Wellington Scoop

Smart transport – throwing out the old rules

by Ian Apperley
As I wrote last time, I think that Wellington transport solutions are lacking. I’d go as far to say they are unimaginative, stuck in the 20th century, and boring. So, what does Smart Transport look like?

Five years ago, I wrote a short book called “Wellington as a Smart City.” I was interested in how Smart Cities were tackling issues from transport to climate change. Re-reading that book has reinforced my view that to “fix” transport we need to radically change our approach to planning. We need to disrupt transport.

But how? Let’s start with throwing out all the rules. Imagine that everything you know is wrong about transport. All the methodologies, the planning, the past, it’s all wrong. We know that we keep applying those rules and we know that transport is steadily getting worse. So, whatever we do, we need to do something different.

The strictures and systems that are in place to allow for transport planning are ancient and rigid. Worse, they tend to separate transport into different idioms rather than looking at the entire city as a living eco-system.

The first thing to do is to treat transport as a single organism regardless of the method or modes. To that end, let’s imagine that transport comprises roads, public transport, cars, bicycles, business movements including freight, ferries, pedestrians, and rail. Let’s add the airport as well. There are likely other elements, but these will do to start with. We know that focussing on any of these individually does not work. We could add more roads, and more cars will come. We could add more public transport and it will become clogged. We could convert the entire city into cycle lanes and business would die.

Let’s start with some radical ideas.

For a start, why don’t we get rid of the monolithic transport planning committees that have been blundering about for the last two decades. Instead, let’s create a group of smart thinkers who can leverage technology and have international experience in solving these issues in other cities. That is the only way we can spawn innovation.

How about we reduce public transport fares by half. Even better, why not make it free? This is not a mad idea. In the last week both Paris and Germany have been debating making public transport free. Germany is going to trial the idea this year. Estonia has already done it, and the city of Hasselt in Belgium did it in 1997, noting that within a decade ridership increased by thirteen times.

Don’t tell me how it can’t be done in Wellington, tell me how it can be done. If we are serious about public transport, then we need to be radical.

When it comes to cars, we are tinkering around the edges and deluding ourselves. We’ve tried shared car services, short term car renting, fallen in love with electric vehicles (doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to capacity), and suggested congestion charging.

Short of getting people on to a decent public transport system to get them out of cars, there are very few options left with the current archaic model.

Autonomous cars may go a long way to solving the issue, and I’ll come back to them, but I want to look at some other options in the meantime.

The WCC collects a massive amount of data about traffic and pedestrian movements. They track a lot of this via your cellphone. There are sensors around the city that see your phone each time it passes. This gives a lot of raw data on where people and traffic are in real-time. On top of that are CCTV and other data collection methods.

Internationally, large cities facing traffic congestion have wired their traffic management systems together with intelligent systems rather than relying on the static programming of traffic lights. The systems see the traffic on a city-wide scale and manage it in real-time. And guess what, it works, substantively. Congestion is significantly reduced.

Milton Keynes in the U.K., with a population very similar to Wellington, is starting to use it. And at a cost of around $6m NZD, it’s a lot cheaper than a $150m convention centre. That same system can prioritise buses, cyclists, emergency vehicles, and pedestrians, all while reducing overall congestion.

To some extent this is happening in Wellington, and everywhere, thanks to Google Traffic. That app is now routing traffic in real-time all over the city with unintended consequences.

There will come a time where autonomous cars are everywhere, which will ultimately do two things. Kill off public transport due to cost (unless public transport is free) and reduce congestion. Research suggests that to catch a fully-autonomous car from the outer-lying suburbs into the CBD could drop down below $2 a ride when it happens. Electric cars will lower that further. Share-riding, even more. Why get a bus or train?

Congestion is reduced for a couple of reasons. Cars can be closer together, travelling in convoy, and given that a car spends over 95% of its life sitting idle, you can argue we need less of them.

Other modes of transport can be better managed as well. The number of couriers in the CBD is insane at times. Internationally cities are creating hubs around the CBD where couriers drop their freight and then either drones or bicycles are used to deliver them within the CBD.

I could go on for days. Why is the WCC not sponsoring and promoting a work from home day once per week? The city is packed with office workers these days and not only does a work from home day reduce congestion, it also increases the mental and physical health of those that do it. On top of that, it can revitalise local communities and small business.

None of this will happen while we have an archaic methodology that dates from the 1950s that needs to just get out of the way of progress. Old thinking, stubborn ways, lucrative ancient contracts, sheer bloody-mindedness, ideology, political interference, and sheer ignorance is sending us down the same path we’ve always headed down.

Usually ending in a cul-de-sac.


  1. Ralf, 29. March 2018, 10:53

    While I agree in general (holistic approach to city planning) I think there are some issues here.

    I don’t see congestion being removed by AV as a given:
    1) as you state, more people will using cars than today (bus passengers, train passengers). NZ is “lucky” in the sense that almost no one uses PT and we have few high-density areas; if PT in cities like HongKong, Singapore, London, Paris, New York was replaced with AVs, that would mean billions of trips additionally on roads. Even Auckland will still need PT even in a best-case-scenario.
    2) compacting traffic only works with 100% adoption rate. If half of the cars are still being driven by humans, then nothing changes except more cars on the road.
    3) will all people share rides? unlikely. Will people share cars? even that is not clear. Cars are status symbols and you might still want your own car if you are rich enough. You won’t park it anymore, just keep it cruising around the block to save on parking cost (increasing congestion). So it will depend on the cost of AVs (while they will be more expensive than non-AV vehicles I don’t think that car companies will look forward to that 95% drop in car adoption rates and will still try to sell cars to everyone, for them they might even see an increase in market, since kids can now own their own cars, no drivers license needed…).
    4) if prices are cheap enough you might get your own ride for your kids, your dog, your dry cleaning, your pizza delivery, … resulting in an explosion of trips.

    I also fear that promoting AV as THE solution to traffic problems will only cause reduced spending on PT (why bother if it dies of in a couple of years anyway) and redirect it to roads. And then later we might come to regret that decision (similar to removing trams worldwide).

    Making PT free has some advantages obviously (removing the cost for fare collection, speeding up boarding/disembarking) it also has some disadvantages and I believe studies have shown that free PT does not really entice people to switch modes (though it will increase the number of trips by existing users). It is more important to increase quality of service (frequency, speed (priority for PT at signals? heresy!), reliability, …) to make a switch attractive.

  2. KB, 30. March 2018, 18:32

    Great article Ian – this is the sort of thing Wellington needs to be discussing more as we prepare to spend a billion dollars or more on 20th century solutions.

    I also agree that many will choose AVs over public transport due to cost and convenience – it’s not going to be a government/council decision, this is going to happen regardless of what a committee prefers. We need to start preparing for these vehicles now. Worth noting that some of these AVs will be the size of bikes (but enclosed), so adding bike lanes now will likely pay off handsomely in the future.

    AV technology is already being used in China to make light-rail type vehicles that operate on dedicated road lanes (rather than having to install a rigid unchangeable rail corridor). Think multi-carriage electric buses essentially as long as light rail would be with the same passenger capacity – with computer assisted driver aids that follow road markings. Far cheaper to install (no rail or overhead power needed).

  3. Cr Chris Calvi-Freeman, 30. March 2018, 19:59

    Sensible comments from Ralf. There are NO easy answers!

  4. doug watson, 30. March 2018, 22:18

    get real. if the answer is not a big road – there is no money available – end of story. intelligent answers do not appeal to the roads lobby.

  5. Cr Chris Calvi-Freeman, 31. March 2018, 13:59

    @ doug watson. A much more balanced approach is starting to emerge from LGWM.

  6. Glen Smith, 31. March 2018, 20:09

    Ian. You state that with autonomous vehicles ‘congestion is reduced’ as though this is an established fact. The jury is out on this and the evidence, in my view, is that autonomous vehicles will increase congestion – possibly markedly. Michael Barnard in an article on the Clean Technica site runs through some of the likely effects of AVs and concludes they will likely not only increase congestion but also societal negative externalities. Modelling of point to point on-demand AV vehicles by David Fiedler et al showed increased trips, with 38% of trips being empty (pick up, drop off and rebalancing). If the road system is operating close to critical density, the increased congestion would be dramatic.
    In terms of cost (the $2 trips you talk about) this depends on whether cars continue to receive the huge subsidy advantage they enjoy compared to other modes, or whether some levelling of the playing field is undertaken. You may find the $2 trip is in fact a $10 trip (once congestion charges are imposed to pay for the true societal cost of the trip) at 10km/ hr (due to the increased congestion caused by autonomous vehicles) while PT passenger cruise past you at 40km/hr on their free rail trip.

  7. Kerry, 31. March 2018, 20:17

    Of course there are easy answers!
    “Every complex problem has a solution that is simple, neat and wrong”

  8. Over 60s Man, 1. April 2018, 11:56

    GWRC was only ever enlightened when D. Watson was in charge. He had a PhD in transport (bus ops) and knew about public transport planning. It has been downhill ever since he was forced out and armies of jobsworths moved in. I can’t see LGWM ever getting moving!

  9. michael, 1. April 2018, 19:18

    Why not start now with cheap or free public transport and see where that leads. Assuming there is a huge increase in PT use surely that will prompt faster action towards actually considering 21st century solutions . . . and also assuming control of transport has been removed from the GWRG = otherwise nothing will ever change.

  10. Farmer John, 1. April 2018, 20:28

    I see another AV has crashed in the USA and killed its driver. That’s two fatal accidents in a month (the other was an AV UBER car killing a cyclist) Unfortunately AVs are proving to be less smart than intended. I don’t think I’ll be using one instead of my ute.

  11. Ian Apperley, 3. April 2018, 7:17

    Thank you for all your comments. Some further thoughts.

    Ralf, agree. There is also the issue of peak congestion even with AV. It can’t be promoted as the ONLY answer to traffic flow. What is likely to happen, in a couple of decades at least, is that we won’t be able to drive our own cars without some kind of enhanced safety systems. Driving ourselves could become a relic of the past, primarily due to safety.

    Hi Glen, agreed again. What we don’t know yet is the impact of AV on a range of factors. Only time will drive (excuse the pun) those patterns out. However, we need to be ready for it.

    I am not a fan of congestion charging. In effect, with the incredibly expensive (by comparison) parking in the Wellington CBD we already have a form of it. Internationally, congestion charging initially reduces congestion, then over time it comes back worse than ever. It’s a temporary fix at best.

    I favour far better, free, PT. Right now it’s abysmal, in my opinion, and the changes coming mid-year are going to reduce the number of passengers using the “service.” The problem I see is that PT in Wellington is designed around cost, not service or forward thinking. In the contract world you can be absolutely certain of another factor; any time you choose the cheapest tender option you will fail.

    Yes, we could see AVs heavily subsidised in a competitive environment.

    Kerry, so true. 🙂

    Hi Farmer John, there have been three fatal crashes as I understand. Again, what we don’t know is the safety ratio between driving ourselves or relying on AV. In other words, is the crash ratio for AV by volume less than us driving? Where AV is being tested seems to support that view, with some cities now clocking up millions of AV miles with zero accidents.

    I suspect longer term the other factor that will kick in, especially on the back of the “Gig Economy”, will be people moving out of the city to work remotely. It’s something that a lot of us could do and as the city starts to lock up, stagnate, and become increasingly expensive, it’s an attractive option. It may reach a point where the CBD is a mass of cheap apartments and unattractive to visit. Worst case scenario.