Submission to LGWM: Light Rail for Wellington

Summary of full submission to LGWM

Mass transit in Wellington City as proposed by LGWM is necessary but not sufficient. To compete successfully with private car travel requires rapid transit that delivers a congestion-free journey — the basis of Scenario A+. Transit Oriented Development around stops is an essential complement to urban rapid transit.

Wellington needs an ambitious goal, that by 2050 over 50% of all trips to and from the CBD will be by public transport. Light rail is a proven, low risk rapid transit option which has been deployed in other earthquake-prone cities. There would be benefits in Wellington adopting the same technology standards as Auckland.

The investor that assumes the ridership risk should have the final say on rapid transit route and technology choice. LGWM needs to set the performance targets for travel time, service frequency, and transfer time at hubs.

List of recommendations

  1. Plan to open a rapid transit line between the railway station and Miramar by 2027, as a reliable and superior alternative to driving.
  2. Agree that rapid transit is a core component of a future transport system designed around the wants and needs of people.
  3. Reconfigure bus services along the rapid transit corridor to aggregate demand and connect at transit hubs.
  4. Develop a policy and guidelines for transit oriented development around rapid transit stops and at transit hubs.
  5. Design the first rapid transit line in a way that facilitates future extensions and connections.
  6. Note that to provide reliable rapid transit for the projected demand, Wellington needs light rail operating no later than 2027.
  7. Note the earthquake risk to light rail lines can be mitigated and other earthquake-prone cities have extensive passenger rail networks.
  8. Note the estimated cost of a first light rail line is $910m and a public–private partnership is one of several possible funding mechanisms.
  9. Choose technologies that are based on widely-used standards, to provide maximally contestable supply and avoid supplier lock-in.
  10. Consider adopting a technology-neutral approach to procurement, specifying the services that the rapid transit system must deliver.


Challenging the road planners

The Regional Council, the City Council and the Transport Agency are currently engaged in their “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” initiative on how to resolve traffic and transport issues in the city. 

Following lengthy public engagement and surveys during 2016, key findings indicated that people valued the compactness of the city and ease of getting around; they want public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian-friendly city, and protection for the natural environment. These findings represent an admirable expression of what kind of city environment people would like to see. But achieving them will take a paradigm shift away from expanding the road corridor between the Terrace tunnel and Cobham Drive, which forms a major part of the current Land Transport Plan.

There is much evidence in New Zealand and abroad to indicate that constructing more motorways and bridges through an urban area does not lead to significant travel time savings or easing congestion (which is the common assumption of road and traffic engineers.) Conversely, there is much evidence that total or partial road closures can lead to a significant reduction in the amount of traffic in the vicinity, thereby achieving the easing of congestion that everybody wants. 

American writer and political activist Jane Jacobs spent a lifetime studying and writing about economic development and the decay of city environments. Jacobs did not have a high opinion of traffic engineers and traffic management as it has been practiced over the past 60 years. She castigated them for their failure to ask and address the right questions, and their failure to investigate after desired outcomes are not achieved. 

She claimed that “in the pursuit of maximising traffic movement, traffic engineers have abandoned and betrayed science as it is understood” and she described two examples where communities challenged the professionals and their proposals for traffic improvements. 

During the 1950s she led community action to save New York’s Washington Square, a community park in Greenwich Village, from bisection by a limited access expressway, and to close a 2-lane carriageway through the park to all but emergency vehicles. 

During the debate leading up to abandonment of the expressway and closure of the road, “the traffic commissioner told us traffic is like water: if it is dammed up or diverted from its course in one place, it will find other outlets where it meets less resistance. To close off the carriage road without providing a new road would, he predicted, inundate all the narrow streets in the park’s vicinity with thwarted traffic and belching fumes, threatening the safety of children to the point that they couldn’t even reach the park.” Following a test closure of the road, these predictions did not come to fruition. Nowhere did the traffic increase. Traffic counts were slightly down in the park’s vicinity. “Where did the traffic go? This question was never asked.” 

Jacobs also describes a dispute 30 years later with authorities in her Toronto neighbourhood, where a similar situation arose and was fought by the community. The same water analogy was presented by the traffic engineers and was subsequently debunked. Jacobs writes: 

“Here they are, another generation of nice, mis-educated young men, about to waste their careers on a fake science that cares nothing about evidence, that doesn’t ask a fruitful question in the first place and when the unexpected evidence turns up anyhow, doesn’t pursue it.” 

Once again the traffic flow projections had been discredited by real world experience and once again the reasons why it was wrong were not investigated.

Jacobs also described her observations when travelling by taxi to a downtown destination in Toronto. On a trip from the airport to a downtown micro destination, one part of the trip was along an elevated limited access highway, with on and off ramps feeding to and from the city’s grid of one-way streets. 

“On the expressway stretch the meter is ticking over, the trip seems economical and I am getting good distance for my money. Then I hit a choke point at the exit ramp and from then on everything changes. Considering what it is costing me, I am getting very little distance. I am not complaining about this. As research it is economical. What worries me rather, is the expensive burden on the city and the planet of air pollution and urban road congestion that the expensive part of my trip is registering.

“The driver must weave circuitously around the block, then around another block and so on to reach the correct side of the street on which to deposit me. All the way to my micro-destination, from the moment we enter the street grid, we are surrounded by delivery vans, other taxis, and private cars whose drivers also are attempting to reach their micro-destinations. ….. Our joint circuitous congestion hampers all others attempting to make use of the streets: public transit vehicles, pedestrians and bicycle couriers.”

She identifies what she considers to be two serious flaws. 

Firstly, instead of addressing the question ‘how can we help this great diversity of users reach their great diversity of micro-destinations most directly?’, the designers seem to be asking themselves – ‘How can people reach a macro-destination downtown most speedily?’ 

The second flaw is that the one-way street system leads the driver on a Barnes dance to reach a micro-destination. The no left turns, no standing signs and other rules are designed to keep vehicles out of one another’s way and carry out the theme of a speedy trip. She suggests that perhaps one-way street systems are not such a good idea.

A study by a research team at the University of London and reported in The New Scientist in 1998 tends to suggest that Jacobs is right. This study identified sixty cases worldwide in which roads had been closed or their carrying capacity reduced and its principal findings were:

· Planning models assume closing a road will cause traffic using it to move elsewhere

· Computer models used by urban transportation planners yield incorrect answers

· When a road is closed, an average of 20% of its traffic seemed to vanish and in some cases as much as 60%.

There are many examples where enlightened planning authorities have moved to close highways and channel investment into public transport, walking and cycling to and improve the urban environment. 

Wellingtonians are asking for public transport improvements, fewer roads and cars, a more pedestrian friendly city, and a desire to protect the natural environment. This is achievable, but expanding the road corridor to Cobham Drive is not the answer. 

Maybe closing the Vivian Street off ramp and directing through traffic two way along the existing corridor to the Basin Reserve and beyond would be worth trialling. 

Whatever the outcome, one lives in hope that the Let’s Get Wellington Moving team will take note of the fallacies identified by Jacobs and the positive experience in cities that have seen the wisdom of putting people first and designing transport systems around the desired urban form.

Scenario A+ Gets Wellington Moving with Light Rail and Road Pricing


“The Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) proposals are a $2.3bn bust,” says Fair Intelligent Transport (FIT) Wellington.

Space is at a premium in Wellington, yet LGWM wants to pour over 80% of its proposed spending into the most space-hungry transport mode—cars.

“This is magical thinking straight from the 1950s,” says FIT spokesman John Rankin. “We ought to spend public money on solutions that will work.”

“FIT supports LGWM’s Scenario A, to prioritise public transport, walking and cycling in the central city, but it's not enough. We also need to prioritise light rail, road pricing, plus safe walking and cycling. FIT calls this Scenario A+.

“Invest in light rail connecting the railway station to the regional hospital, Newtown, and continuing to the airport, so people have an inviting alternative to private car travel.

“Charge for car trips entering the central city during peak times, to reduce traffic on city streets and make it easier to get around.

“Make multiple safe places for people walking and cycling to cross SH1 between Willis St and the airport.

“We need a bold objective,” says Rankin. “Let’s aim for over 80% of CBD trips to be people walking, cycling and using public transport by 2040. That will enable Wellington to do its share of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Government’s ‘net zero by 2050’ target.”

“For a city Wellington’s size, light rail is an attractive, space-efficient and affordable mass transit option,” Rankin says. “A person travelling by car takes about 20 times as much road space as a person travelling by light rail. We need to charge people for their peak hour car trips and invest the money in public transport.”

“Our city deserves future-proof transport,” says Rankin. “Scenario A+ will get Wellington moving on all transport modes, including cars."

FIT asks Wellingtonians to reject the failed thinking of the past and support Scenario A+ at getwellymoving.co.nz