This is a guest post from Andy C – a long time Wellington public transport user…

Well when it is Wellington of course…

Some of you may remember that back in 2013, the Wellington City Council undertook its ‘public transport spine’ study, which looked at options for the highly used public transport spine from the Wellington railway station to the Hospital in Newtown. The problem definition from the study was quite clear:

  • In future years, too many vehicles and modes will share a constrained corridor resulting in longer and unreliable transport journey times which will worsen over time
  • There will be increased traffic congestion in the strategic and local road network and additional environmental impacts as a result of less mode share for public transport.

Furthermore, the report noted that there is a clear problem with the current public transport network: “It is difficult to increase PT patronage and mode share under the current circumstances. Buses are not segregated from general traffic. Wellington’s bus services are perceived by the public as being less attractive and less reliable than private vehicle journeys.”

Therefore the study looked at three options to solve or reduce these problems; bus priority, bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail.

Wellington BRT route

As you all know, Wellington is a city defined by its geography. Lots of hills, with traffic funneled through a small number of key routes (either in the valleys, or along the hill tops). If you are traveling from the south (Island Bay), you have to either go past the Basin Reserve, or through Mt Cook, just a few hundred metres away. The same is true for traveling from the east of the city (Kilbirnie, Miramar etc); you either go past the Basin Reserve or around the bays. If you’re coming from the north (hill suburbs and the Hutt) you’re actually lucky in having the option of trains, buses and the motorway, while the west (Karori) is probably the most challenging with only one major route in or out.

To my mind, this actually gives us good options for some sort of dedicated public transport spine, because so many of these routes have been identified by the local Council as being high on the list for intensification of housing and public amenities. Therefore with good planning, we could see increased public transport use simply from all the new people living along the high use routes.

After lots of debate, the result of the spine study was that BRT (defined as ‘dedicated bus lanes for new high capacity vehicles’) had the highest benefit to cost ratio and thus would be investigated further. The initial spine would run from the railway station to the hospital and Kilbirnie.

Well on Friday 31 July the Wellington City Council released its indicative business case for BRT (you can read it here), based on a report written by PWC. And sadly for users of public transport in Wellington, the key recommendation looks nothing like a BRT.

The indicative business case finds that actually, it would be too expensive to even think about BRT as defined above. Instead it provides two simpler options; bus lanes in targeted locations, with limited intersection priority with a Benefit Cost Ratio of 2.3, or bus lanes along the whole route 24/7, with full intersection priority with a Benefit Cost Ratio of 1.5.

Now call me a cynic, but neither of those things sound like ‘dedicated bus lanes for new high capacity vehicles’, although the Mayor insists on calling it that in the Council press release which you can read here. And what is even worse, the document notes that both options are predicated on there being ‘a grade separated Basin Reserve’ (which will have to be a topic of a future post).

A couple of days ago the local paper the Dominion Post even got in on the cynical act, which is something of a surprise, with a scathing editorial about current public transport plans that included this summary:

Recall that Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown came to office pushing a light rail system, only to see it lose out to the souped-up bus plan. That was supposed to see “high capacity and high quality buses running on dedicated bus lanes with priority at signals”.

But consultants in a new report blanch at the cost of doing that properly and recommend two watered-down alternatives. The cheaper one offers “bus lanes in targeted locations” with “limited priority” at intersections. Bus passengers can be forgiven for asking how that differs from the status quo.

Well I have to say, that after all the studies and recommendations over the years, if all we need to improve public transport along this route in Wellington is a few painted bus lanes (and enforcement of them please!) and some reprogrammed traffic signals, then let’s get it started tomorrow.

But in the meantime, please don’t call either of these preferred options Bus Rapid Transit. Because no matter how you look at them, they’re not. And what’s even worse, you’d be hard pressed to say they actually solve either of the problems identified back in 2013.

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  1. Thorndon Quay also needs a dedicated bus lane from the bus station to at least the Ngaio Gorge. It could be single lane and tidal. It is such a joke inching along at rush hour in either direction.

    1. Yes it does. Bus the chances of the city council talking out any of the parking to make space for proper bus lanes must be about zilch given the priority placed on providing on street car parks to keep retailers happy. On street parks win out every time over bus passengers.

  2. A submission by FIT (Fair Intelligent Transport) to the GWRC long term plan requested a “Value Engineering Assessment of BRT business plan” to look at whether the BRT proposal meets the original objectives and terms of reference and whether the definitions were satisfactory, amongst other things. The long term plan was signed off on 30th June, but councillors have yet to consider this or receive any recommendations from officers.

    The Regional Land Transport Plan hearing panel noted that a decision that any corridor created for BRT through central Wellington is also designed to be suitable for LRT, if at a future date there is a decision to introduce this mode. It was also noted that the formal business case process for BRT would need to confirm that this option is economically viable and the best solution for Wellington before construction funding is committed.

    The split spine is also a concern, with the route through Mt Victoria road tunnel conflicting with vehicle traffic and
    then proceeding along Ruahine Street, away from the high density Haitatai area. The Mt Vic bus tunnel is already a fast route to Miramar through Haitaitai which competes favourably with cars travelling through the vehicle tunnel.

    The other leg of the spine route is rightly along the Adelaide Road growth spine route, and could be extended over Constable Street to Kilbirnie or through a new public transport and active mode tunnel by the Wellington Zoo directly onto Coutt Street and through to the Airport.

    The spine report had many other flaws which could be addressed separately.

  3. It’s led by the regional council not the city council, it is interesting that the city council seems to be the ones releasing the documents as it gets them from Greater Wellington for consideration rather than the region proactively engaging on this. Seems they are hoping that everyone will think it’s the WCC rather than GWRC and they can continue to water it down under the radar.

    1. WCC have no power here. They’re dictated to by GWRC, which has consistently failed to provide or support solutions for Wellingtonians (the poor people of the Hutt Valley and Porirua are even less well served).

      1. GWRC need WCC to make this work, WCC are the requiring terrritorial Authorithy in regard to Bus lanes, red light priority etc, without WCC this cannot proceed.

        I suspect WCC is releasing these documents as they are becoming unhappy with the continual downgrading of the outcomes,
        heck even today we got a ” new high capacity double decker buses might be too heavy for the roads, and too tall for tunnels, so we might have to take out some seats to make them legal”.. I mean this is truely amataur hour

        1. Thanks for those comments all. Just a quick clarification on the press release. It was actually a joint release from GWRC, the WCC, and the NZTA I believe and it was just that I was fairly unimpressed by the fact the Welly mayor called these options BRT so I linked to their version. As to the respective roles of the Councils – yeap, I’d love to know what goes on behind closed doors when GWRC talk to WCC about this… but I have no intell on that.

      2. You have it back to to front. WCC have all the power here. WCC is the road controlling authority and any kind of rapid transit has to be built on their roads. GWRC contracts the operation of the buses. They are totally dependent on the roads provided by WCC to get buses out of traffic congestion. WCC however don’t want to upset local residents and businesses by removing on street parking and don’t wan’t reduce traffic capacity. So buses lose out.

      3. Basically, that is nonsense. WCC as the local council is ultimately responsible for building the public transport infrastructure like the corridors, and it looks like they are the ones who have welshed on it.

  4. a smokescreen to get rid of the trolleybuses and enshrine the private motorcar as the main mode of transport. pt wash to go with the motorway to the airport.

  5. Would be interested in all the phrases that were tossed around before they agreed to go with “special lanes separating buses from traffic to some extent” in that press release. Have a sinking feeling that “to some extent” is doing a lot of work there

  6. They could relieve a lot of congestion by widening CBD streets again so that buses can pass each other. The latest plans talk about saving four or five minutes on a journey. For me, a few minutes less on a bus is nothing. the biggest problem I see is that buses are so unreliable. I can spend 10 minutes or more waiting for a bus, and if you want to catch a connecting bus you need to allow a lot of extra time over what the timetable says. Getting rid of trolleys will improve this situation. RTI is not very accurate either. Wellington already has high public transport use, but given our topography and lifestyles public transport and cycles will never be a total solution. If I want to visit my parents its about 30-40 minutes by car, or an hour and a half on two buses and a train assuming they all connect with each other (which is highly unlikely). No contest.

  7. Thanks Andy C. for that succinct summary of Wellington’s plans for a so-called “high-quality public transport spine” – now watered down to zilch! The objectives of the funding authorities could be summarised thus: Spend as little as possible on doing the bare minimum, just in order to keep public transport users and their pesky advocates quiet. Other than to achieve this dubious goal, I see no substantive vision for expanding Wellington’s public transport infrastructure at all. Far-sighted 1960’s plans to extend heavy rail and 1990’s plans for light rail have all been swept aside in the passion for building more motorways.

    Actually I have to admit some satisfaction in seeing a “wrong solution” for Wellington’s PT disintegrating at an early stage before any serious money is wasted on it. My hope is that the entire Spine-study process will be revisited with fresh minds and without a pre-conceived agenda to exclude anything to do with rail because that surely was the reality first-time-around, whatever spin is put on it.

    But if public transport is to stand any chance of meeting the real needs of Wellington any time soon, some means must be found to stop the massive squandering of funds on *unnecessary* roading. I say ‘unnecessary’, because the plans are proceeding in the face of flat-lining traffic volumes, and take no account of what the effect on traffic-projections might be if a *proper* spinal PT solution was implemented. Current roading plans are pure 1970’s business-as-usual and assume hopelessly outdated traffc-growth forecasts.

    Those of us in Welly who are concerned about such matters are holding out hope that NZTA’s appeal against the Basin Flyover rejection will fail and that this will force a complete re-think of the whole bloated roading master-plan.

    Wellington’s future really does hang in the balance at the moment, because if $2.4 billion-worth of motorway-spending in the region goes ahead, we will end up with a very different city from both now, and from how it could be if this funding was redirected to doing the PT spine properly. True, there are a few who would favour converting Wellington into a city from the American mid-west; however others (myself included) would greatly favour a more European model. Unfortunately most people are oblivious to what the actual outcomes are likely to be.

    1. Thanks Dave. I’m certainly very interested in the Basin appeal outcome – but not holding out too much hope for major change if the reported comments from the appellants in that case are to be believed… And yet, for just a fraction of the money being planned for all those roads, we could get some really great improvements to PT. Wellington city itself is so compact that with a little thought you could improve so many of the services. Anyway – more on that some other time

    2. It is indeed a great shame but local government politicians seem to be incapable of doing any more than pandering to the well heeled wealthy elite of the community and ignoring the needs of their poorer constituents except with a few crumbs. These scenarios are repeated over and over around the country, except in Auckland where Auckland Transport has the regional role taken by GWRC. I suppose WCC politicians are also clamouring to take the responsibility for running the local bus services off GWRC as Christchurch has tried the same thing for the last 120 years. All these scenarios reinforce that the regional body is the best way to run good quality public transport but they are still being thwarted far too much by local councils.

  8. There’s also discussion of this on the Eye of the Fish blog in Wellington.
    Haven’t met anyone who actually thinks BRT is worth pursuing yet – and the options presented are not really more than just shufflings of paper at the moment. Fairly appalled at the quality of the report published so far…

  9. “When is Bus Rapid Transit not Bus Rapid Transit” When its Onewa Rd in the evening and you can freely park cars in the T3 lane and defeat the purpose of it, daily!

  10. What is the local politics ‘political climate’ like for a transport levy?
    From a distance, Wellington region is roughly 1/3 of Auckland’s pop and also has a large high value CBD.
    AC are ring fencing what 500m over 3 years?
    So using a similar model couldn’t GWRC maybe fund say 200m over 4 years, with an added WCC loan / bond / rate rise and Central Govt top up?

    Staying away from any tunnelling what could say c.350m buy you running Wellington Station to Newtown Constable St as a stage 1?

    Also shouldn’t Tory St be looked at for BRT?
    There is already a bridge / tunnel over SH1 N and the War Memorial park kind of creates traffic severance between the City and Mt Cook now. A lot of small side streets could be closed off at their Tory St ends and effectively made low speed service lanes.
    Run BRT from Wakefield / Cable St the length of Tory St onto Tasman St and turn off at Rugby St.
    Almost entirely avoiding the Basin by running on the south side of Rugby St into Adelaide Rd.

    That ‘City Spine’ needs to be revisited and amended for sure.

    1. Follow the money. NZTA provide the funding and require endless business cases etc. They also require their Thalys system back end system be used, which is the system used by Auckland, so councils wanting to do integrated ticketing don’t get much room to move on their own without central govt direction.

  11. No surprise when you look at the option evaluation framework on pg 68. Very cost conscious and typically oblivious to the benefits of the perception of decreased travel times for PT, not just the actual times.

  12. The sooner Wellington starts on a rail line to the airport, the sooner the capital will have a rapid transport connection across Te Aro flat.

    1. +!

      It is the single most effective transport improvement that the city could make, and it would benefit the entire region.

  13. The busses along the route from Newtown are shockingly slow. On the upside, it’s this that has contributed to a surge in cycling. We might get proper cycle lanes before proper brt.

  14. Rebuilding the roads along the Golden Mile to take the 18 tonne DE double deck buses will end up costing more than laying tracks for rapid transit. We could have had trams running to Courtenay Place by now if there had been less talk and more action (and a bit of vision).

  15. As a relative newcomer to this discussion but a keen wellingtoinan ( more of a hutt type), it seems the discussion is more about the cost than how effective we need the system to be.
    As a modern city we need to move as many people possible from single person car journeys to public transport . On a enviromental note we must reduce our dependancy on transport powered by internal combustion engines.
    The age of the private motor car taking priority over public transport needs to end.
    Dedicated electric bus routes , higher frequency of buses is what is needed.
    The infrastructure is there , the method of trolleys is good ,lets commit to an idea and move towards it.
    In the balance of it private car usage patterns are the most likely to see disruption when we prioritise public transport over private. Too bad.

  16. See today’s DomPost editorial for a pretty sensible analysis -

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