Wellington Scoop

Bendy buses won’t move Wellington

by Conor Hill
Bendy buses are not a solution to the long term public transport woes afflicting east and south Wellington. But after years of consultation, this is one of two ‘solutions’ Wellingtonians may be stuck with.

The Dominion Post reported on Tuesday that Let’s Get Wellington Moving is looking at buses as a Mass Rapid Transit option. These would be bendy buses with 100-120 person capacity running in some dedicated lanes in the city but on shared space elsewhere. In total they would be able to shift 1500 – 2000 people an hour.

This is the literal status quo.

We currently have buses in our fleet which can carry 100 people. They run on dedicated space in the city centre, and share road space in other parts of the city. On our busiest stretches of suburban road buses they already carry roughly 2000 people, with 26 buses heading north past Wellington Hospital between 7.30 and 8.30am on a weekday morning.

We don’t need a multi-year programme of investment to deliver what we already have.

The only possible reason this would be presented as mass rapid transit is to rule it out.

Our buses need investment and improvement. Good solutions have been presented elsewhere.

However, mass rapid transit they are not and should not go out for consultation as such.

Wellingtonians deserve better.


  1. David Mackenzie, 30. September 2021, 10:19

    Hear, hear!

  2. Thomas Nash, 30. September 2021, 10:43

    Rather than a choice between busways and light rail, I think both could have a role. Light rail might be best for the main urban development corridor to the south and busways good for other routes, eg to east. [via twitter]

  3. Kerry, 30. September 2021, 10:44

    Conor. Good one: I fully agree. I think what has happened is a carry-over from outdated GWRC views. The trap they fell into is called ‘BRT creep’: failing to recognise that changing the name is not itself an improvement. Bendy buses are an improvement of sorts, but nowhere near enough.
    The good news, from the latest LGWM release, is that in consultation they will be more interested in why submitters want such an approach than counting who is for or against. On that basis, I think light rail will take over without trouble. There is evidence that light rail is cheaper than BRT, so long as you consider both capital and operating costs!

  4. Steve Doole, 30. September 2021, 10:48

    Conor, being inaccurate or disingenuous about the number of people moving by bus is a tactic unlikely to succeed in demeaning the slow-coaches in charge of planning Wellington’s transport. References to aggregate figures of patronage in your own experience, say 40 years ago, might have more effect.

  5. Ralf, 30. September 2021, 10:51

    The intention of LGWM is not to provide a PT solution. The intention is only to do consultations until the time it can build more new roads with a National government. But there is a good chance that they will start on a second road tunnel in 2024.

    Don’t worry, Wellington will not get any bendy busses. Of course no Light Rail either (or any other Mass Transit solution). They might slap a BRT label on our busses though – the Greater Wellington Car Council likes to mislabel products (they use ‘train’ labels on buses and ‘high frequency’ on one bus an hour).

  6. John Rankin, 30. September 2021, 11:50

    Thomas Nash makes an interesting point, but might wish to go further: rapid transit using light rail on dedicated lanes for the southern corridor to Newtown and Island Bay; and a dedicated 2-lane busway from Karori to the eastern suburbs. The north-south light rail corridor becomes the focus for development of medium density housing around the stations (so-called transit oriented communities). The east-west bendy bus corridor becomes the focus for mode-shift from private car to rapid transit.

    According to the ALR (Auckland Light Rail) project study, a 2-lane dedicated busway with the kind of vehicle LGWM is suggesting can deliver rapid transit with capacity of up to about 4500 passengers per hour. Will this be sufficient to meet the projected demand on the east-west corridor? It’s almost certainly not sufficient to accommodate the projected growth on the southern corridor. The light rail option LGWM is suggesting has a reported capacity of up to about 4500 passengers per hour and (again according to ALR) a 2-lane on-street light rail corridor can support up to double that capacity.

    As Conor notes, if the rapid transit vehicle has to share its lane with other vehicles, it’s not rapid transit. If LGWM’s bendy bus proposal is as Conor describes and the Dominion Post reports, it will be RINO transit — rapid in name only.

  7. Dave B, 30. September 2021, 16:46

    I would encourage LGWM to recommend the cheapest, nastiest bus-based solution that it can, tying up as little capital as possible, and doing as little that can’t easily be undone.
    Then, when it becomes obvious that the only real answer is to extend the regional rail system that we already have, through the city and out to the airport (instead of 4-lanes-to-the-planes), we will have committed as little as possible to the ‘wrong solution’, and can then get on and do the job properly.
    Hopefully when Auckland’s “City Rail Link” opens, it will become obvious to all that such an extension is the way forward for a city and region that already has a hugely-contributing metro system, but one that cannot fulfill its potential because it does not penetrate the CBD and because it fails to serve an area with 20% of the region’s population.
    Meanwhile, best just keep on procrastinating so as not to do any damage that is irreversible.

  8. Euan W, 30. September 2021, 21:41

    Bendy buses were removed in London because they demolished so many cyclists. I understand the driver often couldn’t see what was happening at the rear left hand side.
    Just what we need in Wellington? Especially on our windy roads.

  9. Ross Clark, 1. October 2021, 1:55

    As much as I think busways can work, and work well, I can’t see where and how they would work in a Wellington context. And the point above about the road safety issues that bendybuses create is quite right. I’m with Dave B in thinking that extending the heavy rail network, however done, is the way to go.

    But why is LGWM still promoting investment in more roads?!

  10. Henry Filth, 1. October 2021, 5:36

    Where would Dave B’s railway tracks run on their way to the airport?

  11. Cr Daran Ponter, 1. October 2021, 8:30

    Ralf – you do talk some utter codswollop.

    John Rankin – yes, this issue will be settled by the job that MRT has to do – the more intense the proposed housing development along the South and East corridors the more likely it will be LRT and vice versa. As Thomas says, this may not be a choice between one mode and another but potentially two different modes on two different routes.

    Kerry – no, this issue will not be determined by the number of submitters in favour or against – it will largely be influenced by the level of commitment that WCC has to urban intensification and matching the appropriate mode to future growth projections.

    Proposals will be in your hands in early November.

  12. Conor, 1. October 2021, 9:03

    Daran – Bendy buses might be useful on some routes. But this should just be BAU for GWRC with input from WCC. The Bus Priority Programme did great analysis of how to improve key bus corridors. Would love to see that work rolled out, which I understand should be occurring in the City Streets package. Then if different capacity and shaped buses are needed, they can run on those priority corridors.

  13. Claire, 1. October 2021, 9:22

    Daran: I would say dumping all the growth down that corridor would be contrary to numbers portioned out to Mt Cook, Newtown, Berhampore in the DSP. The original total numbers were challenged by almost everyone. Really this is best fixed by more frequent buses, more drivers etc.

  14. Greenwelly, 1. October 2021, 9:30

    Cr Ponter, you say that the issue will not be determined by the number of submitters, but your colleague Cr Blakeley has said: “Wellingtonians will be asked in November to choose between Light Rail or Bus Rapid Transit.” How else other than by weight of submissions is the choice of Wellingtonians to be determined??

  15. K, 1. October 2021, 10:44

    Personally I would vote for neither. I don’t see how capacity of long single-level “bendy buses” would somehow be significantly larger than existing double-decker buses, along with the disadvantage of taking up twice as much road length to do the same job. And the cost of light rail is so gigantic it outweighs any sane cost/benefit ratio to serve such a small population. By the time light rail would be finished, there will be much better new technology surrounding micromobility, cheap tunneling options, along with point to point low cost autonomous electric vehicles – that the light rail cost and years of construction disruption would all be judged as worthless. I would much rather funds be diverted to increasing affordable housing and solving our three waters issues (in fact housing of any kind – Wellington is the absolute worsy in building consents currently). Using our existing bus assets along with re-assigning some existing roading to bus only lanes is likely to deliver the bulk of any public transport gains in a far quicker time and at a fraction of the cost.

  16. Cr Daran Ponter, 1. October 2021, 11:57

    Greenwelly – good question. The consultation on the options will invite Wellingtonians to have a say on all the options. Of course people will be able to state their preference. But ultimately the programme team is interested in engaged responses to the options – pros and cons, alternatives etc.

    I acknowledge that that will be a view within the community that if enough submissions are garnered for one option then that option will play out. That is not necessarily the case – and all options are potentially subject to change following consideration of the responses received.

    Each option will be packaged as a complete solution – ie they will address S/H improvements, Mt Victoria, Basin Reserve and MRT. I envisage that many people will find favour with some aspects of one option and aspects of another option. This is their chance to describe those preferences and potential improvements to options.

  17. Cr Daran Ponter, 1. October 2021, 12:06

    Conor – yes, the City Streets package deals with a comprehensive set of bus priority areas (19 in total) which are now going to the detailed design phase.

    Bendy buses have previously been evaluated as unsuitable for many of these routes, even with bus priority. That was the reason that the Council adopted double-decker buses in 2018. But they may be suitable for the spine routes.

  18. JAB, 1. October 2021, 13:20

    K. I agree that events and future transport developments are starting to overrun the proposed solutions. I also agree that slapping in bus-only lanes and more freeways operating at congested times would be a far quicker and cheaper solution. I would even go so far as to ban all private vehicles for limited periods at the most congested hours from parts of the network. There are multiple ways to a green future and locking us into an expensive old fashioned narrative for change when there are cheaper more flexible options to use over a transition period could be more realistic. And no I don’t see that more roads need to be built.

  19. John Rankin, 1. October 2021, 15:42

    Ross Clark: LGWM seems to have ruled out extending the rail network a priori. Their presentation states: “Mass rapid transit will be street-based, running on the existing road network and will extend the reach of the rail network”. They imply, I think (although it’s not stated explicitly), that the projected demand on the north-south and east-west corridors being considered can be fully met with an on-street MRT system. An off-street and segregated rail extension would constitute an over-supply of capacity.
    Ross and Dave B: are you suggesting LGWM has got its demand projections badly wrong?

  20. Ross Clark, 1. October 2021, 23:11

    John Rankin. Thanks for the comments. Not least because of what I have seen in Edinburgh with its LRT line, I am not convinced that mixed-running, of anything, will make the difference we want it to. An LRV bogged down in peak traffic will not encourage modal shift. Furthermore, for the N-S traffic, the continuing need for a transfer at the railway station will also work against modal shift (unless the J’Ville line is converted to light rail, and I didn’t think this was on the agenda).

    “Offstreet and segregated” capacity may seem like over-provision, but everything I’ve seen in thirty-plus years in this business is that it is what is needed to see significant modal shift away from the car.

  21. luke, 2. October 2021, 0:41

    Getting heavy rail thru the CBD would be easy enough from an engineering point of view, combination of skyrail, aka Melbourne style and existing wide streets.

  22. Dave B, 2. October 2021, 3:05

    John Rankin, if LGWM is still looking to extend the motorway to the airport, duplicate the Mt Vic Tunnel etc, then its PT demand-projections may be correct. But this will not achieve its stated aim of “moving more people with fewer vehicles”.

    Wellington is at a critical juncture: Do we continue with ‘business as usual’ building more roads, encouraging ever more road-transport, more car-dependency, and all that goes with it? Or do we come to grips with the need to break out of this cycle and pursue policies which really will ‘move more people with fewer vehicles’? – not just in the southern and eastern corridors, but across the whole region where much of our pan-regional traffic-problem originates?

    If we are serious about doing things differently then a regional public transport solution is needed, and a regional metro system that fails to extend to a major part of the region including much of the CBD is an obvious thing to fix. Fiddling with the buses in this area alone, or even bringing back a modern version of the localised tram system we used to have, does not address the regional perspective which is screaming out to be sorted.

    What is it to be? Better regional connectivity by more motorways (i.e. more people moved with far more vehicles – and all the problems that will cause), or better regional connectivity by the allowing the spinal rail system that we already have to properly do its job? We can choose either, but we delude ourselves if we think that extending the motorway, rather than the rail system, will somehow produce the “fewer vehicles” outcome that apparently we seek. So yes, LGWM may have its projections badly wrong.

  23. exLGM, 2. October 2021, 15:25

    Why is Wellington so far behind in its approach to transport? Bendy buses were common in Auckland in the late 80 to mid 90s but are no longer being used. Here we have some aspirant promoting them on roads that are narrower, steeper and more restricted than the Auckland streets. Why have we not learnt from other’s mistakes? A better public transport system is desired but all that has happened so far is a decline in service. Perhaps it is time to look at the groups providing advice and ensure that there is a balance between younger engineers and those with considerable experience in such systems to keep in check the proposed solutions and ensure that they are realistic.

  24. Mike Mellor, 3. October 2021, 11:11

    I imagine (and hope) that LGWM’s statement “Mass rapid transit will be street-based, running on the existing road network” will encompass MRT having segregated facilities within the road network, streets being much more than just places for traffic to move.

    We already have that to a limited extent: towards the south end of Lambton Quay, southbound vehicular road space has been reallocated for exclusive bus use. Such road-space reallocation both increases road capacity and makes for a better environment (in every respect), and is definitely the way to go.

  25. Conor, 3. October 2021, 12:14

    Mike – the LGWM Mass Transit page is explicit saying Mass Transit will have “dedicated lanes with signal priority”. Anything which doesn’t deliver this runs counter to what all parties agreed to in 2019.

  26. John Rankin, 3. October 2021, 16:01

    Conor and Mike: having now studied LGWM’s stakeholder update, I think it’s possible to draw some conclusions.

    To deliver the specified quality of service with potential for increasing capacity over the life of the investment, mass rapid transit is going to need 4 dedicated lanes with signal priority between the railway station and Basin Reserve, with 2 lanes serving the eastern suburbs and 2 lanes serving the southern suburbs.

    Why do I think this? LGWM’s service promise is “Operates every 10 minutes, and every 4-5 minutes in the peak, from early morning to late at night, seven days a week.” The service will split at the Basin Reserve, with separate lines running to the eastern and southern suburbs. Whatever service frequency operates north of the Basin, the frequency will be half that on each leg south and east of the Basin.

    A 2-lane busway can just about accommodate a bendy-bus every 2 minutes without the buses getting in each other’s way and causing the service quality to drop below the minimum BRT standard. That means a BRT-based solution would be at its maximum capacity on the day it opens, with no headroom available to accommodate demand growth. However, it would deliver 4-5 minute peak, 10 minute off-peak service to the eastern and southern suburbs.

    A 2 lane on-street light rail line running every 4-5 minutes is at the practical upper limit for operating frequency. That means a light rail based solution would deliver service every 8-10 minutes during the peaks, every 20 minutes off-peak, to the eastern and southern suburbs. You can double the carrying capacity by making the trains longer, but you can’t increase the frequency unless you invest in fully segregated off-street running. That is, with a 2-lane on-street mass rapid transit design, you can meet the service promise with BRT but have no ability to accommodate demand growth; or you can accommodate demand growth with light rail, but have no ability to meet the service frequency promise.

    Based on what LGWM has told us so far, I tend to favour 2 lanes for light rail to the southern suburbs and 2 lanes for BRT to the eastern suburbs. It would be interesting to hear from LGWM (and other commenters) either why my analysis is incorrect or where they plan to put 4 dedicated rapid transit lanes, with signal priority, between the Basin and the railway station.

    I agree with Ross Clark and Dave B that “off-street and segregated” would be the best option. In the real world, I doubt any government will fund such a solution and we need to remember that perfect is the enemy of good. It’s better to fund and deliver the second best solution than to fail to fund the best solution and get nothing.

  27. Mike Mellor, 3. October 2021, 17:35

    Agreed, Conor & John R. But that Mass Transit page also says “Creating a new mass transit route connecting the Railway Station with Newtown and the eastern suburbs” and “We will investigate and design a mass transit system to connect the railway station with the Hospital, Newtown, Miramar and the Airport”, so things are changing.

    With the addition of a route to the south and with “High frequency services (every 10 minutes or less)” – now evolved to “Operates every 10 minutes, and every 4 – 5 minutes in the peak. From early morning to late at night, seven days a week” in the latest stakeholder update , plus “Dedicated lanes…In the congested inner city and suburbs” so that “Mass rapid transit vehicles don’t get held up in traffic” – that certainly does mean a lot of infrastructure in the city centre and beyond. This would indeed be a transformation compared with the current extreme emphasis on private vehicles, with their known problems, issues and limitations.

    And your last paragraph and last sentence make very good sense, John.

  28. Traveller, 3. October 2021, 18:50

    Surely a 20-minute off-peak service is sufficient.

  29. Mike Mellor, 3. October 2021, 19:25

    Sufficient for what, Traveller? Certainly not sufficient for attracting people away from cars. Trying to sell as an improvement a 50% reduction in frequency to the south or a two-thirds reduction to the east on current bus services, with consequent increases in effective journey times, would be a bit of a challenge – particularly if road capacity is to be increased, as appears to be the case in the leaked plans. Here’s hoping that LGWM stick to their objectives and follow government and council policies!


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