Wellington Scoop

MIB, not BRT

by Nicola Young
Our bus service is in crisis, due to the failed and confused leadership of the two regional authorities responsible – the Regional Council and the City Council.

The trolleys are going in 23 months, no viable replacement has been identified, bus fares are so high that passenger numbers have flat-lined, and now we – the City Council – are trying to con ratepayers with a fraudulent version of ‘Bus Rapid Transit’.

Last week the city council agreed to adopt a ‘Bus Rapid Transit Indicative Business Case,’ to bring forward $1.5m CAPEX funding (noting the Regional Council will contribute $372,000 and the Transport Agency $750,000) and to agree any overspend.

But this proposal is NOT Bus Rapid Transit.

I moved an amendment, seconded by Councillor Paul Eagle, that the words ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ should be replaced with ‘Marginally Improved Bus’. This was about honesty, so ratepayers could know what they are getting – which isn’t Bus Rapid Transit. But our MIB amendment was supported only by Councillor Malcolm Sparrow, so it failed.

This is the biggest change in Wellington’s public transport that we will see for decades. The council should not be making decisions without first giving both councillors and the public more time to understand and consider which are the right options to pursue. There’s been no public review. No public reference group. Wellington needs leadership, the ability to take big decisions; we need to clear the decks and look at the benefits and costs of ALL options. Far more analysis needs to be done.

Voters were misled with promises of light rail, and then came the compromise of Bus Rapid Transit, which would have buses running on dedicated lanes and not sharing corridors. That’s not what Wellington is getting. This is a watered-down, dumbed-down version of a scheme that’s already been criticised for being too weak.

Bus Rapid Transit has internationally agreed standards, against which schemes can be measured; this bogus scheme fails to meet them.

And how can we even start to design bus ways when we don’t know what type of buses the Regional Council will buy? It’s like deciding on railway lines, without choosing the trains.

Will we have diesel buses? Double-deckers? What about the Karori Tunnel? How will we deal with enlarging that, when it’s the main route – effectively the only route – for the residents of New Zealand’s biggest suburb? And what’s the cost of enlarging the tunnel? Will people have to change buses at key points?

We shouldn’t just make assumptions about the need for large-capacity buses; the planning needs to be part of the package. Our roads aren’t built to take the weight of, for example, the Boris hybrid bus (although London’s keen to sell them around the globe) which weighs 18 tonnes. The Transport Agency’s maximum permitted weight for a heavy vehicle with a single tire front and twin tire rear axle is 14.2tonnes, so the Boris hybrid bus could not be used in Wellington.

If we need extra strong roads on core routes to support the weight of large capacity electric buses, then this needs to be included in the detailed business case for the roading infrastructure. Otherwise Wellington could find itself unable to use modern (but heavy) electric buses if the Regional Council wants to choose them.

If we want to get people onto public transport, it needs to be reliable, and for this we do need to invest in contiguous corridors. We have to provide bus lanes at congestion points. Contiguous lanes make buses faster than cars…and that’s the only way we’ll get people out of their cars.

Option 5, with its protected bus ways, is the only genuine Bus Rapid Transit model. But we have eliminated this high-end option, and opted for something that’s neither fish nor fowl. We need peak hour, contiguous bus lanes, but only in one direction. That’s the beauty of Bus Rapid Transit; it only needs contiguous corridors where there’s congestion – unlike Light Rail where the rails are 24/7. Wellington needs one bus lane in the morning, and one in the evening. There’s no need to have dedicated bus lanes 24 hours a day.

Unanswered questions: Buses do get in each other’s way; will they be able to pass each other? There’s no answer in the Indicative Case Study. What about the impact of integrated ticketing that will permit free transfers (including and – especially from – rail at the railway station)?

We are predicting 8% growth across 20 years – that’s less than our average population growth. Reliability will bring growth in bus usage – which is currently flat when population growth is factored in. Is the increase in bus capacity sufficient to meet the future predicted demand, or will it be back to congested unreliable buses in 5 – 10 years? Are we being sufficiently aspirational? No. We are aiming for less than 1% growth per year. It’s not worth the money.

We are obsessed with cycling, but the reality is that more people will always take the bus – including the elderly, the disabled, and those with heavy shopping… Bus Rapid Transit could be done in stages. We should be planning for it, and building towards it. Let’s be aspirational!

Nicola Young is a Wellington City Councillor for the Lambton Ward, portfolio leader for Central City Projects and a trustee of Wellington Museums. This is an edited version of a speech which she made to the council last week.


  1. Michael Gibson, 25. August 2015, 9:15

    I agree that voters were misled with promises about having light-rail – but the chief difficulty arises from Regional Councillors’ never using a bus & not keeping an eye on the sad way in which the terms of the bus contract are followed. The most obvious problem is the misleading nature of the electronic stuff at the top of a lot of the bus-stops. Could some Regional Councillor tell us exactly what it is supposed to mean & how they know whether it is performing in line with the standards which (presumably) they require under the bus contract?
    P.S. The last time I put in a complaint I found that the system is a farce – also that the Regional Councillor to whom I turned was useless.

  2. Catharine Underwood, 25. August 2015, 13:40

    Interesting that Councillor Young calls the spending, the name Bus Rapid Transport and action by the councils as fraudulent. She talks about case studies showing no indicative answer to questions. I have only one question to ask. Isn’t this the same councillor who approved the spending of many more ratepayer millions on the runway extension? Spending that has no business case to date, has no support from central Government, or the airlines, or from the majority of ratepayers and will provide even less quantifiable benefit to ratepayers than any skerrick of improvement to public transport?

  3. Maria van der Meel, 25. August 2015, 17:35

    Michael: Those questions were asked some time ago. The contract between the Regional Council and Infratil stipulates that subsidies are paid out once a month based on an honesty system and how many scheduled buses ran according to timetables. Those that did not would need a reasonable explanation from the contractor.
    For clarity: a bus company rule prohibits buses from overtaking one another. Double yellow lines in the CBD say it all.

  4. Newtown, 25. August 2015, 19:29

    @Catharine: Ouch. Perhaps she cares more about buses than planes… Young is albeit correct that the public isn’t getting what they’ve been promised. So, why do it after all?

    The new Volvo Electric Hybrid bus in operation in Hamburg, Germany:

  5. luke, 25. August 2015, 22:02

    Ideology preventing a proper study of a light rail corridor from the railway station to Newtown is the problem. Getting rid of trolleys is symptomatic of the poor decision making. Banning private vehicles on the spine and a few more peak time bus lanes would be a good place to start.

  6. Henry Filth, 26. August 2015, 4:20

    Luke old chap, I’m not sure that banning private vehicles from this or that area is ever going to work. Like haemorroids (sp?) they just pop up in unexpected places at unexpected times, causing discomfort in new places. And they’re never going to go away. So probably better to concentrate on a decent public transport system which fits in with the ways that people actually want to travel.

  7. Panic-stricken, 26. August 2015, 13:35

    Perhaps a person experienced in these matters can correct me if I’m wrong but I have to question Mr Filth’s saying that haemorrhoids “just pop up in unexpected places”. For those of us who thought that they had never had haemorrhoids I hope that a list of “unexpected places” can be provided.

  8. Ointment, 26. August 2015, 17:19

    Panic-stricken – that sounds like an excellent question for the Council’s “Place-making” team…. (You mean the City Shakers?)

  9. Phil, Newtown, 27. August 2015, 10:43

    I agree that the proposed BRT solution looks average, but Nicola Young is now in full election mode so it’s hard to tell if she actually means any of this or is just trying to position herself against the current mayor. Her statement “we are obsessed with cycling” makes me nervous that her support of the cycling framework is a bit fake. Both public transport and cycling are an important part of the solution Nicola! It would be nice if our councillors could just concentrate on doing their best for the city rather than openly plotting their next move (yes Paul, I’m also talking about you).

  10. Ian Apperley, 27. August 2015, 11:24

    “It would be nice if our councillors could just concentrate on doing their best for the city rather than openly plotting their next move”

    We should add Andy, Mark, Celia, and Justin to that list 🙂

  11. Tony, 27. August 2015, 17:18

    Actually, Phil, the key point is the proposed BRT solution is not average, the proposed BRT solution does not even rate as poor. By the industry standard the proposed solution is not Bus Rapid Transit at all! And this is not my opinion, it is the opinion of the WCC.

    In 14 May 2014, the WCC Report responding to the Spine Study recommended BRT option (now known as “Option 5”):

    ‘The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy published “The BRT Standard – version 1.0” in January 2012. This standard provides an assessment tool for ranking BRT systems based on international best practice. Out of a possible 100 points a Gold standard BRT requires more that 85 points, Silver requires 70 – 84 points and Bronze requires 50 – 69 points.
    An initial assessment of BRT in a Wellington context factoring in local constraints indicates a base score of less than 50 points. This suggests that the BRT solution for Wellington will be “bespoke” and most likely consist of higher capacity vehicles with an enhanced bus priority. It may not achieve a grading based upon the BRT Standard but nevertheless could be considered as BRT. Irrespective of how it is described it will be an improvement on existing services.’

    But on 5 August, the WCC flip-flopped on the Spine Study recommendation for BRT (that they previously endorsed) saying:

    ‘“Wellington can have the highest quality BRT system considered (Option 5), but this comes at a cost. Our analysis of intermediate options shows that there is an opportunity for Wellington to achieve a significant proportion of the benefits of a high quality solution for a much lower cost.”

    15. The Steering Group and Governance Group agree that options 1, 2 and 5 are eliminated based on the economic analysis in the Indicative Business Case.’

    So even though the WCC is fully aware that the BRT option 5 barely met the standards for Bus Rapid Transit, they still eliminated it for future investigation in favour of settling for much cheaper of bus priority options.

    Nicola Young’s point is accurate … the WCC has chosen not to investigate Bus Rapid Transit in favour of ‘Marginally Improved Bus’. The only element of Bus Rapid Transit that remains is the words in the title of this project. And who decided against any serious investment in the future of our public transport service? (no surprises) Andy Foster and Celia Wade-Brown sat on the Steering Group that made this choice.

  12. Mike Mellor, 31. August 2015, 11:25

    Cr Young is quite right when she says that we’re not getting anything like BRT, but quite wrong when she says “Wellington needs one bus lane in the morning, and one in the evening. There’s no need to have dedicated bus lanes 24 hours a day.” GWRC’s new bus network depends on reliable, punctual running of the core routes throughout the whole operating day, not just in the peak direction. For instance, in order to replace current routes that GWRC will be withdrawing, buses on the East-West spine from Karori to Seatoun will have to make reliable connections at:

    *Karori Tunnel (to VUW),
    *Courtenay Place (from VUW),
    *Hataitai (from Oriental Bay/Roseneath),
    *Kilbirnie (from the Basin/Massey/Hospital; to Rongotai/Strathmore), and
    *Miramar (to northern Miramar).

    Without proper bus priority this network will quickly fall to bits, and passengers relying on these essential connections will suffer. And, of course, every bus will have to get back from Seatoun to Karori without getting delayed.

    GWRC et al have promised us BRT with low-emission high-capacity buses, and every one of these aspects is now looking doubtful, to say the least. The only sensible real-world solution is to put in bus lanes now (cheap green paint rather than expensive concrete), retain the trolleys for five years or so until is is clear that something better can be achievable, and get rid of the nonsensical mindset that says we can’t have better public transport until the RoNS projects have been completed.