Wellington Scoop

Congestion, and a hidden agenda


by Michael C Barnett
The increased peak-hour congestion and longer travel times on the new Kapiti Expressway should not be surprising.

Since I read read the accounts of delays at the southern end of the new Expressway and increased travel time on the morning commute into Wellington, I’ve been reminded of the American advocate for more livable cities, Jane Jacobs, and her description of a taxi journey from Toronto Airport to a downtown destination in Toronto. The first part of her trip was along an elevated limited access highway:

“On the expressway stretch the meter is ticking over, the trip seems economical and I am getting good distance for my money. Then I hit a choke point at the exit ramp and from then on everything changes. Considering what it is costing me, I am getting very little distance… What worries me is the expensive burden on the city and the planet of air pollution and urban road congestion that this part of my trip is registering.

“…All the way to my micro-destination, from the moment we enter the street grid, we are surrounded by delivery vans, other taxis, and private cars whose drivers also are attempting to reach their micro-destinations. ….. Our joint circuitous congestion hampers all others attempting to make use of the streets: public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicycle couriers.”

The increased congestion and longer travel time at Mackays Crossing has been acknowledged by the NZ Transport Agency, which admits that little can be done to solve the problem until the expressway is joined up with the Transmission Gully motorway, due for completion sometime in 2020.

Then there’ll be a new problem – there will then be a new choke point where the new expressway links to the existing motorway at Tawa, and all things being equal, congestion and slower travel times into Wellington City will remain. What is not so clear is how the city is expected to cope with the estimated 11,000 additional vehicles per day that will be generated. On this, the Transport Agency is remarkably silent.

Meanwhile the Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) process ambles along. I attended one of a series of workshops held to give participants an opportunity to state their priorities in four focus areas: public transport, state highway improvements, active transport (walking and cycling) and transport demand management.

A process that started a year ago with the promise of a transformational rethink of transport priorities, now has the appearance of being a rehash of outdated thinking. A significant focus on duplicate tunnels at The Terrace and Mt Victoria, grade separation either over or under the Basin Reserve and four-laning State Highway 1 down Vivian Street, along Kent Terrace and on to the airport remains on the agenda. When asked for a time frame for completing this planning process, the project director was non committal, but he did hint that it would be at least a year.

The LGWM progress report (February 2017) has a clear set of guiding principles and the results of public surveys that clearly indicate Wellingtonians want fewer roads and cars, better public transport, a more pedestrian-friendly city and protection of the natural environment. Proposals for twin tunnels, encroachment on treasured green space along Ruahine Street and four-laning to the airport are not compatible with these principles or with the results of the surveys.

The progress report identifies where and how people travel into the city from all quarters of the compass during the morning peak: 42,000 from the north along State Highways 1 and 2, 14,000 from the western suburbs and 26,000 from the southern and eastern suburbs. Of the 7,400 people entering the city and travelling south along the crosstown route and along Aotea Quay, only 25% – i.e. 1850 – continue on to the southern and eastern suburbs.

The report also identifies the mode of travel of the 82,000 coming into the city and states ‘There is almost an even split between travel by car and other modes of transport.’ This means approximately 50% of travel to the city is by motor vehicle.

All this raises questions about the LGWM process and where it is heading.

If so few are passing through the city, why the strong emphasis on improvements to State Highway 1 and why continue to route it along Vivian Street and Kent Terrace? Where is the discussion of how Wellington City is supposed to cope with the additional 11,000 vehicles entering the city each day? And where does light rail fit into this picture, apart from some vague promise that it will be considered at some future date? Does the Transport Agency have the statutory authority to fund light rail infrastructure? If not, why not? The Government has agreed to fund half of the fixed costs of the City Rail Link (total cost approx. $3-4 billion) in Auckland, and recent announcements on mass transit/light rail in Auckland talk about “co-investment” under the Land Transport Fund including NZTA and Auckland Council/Auckland Transport.

If Auckland can secure these terms, then why not the same for Wellington infrastructure? These are serious questions requiring answers.

It is also fair to ask: who is really driving the LGWM process? Is the governance group in control providing oversight and direction? Or is the Transport Agency pursuing its own hidden agenda? Regional Council chairperson Chris Laidlaw is on record as supporting light rail, and Chris Calvi-Freeman of the Wellington City Council has called for LGWM to do justice to a complete investigation of light rail as an integral part of the project. Both are part of the governance group. Their voices should be heeded.

Recently, the Regional Council and the City Council formed a working group to ensure dialogue on transport issues. Members of this committee would do well to join the two Chris’s and champion the cause for a congestion-free city. The city environment should be paramount and the best way forward will be to make better use of existing road space and design a transport system around the desired urban form.

Wellington cannot build its way out of congestion.


  1. TrevorH, 18. April 2017, 9:41

    The roads into and out of and across Wellington are dangerous and inadequate. Anyone who opposes significant improvements is inviting further fatalities and injuries. Dealing with congestion requires a carrot and stick approach, without compromising safety. Peak hour congestion taxes and car-pooling incentives on the one hand, while improving public transport options on the other. As for LGWM’s sacred principles, where do they derive from? I recall contributing to an initial LGWM call for views, but received no response or confirmation my views were received. Now it seems we have a select few being invited to give their views in workshops – are these open to the public?

  2. JC, 18. April 2017, 19:53

    Why do you say there will be a new choke point at Tawa? The existing choke point at McKays arises because the new four lane expressway is choked into two lanes. That won’t happen at Tawa – once TG is built, the road will be four lanes from north of Peka Peka all the way through to the Terrace Tunnel. So the planners need to focus on what happens there – not at Tawa.

  3. IanS, 18. April 2017, 20:47

    @TrevorH – In defence of the LGWM workers: there is a huge spreadsheet of ‘raw comments’ collected during the earlier phase on the LGWM website. This was then distilled down and common aspects merged by LGWM to form part of the initial input. Your comments will be there Trevor. Everyone who registered an interest, after a series of public adverts, was invited to the latest workshops. I am sorry you feel your views have been missed, Trevor.

    About 80% of attendees at the workshop I went to agreed with you and Michael that we need a mix of more road congestion charges, more active transport improvements and better rapid public transport.

    Officials now accept that the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) system that was agreed by GWRC following the Public Transport Spine Study cannot be implemented in Wellington because there is no room. This has now been relabelled as a limited bus priority system, and it is clear that the suggested increase in passenger capacity will reach overflow about the time that the new influx of cars via Transmission Gully hits the morning rush hour peak.

    Michael is right – the only public transport mode that can save us from peak chaos along the main transport spine through Wellington is light rail (trams). We need them to begin operation before 2025 when the bus contracts need to be renewed. Come on GW, WCC and NZTA, you can do this; but only if you start planning now and stop the pretense that you are “future-proofing” routes for light rail.

  4. luke, 18. April 2017, 22:33

    there is an aversion by NZTA and their political masters to any alternative to ‘more roads’. Mr Joyce has a lot of sway.

  5. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 18. April 2017, 22:38

    IanS – see the comments in the “Under the surface” thread.

  6. Elaine Hampton, 19. April 2017, 14:34

    Sad to see there is so little progress from NZTA and fellow travelers. They need to move into the 21st century. Coal and oil is dead. We cannot continue as we are if we want out grandchildren to have any quality of life. Polluted air, choked streets, the dead streetscape that comes with making cities over to vehicles is what we will leave behind. Four lanes to the planes for such a small airport! We need a u-turn, we have lobbied and fought for it. Why isn’t it happening. A solution like rapid rail will move far more people far more efficiently reducing traffic, then our streets will be walk-able again and not ‘dangerous and inadequate’. We could then have safe pavements and bike lanes.

  7. Guy M, 20. April 2017, 8:58

    I’d just like to remind people of the comments made by, I think, John Foster(?) at the Basin Bridge enquiry. When people were discussing the need or not for a second Terrace Tunnel (identified by JC above as being the next pinch point), as NZTA were arguing that the limiting state of the current Terrace Tunnel was stopping cars getting into the city, Mr Foster replied with words to the effect of: “Exactly – that’s why we designed it like that. It is designed as a pinch point in order to stop too many cars getting into the city. It drip feeds cars in. If you double it [ie second tunnel] then you will just get total gridlock.”

    There is little point in waiting for total gridlock and then trying to install a high speed public transport system as a counter-measure. What is needed now, is for a PT system on a dedicated separate track that can traverse the city and won’t get clogged by increased car congestion, which sure as hell, will happen once Trans Gully is completed. We need to build the PT first.

  8. Libby Grant, 21. April 2017, 7:09

    Another great article, thanks Michael. I totally agree with Elaine, well said. Wellingtonians want our city to continue to be the coolest little capital in the world and by allowing cars and roads to continue to dominate we will lose that status. We like our city because it is compact, easy to move around and beautiful – we do not want more roads encouraging more cars which pollute the air, increase harmful emissions, are noisy and kill people. We must release ourselves from the the thrall of a car-focussed transport mentality. Cities are for people not cars. Gil Penalosa, the great Columbian urbanist, said that every city needs a law of two words: pedestrians first.

    This obsession with cars and roading is all pervasive. The latest Government Policy Statement on Land Transport actually increases funding for roads and decreases funding for public and active transport: that is a failure of government to recognise the reality of climate change and the harms to health and the environment from cars.

    Let’s break out of the mould and build a city transport system that reflects the will of Wellingtonians and the reality of climate change.

  9. Henry Filth, 21. April 2017, 13:45

    “What is not so clear is how the city is expected to cope with the estimated 11,000 additional vehicles per day that will be generated.” I’m curious about this. I’ve never said to myself “Oooh! There’s a new motorway at PekaPeka! I’ll go and drive up and down it”. So what will generate these 11,000 cars per day?

  10. Paul, 22. April 2017, 11:00

    Why will Tawa be a pinch point? Is it because southbound it is where all traffic from the Porirua two lanes meets the Transmission Gully two lanes and tries to squeeze them all into only two lanes through Tawa?

  11. Michael C Barnett, 22. April 2017, 19:09

    Henry. The 110000 additional vehicles per day comes from the NZTA estimate of the additional traffic generated upon completion of the Kapiti Expressway and Transmission Gully.

    Paul. I referred to Tawa as a pinch point as peak hour traffic already backs up to Tawa and further north during the morning peak. I cn only see it getting worse when Transmission Gully is completed.

  12. Guy M, 24. April 2017, 11:33

    Paul – why is Tawa the pinch point? Yes – you got it in one. Tawa / Linden will be the pinch area precisely because two plus two will have to equal two, not four as NZTA would prefer but cannot get. Heck, they even want to get three lanes, but can’t do that for more than a couple of kms. So, two it is.

    What they are obviously hoping is that Porirua / Plimmerton traffic will be much less (given that Paraparaumu / Kapiti traffic will be more). Generally though, expect an almighty clusterfuck (technical term, not a rude word) when TG eventually opens.