Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Back on track: rants and raves

There's a lot going on regarding transport at the moment. First of all, if you believe that shutting down the trolley buses is a bad idea, then there's a public meeting at 3pm this Sunday to discuss what to do about it. Where? At the Aro Valley Community Hall, of course.


The northern corridor study is a very complex issue, and I don't have the detailed technical knowledge to debate some of the important issues that have come up in the comments. Libertyscott argued that light rail vehicles would never be allowed to run on lines other than the Johnsonville line, as they would then have to share the tracks with heavy trains, and that the costs would be prohibitive for the Johnsonville line alone. While he's correct that mixing light and heavy rail is not common overseas, another commenter said that it does happen, and there are at least six cities now using the so-called Karlsruhe model. I need to do some more research on this, and questions of priority in the CBD, before responding more fully, but for now I just want to make sure that the light rail option stays in the public eye and is taken seriously.

So, I wrote a letter to the Dominion Post in response to their (apparently) neutral article on the study, and took the chance to also correct the inaccurate figures that they published in an earlier article about regional public transport spending.
It's heartening to read that light rail is being considered for the Johnsonville line (June 17). Wellington's railway network is one of our greatest assets, and light rail is the only option that not only maintains the ageing infrastructure but addresses its main limitation: that it stops just short of the CBD. Extending through the streets to Courtenay Place would encourage many more commuters to switch to this clean and space-efficient mode.

The most short-sighted option is the one that you describe as "upgrading bus services and encouraging walking and cycling". That sounds environmentally friendly, but in reality it means abandoning the Johnsonville line. As a cycle or walking track, the corridor would hardly be a serious option for commuters, who would switch to buses or cars with an inevitable increase in congestion and pollution. The flow-on effect to the CBD is why even those outside the northern suburbs should take an interest, and why the costs should not be seen in isolation.

Also regarding public transport funding, your article of June 12 ("Commuters face levy for $2b upgrade") is not quite accurate. Much of that is for normal operations, and less than $1.4b is for actual upgrades.
I haven't responded to the "busway" option yet, again because the details are complex, but from what I've read they have consistently failed to attract the same level of ridership that light rail can deliver.


On the subject of (alleged) alternative transport modes, Richard Boag kindly offered to give me a presentation on the ULTra "pod" system that he's promoting. I've been too busy to visit him for a presentation yet, but in the meantime I thought that the Wellingtonian article called for a reply. Since I (like all of the public) haven't seen the detailed proposal yet, I kept my letter measured yet sceptical, and concentrated on correcting the (mis)quote about Wellingtonians thinking that public transport is 'for losers':
Whether Urban Light Transport (ULTra) technology (June 8) itself is feasible (and as an untested system, that is doubtful), it seems a poor fit for Wellington's needs.

The proposed CBD track wouldn't improve capacity or convenience from the suburbs into the city, as commuters would have to change from train or bus to use it. A single loop would also miss the main benefit claimed by ULTra: that pods will be able to deliver passengers to their destination without changing lines. An extensive suburban network might conceivably provide that benefit, but would cost vastly more than the (probably conservative) $50 million estimated. Extending the existing rail corridors as street-level light rail through the CBD is a much more appropriate solution.

Of course the proposal should be independently assessed, but there's an aspect of your article that disturbs me. I hope Mr Boag was misquoted as saying "Wellingtonians have a view that public transport is 'for losers'". This is both inaccurate (statistics show that our public transport use is virtually unrelated to income) and insulting. Advocates of similar systems overseas seem more interested in bashing public transport than promoting their own solution. I hope that this is not the case here.
This was published today, but the editor commented that "to be fair to Mr Boag, he was not saying that public transport was for losers but that it is a 'perception' some Wellingtonians have". I think my letter addressed this alleged perception rather than ascribing the view to Mr Boag: if Wellingtonians (and note that the original quote didn't use the word 'some') thought that public transport was the last resort of the underclasses, then it's hardly likely that people of all income levels would use it as much as they do. He may have said that 'some' Wellingtonians have that 'perception', but that's not the way it came through in the article.


At 4:57 PM, June 22, 2006, Blogger Maximus said...

Tom, i certainly can't see how the option of a busway instead of a rail line would work to Johnsonville.... i haven't read the review yet, so i'm sure i'm wrong, but: how would you fit a bus way into the Rail tunnels? They're very small trains.... too small for a Bus i'm sure! Maybe big enough for a Pod ? ;-)

The other option of course would be a bus lane each side of Ngauranga Gorge... mmm, that'd be popular!

At 9:49 AM, June 23, 2006, Blogger Richard Boag said...

Hi Tom

Just can't seem to quite win with the press! My actual quote (which is part of our presentation and needs to be taken in its context) was that 'unfortunately in this country, historically there has been a view that.... ' this is borne out by NZ in the 1950's and 1960's was in the top one or two countries in terms of wealth per head of population. The motorcar became the prime source of transport and most families either had a car or were aspiring to own one. This is one of the reasons for our 'car culture'. Wellington however is the exception with 32% uptake in public transport by travellers and I certainly did not single out Wellingtonians for their 'perception' but NZ as a whole. Clearly Wellingtonians in general would never subscribe to such a comment. The editor is looking to spark debate on transport issues, however, I would hope that the focus goes from this to the real matters in hand.

Richard Boag

At 10:46 AM, June 23, 2006, Anonymous Marc said...

Hmm...I have seen "light" rail through the city cente in a few Danish cities and it tends to act as a barrier. In Aarhus, the line runs alongside the harbour, and has been a significant problem for them in terms of opening up their waterfront for public access. It is the most expensive rail line per capita in Denmark and the only thing keeping it open are the efforts of mayors of outlying towns. People living in Aarhus want the whole thing replaced with a bus service. Where the line crosses major roads and intersections in the city it causes significant problems and delays for pedestrians, motorists and cylists. It prevents access to the waterfront over a distance of many kilometers. There have been loads of accidents at level crossings due to various failures. People who live near the railway experience a considerable amount of disturbance from the noise of the regular trains. Property values tend to plummet along the line, and in my experience of urban rail in European cities, a sort of lower class slum seems to spring up alongside the line into and even in the city - some of the most unattractive areas I have seen anyway. Alternatively trams are used in cities like Gothenburg, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, but remember that residents near these lines live in housing that is relatively well insulated from the significant noise that these make - something of a rarity in New Zealand. Personally I am all for more pedestiran streets, cycle lanes, more dedicated public transport lanes, and ethanol buses in the city centre. Rail to outlying areas by all means, but what that needs to support it is the provision of a network of connecting buses at each end, and/or car parks at railway stations. That's what they do in Denmark and a lot of people drive to the station and leave their car there for the day. That's attractive when there are trains every 10-15 minutes, but less so when they run once or twice an hour.

At 1:01 PM, June 23, 2006, Anonymous Greg said...

To provide a bit of counterpoint to Marc's comments, the light rail penetration into downtown Calgary is an example of how traffic synchronisation can occur between public transportation, private vehicles and pedestrian traffic.

The principle of the design is that only public transportation travels along the downtown spine (7th Avenue). Private vehicles cross the spine and travel paralell. Lights are phased to aid flow of vehicles of both types.

While the pedestrian flow is aided by an overhead network of walkways joining buildings, known as "+15", a large amount of pedestrians use the footpaths that line the streets, just like any other street. A few pictures are found here,the first of which depicts things well.

Whereas Marc says that the rail line acts as a barrier, the LRT line in Calgary doesn't. Neither is the CBD bisected by the LRT, nor is the nearby riverfront market and park isolated from downtown.

At 1:37 PM, June 23, 2006, Blogger Tom said...


The term "light rail" covers such a wide range of tracks and vehicles that it causes a lot of confusion. Many "light" rail systems are not much "lighter" than "heavy" rail, and in many ways our existing EMUs could be counted as "light" rail by comparison. I don't know what the light rail vehicles in Aarhus are like, but the ones proposed for here are much more like street trams. If they're anything like the trams in Melbourne, they shouldn't create a barrier, and since they can carry more people than buses and many more than private transport, a light rail line would prevent much less of a barrier than a road of equivalent capacity.

Modern trams are supposed to be quiter than diesel buses or EMUs, so anyone who lives close to either the existing Johnsonville line or the CBD tram route should be used to much more noise by now! And light rail routes have generally driven an increase in property values, especially around the stations.

At 11:02 PM, June 23, 2006, Blogger Richard Boag said...

1,000 accidents in Melbourne per annum with trams

At 10:08 AM, June 24, 2006, Anonymous Andy said...

"1,000 accidents in Melbourne per annum with trams"

How many accidents per transport user does this amount to, compared to cars and busses?

Any information on the definition of "accident" and severity, or are we rolling in minor dings, scrapes, oafs falling out the door etc with massive collisions and squashed pedestrians?

Is the number of accidents with melbourne's trams indicative of how many would occur with any implementation of LRT in any city or in Wellington, or are there variables specific to Melbourne's system that that may contribute?

At 11:18 PM, June 30, 2006, Blogger libertyscott said...

With the contract now sorted out between Toll and GW for rail, the old English Electric rail units will now be replaced over the next ten years (Wairarapa cars first and then the Ganz Mavags need another refurbishment). The big question is whether enough new units are ordered to replace the J'ville line ones or not - GW's budget includes this, but the outcome of the study will determine the final answer. Land Transport NZ has also only approved the funding conditional on the outcome of the Northern Suburbs study and a Melling one.


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