Wellington Scoop

Telling them what Wellington needs

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.


  1. luke, 21. February 2017, 10:06

    agree 100%, it’s about better using the space we have rather than storing people’s cars on it either stationary or with 1.4 people in 1 tonne boxes that collectively take up too much room. also public transport works optimally as a network, with frequent service and easy, non-fiscally penalising transfers rather than having the one seat everywhere to everywhere (resultant incredibly low unusable frequency) motorists’ mentality applied to it.

  2. Chris, 21. February 2017, 11:50

    Given Wellington’s geographical constraints, if the intention is to accommodate all this anticipated future growth, then the only viable solution long-term appears to be switching to transport modes that can funnel larger numbers through the limited space we have.

    There’s no way to make the roads wide enough to accommodate that future growth, so why not start on the future solution now, instead of applying a succession of increasingly-expensive sticking plasters? Especially if those sticking plasters take us in a direction opposite to where we’ve said we want to end up (ie., a livable, pedestrian-friendly city, etc.).

    On completely different tack: how much would the traffic profiles change if the airport were moved out of the city? Not asking for pros and cons, just asking if someone has run the numbers.

  3. Ron Beernink (Chair Cycle Aware Wellington), 21. February 2017, 16:54

    Great article and many thanks for presenting this to the GWRC, Michael! Sadly it is the direction from the Government that guides the NZTA that constrains the local bodies. Bill English and his party clearly favour building more roads even if the rest of the world is realising that it’s not the way to build your way out of congestion problems.

    Best we can do is use Get Wellington Moving and these submission channels to keep pushing the message that the solution is in shifting the transport paradigm from building roads to creating smarter sustainable traffic solutions that encourage public & active transport and enable essential commercial transport over private vehicle use.

  4. KB, 22. February 2017, 9:29

    Being staunchly anti-new roads is not the way forward with these debates. If the anti-road brigade existed in the 20s and 70s, I doubt they would have even wanted the existing Mt Vic and Terrace tunnels. Can you imagine how bad Wellington traffic would be today without those 2 tunnels? Ok now fast forward 30 years and tell me how bad traffic is going to be if we don’t invest in another Mt Vic tunnel and at least some new roads on the SH1 spine.

  5. Ben, 22. February 2017, 12:09

    Is it not better to get people across the city (i.e. airport to Hutt/Porirua Motorways) with a decent bi-pass system that reduces a lot of congestion by going underneath the main arterial routes to suburbs (Willis, Victoria, Taranaki, Cuba, Tory streets), and concentrate on making public transport within the city much more efficient and affordable?

  6. KB, 22. February 2017, 13:41

    @Ben A bit off track, but Elon Musk has just started a new company called “The Boring Company” which aims to revolutionize the tunneling process by making it 100x more efficient/cheaper. Perhaps in a couple of decades we’ll have plentiful cross-city subterranean tunnel options (although I’m always a little worried how they’ll act in an earthquake).

  7. Michael C Barnett, 22. February 2017, 20:01

    KB. You miss the point. It is not about more roads and no roads, Rather it is about using the existing road space in in a more effective manner. Building more tunnels and expanding the road space from the Terrace Tunnel to the airport will not significantly shorten travel times or ease congestion now and in the future. Finding ways to get commuters out of their cars and onto public transport will. I suggest you re-read my article and take note of where I state the following:

    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.

  8. Libby Grant, 23. February 2017, 6:46

    Hi Michael, I am also really enjoying your articles and am very grateful for you and your group’s advocacy of an intelligent and sustainable vision for our city’s transport issues. Do you have a Facebook page? I’d like to be able to spread your message further. How can local government be empowered to make the right decisions for its population when central government’s agenda is so dominant and so focussed on unsustainable car-centric solutions to transport issues? We have seen how central government is eroding the autonomy of local government in Auckland. What can we do here? We love our city and we don’t want more cars and smelly diesel buses, climate change is here and we need to act now to make our cities more resilient and sustainable but our leaders just don’t seem to get it!

  9. TrevorH, 23. February 2017, 10:41

    Roads, along with clean water and sanitation, are the basis of civilization. The Romans were aware of this but their knowledge was lost for some 1500 years. Good roads from the airport northwards with a second tunnel through Mt Victoria are essential for Wellington’s future. Light rail is an expensive fantasy of the latte-sipping collectivists that would only benefit a few.

  10. Michael C Barnett, 23. February 2017, 14:56

    Hi Libby. Thanks for your enthusiastic comment and offer of support. Go to http://intranet.affinity.co.nz/FITWellington/ for more information on our organisation. You can also contact me on mchlbarnett4@gmail.com.

    TrevorH. Yes the Romans were a great civilisation and handed us down much. But a four lane highway passing right through the Roman Forum? I think they displayed more sense than that.

  11. TrevorH, 23. February 2017, 17:23

    MIchaelB. The dilapidated, run-down and scarcely used Basin is hardly the Roman Forum of Wellington. My broader point is that an understanding of the foundations of civilization, or living successfully together in cities, can be easily lost as they were following the Romans; the Wellington City Council in particular seems to have a rather shaky grasp of what makes it tick.

  12. Ben, 24. February 2017, 10:29

    @ Michael C Barnett. I agree it is about using existing roads more effectively.
    @ KB. I am not advocating tunnels. I am suggesting that SH1 from the new tunnel by the War Memorial could be lowered to go under Taranaki, Cuba, Victoria and Willis streets to the entrance to the Terrace tunnel (which is already at a much lower level). This would not only help ease a great deal of congestion for those trying to get to the suburbs along these streets (which would include public transport) but also allow quicker and easier access to the Hutt and Porirua motorways across the city for the vehicles (public and private) that are leaving the city. Pedestrian and bike bridges could also be built across the lowered road for easy access to the city.

  13. Ben, 26. February 2017, 18:00

    While I agree we need to keep cars out of the city and also increase the use of public transport – we also need to be able to get out of Wellington in a timely manner when we are leaving the city and public transport won’t suffice.
    Today it took me the same amount of time to drive from the Wellington City Library up Victoria Street to the entrance of the Terrace tunnel, as it took to drive from the Terrace Tunnel to Silverstream in Upper Hutt (and no I didn’t speed). It was a nightmare trying to get out of Wellington.
    The exit from Victoria Street on to the motorway is the problem as the cars coming across the city are banked up waiting to get to the tunnel and so the cars in Victoria Street sit there through light changes before a few can creep onto SH1 and try to squeeze into the queue. Surely someone can figure out a better lights sequence to prevent this?

  14. Traveller, 26. February 2017, 19:00

    The lack of expertise for sequencing traffic lights is frustratingly evident all through the city..

  15. Wellington Commuter, 27. February 2017, 17:31

    @Ben & @Traveller: the SH1 signals are probably deliberately setup to give preference to SH1 bypass traffic. That is why it takes so long to cross or turn into Vivian Street. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to head south from Victoria Street, Taranaki Street or Kent Terrace … there is usually a queue to get on to SH1. These SH1 intersections also holdup all the bus routes from Courtenay Place heading south & east.

    The cause is, of course, the bottleneck at the Basin and Mt Victoria Tunnel which only supports one-lane heading towards the airport. NZTA make sure that the traffic lights give SH1 travelers coming via the Terrace Tunnel priority over everyone else. The biggest beneficiaries from grade separating the Basin and duplicating the Mt Vic Tunnel would be drivers & bus commuters heading onto and across SH1 who currently wait …. and wait …. and wait.