This is a Guest Post by Generation Zero Wellington member Paul Young
Following an 18-month process, the Wellington Public Transport Spine Study was finally released in June and picked bus rapid transit (BRT) in favour of light rail as the best option for a new high-quality public transport system in Wellington city. Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently taking submissions on where to next, closing tomorrow. On one hand it’s positive that things are progressing.
However, the results and many assumptions of the study are highly dubious and have raised the eyebrows of many in the transport world. World-renowned transport academic Professor Peter Newman (also a board member of Infrastructure Australia) weighed in on it while in Wellington recently, saying the study “doesn’t do justice to light rail”.
Generation Zero has put together a quick submission form for people to easily have their say along the lines of our views, as explained in this handy little graphic.
Now there is nothing inherently wrong with BRT, and we aren’t blind light rail evangelists – in fact following the release of the study I was pretty convinced BRT was the way to go. But having read up and considered the evidence we believe it’s a short-sighted and problematic choice for Wellington. Light rail is a future-proofed option that we believe would deliver more benefits.
Here are some key points from my perspective about the study and the two options.
Cost and route
The study gave an extremely high cost for light rail ($940 million) because it chose a split route which involved building a whole new tunnel through Mount Victoria. Meanwhile the BRT option got a free tunnel by sharing the second Mount Vic car tunnel proposed to be built following the Basin Flyover. Doing this, by the way, would no doubt cause problems and delays by buses getting caught up in traffic congestion.
We believe cheaper options that avoid the need for a tunnel are feasible. In particular, a single line from the Railway Station to Newtown and then to Kilbirnie over Constable St and Crawford Rd was unduly dismissed in the study. The original reason cited in the study was just that it was “too slow”, but this later evolved into “you’d have to demolish a row of houses”. A quick play on Streetmix suggests otherwise, so long as we could find a way to remove the on-street parking.
Based on a similar cost per kilometre used in the spine study (~$56 million/km), this route would cost less than $400 million (compared with the study’s $207 million for the BRT option).
This route also doesn’t depend on building big new roading projects first, and avoids destruction of town belt land to widen Ruahine St. It would mean adjustments such as loss of parking on Constable St and slightly slower travel times to the CBD for Kilbirnie passengers, but benefits would include higher frequency service for Kilbirnie and Newtown residents and hence shorter waiting times.
In narrow corridors typical of Wellington, light rail has a much higher maximum capacity than BRT – approximately 10,000 passengers per hour in each direction, compared with just 3,000 for BRT. This is primarily because of smaller vehicle capacity (Wellington could handle buses for about 100 people, but trams for up to 300) and restrictions on how many vehicles can use the corridor per hour in order to give them full priority at intersections and maintain reliable service.
The study actually found that for the proposed BRT route, service from Kilbirnie through the proposed second Mount Victoria tunnel was at capacity from day one – let alone with any patronage growth. Information about service in the Golden Mile is unclear in the report but it seems BRT may be overloaded from the beginning here too. 
What is certain is that BRT doesn’t allow for significant future growth in ridership without compromising the service reliability and quality. Why invest hundreds of millions in a short-term option that will struggle from the beginning?
The modelling done in the study made no consideration for the higher ridership appeal of light rail over bus rapid transit, when there is strong international evidence demonstrating this.
A recent meta-study by Peter Newman and colleagues  shows rail outperforming bus in attracting trips from 1995-2005 throughout Australia, the US, Canada, Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong. Another meta-analysis for North American cities found that from 1996-2003 public transport trips increased by an average of 16% in cities that built light rail versus just 1.7% in cities that built bus rapid transit.  For a range of reasons, people tend to find light rail more appealing.
The study concluded that light rail would only attract as many extra PT riders as an enhanced bus service – overall growth of just 1% by 2040 – and that bus rapid transit would attract a lot more riders. This is way out of line with international experience and warrants strong scrutiny. The low predicted patronage growth in general needs to be questioned in light of NZ evidence shown on this blog of annual growth on the order of 16-20% following the opening of Britomart and the Northern Busway, vastly exceeding projections.
Transfers and the wider network
The main reason given for light rail coming out so bad compared with BRT is transfers. The study says light rail requires a lot more of them because – in theory – the BRT buses can continue out the ends of the corridor.
The modelling used a “transfer penalty” of 5.5 minutes – which is added to the actual expected waiting time – to capture the “inconvenience of transferring and boarding another service”.  Apparently this is actually a lower value than often used overseas. But again, the results are strongly at odds with observed outcomes in New Zealand and overseas and need to be questioned. Another point to note is that feeder bus services were not optimised.
It seems questionable whether BRT buses will really be able to continue outside the main corridor – at least without considerable adjustments and cost. Remember these will be big, articulated “bendy buses” (I suspect double-deckers may be a hazard on the infamous windy days!). Will Wellington’s tight streets really be able to handle these big buses as is, and will local residents tolerate it? It appears the study assumed no extra infrastructure cost outside the main spine route(s) despite the suggestion that “BRT” buses will be doing this:
Note that the dedicated corridor only operates between the black dots.
Perhaps the bigger question this raises is about reliability. If you have a light rail or BRT system operating entirely in a dedicated corridor with priority at intersections, the service can be very reliable and maintain regular frequency. If BRT buses are venturing out of the corridor they are bound to get delayed in traffic causing variable trip times. This was not considered in the study.
And while we’re on the topic of buses mixing with traffic, will the BRT really have dedicated right of way through the proposed second Mount Victoria tunnels? If not, will the supposed 3 minute time saving of the split route to Kilbirnie simply be eaten up by buses getting stuck in car traffic?
The spine study suggests approximately equal overall land value uplift from light rail or BRT of about $240 million, but again this seems at odds with international evidence that light rail offers larger and more reliable increases in property value.
Calculations by Tom Pettit as part of his postgrad research on the PT spine gave an expected land value uplift for light rail of $2.5 billion based on an an international review of over 50 installations across the world – an order of magnitude higher than the study’s estimate. He also estimated the increase in rates and fare recovery over 30 years would be $712 million, nearly paying the capital cost back twice. 
So that’s some of the key points, leaving aside some of the more intangible things around benefits to the urban environment, benefits of electricity as a fuel source, and so forth.
I guess a good note to end on might be to return to another nugget from Peter Newman, reported by Tom Pettit: There are 170 cities around the world with less than 150,000 residents that have light rail that is working. Why can’t Wellington?
We encourage readers to make a submission by Monday either using our form or the one on the GWRC site.
 Wood, K. (2013). Submission on Wellington Public Transport Spine Study. See “BRT capacity” section, p15.
 Newman, P. et al. (2013). Peak Car Use and the Rise of Global Rail: Why this is happening and what it means for large and small cities, Journal of Transportation Technologies, Vol. 3, No.4.
 Henry, L. & Litman, T. (2011). Evaluating New Start Transit Program Performance: Comparing Rail And Bus. Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
 GWRC, PTSS Short List Evaluation – Modelling Report. See pp79-80.
 Pettit, T. (2013). Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail? Presentation at Exploring the Spine Study event, 23 September.