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Let’s put light rail back on the agenda.


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“We need to get people out of their cars” was the headline of a Dominion Post piece on 10 September. Yes. But aiming for ‘congestion-free’ by building more roads is ineffective, costly, and a growing source of carbon emissions. When road capacity is increased, people change their travel patterns. Some switch from public transport to driving, others leave a few minutes later, and some change their route to use the new lanes. Soon, congestion returns.

What English-speakers call “light rail” was devised in Europe in the 1970s, to provide a flexible, high capacity, high quality public transport service suitable for smaller cities. Light rail tracks run on or beside existing streets using vehicles similar to trams, but with higher capacity, usually on a dedicated right-of-way. Modern light rail vehicles are usually multiple segments joined together to form a street-train.

The High Court’s decision on the Basin Reserve Flyover is a golden opportunity. Instead of simply accepting the government’s hugely expensive roading plan, we can now pause to think about the kind of Wellington we want—a city designed for people not cars.

Sydney is among many cities starting to put people first:

Does getting to a grocer’s or a doctor or a restaurant without a car seem like a pretty big burden? Can your children walk or cycle to school safely on their own? If you think these are unreasonable questions, then choice has been designed out of your area. — Committee for Sydney, 2015

Zürich has a superb public transport system with subsidies per passenger-trip that are about a quarter of Wellington’s, because Zürich citizens, on average, make fifteen times as many trips.

Liveable and healthy cities world-wide are reducing motor traffic and substituting it with effective public and active transport. When asked what they want from public transport, city-dwellers give the same answers:

  • We need public transport that goes where lots of us want to go;
  • We need public transport that is there when we need it; and
  • We need our trips to be predictable, fast and cheap.

When cities do this, many people switch from cars to public transport, making their city a better place to live. Just the opposite happens when new roads are built: more cars, more fumes, more noise, and more danger to pedestrians and cyclists.

Greater Wellington’s Terms of Reference for the Public Transport Spine Study had the excellent aim of providing “a high frequency and high quality public transport system.” But the result was a vague proposal for a dumbed-down version of BRT, now called Bus Priority.

BRT is a good solution elsewhere but difficult in narrow streets like Wellington’s. The watered-down BRT proposal will only deliver minor improvements to existing bus services. In contrast, light rail could readily fit down the streets in the central city and Newtown, as it does in even narrower medieval European city streets.

The first light rail line in North America opened in 1978, for the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada. Since then, costs have fallen steadily and service quality has risen. European and North American transport planners agree that a successful light rail system must meet 5 design goals:

Tie the city together.
Light rail lines span the city via the city centre.
Require high-performance vehicles.
That means large capacities, all-door entry, train-style fare payment before boarding, doors at platform level for easy boarding, and priority at traffic lights.
Have widely-spaced stops.
Stops are far enough apart to improve travel times, but serve critical transfer points where feeder buses or trains connect.
Reach major destinations.
Light rail lines emphasise access to education campuses, office complexes, hospitals, shopping areas, major suburbs, and the CBD.
Form the heart of an integrated network.
Bus lines are reconfigured to serve major light rail stops, and fare structures encourage easy transfers between buses and trains.

A light rail service like this could be running from the Railway Station to the Hospital, Kilbirnie and Airport by 2030. It could cost from about $450 million, depending on the route and other options. The government’s so-called Roads of National Significance intended for Wellington City are costed at a minimum of $1 billion.

To make Wellington a people-first city, we need these outcomes:

  • Fast, convenient service to the southern and eastern suburbs, and the airport
  • Fewer buses along Lambton Quay and through the Basin Reserve; solving multiple problems in one stroke
  • Faster and more reliable bus services, as most buses would not have to make the long traverse from suburb to suburb via the central city as at present
  • Better services to growth areas in Te Aro, Mt Cook and the Massey Campus, Newtown and Kilbirnie
  • Reduced subsidies and cheaper fares, because light rail and free-flowing buses are more productive
  • Much lower carbon emissions and pollution from diesel buses
  • Safer, healthier walking and cycling

Light rail’s critics say that Wellington’s population is too small. But Wellington City (population just over 200,000) serves a wider Greater Wellington population of approximately 490,000. Of the 27 French cities with light rail, 14 have under 400,000 and 5 have under 200,000 people.

The Spine Study’s BRT recommendation looks increasingly out of date. It’s time Wellington took a closer look at light rail.

Page last modified 24 September 2015 at 09:47 AM