When I first heard about Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye’s proposal to create something of a tram loop around the neighbourhoods of the western part of her Auckland Central electorate, I wasn’t really quite sure what to make of it. Of course I’m not averse to the idea that trams probably do form part of Auckland’s transport future along particular corridors, but at the same time I was also skeptical. Was the idea just there to distract people from the government’s stubborn opposition to the City Rail Link project? Was it Nikki Kaye’s attempt to recapture some lost support amongst a PT friendly electorate – but critically with a project that the government wouldn’t need to stump up some funding for?
I’m kind of struggling to see whether the tram proposal is a serious transport plan or whether it’s more to do with tourism, heritage and so forth. I’m also not quite sure what exact route we’re talking about here in any case: extending the Wynyard Quarter loop up College Hill and then along Ponsonby Road is fairly obvious – but does it then go down Richmond Road to Grey Lynn shops? Or Williamson Ave? Or Great North Road? Indeed, descriptions a possible route are fairly vague:
National’s Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye wrote to Mayor Len Brown, Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and and the New Zealand Transport Agency yesterday asking them to consider investigating the merits of a tram link.
Kaye proposed the link could travel through Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Karangahape Road, Queen Street and downtown Auckland.
The MP wants the council to “properly” investigate “the feasibility of trams in central Auckland”.
“This needs to include an analysis of the costs, funding options, routes and types of trams – because different trams can accommodate different numbers of people,” Kaye said.
While Kaye is determined to investigate the loop connecting Auckland central with the western bays, the MP said she “will make it clear that we are also open to other routes”.
I generally think that an approach of “trams are great, where can we run them” falls into the technology-fixation trap that leads to dumb decisions. Surely a better approach is “buses don’t seem to be the best solution along this route anymore, maybe we should examine whether an upgrade to trams might work better”.
Herald columnist Brian Rudman was also pretty skeptical in his initial assessment of Ms Kaye’s idea:
Seizing on the sexiness of “heritage” to her villa-dwelling constituents, Ms Kaye is dangling the hope of a network of trams across her electorate. In the latest Ponsonby News she writes of how the “villages” of Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, K Rd and Wynyard Quarter all “have a uniquely special character that are cherished by their communities” and that while the Link Bus does a good job, she wants something “faster and easier”.
She is reported elsewhere as saying “today trams are at the cutting edge of a number of cities’ urban transport”.
Odd then, that just a month ago in her Herald blog item called “Is Auckland’s public transport busted?” there’s not one mention of trams – except a passing reference to Auckland having abandoned them in the 1950s. Instead she claims to have supported the CBD rail tunnel since 2009.
She also said “most people I talk to say they would catch public transport more frequently in Auckland if it were more reliable, frequent and safe”, adding: “The redesign of the bus network needs to be a priority for the Auckland Council.”
If that’s her belief, then why is she confusing the issue with a nostalgia trip down some dead-end tram track. A conspiracy theorist might think she’s been put up to it by her colleague Mr Joyce to try to split the united front Aucklanders have formed against the Government’s delaying tactics over the CBD tunnel.
However, the tram scheme seems to be gaining support, from some quite interesting places, with right-wing commentator Deborah Coddington announcing that she’s strong supporter of the idea:
Kaye’s nuts about trams, and trams, as anyone knows who’s spent time in Melbourne, San Francisco or other great international cities, are terrific forms of transport. They’re quiet and clean. They appeal to tourists and commuters alike. They can be faster than buses, and construction requires considerably less capital than rail links…
…Take, for instance, last week’s spat over Kaye’s idea for a tram loop from Ponsonby to Grey Lynn, to Karangahape Rd to Wynyard Quarter, the Viaduct and Britomart. In July last year she wrote to Mark Ford, now chair of Auckland Transport, then head of the former Auckland Transition Agency, pushing for a feasibility study. Kaye sees the project as complementary to the Link buses, and the city central underground rail link.
From my purely selfish perch on Shortland St, this would be great. The rail link won’t be ready for at least seven years. I’ll be in a Zimmer frame by then. Two cohorts of students will have been through Auckland University. If we get trams on the tracks in the next three years, us inner-city apartment dwellers could trot down to Britomart and hop on a tram to the western suburbs. Uni students could come across to their campus. The more of us who are out of cars – greenies and lefties take note – the less clogged the motorways, and therefore a reduced need to keep building more roads.
Coddington also takes a swipe at opponents to the tram idea – including Mike Lee and Labour MP Jacinda Ardern, both of whom seem to share Brian Rudman’s skepticism over the sincerity of the whole concept.
All up, this is really quite a strange situation for everyone to be in. In times of incredibly constrained funding for public transport, we have a centre-right MP and a ‘more to the right’ commentator suggesting that a big focus for our transport spending should be on a mode of public transport that’s internationally often criticised for being excessively expensive compared to its benefits. Something you might think such politicians and columnists would be concerned about.
It’s also a bit difficult to see how such a tram proposal would be the ‘congestion-busting’ panacea that is hoped for too. Like buses, unless trams run in their own right-of-way, it is physically impossible for them to be faster than driving. This is because they must stop to pick up and drop off passengers. Along high-volumes corridors such as Dominion Road, which has a reasonable amount of width, it is obvious that any future light-rail transport solution would run in its own lanes – therefore bypassing congestion and offering its users a faster trip time than by car. It’s tough to know whether Nikki Kaye really wants to narrow Ponsonby Road down to a single lane of traffic each way, or to advocate for the removal of on-street parking, either of which would be essential for giving a tram line its own right of way. When I mentioned this matter to her on Twitter, the response was that the line could go down the middle of the road. That might be fine for one track, but we’d clearly need two tracks if the tram is to be a serious transport solution.
Of course there’s little detail on how much such a scheme might cost. Remember that the current Wynyard tram loop is around $7 million for a single-track 1.5km loop and you start to see that we’re talking some pretty serious money in order to create anything like a useful system.
Mind you, if Nikki can convince Steven Joyce to come up with the money out of the $26 billion he’s planning to spend on roads in the next decade, I won’t have a problem. I just don’t think such a scheme is a priority to spend our very limited public transport budget on here in Auckland. If we want to improve public transport in this part of the city, the best thing we could do quickly and cheaply is try to extend bus lanes around as much of the Link Bus route as possible. And, of course, to push on with the City Rail Link project.