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

Monday, May 15, 2006


I really haven't had the time or inside information to look into who's right and wrong in the trolley bus funding spat. I can't tell whether there are genuine disagreements over costings, whether it's a petty squabble over who does what, or whether the various parties are just bluffing in an attempt to force someone else to pay. What I do know is that this is hardly a good time to give up electric transport in favour of buses powered by imported and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

Some people argue that the trolley bus wires are ugly and ought to go. Frankly, I've never thought of them as disfiguring, and I hardly notice whether the street I'm in has the wires or not (and I think I can claim to be relatively observant when it comes to Wellington urban details). Cities with far more architectural beauty to protect, such as Rome, Vienna and Amsterdam, seem to happily accept their overhead tram wires. Besides, given that the trolley buses have been with us for nearly 60 years, and that we had tram wires long before that, there's a strong case for regarding the wires as part of our heritage.

Another argument made against the trolleys is that the routes are inflexible. But that's part of the point! If you choose a particular home because it's close to a bus route, you don't want the route to change at the bus company's whim. One of the reasons that light rail is a better driver of sustainable urban form than buses is that the lines are a considerable fixed investment, which gives private investors the confidence to develop close to the route. Trolley bus lines won't have quite the same effect, but they certainly indicate that you can rely on the route to be there for a while. In any case, the trolley bus routes all go through the older, established suburbs, which are hardly going to experience rapid depopulation.

Others argue that the trolley buses are slow, clunky, inaccessible and have lower capacity. That's true of the old models, but hardly the case for the newer version (does anyone know whether these are any better at keeping the poles on the wires?). If you let any sort of infrastructure run down for long enough, it'll seem unappealing compared to more up-to-date alternatives. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I could suggest that the trolley buses and trains have been deliberately neglected to the point where people are getting sick of them, making it easier to ditch them in favour of roading. But while some people have invoked conspiracy theories about the demise of trams in the US, it seems more sensible to blame the usual mixture of incompetence and shortsighted tightfistedness.

The final argument is that the trolley buses aren't completely sustainable anyway, since our electricity is partly generated from non-renewable sources. That's true at the moment: from memory, I think only 60% of our electricity generation is non-polluting, but that's a damn sight better than 0% for diesel buses. But let's look forward to a time when more and more of our electricity is generated from carbon neutral sources, rather than limiting our imagination to what we have now.

For instance, Wellington could build just two wind turbines and power our entire network of trolley buses, electric trains and any light rail that we develop. That's a large upfront capital cost, of course, but it will make Wellington's passenger transport almost immune to oil price shocks. We shouldn't hide them away, either, but make them a symbol of our commitment to a sustainable future. Site them proudly on top of Mt Kau Kau and say "This is Wellington transport".


At 1:07 pm, May 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many of the scandinavia cites run ethanol buses which are at least relatively clean, as well as offering more flexibility than trolley buses. Has there been any consideration of this an an option? I personally think the trolley buses are a pain, because the booms are always falling off the wires, and I think that the wires are pretty unsightly.


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