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Planning context

LRT evolved to meet a specific set of public transport needs. Cities with successful, cost-effective LRT systems have made specific choices about the service they want the light rail corridor to provide.

Having decided to consider LRT, if a city wants the business case for light rail to succeed, it needs to commit to making the choices that maximise the likelihood of success.

Making different choices is equally valid, but may mean that LRT is not the right solution. LRT will be a bad investment if used in ways other than those for which it was designed.

Light rail is only one part of a successful public transport system. A city may make different choices for other parts of its network, including those connecting to the LRT.

When considering light rail for a particular public transport corridor, there are 4 questions whose answers will determine whether LRT is suitable for that corridor.


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Ridership or coverage?


Aim to maximise ridership within a given budget.


Aim to cover all parts of the community.


Put the first light rail line on the corridor where the buses are busiest.

Use light rail to tie the city together, from urban fringe to urban fringe, through the city centre.

Space light rail stops far enough apart to improve travel times, but also placed at critical transfer points where feeder buses or trains connect.

Connections or direct service?


Have connected systems with high frequency, relying on people to transfer between light rail and other services.


Provide direct, one-seat services, which for a given budget will necessarily be lower frequency.


Light rail forms the core of an integrated public transport network.

Reconfigure bus lines to serve major light rail stops, and design fare programmes to encourage easy transfers from mode to mode, including suburban rail services.

Make the first light rail line long enough that many riders have a one-seat journey.

All-day or peak-first?


Focus on all-day travel, 7 days a week, with peak service to supplement the base product.


Position peak service as the primary product, with off-peak secondary.


Reach major destinations with all-day demand.

Emphasise access to education campuses, office complexes, hospitals, shopping areas, major suburbs, and the CBD.

Light rail’s ridership is as diverse as the city’s population and accessible to all.

Exclusive or shared rights-of-way?


Run light rail on exclusive rights-of-way to ensure speed and reliability.


Use lower cost shared rights-of-way, where light rail competes with other traffic.


Use high-capability vehicles.

This means large capacities, all-door entry, train-style fare payment before boarding, doors at platform level for easy access, and priority over other traffic.

May require grade separation at intersections with major roads.

Potential destinations







Mt Cook

Courtenay Place


Railway Station


Completing the first line could involve extensions to:

  • Karori
  • Ferry Terminal
  • Johnsonville
  • Petone / Queensgate

Quick facts

Worldwide there are about 400 cities with LRT currently operational, 60 light rail networks are under construction and another 200 are planned.

The productivity of a light rail lane is about 10 times that of a private vehicle lane (capable of moving at least 12,000 people per hour vs 1200 people per hour).

The productivity of a light rail vehicle operator is about 14 times that of a bus driver (7 times the vehicle capacity, 420 (2.4 metre width; 470 for 2.65 metre width) vs 60; twice the average speed, 30 km/hr vs 15 km/hr).

Light rail’s operating costs are cheaper than bus operating costs once ridership exceeds 3000 passengers per hour (2200 pph for regular buses, 2800 pph for bus priority).

A 5 minute headway means 12 vehicles per hour, which replace 7 × 12 = 84 buses, leaving about 36 buses per hour on the Golden Mile during peak periods.

12 vehicles per hour have a capacity of about 5040 people per hour, which is ⅔ of the current 6000 per hour on the corridor, plus 25% for an uptick in ridership generated because it’s light rail (more conservative than Auckland’s 30% uptick, which reflects that city’s suppressed demand).

36 buses can carry about 2200 people per hour, over the estimated 2000 pph we expect (⅓ of the peak total; the current 130 buses per hour are running below maximum capacity).

5000 people per hour on light rail would make Wellington an “average” performer among roughly comparable French cities.

Canadian cities, which started investing in LRT in 1980, have twice the public transport ridership per capita of Wellington.

At an average speed of 30 km/hr, the travel time from Miramar to the railway station (9km) would be 18 minutes.


Lowrie, M. Auckland PT Performance Comparison 2017.
Thompson, G., Larwin, T., Parkinson, T. Complete Streets: From Policy to Implementation. Minneapolis: Rail~Volution, 2014.
Toderian, B. Open Letter to a Car-Addicted City, Planetizen, 2014.
Walker, J. Human Transit. Washington: Island Press, 2012.
Page last modified 17 December 2017 at 09:52 PM