Wellington Update: Transdev and Diesel Buses and cycleways

They’ve been a few interesting pieces of news from Wellington over the last last week.

Transdev to run Wellington’s trains

Transdev – who run the trains in Auckland – has been picked as the preferred operator for the trains in Wellington. This is an interesting result as for one it means trains in both Auckland and Wellington will have the same operator. Whether this is a good or a bad thing will have to remain to be seen. The Dominion Post reported the company was surveying people earlier in the year asking about ideas such as quiet cars, indicators to say where seats were available and WiFi. All of which begs the question of if they’ve thought of it, why they aren’t doing it in Auckland already. Presumably their holding some improvements back while they wait for Auckland Transport to go out to tender again or restart the current tender process*.

Just whether changes will lead to growth is something we’ll follow closely. In recent year’s patronage in the capital has increased but not by much.

2015-10 - WLG - Rail Patronage

*Auckland was also running a tender for rail services with the short-list also being Transdev, Kiwirail and Serco however AT postponed it in September citing uncertainty over the outcome of the Auckland Transport Alignment Process. As such they extended Transdev’s contract.

Greater Wellington Regional Council has selected Transdev Australasia in association with Hyundai Rotem as its preferred future operator for Wellington’s metro rail service.

The Regional Council will now begin negotiations with Transdev to finalise the terms of the 15 year contract. Subject to those negotiations being successful, a new contract is intended to commence on 1 July 2016.

The jobs of 400 TranzMetro staff who currently deliver Wellington’s metro rail service and maintain the new Matangi trains will be preserved. GWRC’s contract will require Transdev and Hyundai Rotem to offer employment to those staff on the same or more favourable conditions.

GWRC Chair Chris Laidlaw says the selection of a preferred operator is a significant milestone towards a new era for public transport in the Wellington region. “The rail contract is the first of all new, performance-based contracts for our train, bus and harbour ferry services. The new contracts will mean better services for customers and provide strong incentives for operators to grow patronage by making public transport easier and smarter.”

Mr Laidlaw also acknowledged the very competitive tenders submitted by the two other tenderers. Those tenderers were Keolis Downer in partnership with KiwiRail, and the UK based rail operator Serco.

Transdev currently operates the Auckland passenger rail service under contract to Auckland Transport and operates rail, tram and bus services in 19 countries across 5 continents.

Hyundai Rotem is the manufacturer of the region’s Matangi electric train fleet.

Commenting on its selection by GWRC, Transdev Australasia’s Acting CEO, Mr Peter Lodge said “We are very excited by the news today and look forward to the next stage of the process and concluding the contract with GWRC in the New Year.”

GWRC will not be making further comment until negotiations with Transdev are completed and a decision has been made to award the contract. This is likely to occur in March 2016.

 

Diesel buses set to replace trolley buses

As part of a new bus network the regional council will phase out the use of the electric trolley buses in 2017 in favour of diesel buses that they can eventually replace with battery powered buses. It is part of their change to a new bus network but does sound like an odd way of going about things. As an example it raises the question of why not just skip straight to battery buses which as a technology are advancing quickly. It also seems a bit odd that they think they’ll get a whole heap of new diesel buses now and that bus companies will replace them again in just a few year’s time. That sounds like a recipe for bus companies charging a lot more to run services as they amortise the cost of the buses over a shorter time frame.

Wellington New Network

Wellington’s new bus network

The Wellington region now has a clear path to an all-electric bus fleet after the Regional Council made some decisions today on how best to get there.

Chris Laidlaw, Chair of Greater Wellington Regional Council, says an exciting future is in store for bus travel in the region.  “We are determined to be the first region in the country with an all-electric bus fleet when the technology is more mature and affordable.  We expect to progressively introduce electric buses to the region within the next five years, starting with an electric bus demonstration in the first half of 2016.

“In the interim, however, we need to begin upgrading the Wellington City bus fleet.  High capacity buses are a vital part of the new, simpler and more convenient network which will be rolled out in early 2018. The new network will give 75% of residents, compared to 45% at present, access within 1km to a high frequency bus route.  Services will run through the CBD instead of stopping or starting at Wellington Station or Courtenay Place as many do currently.  This, coupled with the use of high capacity buses, will speed up travel times for everyone.

“The Council has decided that an upgraded fleet should include new low emission double decker buses, ten of which will be hybrids. These will replace the older diesel buses in the fleet and the trolley buses, which are being phased out in 2017 because of their unreliability, the high cost of upgrading and maintaining the infrastructure and incompatibility with the new routes. The upgrade will mean that by 2018 the average age of the fleet will be five years compared to 13 at present and overall tailpipe emissions levels of the fleet will be about 33% lower than they are now.

“The biggest gain we can make in contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to get people out of their cars and onto public transport, and this is why the bus fleet strategy that we’ve endorsed this week is so important. By removing the trolley buses and the old diesels we can deliver services that are fast, reliable, comfortable, easy to use and that go where people want to go. And the only way to achieve these big changes by 2018 is by replacing those vehicles with the best technology available, which is a mix of hybrid buses and new low emission diesels.”

Mr Laidlaw says the Regional Council will be going to tender around April next year for new bus service contracts and will be working with operators to bring their ideas and innovations on how to provide a low emission bus fleet for the region.

“We also plan to hold a symposium around the middle of next year on electric vehicles, bringing everyone together to ensure we make the most of the exciting opportunities on the horizon.  Electric vehicles are coming and the challenge is to prepare the way for these by agreeing on the infrastructural needs. Wellington region is poised to lead the country to a cleaner, smarter transport future and we’re determined to make this happen.”

Island Bay Cycleway

While the work to build the Island Bay parking protected cycleway continues, some parts are already open and it looks fantastic. Unfortunately, the people who have long opposed any change to the street – claiming that the road was already safe (because only the hardy used it) and that people would be doored by passengers on the left have continued to fight the project.

A new cycleway through the heart of Wellington’s southern suburbs is threatening to tear the community apart, as thousands vent their anger at its “confusing” design.

Critics of the Island Bay cycleway have labelled it “a death trap” and say it has made one of the city’s main arterial roads too narrow for buses, reduced visibility for motorists on adjoining streets, and even made it “impossible” for some residents to pull out of their driveways.

But many also say the cycleway looks fantastic and will make life easier and safer for people on bikes.

There is a very good post on the project responding to many of the claims from supporters of the project and where the image below is from showing there is plenty of space for doors to open and not hit people on bikes.

Another claim levelled at the project is that the road isn’t wide enough for a protected cycleway. This image from Stuff highlights the width well. You can see the cycleway on each side (with some cars parked in it), the parking and the road lanes. It looks like plenty of space to me.

HOP in Wellington

Wellington has been making some noises about moving towards integrated ticketing and fares for some time and doing so is formally listed Greater Wellington Regional Council’s Regional Public Transport Plan (RPTP). In the RPTP they say “Improving the fares and ticketing system is the next significant element in the modernisation of Wellington’s public transport system”.

As Auckland learnt changing a ticketing system can be very difficult, especi byally when you have some operators wanting to force their own system on the public. Now it seems that Wellington could be set to have a repeat of some of Auckland’s ticketing issues.

Hop Card

The days of Wellingtonians swiping their Snapper cards on the capital’s buses could be numbered.

The Government is pushing to have Auckland’s Hop card system in the capital instead and Wellington’s political leaders are worried about the potential impact of that on ratepayers, as well as the future of Snapper.

In 2018, the entire Wellington region will shift to having one electronic smartcard that people can use to pay for all bus, train and ferry travel, in much the same way Aucklanders use their Hop card.

Snapper, which is already on more than 300 Wellington and Hutt Valley buses, is expected to be among those bidding to provide the smartcard technology when Greater Wellington Regional Council opens the contract up to tender.

But their chances of success look slim after the New Zealand Transport Agency wrote to the regional council stating its preference that Auckland’s system be extended to the capital.

The agency also proposed that its wholly-owned subsidiary company, New Zealand Transport Ticketing Limited, be directly appointed to provide the $50 million Wellington network, as it does in Auckland.

The door was left open for the regional council to chose a different technology provider, but the agency said that company would have to represent better value and less risk than simply bringing the Auckland system south.

It is expected Wellingtonians will be able to use their new cards in Auckland, and vice versa.

Paul Swain, the regional council’s transport portfolio leader, said while the agency was leaving the decision in council’s hands, the message was that it should be buying into the Government’s system rather than Snapper.

But for a project as costly and as complicated as this, he believed a tender process was needed to make sure Wellington was getting the best technology on offer.

“We want the best deal possible for the ratepayer, for the taxpayer and for the passenger,” Swain said.

“But our concern here is that the bar is going to be set so high that it will be difficult for us to get funding for any system we get a tender for.”

The Transport Agency and regional council are planning to split the $50m cost of the new system between them. But the agency can opt to contribute less if it is unhappy with the technology provider.

I’ve seen some comments concerned by the stance by the NZTA over this but it is actually nothing new and harks back to decisions made many years ago.

  1. At the time Auckland had held a tender for an integrated ticketing solution which Thales won. Infratil – the owner of Snapper – didn’t like the outcome and pushed the then mister to review the decision.
  2. The minister asked the NZTA to review the tender process and when they did so they found the system to have been the best on offer. However they also recognised that integrated ticketing was something that was going to be pushed by many councils over the coming years for which the NZTA would be asked to help cover the costs of installing them all.
  3. To manage what could be a lot of expensive system requests the NZTA took over buying of the system with the intention of it being used nationally. They said at the time other regions would need a good business case for not using it.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Snapper is much more entrenched in Wellington than it was in Auckland and so I imagine there will be a lot of strong views down there.

What do you think will out should happen?

Cheap weekend buses in Wellington

In an interesting move Wellington City Council is paying $200,000 to subsidise bus fares on Go Wellington buses on weekends in the lead up to Christmas.

As Wellington bus users look forward to low weekend fares in the run-up to Christmas, their Auckland counterparts face a doubling of the price of new Hop cards.

Wellington City Council yesterday announced it was contributing $200,000 to subsidise bus fares, to as little as $1 for one-stage rides, for four weeks from November 28 to encourage more people to use public transport.

“This initiative will provide a welcome boost for retail sales,” said Mayor Celia Wade-Brown.

The fares, on yellow Go Wellington buses, will also include $2 for an adult two-stage ride and $1.50 for children travelling across two or three zones.

Auckland Transport is not jumping to match that, saying only that it will “watch the Wellington trial with interest”.

There are a couple of thoughts I have about this.

In effect this is the council trying to encourage people to use PT to shop in the city rather than them driving to a mall which most likely has free parking. In my view there are both positives and negatives to this. On the positive side it’s certainly better to encourage people to catch a bus to go shopping – which in most cases isn’t for going to be large bulky items – rather than lowering prices for limited numbers of council carparks.

At the same time though I wonder there are other reasons why more people aren’t already choosing to use the bus for shopping. The biggest of these is likely to be that that buses simply aren’t fast or frequent enough on weekends. Lowering the price might get a couple of people to change their behaviour but improving the level of service will likely have been much more effective – although possibly more costly.

In saying this I do think that in Wellington and in Auckland more use should be made of off peak fares to encourage more people to use PT at times when there is often an excess of capacity. For Auckland at least this isn’t currently possible with HOP so I very much hope AT are including it as part their integrated ticketing work.

It will be interesting to see if this has any impact on patronage. Currently growth on PT in the region is basically non-existent and for the 12 months to the end of September patronage was only up 0.6% however that was only due to rail with bus patronage down 0.2%. Hopefully the regional council release information about the impact of the campaign so we can see just how successful (or not) the idea is.

Wellington Patronage 2015-09

What do you think of the idea?

Public transport and congestion in Wellington

Last week, I took a look at some new research from the Netherlands that estimated the benefits of public transport for car travel times based on data from 13 “natural experiments” – public transport strikes. The Dutch researchers found that PT provided significant congestion reduction benefits – around €95 million per annum, equal to 47% of PT fare subsidies.

While the data was specific to Rotterdam, I’d expect to find similar results in most other cities with half-decent public transport networks. The whole thing got me wondering: Is there any similar evidence from New Zealand?

Fortunately for PT users and drivers, but unfortunately for researchers, potential PT strikes have mostly been averted over the last few years. However, Wellington did experience a “natural experiment” of sorts back in June 2013, when a major storm washed out the Hutt Valley railway line:

Source: NZTA

Source: NZTA

The Hutt Valley rail line was out for six days, including four working days. During that period, things got pretty ugly on the roads, as the motorway into downtown Wellington didn’t have enough capacity to accommodate people who ordinarily commuted in by train.

The Ministry of Transport (among others) very cleverly observed that this was a great opportunity to learn something about the impact of PT networks on road congestion. During the rail outage, they surveyed around 1,000 Wellington commuters about their travel experiences. According to their report, they found that:

  • The closure of the Hutt Valley rail line put significant pressure on the road network. Delays for commuters were most severe on the Monday following the storm. Traffic on State Highway 2 was severely congested, with morning peak hour conditions lasting two hours longer than usual
    • 80 percent of Wellington commuters from the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa experienced a longer than usual trip
    • 32 percent of them experienced delays of over an hour
  • the severity of commuter delays lessened over the week, with the number of commuters from the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa experiencing delays of over an hour halving by Wednesday 26 June

Essentially, what happened was that a bunch of people who ordinarily caught the train from the Hutt Valley couldn’t do that due to the storm damage. A quick eyeballing of MoT’s graph of daily rail patronage suggests that around 4,000 people had to make other travel arrangements:

Wellington storm daily train patronage

Almost half of the rail commuters from the Hutt Valley opted to drive instead, while the remainder chose to take replacement buses or to stay at home instead. This had a serious impact on motorway traffic, as shown on this graph of hourly southbound traffic volumes. On a normal day (the green or blue lines), traffic volumes peak at around 7-8am, and fall off sharply after that.

By contrast, on Monday 24 June, when the rail line was out, people were still travelling in (slowly) until almost 11am. That’s some serious congestion:

Wellington storm hourly vehicle flows

Based on survey data, MoT estimated that the storm damage increased average travel times during the morning peak by 0.329 hours (20 minutes) on Friday 21 June, 0.309 hours (18.5 minutes) on Monday 24 June, and 0.230 hours (14 minutes) on Wednesday 26 June. It then used those estimates of average delay for people travelling at peak time to estimate the added cost of congestion that arose as a result of the Hutt Valley rail line outage:

Wellington storm cost of increased travel time

In short, a four-day breakdown in part of Wellington’s public transport network cost morning peak travellers around $2.66 million in lost time. If we assume that there was a similar level of delay during the afternoon peak, when people are commuting out of downtown Wellington, the total cost would be roughly double that – $5.32 million.

This can give us a rough estimate of the value of public transport for congestion relief in Wellington. Extrapolated out over a full year (i.e. 250 working days), these results suggest that the Hutt Valley rail line saves drivers the equivalent of around $330 million in travel time (i.e. $5.32m / 4 days * 250 working days).

That is a very large number. According to an Auckland Transport report comparing Auckland and Wellington rail performance, Wellington’s overall rail network only cost $81.2 million to operate in 2013. 56% of operating costs were covered by fares, meaning that the total public subsidy for the network is around $36 million per annum.

On the back of these figures, it looks like Wellington’s drivers are getting a fantastic return from using some fuel taxes to pay for PT rather than more roads. The travel time savings associated with the Hutt Valley line alone are nine times as large as the operating subsidy for the entire Wellington rail network.

There are two caveats worth applying to these figures, one practical and one methodological.

First, it’s likely that the value of rail for congestion relief is unusually high in Wellington due to the shape of the city. Here’s a map of Wellington’s population density and infrastructure in 2001 and 2013 (from my analysis of urban population density). Dormitory suburbs extend linearly up the Hutt Valley and towards Porirua and the Kapiti Coast. Everyone travelling from those places to downtown Wellington are funnelled through a single transport corridor running along the shoreline of the harbour:

Wellington density 01-13 v2

In Wellington, losing the rail line means pushing everyone onto a single road. (Unlike Rotterdam, cycling isn’t especially viable due to the lack of safe infrastructure on this route.) In other cities, there tend to be a greater range of alternative routes, which spreads around the traffic impacts.

Second, these results aren’t as robust as the Rotterdam study, due to their use of survey data rather than quantitative measures of traffic flow and speed. They’re not likely to be totally wrong, but it’s likely that people over- or under-estimated commute times, or that the survey wasn’t representative of all travellers (which could invalidate MoT’s extrapolation to all morning peak travellers).

However, the increasing availability of real-time data on traffic speeds from GPS devices means that the next time this happens, it will be possible to measure the impacts in much greater detail and with greater precision. The Rotterdam study offers some good methodological insight into how best to do that – it looks at transport outcomes at specific locations over a long period of time, and controls for seasonal and weekday effects that may influence transport outcomes.

Lastly, it would be really interesting to see some similar analysis done for Auckland. I’m sure that there have been a number of full or partial rail network outages, either due to bad weather or scheduled track upgrades. Perhaps it would be worth taking a look at congestion on those days.

Rail costs in Auckland and Wellington

Is Auckland getting ripped off when it comes to the cost of running rail services? Councillor Mike Lee has long thought so and has frequently raised the issue by way of comparing the costs of running the Auckland and Wellington rail networks – $125.6 million vs $85 million in the financial year to 30 June 2014. At that time rail patronage was also almost identical in each region. He has frequently blamed the way rail is set up saying:

A contributing factor may lay in the fact that in Wellington services are a matter between the Wellington Regional Council and KiwiRail. In contrast the Super City’s rail services management system is a complex, unwieldy ‘too many cooks’ arrangement of Transdev, KiwiRail, and of course Auckland Transport (AT) – which is demonstrably too expensive, inefficient, and allows too much room for dodging accountability.

Auckland Transport have looked at the differences in the past and come to the conclusion that the differences will largely iron out once electrification is finished however I don’t think Mike has ever been happy with that – and he seems to have an intense distrust of AT and Transdev in particular.

The Council’s Finance Committee tomorrow are presented with the outcome of that review which has found that when you account for the differences in the volume and nature of services provided, the costs aren’t all that different. Further it needs to be remembered that for FY14 Auckland had only had electric trains running on the Onehunga line for a few months. As such the efficiency of the Auckland network is only expected to improve – especially when combined with the growth in patronage expected. Here is what he found:

As mentioned above the costs in Auckland are much higher. The biggest single difference comes from labour costs – more on this soon – and train maintenance. The latter should have been reduced substantially with the arrival of the electrics.

Auckland vs Wellington Cost comparison Costs

So what causes the costs to be so much higher in Auckland. One major aspect is that there are considerable differences in both how many and how services are run. The report notes that in Auckland services are run stopping at all stations along the way. By comparison Wellington runs multiple short and long run service patterns on most of it’s lines. Boiling down the results they’ve been measured on the basis of how many full line services they equates to. Using that measure Auckland ran 2210 services per day while Wellington ran 1778. This highlights that one of the main reasons for the difference in cost is simply a difference in service provision.

Another factor identified was the level of dead running. Basically if services in Wellington terminate somewhere they can immediately go to a stabling yard nearby. In Auckland they often have a lot of travel some distance to get back to a stabling yard and all those trips add up to over 200,000 km per year. I suspect some of this has already been improved through the use of the newish stabling yard at the old railway station.

Auckland vs Wellington Cost comparison Dead Running

All up when adjusting for all of these factors the report says that the Auckland network is only approximately 7% more per hour to operate and that’s before taking into account the impact electrification will have.

On the other side of the ledger is the revenue from passengers. The report notes that the fare structures are fairly similar between the two cities however the average fares are quite different at $2.65 for Auckland vs $3.72 for Wellington. The main reason for the difference is that trips in Auckland are generally shorter. It had almost 1 million trips (9%) that were one or two stages while in Wellington the main lines of Kapiti and Hutt Valley most trips are a minimum of three stages due to the local geography and design of the system.

Overall it suggests that rail in Auckland isn’t as bad as the headlines often suggested which is good news

Auckland vs Wellington Cost comparison Recomendations

I’m sure this is a topic that will come up again and now the electrics are rolled out then for the future we should finally have more accurate figures to work with. One thing we do already know is that the subsidies are coming down with the subsidy per passenger km coming down.

2015-07 - Subsidy per PAX km

Congestion Charging in Wellington

Auckland may be the most prominent voice when it comes to discussing congestion charging in New Zealand but it appears other cities are keen to join in. Last week it emerged that Wellington are also wanting to look at congestion charging however unlike Auckland where it is being talked about primarily as another revenue source, Wellington say they need it to deal with the after effects of building new motorways.

The call for a toll on Wellington’s CBD is growing louder, with studies revealing the central city could be flooded with almost 12,000 more cars once its proposed new motorways are up and running.

Wellington recently joined forces with Auckland to lobby the Government for the law changes necessary to introduce user-pays charges as a means of reducing car use.

Some of the ideas being floated include a congestion charge, such as the one used in central London, and fees that ramp up the cost of long-stay commuter parking.

While Auckland’s chronic traffic congestion is already apparent, Wellington’s is expected to get worse once the Kapiti expressway, Transmission Gully motorway, and Petone-Grenada highway are all built, making journeys in and out of the capital by road significantly easier.

Recent studies by Greater Wellington Regional Council show that, even with continuing investment in public transport, there are expected to be 11,500 more cars entering Wellington during the morning rush in 2031.

This has prompted the council to also model how that scenario would change, with various user-pays charges in place, despite some of them currently being beyond the law.

It found a congestion charge would have by far the greatest impact on car use in 2031. Vehicles trips in and out of Wellington’s CBD would drop by about four million annually, while public transport trips would increase by the same amount.

Tolling the yet-to-be-built Transmission Gully motorway and Petone-Grenada highway, which is currently legal, would have a more “moderate” impact on car use, as would a levy on all-day parking, which is not currently legal.

A couple of thoughts immediately spring to mind.

  • So far from the RoNS addressing congestion as the government/road builders/lobbyists so often love to claim, they’ll actually be making it worse by encouraging more people to drive, some of which comes from people encouraging people off using public transport and into their cars – making both systems less efficient. Why then are we wasting well over $2 billion on the new Wellington RoNS which already had poor economic outcomes.
  • From memory the NZTA have already ruled out tolling Transmission Gully as their modelling suggested that very few would use it if they did so. My guess is that would rule out any individual road specific tolls.
  • Like Auckland it appears that Wellington is blighted by politicians who seem to have the attitude of not caring what gets built as long as the government are spending money in their neck of the woods. There also seems to be the general attitude that public transport is only viable a mode of last resort.

The last point is displayed very well at the start of this interview on Radio NZ with Paul Swain, the chairman of the Regional Transport Committee who seemed aghast at the slight possibility of not building some new roads. It is also appears to be the attitude that is taken by Wellington City Councillor Andy Foster later in the piece who appeared quite annoyed that the Basin Reserve Flyover was cancelled – and as per this excellent op-ed from Dave Armstrong it appears both were quite keen on it.


Or listen here

I also found Foster’s comments on public transport interesting. He’s obviously correct that Wellington has the highest use of public transport in the country however I’m not sure I would go as far as him in saying that Wellington has a good system. There certainly seems to be a lot more that could be done to make the system better and therefore increase patronage. Many of those are things that Auckland has done or are on the agenda such as integrated ticketing and fares and a better bus network and greater bus priority. I kind of get the feeling that Wellington won’t really wake up and realise how far behind it’s falling until in a few years (at current rates) when Auckland passes them.

Coming back to congestion charging, I was also amused by this press release yesterday by the Property Council which claims that reducing cars in to Wellington would have catastrophic effects.

Wellington Branch president Mike Cole says slowing down traffic flow into the centre of a city of only 191,000 and a region of 471,000 people is ridiculous.

“They are talking about methods used in central London; a city of 8.6 million people. London could use the drop in traffic-flow, while we are desperate to get our city centre thriving by getting more people in.

“I think the Council is totally oblivious to the catastrophic effect this would have on retail and employment. Why would we drive people away, when we are working so hard to get them in?”

Perhaps someone needs to tell them that it’s people that buy stuff, not cars. Flooding the CBD with cars will only make it a less attractive place for people to be and therefore they will be less inclined to work and shop there.

Who knows what the outcome will be on congestion charging in either Auckland or Wellington but it’s certainly interesting that both cities are now starting to talk about it much more openly. As has long been the case my personal position is that any form of congestion charging should be designed at least initially to be revenue neutral – substituting rates or fuel taxes. That would give the public a greater level of comfort that it isn’t just a revenue gathering exercise but rather a traffic demand tool. I also think it is something that should be implemented in advance of another wave of road building so we can see the real impact it has before committing billions to construction.

Basin Bridge Bowled again

Fantastic news out of Wellington yesterday with the High Court rejecting completely the NZTA’s appeal of the decision by the Board of Inquiry to decline consent for the Basin Reserve Flyover

Basin Bridge Image 2

The High Court today dismissed the NZ Transport Agency’s attempt to overturn the rejection of its controversial plan to build a 300-metre concrete flyover alongside the Basin Reserve.

In a decision released this afternoon, the Court stated:

The Transport Agency has not established that in its decision the Board of Inquiry made any error of law … Consequently the Agency’s appeal is dismissed.

And earlier:

The Board’s decision does not contain any of the errors of law alleged.

The Transport Agency had appealed against the Board of Inquiry’s decision to decline consent for the $90m flyover alongside the Basin Reserve.

The Government set up the Board of Inquiry process as a way of fast tracking consents for large projects to stop them being held up in years and years of appeals. The only appeals were allowed on points of law.

Some of the key reasons consent was declined in the first place was

  • That while the project would improve the cities transport system that it would do so at the expense of heritage, landscape, visual amenity, open space and overall amenity.
  • They are uncertain how the plan would have actually accommodated for Bus Rapid Transit as proposed in the Spine Study.
  • That the quantum of transport benefits were substantially less than what the NZTA originally said in lodging the NoR as they included transport benefits from other projects.
  • That while North/South buses would be sped up, that the modelling doesn’t show any impact effect of this on modal change.
  • That while there are some improvements for cyclists it’s mostly in the form of shared paths which will introduce potential conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists.
  • That the dominance of the bridge would cause severe adverse affects on the local area and the mitigation measures proposed would do little to reduce that. They also found the new building proposed for the Basin Reserve would exacerbate this.

Some of these are likely to have massive implications for other projects such as the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing and the Reeves Rd Flyover. For example it likely means that the NZTA are going to have include not just the tunnel and direct connections in their consent for AWHC but also all the associated road widening of the Northern Motorway and Central Motorway Junction – which we understand is substantial. It could also stop the idea of building a combined road and rail tunnel across the harbour as the NZTA would have to consent the connections on either side. This will likely be why they’ve told us that they will not be including rail in current consent process.

AWHC - Indstry Briefing

 

Coming back to Wellington it will be interesting to see how the NZTA respond. It’s time they gave up idea and started thinking about other solutions.

Waiting a century for a cycleway

The Wellington to Hutt Road is, and has been for a quite long time, one of the most popular and important cycle routes in New Zealand’s urban areas. It connects a busy downtown area with large suburban areas in the Hutt Valley, via a scenic harbour front. It’s also a rare flat route in a hilly city where cycling is relatively popular by New Zealand standards.

Given this, you’d expect there to be a safe, separated cycleway of adequate width squeezed somewhere in between the road and rail line. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

If you’re headed northbound from Wellington to the Hutt Valley, you are required to squeeze into a narrow strip between two lanes of traffic and a vertiginous hillside. Some green paint has been provided along some parts of the route, as shown in the Google Street View:

Wellington to Petone cycleway 3

I haven’t cycled this route, but if I was headed this way by bike I’d probably take the train to Melling and cycle north from there. It just doesn’t feel safe.

The southbound route seems a bit better, as a narrow strip of tarmac has been fenced off between the motorway and the rail tracks. This is helpful for people cycling to Wellington, but I’ve heard that it sometimes causes dangerous confusion for northbound cyclists who get on the separated path in Wellington and then find themselves tipped out against oncoming motorway traffic near Petone:

Wellington to Petone cycleway 2

 

Unfortunately, the Wellington to Hutt Road has been disappointing people on bikes for a very long time. The Kennett Brothers fantastic book Ride: The Story of Cycling in New Zealand provides some background. Over a century ago, when cycling was a main mode of transport for many urban New Zealanders, there were Parliamentary debates over what should be done to improve the road for cycling, and working bees to remove sharp objects from the preexisting gravel cycle path. However, nothing much got done:

“When roads were improved for motorists, it was not always agreed that the cyclist should share them. Around the time of the First World War, some of the main Hutt Valley roads were bitumen sealed, but a by-law was passed forbidding cyclists from riding on them. On the main Hutt-Wellington route, cyclists and horses were forced to share a metalled path strewn with sharp objects from the nearby railway line. In one novel attempt to clean it up, a nail finding competition was won by a boy who bagged 391 of the total 1843 nails found on the path.”

The Kennetts dug up this old picture of the Wellington to Hutt cycleway in 1978, after almost a century of neglect:

Hutt Road bicycle path in 1978

The route is better today – the northbound cycle path is at least paved – but as the Google Street View shows, it’s still a far cry from a safe separated cycleway. The good news is that the NZTA’s new Urban Cycleways Programme looks like it will finally upgrade the route to an adequate standard.

One of the key projects in Wellington is the “Melling to CBD” cycleway, which seems to include an upgrade of the areas I’ve highlighted above:

Wellington-To-Hutt-Valley-urban-cycleways-map

I haven’t seen any detailed designs for the project yet, but the NZTA states that:

This project will provide a high quality cycleway between Melling and Wellington’s CBD, significantly improving the level of service for both cyclists and pedestrians. It will offer a safer and more attractive route for journeys between home and work or educational institutions, and will pay particular attention to how cyclists travel through intersections.

These additional facilities are expected to encourage new, less confident people to cycle as well as catering to the high numbers of people who use this route already.

Hopefully, this project will finally fix the longstanding issues with cycling on this road. The city has waited over a century for a safe cycling route between Wellington and the Hutt Valley – it would be a shame to prolong the wait any longer.

Lastly, I’m sure that many other roads in New Zealand have long-standing challenges for safe cycling. What other issues have you noticed, and how long have you been waiting for a solution?

When is Bus Rapid Transit not Bus Rapid Transit?

This is a guest post from Andy C – a long time Wellington public transport user…

Well when it is Wellington of course…

Some of you may remember that back in 2013, the Wellington City Council undertook its ‘public transport spine’ study, which looked at options for the highly used public transport spine from the Wellington railway station to the Hospital in Newtown. The problem definition from the study was quite clear:

  • In future years, too many vehicles and modes will share a constrained corridor resulting in longer and unreliable transport journey times which will worsen over time
  • There will be increased traffic congestion in the strategic and local road network and additional environmental impacts as a result of less mode share for public transport.

Furthermore, the report noted that there is a clear problem with the current public transport network: “It is difficult to increase PT patronage and mode share under the current circumstances. Buses are not segregated from general traffic. Wellington’s bus services are perceived by the public as being less attractive and less reliable than private vehicle journeys.”

Therefore the study looked at three options to solve or reduce these problems; bus priority, bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail.

Wellington BRT route

As you all know, Wellington is a city defined by its geography. Lots of hills, with traffic funneled through a small number of key routes (either in the valleys, or along the hill tops). If you are traveling from the south (Island Bay), you have to either go past the Basin Reserve, or through Mt Cook, just a few hundred metres away. The same is true for traveling from the east of the city (Kilbirnie, Miramar etc); you either go past the Basin Reserve or around the bays. If you’re coming from the north (hill suburbs and the Hutt) you’re actually lucky in having the option of trains, buses and the motorway, while the west (Karori) is probably the most challenging with only one major route in or out.

To my mind, this actually gives us good options for some sort of dedicated public transport spine, because so many of these routes have been identified by the local Council as being high on the list for intensification of housing and public amenities. Therefore with good planning, we could see increased public transport use simply from all the new people living along the high use routes.

After lots of debate, the result of the spine study was that BRT (defined as ‘dedicated bus lanes for new high capacity vehicles’) had the highest benefit to cost ratio and thus would be investigated further. The initial spine would run from the railway station to the hospital and Kilbirnie.

Well on Friday 31 July the Wellington City Council released its indicative business case for BRT (you can read it here), based on a report written by PWC. And sadly for users of public transport in Wellington, the key recommendation looks nothing like a BRT.

The indicative business case finds that actually, it would be too expensive to even think about BRT as defined above. Instead it provides two simpler options; bus lanes in targeted locations, with limited intersection priority with a Benefit Cost Ratio of 2.3, or bus lanes along the whole route 24/7, with full intersection priority with a Benefit Cost Ratio of 1.5.

Now call me a cynic, but neither of those things sound like ‘dedicated bus lanes for new high capacity vehicles’, although the Mayor insists on calling it that in the Council press release which you can read here. And what is even worse, the document notes that both options are predicated on there being ‘a grade separated Basin Reserve’ (which will have to be a topic of a future post).

A couple of days ago the local paper the Dominion Post even got in on the cynical act, which is something of a surprise, with a scathing editorial about current public transport plans that included this summary:

Recall that Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown came to office pushing a light rail system, only to see it lose out to the souped-up bus plan. That was supposed to see “high capacity and high quality buses running on dedicated bus lanes with priority at signals”.

But consultants in a new report blanch at the cost of doing that properly and recommend two watered-down alternatives. The cheaper one offers “bus lanes in targeted locations” with “limited priority” at intersections. Bus passengers can be forgiven for asking how that differs from the status quo.

Well I have to say, that after all the studies and recommendations over the years, if all we need to improve public transport along this route in Wellington is a few painted bus lanes (and enforcement of them please!) and some reprogrammed traffic signals, then let’s get it started tomorrow.

But in the meantime, please don’t call either of these preferred options Bus Rapid Transit. Because no matter how you look at them, they’re not. And what’s even worse, you’d be hard pressed to say they actually solve either of the problems identified back in 2013.

Development update: June 2015

It’s been a busy month for development: Auckland Council announced they’d be selling off some of their surplus land, and so did the government (which Matt wrote about here).

This makes good headlines for the council and government, making it look like they’re taking steps to tackle the supposed housing crisis. However, I’m not sure how much of the land is actually “new” to the scene – e.g. the council’s announcement includes the land being developed for the Flat Bush town centre, which has been a work in progress for many years, the government’s announcement includes Hobsonville and the McLennan subdivision in Papakura, and so on. Anyway, I’ll look at this more in the next few weeks, and see what needs to go into the RCG Development Tracker as a result.

Developments around New Zealand

Speaking of the Tracker, I haven’t written much about what’s happening in Wellington yet. Using the fantastical power of computers, let’s whisk you away to the nation’s capital, where you can see a number of projects in the city centre or nearby.

WGT development

Te Aro continues to transition to a more residential environment, and accommodation and mixed use projects are reshaping Wellington’s waterfront areas. A lot of the projects on this map are now coming to an end, and it’s not immediately clear what will replace them. Based on a recent visit, there certainly aren’t as many cranes visible in Wellington as there are in Auckland or Christchurch.

As for Auckland, there are a number of new things in the Tracker this month (including 1 Mills Lane, which could be the tallest office building in the city, as well as Mitre 10’s new head office building, the Oasis and SOMA apartments and more).

I was also down in Christchurch a couple of weeks ago, and it’s due an update as well – but that will have to wait until next month. In the meantime, you might enjoy looking at CERA’s Progress Map or the Avenues Four page.

Auckland Building Consents

Turning to building consents in Auckland, April was a massive month for apartments: 438 units were granted consent, with 392 of those in the Waitemata and Gulf Ward. This probably reflects two or three major projects getting the go ahead from Council (I’m guessing it might have been Park Residences and 88 Broadway, as the numbers more or less match up and both are now underway).

The graph below shows moving annual totals for these and other higher-density consents:

Apartment consents

 

In fact, when you stack these lines on top of each other and add in the consents for standalone houses, you can see that most of the growth in consents over the last two years or so has come from higher-density dwellings:

Auckland total consents

There’s a tendency in some circles to suggest that Auckland’s housing issues stem from a lack of land on the fringes. However, higher-density dwellings are going to play an important role in Auckland’s growth, and in housing the extra people who want to live here. Let’s hope they’re getting the attention they deserve from the council and government.