Thinking aloud about some of light rail’s challenges

An email from Wellington Regional Councillor Daran Ponter to FIT raises important issues about the challenges Wellington will face in bringing light rail to fruition. This post considers Daran’s comments on an earlier Q&A post and adds FIT’s observations.

This is really useful and very timely as the government gets closer to making a decision on what priority to give LR as part of LGWM. 

I have to say that I continue to have reservations about a Harbour Quays route, principally because this was so roundly rejected when GWRC proposed bus routes on the Harbour Quays.  This reaction may dissipate though with a fast service and good connections in the suburbs.

It's worth reminding ourselves that whatever route is chosen for light rail, it will have both strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect route, only a best fit to the requirements and constraints. The Harbour Quays option is one such trade-off. FIT takes its cue from the government's policy statement on transport, which provides funding for urban rapid transit projects. For FIT, rapid transit means high volume, high frequency and fast enough to compete with private car travel.

The main alternative, and the one chosen in the Public Transport Spine Study, is a golden mile route. FIT envisages that the golden mile will be converted into a pedestrian-centric low speed transit mall, with an estimated 30 to 40 buses per hour once light rail is up and running. The generally-accepted international guideline for operating in such an environment is that light rail vehicles are limited to a maximum speed of 20 km/hr. The rest of the line is not long enough, and lacks high speed sections, to recover the delay a golden mile route would introduce.

Light rail construction on the golden mile would be costly and disruptive. Wellington is fortunate to have a suitable surface route close to the city centre. Lacking this option, many cities have little choice but to build rapid transit lines underground through the central city. If an intermediate stop between the station and Frank Kitts Park (900 m) is considered necessary, it would be feasible to run light rail on Stout St to a Midland Park stop.

Research shows that people willingly walk further for the benefit of a faster journey. The route FIT proposes means every point on the golden mile is within a 6 minute walk of a light rail stop. FIT estimates that a well-designed light rail line following its route can achieve a travel time from the airport to railway station of under 20 minutes. In FIT's view, this meets the government's criteria for it to qualify for rapid transit funding.

In relation to hubbing, you will be aware of the push-back we have had from local communities at even 5% of commuters hubbing.  Some of this reaction is due to poor execution on the part of GWRC, but a significant part is a reaction to the idea of hubbing full stop.  Not suggesting this is a show stopper, more that collectively we are going to have a job ahead of to ensure quality connections for commuters (time, ease of transfer etc) and getting commuters into a transfer “groove”.

Those wishing to catch the light rail who don’t live within the 1 km “walk corridor” will need ways to get to their nearest stop. Local feeder-bus services are one option; others include using a bike or e-scooter, getting someone to drop you off, and through-bus services so people have a choice of a faster trip with a transfer or a slower one-seat trip. The strategy is to build more transport choices; people can choose options that best meet their travel needs.

Reconfigured bus stops make light rail transfers easy and quick / Greg Thompson (used with permission)

Reconfigured bus stops make light rail transfers easy and quick / Greg Thompson (used with permission)

Many cities with well-designed transit hubs treat "there and back again" trips within a time limit as a transfer. For example, people can catch a bus or light rail to go shopping, then use a transfer to ride home again. As long as the time between boardings is less than 90 minutes, it counts as a single trip. This kind of policy treats transfers as an opportunity, rather than seeing them only as a problem. Fare policies that treat mobility as a service (unlimited travel for a fixed monthly subscription) also make people less reluctant to transfer.

Hubs are a necessary part of a full anywhere to anywhere transit system. While nobody likes having to transfer, there is extensive literature on how to minimise the impact of transfers. Ensuring light rail delivers a rapid transit service is essential: the time saved on light rail has to be enough to offset the transfer penalty.

Finally I note that to provide a dedicated route across the City significant numbers of car parks will be affected – more than ever before we are going to need a joined-up GWRC-WCC approach on this.

One strategy some overseas cities have adopted is to move the on-street parking off-street. This requires including private sector parking providers in conversations about fostering transit oriented development along the light rail line. Medium density residential development around the light rail stops also reduces the need for parking and needs to be encouraged. Developing a joint GWRC-WCC transit oriented development policy would be a useful starting point.

Pricing policies and charges will need adjusting. The pricing objective is that on-street parking will rarely be more than about 80% full, so that those who really need a park can find one.