John Rankin: Four transport futures - Wellington's once-in-a-generation opportunity

Light rail in Bourke Street mall in Melbourne.

Light rail in Bourke Street mall in Melbourne.

OPINION: Two forces will shape Wellington's transport future: efficient or inefficient use of scarce resources; and high choice or low choice for people's mobility needs.

The status quo, inefficient resource use and low choice, is not sustainable. FIT (Fair, Intelligent Transport) Wellington envisages an efficient resource use and high-choice future, a city of well-connected communities.

The cause of Wellington's congestion is inefficient use of road space – a constrained resource. One lane of cars moves about 1200 people per hour. A dedicated bus lane moves up to 8000, dropping to 3000 in mixed traffic. Car reliance inevitably causes peak-hour congestion and unpredictable travel times. Yet many people have little choice but to travel by car: they are too far away to walk, or have poor public transport. We have become a city of captive drivers.

Wellington City Council predicts the city's population will grow by at least 50,000 people in the next 25 years. Under the current paradigm, more people means more cars. The NZ Transport Agency estimates that completing Transmission Gully will add up to 10,000 more vehicles travelling into the central city from the north. Adding more road space to accommodate these must take space away from other uses – NZTA proposes housing demolition, paving some green town belt, and tunnelling.

READ MORE:  Tim Jones: Covers about to come off new Wellington transport plans

An efficient-resource-use, high-choice future has a high-frequency, high-speed, congestion-free public transport network anchored by light rail, initially between Wellington railway station, Newtown, and the airport. Future stages could include a Miramar extension, a Karori to CBD line and a Queensgate, Petone, ferry terminal and railway station line.

Connecting electric buses and suburban trains, along with shared electric bikes and self-driving cars, will give people a wide range of mobility choices and satisfy the need to protect the climate. Two lanes of road space currently allocated to cars will be reallocated for light rail: one dedicated light rail lane can move about 12,000 people per hour, 10 times as many as cars and about twice as many as buses.

Growing numbers of people are moving into Wellington's CBD, to live close to where they work, study and play. Transit-oriented housing development around light rail stops will open up this choice to more people.

Light rail's space efficiency will allow the existing road network to absorb population growth, reducing cars and increasing liveability in the central city. Making space for public transport and safe cycle lanes is much easier than for cars.

The Public Transport Spine Study (2012) proposed an inefficient-resource-use, high-choice future. It assumed Wellington will continue to build more roads to accommodate more cars, and recommended minor public transport improvements, including higher-capacity buses with priority over other traffic, among other measures.

This leaves the efficient-resource-use, low-choice future. Some people predict self-driving, shared electric cars will eliminate the need for public transport. A lane of self-driving cars could move about 3500 people per hour (more with ride-sharing). In this future, nobody owns a car; we rent mobility as a service, using a phone app to call a car. Inter-vehicle communication will let cars travel in convoy, doubling or tripling the capacity of existing roads. This will not reduce congestion.

Let's Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) is about to offer scenarios to Wellingtonians to solve our transport woes. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Wellingtonians to korero about the kind of city we want. According to LGWM surveys, people in Wellington want better public transport, a more pedestrian-friendly city, protection of the natural environment, and fewer roads and cars.

Wellingtonians have asked for a city designed around the needs of people, not cars. Get it wrong and we're stuck – motorways last about 100 years (four generations). Which scenario best meets our requirements?

Streetcars on the go in Lambton Quay, outside Kirkcaldie & Stains store, in 1922.

Streetcars on the go in Lambton Quay, outside Kirkcaldie & Stains store, in 1922.

Modes of transport: 

Light Rail: A rapid transit system, segregated from general traffic as much as possible, frequent and fast, with wide spacing between stops.

Streetcar: A local system, mainly running with general traffic, slower, with closely spaced stops. Wellington's original tram system was a streetcar system.

Tram: A generic term for a light rail vehicle or a streetcar vehicle.

John Rankin is a founding member of FIT Wellington, a group promoting sustainable transport solutions for the Greater Wellington region.


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