger capacity of 12,000 persons per hour, compared with 4,000 persons per hour for a 4-lane Mt Victoria tunnel. Finally, the extra capacity and increased patronage would significantly reduce congestion at the Basin Reserve and along the Golden Mile, and eliminate the the need for an extra Mt Victoria tunnel.
I then faced a barrage of questions, being quizzed on cost, route options, planning time needed and how these things gelled with the current proposals for bus rapid transit which have been now scaled back to bus priority.
I closed by expressing FIT’s view that Wellington could not build its way out of congestion and needed to look at reallocating existing road space and investing in more efficient transport modes. I observed a general nodding of heads and there appeared to be a general consensus that this was so.
I was the last public speaker, The Chair called a break, and this was an opportunity to speak to some councilors one on one. One said he enjoyed reading my letters to the paper and though he was not opposed to light rail per se, he felt it was important to get Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) up and running first. A second councilor said he also was not opposed to light rail, but it was difficult to ignore the Transport Agency and its desire to proceed with roads, as it is a major contributor of funds. I spoke briefly to three others, they all appeared interested in light rail but remained non-committal.
I would encourage others with a point of view to front up and make their views known. It is a new committee with some new faces who seem committed to bringing about a change of emphasis – from a city developed around the needs of cars to one that is developed around the needs of people.
Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have a dialogue about the sort of city we want. We can’t keep treating urban space as an elastic resource and we can’t keep building the city around the needs of cars.
We need to create a future where people can exercise more choice and control over their mobility decisions, and where we use the city’s scarce resources (street space and people’s time) in a way that enhances our productivity and quality of life. We need to send a strong message to our elected representatives and support them in their efforts to convince the folk at NZTA to move beyond their car-shaped thought patterns.
Is “a four-lane expressway across town to Wellington Airport” really the best future we can imagine? Wellington can do better than that. The heart of FIT’s proposal is a high frequency, high speed, congestion-free public transport network anchored by light-rail, initially between Wellington Railway Station and the Airport and Miramar.
Future light rail stages include a Karori to CBD line and a Queensgate, Petone, ferry terminal and railway station line. Connecting urban electric buses and suburban trains, along with shared electric bikes and self-driving cars, will give people a wide range of mobility choices. Two lanes of road space currently allocated to cars will be reallocated for light rail: one dedicated light rail lane can move about 12,000 people per hour, ten times as many as cars and about twice as many as buses.
The growing number of people living in Wellington’s CBD are choosing to be close to where they work, study and play. FIT’s proposed transit-oriented development around light rail stops will open up this choice to more people. Moving to more space-efficient forms of transport means that the existing road network can absorb the 25% city population growth over the next 25 years, and reduce the number of cars in the central city.
Michael C Barnett is a retired Wellington civil engineer with experience in roads, transport and urban development.