Whose lane is it, anyway?
The media reaction to the council's plans for bus priority measures was sadly predictable: instead of headlines like "Public transport to be improved", all the focus was on the loss of some parking. The first Dominion Post article was headlined "Residents resist bus lane scheme", Radio NZ's headline was "Bus lane plan bans parking at peak times", and the leading sentences in the articles were along the lines of "Proposal raises fears of congestion and a parking nightmare" and talked of a "bus lane policy that will strip residents of their rights to park cars on busy thoroughfares".
Excuse me? When did it become a "right" to store one's private property on a public thoroughfare? And I'm sure those residents would prefer it to one of the few other options for increasing the capacity of the roads: widening them by acquiring and demolishing their houses.
The actual proposals (Report 1 and its appendices from last Thursday's meeting) are quite complex and subtle, and involve a staged implementation over many years. While the eventual 40km network looks very extensive, many of the suburban arterial routes aren't planned to undergo conversion for some years. The priority is, sensibly enough, to deal with the Golden Mile first, followed by the growth spine, and only then looking at other routes such as Karori and Island Bay. The lanes themselves would also be phased in gradually, starting as "transit lanes" (including taxis and high-occupancy vehicles) and only shifting to bus-only when demand has grown. Eventually more "radical" measures, such as removing private vehicles from parts of the central city and Newtown, would be considered, but in the interim it's actually a very measured and even timid approach to public transport priority.
What does this all mean for light rail? The Mayor has (of course) labelled it "unaffordable", and my council sources tell me that the idea is dead, though it was only eternal optimists like me who ever hoped that it was being seriously considered. The report itself only says "While in the future light rail may be a more desirable form of mass transport, now and in the medium term enhancing the existing successful bus service will offer more affordable and tangible gains". There's no real definition of what "future" or "medium term" means in this context, except that the proposal is part of the long-term plan out to 2016. If ten years is "long term", perhaps within five years it will be time to look at more serious mass transit.
After all, none of the bus lane plans preclude future conversion to light rail, and in fact many of the measures could be considered as pre-requisites for it. In the medium term, a fleet of refurbished trolley buses with dedicated lanes and signal pre-emption could offer some of the benefits of light rail, and as demand grows it could be converted into a light rail corridor with all its additional benefits (greater capacity, greater passenger appeal, lower long-term running costs, integration with the rail network). That, of course, presumes that the council doesn't blow all our money on extra roads and tunnels first.