Last year John Key caused a bit of outrage by saying that Wellington was a dying city but particularly when it comes to transport, perhaps he was right. A couple of articles yesterday about transport in Wellington helped to highlight this so in this post I’m going to look at a number stats about and associated with transport in the region.

First up let’s have a look at a couple of key stats that have an impact on transport, population and jobs.


As you can see from Stats NZ estimates, Wellington’s population is growing but it isn’t growing that fast (when compared to somewhere like Auckland) and you can see the growth has been slowing down over the last decade or so.

Wellington Population


Jobs in the Wellington region are still down on the peak of 2008 but not by too much (3%). Some areas appear to have been harder hit than others though, with Upper Hutt down 12% (1450 jobs) and Lower Hutt down 8% (3670 jobs). These changes are bound to have had some impact on travel but probably not massive amounts.

Wellington Jobs

On to transport. The first article that caught my attention was this one on the current proceedings from the Board of Inquiry hearing into the proposed flyover around the Basin Reserve. The NZTA’s expert witness used the same argument of the insane traffic modelling that traffic volumes are just about to go up so we need to build build build.

Today Mr Kelly attacked the view that the flyover was not needed because more young people were choosing not to own cars these days.

He acknowledged traffic growth had been low or flat in recent years, and that some of that could be attributed to declining car ownership.

But, in his view, the economic downturn was more to blame.

“This should be no surprise. We all know of individuals and companies who have restricted their travel as a result of belt-tightening during the period of economic contraction.”

In recent months, economic indicators had been pointing to a return to more traffic growth as the economy rebounded, he said.

Mr Kelly also produced research by ANZ Bank that showed GDP growth since 2009 had been mirrored by a rise in the number of heavy vehicles on the nation’s roads.

There are two and bit issues in here. Dealing with the easy one first, the ANZ data which is known as the Truckometer. What’s important to remember is that the rise in the number of heavy vehicles isn’t an indication of what will happen with private vehicles which are invariably the ones that contribute most to congestion. Further the Truckometer is at a national level not a regional one so rises in trucks volumes in other parts of the country doesn’t mean they are in Wellington.

Vehicle ownership

The Wellington vehicle fleet continued to rise in both total number and on a per capita basis until 2007 before flat-lining or even falling slightly so likely economy related although I suspect also related to PT (which I will touch on shortly. Interestingly there has been a spike this year presumably as people have started feeling happier about the economy. Due to the way the stats are done I wonder if we might see them drop slightly next year as cars that are no longer in the fleet work through the numbers.

Wellington Vehicles

Traffic Volumes

The map and graphs below show traffic volumes on some of the state highways over 20 years and as you can see, they have been almost flat for that entire time.

Wellington Vehicle volumes

Vehicle Kilometres Travelled (VKT)

In total VKT remains flat around Wellington and despite a small rise around 2009 it’s at around the same level it was in the early 2000’s.  On a per capita basis the length of vehicle trips has fallen by about 10% since 2000/01.

Wellington VKT

So with the exception of a spike in the vehicle fleet, it doesn’t look like traffic volumes are about to suddenly rise. That is unless the GRWC continues to drive public transport in Wellington into a bit of a death spiral.

The pinch of bus fare rises is causing Wellington commuters to desert public transport – but the regional council has responded by raising fares further.

Bus patronage had not increased since 2008, yet fare revenue was expected to rise 3 per cent annually in Greater Wellington Regional Council’s long-term plan.

Councillors voted yesterday to increase bus and train fares. Smartcard and multi-trip fares would rise in October by 1 per cent, and cash tickets by 50 cents in certain zones.

The public can give feedback on the decision during the council’s Annual Plan consultations in April.

Councillors Sue Kedgley, Nigel Wilson, Gary McPhee and Paul Bruce voted against the increase.

The graph below shows the patronage across the different PT modes in Wellington.  Growth has remained stubborn and is bound not to be being helped by fare increases. As I said above I can see a PT Death Spiral starting to form where increasing fares drives passengers away but then the fares are increased further in a bid to make up for what has already been lost but further alienating  even more customers. If it continues then perhaps the prediction about heaps more cars will come true. It’s quite sad really.

Wellington Patronage

There’s probably a heap more graphs that could be included but this will do for now.

Edit: Meant to include this graph showing PT patronage per capita

Wellington Patronage per capita 3

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  1. As a Wellingtonian, I feel honor bound to leap to the defense of our fine city and defend it once more from Key’s foolish jibe that it is dying. There is, of course, a difference between growing, and staying at a stable size. The world needs to understand that growth is not possible ad infinitum – and that there is nothing wrong with having a stable, well-managed economy, where growth does not continually occur. Cities, and indeed entire countries in Europe are quite happy to have stable population sizes – your articles feature them quite often. Continued growth can be likened to a cancer – it grows very fast, but may not be so desirable just because it is growing… and you’ll all know that in Aucklands case, traffic is the cancer up there.

    1. However Aucklands traffic isn’t growing, despite its population and economy going up (or trending up at least). I suppose we can attribute that to public transport, walk, cycling and intensification increasing instead.

      So it seems that Aucklands cancer is in remission.

    2. Between 2001 and 2006 the Wellington City Council area grew at over 1% per year, from 167,000 to 185,000. Between 2006 and 2013 it grew at about 0.5% per year, to 197,000. That growth over the decade is not insubstantial, and most of it happened in the inner city and immediate inner neighbourhoods.

      1. yes would be interesting to look at the inner Wellington suburbs in more detail;, especially Cuba/Te Aro area. Right where SH1 cuts through. Lots of light industrial being converted to apartments. Also didn’t stop post 2008 like it did in Auckland.

  2. No wonder they are desperate to increase road building and push up public transport fares on buses and trains because they want to encourage car ownership to increase.

  3. Interesting too that there is no direct link between changes in vehicle numbers and amount of driving. In other words a place can have fewer cars but those that remain are all driven a lot and equally a place can have growing numbers of vehicles that spend more and more time parked.

    So that is the poorest metric to try to base a claim that driving demand is rising.

    Still, it certainly looks like they are doing everything they can to make it happen; not building or improving the alternatives, increasing cost barriers, and investing heavily in expensive driving road space.

    Poor Wellington: I guess they can just demolish half the buildings instead of quake proof them and use them as parking lots…..

  4. Wellington’s fragmentation (physical, psychological, and administrative) means that the kind of big picture thinking which is possible in Auckland (even if it isn’t happening, thanks to narrow minds) is being missed. Wellington has incredible opportunity, it’s a liveable city in so many ways, even if it will never be as good as Auckland.

    Continuing to build motorways is squandering that advantage. There are hundreds of millions of dollars of new roading projects being discussed presently, all driven by the NZTA, and none of which seem to originate from coherent economic or traffic modelling.

    1. Absolutely right. We are all a bit mystified as to why National are so keen on building massive new roads throughout the Wellington region, and for people that live here, they will make very little difference. Apart from the ludicrous Basin Bridge project, which there is a lot of opposition to, the other roading projects are really for truck drivers and out of town commuters. As I don’t commute in and out of Wellington, it is quite possible that I will never travel on one of Joyce’s Roads of National Party Significance in my life.

      Re your comments about fragmentation in the Wellington region, it’s refreshing to see that barb being directed at us, after so many years of it being a predominantly Auckland problem. I totally agree that an integrated Council would be a logical thing – but some of the smaller players, like Upper Hutt etc, are strident that they want to be “independent” and not part of a Wellington super city. I guess the difference here is that we have a Mayor who believes in democracy, and that a super city should not be forced down people’s necks if they don’t want one. I believe Rodney Hide was the bulldog that united Auckland whether it wanted to be united or not. We have no Rodney Hide down here (probably quite fortunately, for many reasons).

      1. That new Porirua – Hutt road is likely to gain support easily, and could perhaps be supported if built at a reasonable price. But the rubric of safety is a hopeless one: the NZTA are literally causing preventable deaths by failing to countenance extremely cheap and readily available safety improvements like rumble-strips ($15,000/km), double yellow lines, and lower speed limits (80km/h is more than sufficient on many stretches of road).

        There’s a mixture of small-town pride, unthinkingness, principled objection, concern over uncertainty, and patch-guarding. Which Councillor or officer would want to lose control of a council seat or administrative budget? All of which means that reform will happen slowly and under limited terms. Without Hide’s underlying agenda of the privatisation of public assets and the ringfencing of these through ‘Council Controlled Organisations’ [sic], there are only administative and planning gains, and while these are recognised as worthwhile they’re not something the Government will expend political capital on. The Government is likely to take places which are clearly over-councilled and underpopulated like Northland (currently), the Eastern Bay of Plenty, and Wairarapa, before they again look at stronger and more populated places. Hopefully this creates a robust and well-accepted process with multipartisan support.

        1. In terms of being over-counciled, the Hawkes Bay, Taranaki, Nelson, the West Coast and Southland could be next to see re-organisation. I was in a planning forum in 1998 or thereabours when the speaker pointed out, a decade after the 1989 re-organisation, that we were on track to end up with 20 to 25 unitary authorities in New Zealand … and so it is happening.

          1. We already have some of the largest council’s in the world, and fewest per head of population. Think NSW has twice as many per head. Useful to have single body dealing with development and transport or large growing metropolitan areas, but apart from that not convinced of the benefits. Auckland Council is far from being one council internally, still siloed between the old councils. Will take another 5 years plus for it to really bed in.
            Also Wellington council’s are geographically distinct, so not nearly the same issues with crossover services and development. All they really need to do is put all the council transport budgets in the GWRC. Regional Council’s in NZ set up to fail, and put needless barriers between PT and roads, that is main issue that reorganisation needs to solve.

      2. I agree it’s heart breaking as Wellington’s cosmopolitan centre has always offered such great hope, and still offers fantastic lives for many (despite the climate!).

        But make no mistake this is deliberate by some. If you read other threads here you will see there is a vocal group that want to turn every conurbation into little versions of US sprawl burgs. They always name Houston as what we can have, which simply cannot happen, even if it were desirable, but in their campaigning they can get us to Akron or any number of small and gradually failing city models based on low intensity sprawled vapidity lavishly connected yet separated by expensive motorways.

        Have a look on Google: these flat mid US cities all have freeways through town and acres and acres of at grade parking spaces right at their heart. Oh and a stadium and a convention centre; failing. Many are losing population.

        This is the sad already hopeless last century model that NZTA is determined to force Wellington into. Of course they don’t think that’s what they are doing, they only think they’re ‘meeting demand’. A demand that they either pretend is there or work hard to create. Is it even sader that they deny their place making role?

  5. A lot of that population growth stuff will be cyclical, and migration-related… Auckland also had a slowdown over the last few years, and both cities are likely to pick up again as more migrants come in, and fewer NZers jump ship to Australia.
    Not that this should be used as the rationale for costly infrastructure projects if they don’t make sense.

  6. There is a larger problem in that it seems to be the nature of the world, for large places to get larger, and small places to get smaller. The growth of Auckland may well be welcomed by those who already own property there, but for newly arrived immigrants it holds both promise (of jobs and growth) but also misery and hardship (of no reasonably priced homes etc). It is vitally important for the rest of NZ that other smaller places are not left to die (note: i’m talking about places like Waipukurau and Waipawa, not about Wellington thank you!) but they need to be left in a stable state.

    We could, of course, fit the entire population of New Zealand into one suburb if we packed people in at the rate of Hong-Kong style sardines, and leave the rest of the country untouched as a vast green theme-park with a race track running through (which arguably the south island already is) but I would be interested if there was a way to get these new immigrants to NZ to settle in other parts of the country, rather than all just flock to Auckland. We managed to do it in previous times – ie there is a large population of Islanders in Porirua, and Croatian/Dalmations in Northland, and Italian descendants in Island Bay in Wellington – but currently it seems to be the default position that growth happens in Auckland because the immigrants all go to Auckland.

    1. Most of Aucklands growth is from natural replacement and internal migration. More kiwis move to Auckland than international immigrants.

      If you want to swap the trend you’ve got a very hard task, you’d be fighting against all the pull factors of urbanisation., jobs, opportunity, culture, nightlife, cosmopolitan populace.,

      Maybe new migrants don’t want to live in a small town surrounded by wilderness, or at least not most of them?

      1. Seeing as Auckland bills itself as being one of the most racially diverse cities in the world, with 140 nationalities, then that would seem to indicate that it is the key destination of choice for immigrants? But regardless, I agree that if you are from the intense urbanism of Hong Kong, then moving to rural Hawkes Bay may be seen as a backwards step…

        I think the other picture that is not revealed from straightforward ethnic mapping, is age-groups. Let’s face it, the large mass of people in a large city are great if you’re young and horny, but on the whole, people (in NZ) tend to turn to the suburbs / smaller towns when they settle down and breed.

    2. those places like Waipukurau are perfect for all the anti urbanists in Auckland that hate the Unitary Plan, and seem to hate cities. Can all retire there to there quarter acre sections and single storey housing.

  7. The key number to watch in Wellington’s case would be CBD employment. If this has been in decline in Wellington’s case, this will track straight into the use of public transport; also, if jobs have been allowed to drift to the suburbs, then this would be no good for public transport demand either. From what I understand CBD employment has been static for some time, and in Wellington’s case, peak trips are about half of all trips.

    Still – Wellington City proper manages about 100 public transport trips per person per year (calculated as the bus trips within the city plus the Johnsonville Line train trips). The equivalent for the Auckland Isthmus would include 25.5m Isthmus bus trips plus 4 million Isthmus-only rail trips (that is, excluding trips starting or finishing outside the Isthmus). 29.5m trips over 450,000 residents ~ 65 trips per person per year. (Defined as 25.5m isthmus trips in the year to November plus 4m of the 10m rail trips, for argument’s sake).

    Anyway, this is included to highlight my point about the importance of concentrating employment, but I suspect I am preaching to the choir on that topic.

    1. Wellington CBD employment has been pretty static since 2008, but that’s down to the economy really – the same goes for NZ as a whole. The Wellington CBD’s share of city-wide employment has been pretty constant at around 70%, and likewise for share of region-wide employment at 40%.

        1. Also the increase in inner city living in WGTN is likely to have removed commuters from all modes. The Wellington Central City is highly walkable and bikeable, being, counter intuitively, flat. The Council however does very little to improve the environment for this outside of a few high profile streets and the waterfront once you get over the traffic sewer barrier. I have never had to wait so long by the side of the road for so few vehicles anywhere in my life. Of course, I usually don’t wait for permission to cross Wellington Streets as it never arrives within any kind of reasonable period, and nor, I observe, do the natives.

          Fix this and add decent cycle lanes WCC, lord knows there’s plenty of street space all currently handed over to traffic [angle parking in the CBD!]. And Ross is dead right about parking.

  8. While I’m here, a discussion offline with people in Wellington came down to a sharp reminder of the amount of central city parking – around 30,000 places for the 26,000 cars which come into the CBD. And there is absolutely no willingness on the part of the council to tackle parking supply or pricing.

    1. pity the CBD is designed around the 26,000 cars, not the 130,000 employees nor the residents. If nothing improved soon Auckland CBD will become more pedestrian friendly than Wellington in a few years.

    2. WCC feels about on-street parking the way AT feel about through-traffic lanes. On-street parking is more important than any other other possible goal for transport or public place: whether moving general traffic, buses, or pedestrians, or providing amenity. Most of Wellington’s main roads are laid out with tiny footpaths and parking on both sides of the road, even if that means buses going in opposite directions can’t pass each other at speed (for example on Rintoul Street and Pirie Street). There’s very few multi-lane roads in Wellington: even on some relatively arterial car and bus routes like Crawford Road and Thorndon Quay, parking is allowed during rush hour. Cable and Wakefield Streets are Wellington’s equivalents of Hobson and Nelson streets in Auckland: they have parking full time, too.

      The few bus lanes are thus chiefly in the few stretches of road that don’t have houses beside them: Chaytor Street and Glenmore Street, for example.

      Wellington’s CBD is essentially a giant carpark: it’s a complex one-way (and often one-lane) system that exists to maximise angle parking and provide useful loops for people to cruise around for parks. Good examples: all of those side-streets off Featherston Street, the service lanes off Victoria Street, Mercer Street.

      Wellington’s CBD is thus pretty similar to Auckland’s: once you leave the Golden Mile/Queen Street, all the space is given over to cars. The only saving grace for Wellington is that the cars are usually stopped.

  9. When I think what that $3bn for the Wgtn RoNS could instead achieve for Wellington’s rail system, if it were under the stewardship of more enlightened guardians than at present. We could have the much-needed Levin to Airport Railway of National Significance. Oh, the PT connectivity that this would provide! And the new PT markets it would open up or claw back from road!

    Unfortunately today’s brilliant planners remain convinced that because nobody travels by rail beyond the existing terminus (the possibility is not there, of course), this somehow “proves” that there is no demand for services to run further.
    Just like before the Auckland Harbour Bridge was built, the small number of people who made the journey across to the Shore by ferry must have “proved” that there was no demand for a bridge!

    As things stand, we are about to witness $$billions being poured down the Gully Trap.

  10. Wellington has been experiencing its own recession. I think mostly due to layoffs and cuts to Government spending but I am betting that it is just part of the political cycle rather than an underlying decline in Wellington as a place to live. I say betting because as a contrarian after John Key said it was dying I figured it was probably a good time to buy a rental property in a busy inner city suburb. I went with a run down villa in Newtown which is closer to Courtenay Place than Newmarket is to Queen St. It is walkable, has brilliant bus services. a vibrant local shopping area. My plan is to keep it until the second term of the next Labour government whenever that is at which point I expect Wellington prices to peak due to high government spending and increased numbers in the public service. Might as well ride the cycles. Wellington isn’t dead its just going through a bad patch.

  11. Sorry I also meant to comment that Wellington because of its geography doesn’t respond the same way as other cities to changes in transport costs. The much commented on NZTA vehicle kilometres model reported on in an earlier post noted that they had to use a dummy variable for Wellington. A dummy variable means there is a step change in the regression model that makes the general model unreliable without modification. A text book example of a dummy is if you model smoking in the US states by age, sex, race etc you would always use a Utah dummy because so many people there don’t smoke because of beliefs. A Wellington dummy allows the modelled vehicle kilometres to be reduced when applied to Wellington.

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