Wellington Scoop

Wellington needs a transport champion

by Michael C Barnett
The need for local leadership to solve Wellington’s traffic congestion problems was identified last year by then Finance Minister Bill English in a speech to business leaders in Porirua. He criticised Wellington’s lack of a ‘progressive attitude’ to transport solutions.

Commenting on the drawn-out debate on the Basin Reserve and the outcome of the Board of Inquiry in 2014, English was reported as saying:

“It was possible the city would never solve the Basin’s congestion woes, which were holding up construction of a second Mt Victoria Tunnel and hamper access to the airport and hospital.”

Asked to elaborate, he said his message to Wellington was that, if it could come up with an alternative solution at the Basin, the Government would probably fund it, but it would not keep money sitting around forever while the city struggled to reach an agreement.

“Lack of money is not a problem for the bottlenecks in Wellington’s city infrastructure. There are large projects happening north of Wellington … and they’re all going ahead. The projects in Wellington city that could achieve those things aren’t going ahead, because the city comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t want them.”

In one sense English is correct when he says there is a lack of local leadership when it comes to transport issues in the city and region. There is however an over supply of transport committees with representatives from the Transport Agency (NZTA) and all the local authorities – all with their own personal and sometimes conflicting agendas.

First there is the Regional Land Transport Committee chaired by Cr. Donaldson and comprised of two persons representing the Regional Council (GWRC), the eight Mayors of and a representative of the Transport Agency. This Committee establishes and signs off the budget for transport planning and development for Wellington and the region and by far the major portion of its budget is dedicated to road construction, maintenance, road safety and accident prevention.

Alongside this sits the Sustainable Transport Committee of the Regional Council, also chaired by Cr. Donaldson and comprised of all thirteen councilors. According to the Council’s website this committee exists to “guide and monitor” the Council’s work on promoting sustainable transport, delivering a world class public transport service, enhancing regional resilience and reducing the impacts of the region’s transport system on the environment. In simple terms this means it is responsible for delivering rail and bus transport throughout the region in an environmentally sustainable way.

Next we have the Wellington City Council and its City Strategy Committee comprising the Mayor and all Councilors and chaired by Cr Iona Pannett. The role of the City Strategy Committee is wide ranging and includes setting the broad vision and direction of the city, determining and shaping the strategies, policies, regulations, including the key areas of urban development and transport. Again in simple terms it aims to create a livable environment designed around the wants and needs of people and provide and maintain the corridors along which the various transport modes (walking, cycling, public transport) can function.

Finally, there is the Regional Council/City Council Joint Working Group recently established to ensure dialogue between the two councils on transport issues for the region and Wellington City. Its members include Cr Donaldson, Cr Daran Ponter, Cr Sue Kedgley and Cr Roger Blakeley (GWRC), and Cr Sarah Free, Cr Chris Calvi-Freeman, Cr Brian Dawson and Cr Jill Day ( WCC).

With such a range of committees, it is little wonder that decision making is such a slow process. Debate becomes a talk fest among competing groups of individuals with diverse interests, responding to the ever present influence of the Transport Agency that is so intent on pushing through its road construction agenda all the way to Wellington Airport. The Transport Agency’s roading bias ignores the social and environmental impact of this programme, overseas trends on use of existing road space in metropolitan areas, and most important the stated wishes of the people of Wellington.

Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) was established in early 2016 as a joint initiative between the WCC, the Regional Council and the NZTA, with the objective of working with the people of Wellington to deliver an integrated transport system that supports their aspirations for how the city looks, feels and functions.

Ideally, it could be a vehicle for providing much needed local leadership on transport issues. However, its focus is too limited and the suspicion remains that the NZTA as major funder is continuing to play the part of puppeteer pulling the strings, with the regional representatives dancing to its tune in order to secure funding – ‘They’re paying, lets take the money and run.’

What Wellington desperately needs is a champion to standup to NZTA and the government, to tell them that constructing more roads is not what Wellington wants or needs, and to push for a rapid transit system based around a much improved electrified rail and bus network. Len Brown of Auckland did it and the Transport Agency and the government finally listened and belatedly put light rail on Auckland’s transport agenda.

Who is prepared to stand up and fight for the same in Wellington?

Regional chair Chris Laidlaw has gone on record as supporting light rail, but like former WCC Mayor Wade-Brown he feels challenged by the prospect. Given his profile and mana, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester is also a potential champion. However, he will need to reverse his current stance of support for more tunnels and expanded road space through to the Airport.

LGWM provides a good rallying point for both to use their respective positions and fight for better outcomes. It has 12 bold guiding principles including better public transport, improved environmental outcomes, a people-centred city, managed travel demand, and the integration urban form and transport thinking. Its survey findings indicate that Wellingtonians want public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment.

Working together, Laidlaw and Lester should heed these principles and survey findings and use them as the basis for making their case in a push for a livable environment and a world class public transport service.

When it all boils down, these decisions will be as much based on political issues as they are on science and economics.

Michael C Barnett is a member of FIT Wellington.


  1. luke, 5. April 2017, 8:17

    the government is only interested in ramming motorways thru urban areas (with a few cycleways thrown in for greenwash) and completely uninterested in providing alternatives to the single occupant vehicle car dependancy model. the councils’ problem is that they can use ‘free’ government money on more roads but ‘ratepayers’ money is needed for alternatives.

  2. Trish, 5. April 2017, 16:53

    It is either ironic (or worrying) that LGWM has scheduled its first public release of its recommendations for 6pm next Monday (at Prefab). The time clashes with a scheduled talk at the City Gallery by Maurice Clark, our city’s guru on saving old buildings. So we have to chose between addressing our transport needs or saving the city. It seems that after all the singing and dancing around LGWM, we still cannot have both. I had hoped they were more clever.

  3. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 5. April 2017, 17:57

    Michael: I think you’re being a little premature in suggesting that the NZTA has no interest in other than road building. Only this very morning did Transport Minister Simon Bridges join with Mayor Justin Lester in breaking the ground for the city’s refreshed cycle network programme – a programme largely funded by the Government through its Urban Cycleways Programme and through the NZTA. Cllr Sarah Free is ably overseeing what will be a very significant programme of high quality cycling infrastructure to be implemented over the next few years, starting this year (all going well) with an almost-iconic Cobham Drive route.

    Mayor Lester and I represent the city on the programme governance group of Let’s Get Wellington Moving, and, together with Greater Wellington representatives, we’re pressing for a widening of the scope of LGWM to include a full evaluation of light rail. Finally, I represent the city on the Regional Land Transport Committee – Mayor Lester having passed this role to me.

    Far from not having a transport champion, I believe the city and region have half a dozen – all pushing largely in the same direction.

    Cllr Chris Calvi-Freeman, portfolio leader, transport strategy & operations, WCC

  4. Ross Clark, 5. April 2017, 21:46

    It also comes back to the question of why we need five territorial councils for the area west of the Rimutakas. I know that the politics are fraught (=impossible), but a merger of the five TA and the regional council may be the only way to go. Christchurch City has 390,000 residents; only a little less than the five TAs (405,000 in the four cities and a further 52,100 in the Kapiti Coast).

    Note also, given the comments above about Auckland, that the changes only came when a very large bullet was bitten with the creation of the super-council. It’s had its problems, but I don’t see any real agenda to go back to the way things were.

  5. TrevorH, 6. April 2017, 12:00

    Yes there are too many committees involved. The way forward is actually simple and obvious. There needs to be separation between State Highway One and CBD traffic. CBD commuters should be encouraged to use public transport but that in turn has to be fast, frequent and convenient as well as relatively inexpensive. It is none of these things at present. Cycle-ways solve little being a niche interest. State Highway One needs to be four lanes from the airport to Levin to support Wellington and the region’s growth. Anything else is just fiddling while Wellington stalls.

  6. Michael C Barnett, 6. April 2017, 12:13

    Chris. NZTA’s record is not good when it comes to funding public transport and I remain sceptical, that it is capable of changing its road construction mindset. As for Mayor Lester’s agreement with Transport Minister Bridges on cycleways. that is the easy bit, for after all cycleways are a firm part of this governments policies.

    LGWM is a wonderful initiative to build upon. Its 12 guiding principles and the public response make it quite clear that Wellingtonians don’t want more roads, they want better public transport. As we at FIT Wellington have demonstrated, light rail on key corridors complemented with all electric buses is the way to go.

    I will cheer from the roof tops when Wellington City and GWRC take full control of the process and the majority of councillors start championing the cause by saying; “no to four lanes to the planes” and call for “two lanes for the trains.”

  7. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 6. April 2017, 17:44

    Michael: The fact that the two commentators directly above this posting – yourself and TrevorH – express diametrically opposed views about road building, surely indicates the difficulty in reaching a solution by popular consensus. I believe NZTA has changed its spots and will consider all options on an equal footing. Whether the outcome will be one that pleases you or TrevorH remains to be seen.

  8. Chris Laidlaw, 6. April 2017, 21:39

    Michael: I’m sorry you seem to need a little more faith. Resolving the problem of congestion in Wellington isn’t going to be done by just having a bunch of “champions,” shouting about their favoured options. That would get us nowhere. The Get Welly moving process is looking at the best suite of interventions, including, significantly, congestion charging options, that can clear the way for a rapid transit corridor worthy of the name. Every option is on the table and there is a very encouraging unity of purpose around this.

  9. Morris Oxford, 7. April 2017, 7:34

    The options have been “on the table” for many years. It is far too much to expect any of them to have been adopted. But some of them should have been removed by now.

  10. Brent Efford, 8. April 2017, 0:01

    Very well said, as usual, Michael B. We (Trams-Action) are also trying to engage with LGWM but, having had the disastrous experience with the earlier Public Transport Spine Study sponsored by the same parties, don’t have a lot of hope.
    I’m afraid Chriss Calvi-Freeman and Laidlaw seem very naive as far as NZTA is concerned! Cycleways are the National Party’s preferred greenwash which don’t threaten (and in fact are quite compatible with) the RoNS ‘more motorways’ paradigm.
    Look how easily a local cycleway has been fitted into the Kapiti Expressway, which exists to speed cars towards inner Wellington. How will cycleways be an alternative to mass car commuting from Kapiti etc when Transmission Gully is completed?
    Of note is that Wellington doesn’t even have a regional rail transit system that penetrates the CBD – so, far from having a “great public transport system” (as the GWRC officers would have us believe), we don’t even make first base.

  11. Mike Mellor, 8. April 2017, 11:14

    I came across rather a neat summation of the transport issue :

    “Governments give drivers free land; people as a result drive more than they otherwise would.
    “That’s it.
    “The rest is commentary.”

  12. John Rankin, 8. April 2017, 17:35

    @Mike: great quote! And when something is free, demand is infinitely elastic, so the answer to congestion is always — give drivers more free land.

    In rural areas, it makes economic sense to turn bare land into roads, because rural roads generally connect businesses to other businesses (such as dairy farms to milk factories), businesses are far apart, and land is plentiful and relatively cheap. And Road User Charges mean businesses meet a portion of the cost. But the economics are reversed in urban areas, where land is scarce and expensive, and businesses are close together. So in cities, it’s essential to use road space efficiently. And because roads are free, it’s impossible.

    @ChrisLaidlaw is spot on to draw attention to the congestion charging options in LGWM. It will be interesting to see how this plays out: if we are going to make people pay to drive on city roads, we need a commensurate investment in high quality public transport, so people have a genuine choice.

    As @Brent suggests, those who think Wellington has a “great public transport system” need to get out more. I’d say that given the constraints our PT system operates under, it’s surprisingly good. Imagine how good it could be if those constraints were lifted. I think we will be able to claim great public transport when we have doubled the ridership per capita.

  13. Glen Smith, 9. April 2017, 13:03

    Michael. Interesting look at the political quagmire that has delayed sensible transport progress for many years. Bill English may point the finger but in fact the government is primarily to blame by failing to exert control over their ‘Transport’ Agency that has continually tried to foist an unwanted, backward thinking, and blinkered mass car transportation model onto Wellington. We must take the Chris’s at their word that the leopard has changed its spots, but old habits die hard and one must be suspicious of the analysis undertaken by the NZTA and GWRC officials which history shows is frequently factually incorrect, unintelligent or biased. Independent advice would be the ideal.
    However it is not only the NZTA who can be one-eyed and I challenge your assertion that Justin Lester “will need to reverse his current stance of support for more tunnels and expanded road space through to the Airport” and that the public don’t want improved roading. Clearly the absolute top funding priority is for high quality PT improvements but given growth projections (particularly in the Airport and Eastern suburbs) even with the most optimistic projections of PT share it is clear that increased roading capacity will be required. (I ask you to do the sums yourself based on projections- I can supply these if required). Roading and high quality PT are not mutually exclusive and what is needed is improvements in BOTH, which should be progressed simultaneously to maintain a balanced transport network.
    The cheapest and least destructive way of achieving both increased road and dedicated PT capacity across Mt Victoria is by building the second Mt Victoria Tunnel as a dual road rail tunnel (see http://www.theconstructionindex.co.uk/news/view/brisbane-announces-5bn-double-deck-road-and-rail-tunnel for an example of this sort of tunnel that the Regional Council advisors tell us doesn’t exist and is impossible because “..rail and road traffic is always located in separate tunnel bores (ie rail and road traffic don’t mix in the same tunnel bore”). Hmmm. Back to transport school for the GWRC advisors I think.
    I had advice from Alun Thomas, head of tunnelling for Ramboll ( who are designing the stunning 18km long submerged Fehmarnbelt Tunnel -see http://www.ramboll.com/projects/rdk/femernbaelt) that a multipurpose tunnel was not only eminently achievable but likely 25% cheaper than separate bores, and that including separate cycle and pedestrian corridors should be “..economic and simple.” In 2013 (three and a half years ago now) I passed this information to the NZTA and GWRC. In reply, Susan Rawles, Planning Advisor (RoNs) Wellington Regional Office stated that this “ ..is a type of tunnel that the Transport Agency is not able to deliver as we can only designate for the purpose of road, construction, operation and maintenance”. Unbelievable!! The GWRC replied they had no plans to investigate this option.
    As a medical practitioner I am required to investigate (including seeking advice) and inform my patients of all of the viable treatment options available to them. If, due to my personal bias, I fail to inform them of a significant viable option I am seen as negligent. Yet it appears that GWRC advisors and councillors can ignore viable options based only on their own personal biases. I asked Paul Swain to comment on whether he viewed this as negligence but he didn’t reply. I extend the invitation to other councillors. It is difficult to have confidence in planning processes when planners behave in such an unprofessional manner.
    Your organisation also continues to promote a spine to the airport via Newtown despite John Rankin correctly noting that an efficient rail spine requires a dedicated corridor, and without producing any evidence of how you would achieve a dedicated corridor through Newtown (it is unachievable). In addition the object of the spine is to attract commuters from the airport and eastern suburbs out of their cars and you appear to have put no thought/ analysis into how many commuters would actually use a rail service that takes a slow non dedicated path via the zoo (very few I suspect). You also don’t demonstrate how you will achieve a high quality eastern cycleway if the second Mt Victoria Tunnel doesn’t proceed.
    The logical plan is to incorporate rail AND a high quality dedicated dual cycleway AND a separate pedestrian corridor into the planned Mt Victoria/ Ruahine St/ Wellington Road changes. Newtown should be on the ‘southern limb’ of the transport network, serviced by buses.
    A dedicated rail corridor via this route from the station to airport is achievable with virtually no additional property aquisition. I have sent the planners concept plans for this – it will be interesting to see if they do their jobs and model and cost rail options such as this (I won’t be holding my breath).

  14. Russell Tregonning, 10. April 2017, 11:00

    As Michael points out, Bill English says there is plenty of money. The issue is how to use this in a way that addresses the major problems we face. Creating more urban motorways is expensive, destructive and doesn’t solve congestion — you only need to visit Auckland to confirm that. I lived there 40 years ago and it was bad then — now so much worse. We mustn’t repeat their mistake.
    A bus-based solution will not cope with Wellington’s capacity needs of the near future. All-electric rail will not only provide the capacity, but will be quick, comfortable, clean and climate-friendly,
    Where is the leader ( or leaders) to commit to that right now? I want a Wellington leader to speak clearly to Bill English and ask for the funding for rail, not new roads on Wellington’s main transport spine through the city. Is that too much to ask?

  15. John Rankin, 10. April 2017, 14:18

    @GlenSmith: one of the features of successful light rail systems is that they reach major destinations. They emphasise access to education campuses, office complexes, hospitals, shopping areas, major suburbs, and the CBD. An advantage of a Newtown route is that it passes the hospital and the Newtown shopping area. If it reaches Newtown via Taranaki and Wallace Streets, it also passes the Massey University campus. I am told that this was originally a tram route.

    You are right to question the feasibility of providing a dedicated right of way for this route, although I’m not as sure as you that “it is unachievable”. If the line reaches Kilbirnie via Constable St, you re-route eastbound traffic via Mein and Coromandel Streets, opening up enough space for a stop on Constable St at the corner of Riddiford St. Our investigations show that a Constable St / Crawford Road route would be a challenge, but appears feasible. A detailed engineering study is needed to test this, of course.

    More generally, the way to make room for light rail down the centre of a narrow street is to move on-street parking off-street. This would be the down-side of a route via the Zoo and a tunnel under Mt Albert, although the route would have a better alignment for a Kilbirnie shopping centre stop, and passes close to more people than the Constable St option. FIT’s view is that if you can run light rail on a dedicated space in the middle of the street to the Zoo, this would be better than Constable St.

    Assuming a 5 minute service with an average speed of 30 km/hr (readily achieved for in-street light rail overseas), a trip from the airport to railway station via the Zoo would take under 20 minutes (includes waiting for the tram to arrive). I don’t think it’s correct to describe this as “slow”.

    In the end, the best route is the one that will attract the most riders and at the moment I don’t have enough information to have a preference. One lives in hope that the model LGWM is developing will let people assess various route options and estimate their likely patronage.

  16. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 10. April 2017, 19:31

    @John Rankin. I think you’re probably right.

    As a member of the LGWM governance group, I presented the case, at its meeting last week, for LGWM to do justice to a complete investigation of light rail as an integral part of the project from this point forward. The LGWM officers have now been directed to report back on how this can be made to happen.

  17. Wendy, 14. April 2017, 10:11

    @ Glen Smith: I agree with your statement that “roading and high quality PT are not mutually exclusive and what is needed is improvements in BOTH which should be progressed simultaneously to maintain a balance network”.

    I am sick of the endless wrangling and, while I live in the city and support and use public transport whenever I can, Wellington still needs an effective roading system to allow public and private vehicles to cross and/or get out of the city without causing the congestion we are experiencing.

    It is time a decision was made, but if history is anything to go by and, taking account of the number of agencies involved in the decision making, and endless potential objections to any final proposal, I fear a robust and sensible system will not occur. Wellington will become more and more gridlocked.

  18. Glen Smith, 15. April 2017, 19:24

    Wendy. An end to the wrangling would be nice with a compromise of investment in both roads and PT. But the evidence is that the vast majority of funding from now on needs to be in PT, not roads. This is not based on a personal bias but on fundamental transport science.

    Cars are great things and it would be nice to jump in a car for every trip. But as mass car transport expands, it becomes self destructive/self defeating. A graph of car density vs flow (search ‘critical density traffic flow’) forms an inverse U curve. As the number of cars using a carriageway increases, at first you transport more people per time until a peak is reached (critical density). If you then try to add more cars you actually transport LESS people per time until finally you reach ‘jam’ density when you transport NO people. You can try mitigating this (eg minimising obstacles such as intersections, spreading the load over time etc), and you can increase the capacity of major arterials (more lanes) but, short of knocking down increasingly large areas of the city, you can’t easily increase the capacity of smaller roads ( which of course the arterials flow into).

    In short you can only expand mass car transport to a fixed ‘ceiling’ – once the average flow over a large part of the day across a large part of the day reaches critical density, adding more cars just makes things increasingly worse (less people transported) and you can only increase transport capacity further by increasing/ transferring load to more efficient/ concentrated transport modes (rail being the optimum). You can’t get around this basic science. If you and other car users are worried by increasing congestion and want to efficiently get around our city by car, you HAVE to support major investment in PT and now is the time to do this.

  19. Wendy, 17. April 2017, 9:45

    @Glen: I do support public transport. I live in the city and use public transport to get around. However, many of my friends and family do not live in the city, and public transport is not an option when leaving the city to visit them. For some it would take me half a day of trains and buses to get there which is not practicable and, unfortunately, Greater Wellington is not going to be able to afford an efficient public system to be able to do this.

    I do not advocate ripping down parts of the city to build massive motorways, but we have to find a viable way of getting cars and public transport across the city without congesting the major arterial routes to the suburbs (Willis, Victoria, Cuba, Taranaki Street etc.) which obstructs both public and private transport.

    For me the problem seems to be keeping cars out of the inner city, while enabling those who have to get across and out of the city to do so without impacting on the inner city.

  20. Glen Smith, 18. April 2017, 8:53

    Wendy. Some very good points. For many trips a car will continue to be the best or only option (taking the dog to the vet, grandma to the rest home, the family out camping etc etc) but you can’t escape the fundamental fact (as outlined above) that any city has an essentially fixed and limited capacity to accommodate mass car transportation before the roading system becomes self destructive and you descend into ever increasing congestion (which we are starting to do now). The intelligent approach (undertaken by most overseas cities) is to ‘reserve’ this capacity for the trips where a car is essential by putting in place a PT system that will efficiently and cost effectively transport commuters on trips where a car is not essential. As you point out the current PT system doesn’t do this and, again as you correctly point out, one of the largest barriers is across town transit where PT users face an up to 40 minute penalty with at least one and commonly multiple transfers. The evidence is that this can be reduced to a consistent 7 minutes via a seamless dedicated extension of our rail network, the logical route (in my opinion) being the Quays using 2 of the 6 current road lanes. Across town road capacity also needs improving (which is why I support a second Terrace Tunnel) but improved across town PT is BY FAR the most pressing priority.
    In terms of funding both road and PT improvements are sufficiently expensive that central funding will be required. But while our politicians appear happy to spend billions on roads, which their own research shows will only result in massive increases in congestion, they (for some bizarre reason that remains a mystery to me) aren’t prepared to invest the money into PT that is logically required to produce a ‘level playing field’ with a balanced transport network. I invite you and other members of the public to join me in ‘encouraging’ them to do this.