More access with less traffic

A simple concept …

Transport 2000’s vision for transforming Wellington’s transport includes both philosophical changes and practical measures:

The list is long, but even so the total cost wouldn’t come close to the $245 M earmarked for Transmission Gully alone! Granted, the Regional Council is working on public transport measures such as the Waikanae extension and an improved Lambton interchange (though the new Hub will not be as good for passengers as it could be - because the City Council insisted, in effect, that motorists must come first). The risk is that the convenience of the new road will outweigh these relatively low-level improvements to public transport.

He probably now wishes he hadn’t, but Mayor Mark Blumsky once said that Transmission Gully would ‘solve’ Wellington’s transport problems. Other councillors, including members of his ‘car-friendly’ coalition, believe differently. They know that the new road could well be not a lifeline but a noose of more commuter car traffic to strangle the city. Yet ratepayers will help pay for it!

More energy, less efficiency

Despite the clichéd ‘clean and green’ image, New Zealand is well behind in combating unsustainable traffic growth. We are probably 25 years behind the developed world in believing that we can pave our way out of congestion. Our poor performance in transport energy efficiency was recently highlighted in the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report Getting More from Less. Currently we are getting less access for more expenditure of energy. Whatever mode you use – car, public transport or walking – it takes longer to make most inner-city journeys now than it did 50 years ago.

The Wellington Regional Council's Regional Land Transport Strategy forecasts ‘trip-making’ by all modes to increase by 3.5% per year. A trip, of course, can be anything from a walk into town to a single-occupant long-distance car-commute. If these new trips tend to be the latter, the results for Wellington City in particular, and the region in general, will be grim.

Wellington – land of opportunity

Wellington has one of the most confined CBDs in the world. This compactness and density gives Wellington the downtown ambience of a much larger city. It makes car-commuting inappropriate and inefficient. It also makes viable – indeed, essential – transport modes like light rail that you would not normally consider in a city of 140,000. Wellington is in a good position to achieve major improvements in access and quality of urban life which would benefit everyone – even the remaining motorists.

The car has hijacked the streets, despite being the most inefficient user of this public space. Motorists’ political pull means that they enjoy privileges not accorded to those on foot. We become second-class citizens when we leave the driver’s seat. The movement to curb car-dependency and reclaim the streets for human use is world-wide. Have a look at Carfree Cities and Less Traffic, and Wellington’s own Campaign for a Better City.

More Stadium thinking, please

We must make transport efficiency part of town planning. Some types of land use inevitably create huge amounts of car traffic. Low density sprawl suburbs, without focal points, shops or effective public transport, are the worst. Then there is the development of shopping as a car-only activity; for example, the ‘supermall’ proposed for Silverstream. Why not put travel-generating developments at public transport focal points – as was done with the Stadium?

Ease of use creates use

Configuring the rail system to better serve current travel patterns must be the priority. Around half the people entering Wellington are destined for points well beyond the Railway Station. The result can be seen every weekday morning, when thousands of rail passengers hit the streets, battling car traffic as they struggle to reach their downtown workplaces. Other rail passengers change to the bus – a transfer far more difficult and expensive than it should be. The point is not the thousands of hardy souls who persevere with this commuter struggle, but the thousands deterred by it, turning instead to their cars.

‘Ease of use creates use’, a slogan to sell computers, also applies to transport, car or train. This was recognised in 1963, when American consultants De Leuw Cather recommended both the urban motorway and a rail subway as far as Courtenay Place, specifying the two had to be built simultaneously. The subway died while the motorway advanced. Cost, now potentially $500 M plus, and official indifference killed the subway. But the dream remains, and light rail provides the key (see the Light Rail Transit Association and Light Rail Atlas for comprehensive information on light rail).

Trams and trains – mixing the modes

Light rail – modern trams, basically – is an attractive option for Wellington because the light rail vehicles (LRVs) can be used on the existing railway tracks. Then they can venture onto the streets, just as trams do in hundreds of cities overseas. As long as you manage traffic so that it doesn’t obstruct the LRVs, you get the through-running convenience promised by the 1963 subway idea at a fraction of the cost. Mixing light and heavy rail (like our existing electric units) is well proven. The German city of Karlsruhe had a similar problem to Wellington: their suburban railway system also terminated in a station on the edge of the CBD. Karlsruhe also had a modern tramway system. Connecting the two, so that the trams could run out into the suburbs and provide a through service to downtown was responsible for ridership quadrupling on some routes! The city of Saarbruken has built a similar system, and it is being looked at seriously for many other cities in Europe. More info on Trams on Rail Track.

Light rail – endorsed, then shelved

In 1992, Transport 2000 proposed Superlink – a light rail line through the CBD and potentially as far as the Airport. The price for the CBD section was between $45 and $70 million. We made a mistake though – we thought the problem was just extending the Johnsonville line, when what we really need is to extend the whole system through the CBD.

In 1995 the City and Regional Councils commissioned Works Consultancy and MVA (the consultants associated with the highly successful and expanding Manchester Metrolink system) to investigate further. The consultants report confirmed the feasibility and value of the extension of all lines by using light rail. Vestiges of this report survive in the new Regional Land Transport Strategy, but light rail’s status remains ‘possible’ only, out of reach beyond the Strategy’s 5 year planning period.

We must have buses – clean ones!

Despite the backbone importance of rail, buses remain the first mode of access for most passengers. However, the downsides of the diesel bus can be heard and smelt, and new knowledge about the toxic effects of diesel exhaust is causing fresh anxiety. Although the use of trolleybuses helps greatly, public transport itself is a major polluter in the CBD because so many buses are diesel powered. Diesel fumes are particularly noticeable in areas like Brandon St and Lower Willis St/Lambton Quay South.

What happens when the current trolleybuses expire in about four years? New low-floor trolleys would be welcome, but would be largely ineffective over-all if 85% of the bus fleet remains diesel. Battery-only is not an option for full-size buses. But the answer might come from Christchurch. The hybrid diesel/battery shuttle buses there are having their troublesome diesel auxiliary power units replaced by gas turbines run on LPG – potentially a very-low-emission system. If it works in practice, this system should be required for all future diesel bus replacements.

What does all this mean?

An alternative strategy, therefore, means a range of measures which will benefit more people than simply putting most of our eggs in the Transmission Gully basket. Some measures are quite cheap, sometimes requiring just the political will to buck the highway lobby. Others, such as light rail, will obviously have a high cost – in the tens of millions. In total, though, following a public transport priority strategy will be both cheaper in dollar terms and deliver better access than Transmission Gully and the other big road projects required by a highways-first strategy.