The Eye of the Fish

January 31, 2008

To Rail or not to Rail

The Wellington urban class really wants light rail. And why wouldn’t they? Light rail is sexy transit…cruise smoothly, comfortably, and quickly to the local tiki bar; no more lurching starts and stops, no more endless waits behind four other buses boarding at the stop on Willis Street, no more fighting with cars for road space.

And so there seems to be a grumbling undercurrent regarding the position of the Ngauranga-to-Airport strategic study report. The report does mention light rail as a possibility, but only as far south as Newtown, and even then it rather clearly leans away from that option. So is the study group accepting kickbacks from the all-powerful Southern and Eastern Suburbs Car Lobby, or is there reason to this recommendation?

Wellington undeniably has a great, dense, transit-oriented corridor, particularly the Golden Mile, but also the greater transit lanes extending southward to Newtown. This corridor boasts an impressive number of riders for a city of Wellington’s size. In fact, the ridership is such that, according to various metrics used by transit planners around the world, the corridor nudges the low end of numbers required to justify light rail (based on operational costs, land use efficiency, energy efficiency and other such dry-but-meaningful considerations). Furthermore, the report does note these facts, acknowledging the desire to intensify development (and therefore demand) along that corridor – and recognizing that light rail could be a driving factor to stimulate this development. All of which I’m onboard with…at that high level. But I fear the executive-summary level doesn’t describe the situation sufficiently. Let’s look a bit deeper at how this density is achieved.

Wellington is not, by and large, a very dense city. However, it has done a pretty brilliant job of concentrating the most desirable places in a compact area. Thanks to its geography, these are laid out in a notably narrow, linear corridor…the Golden Mile and environs. These factors are deserve a lot of credit for making Wellington feel ‘citier’ than many cities of comparable size.

The central transit corridor carries all the merry Wellingtonians to where they want to go. But—and here’s the important bit—where they’re coming from is rather likely not on that corridor. The bus network sends tendrils off at various points to collect people from quaint suburbs hither and yon. The great thing about the linear corridor of Stuff that Matters is that there’s a good chance that the bus that goes by your house will also go by the place you want to go, exactly because most every bus is tied to this common corridor! Great convenience that.

So, let’s now stick light rail into the middle of it. We justified the light rail based on the riders who were on all those buses. If we keep running the buses from Island Bay and Seatoun and Karori as we do today, those riders aren’t riding the light rail. Bummer. So let’s terminate the bus lines where they hit the light rail and make the riders transfer to continue their trip (which is, in fact, what the study more-or-less says would have to happen). Hooray, the people are on the light rail now! But wait…are they?

The transit-planning field has a technical term to describe transfers: they suck. They take more time, they disrupt your ride, they provide a significant psychological barrier. Witness, for example, the droves of people walking to and from the railway station every day. This can be a decent walk, and there are plenty of buses going there…but people can’t be bothered with the hassle (and, to be fair, the additional expense that’s imposed today).

I have visions of the same thing happening with light rail. A number of people may not bother with the transfer and just walk the remainder. I fear that a significant number of people would just not bother with the bus at all anymore, and take the car. Things can be done to make the transfer as painless as possible, but the fact remains that it’s still a transfer, and my gut tells me that’s a big deal.

San Francisco Market Street transit

Compare this to a similar situation in another transit-oriented city. San Francisco has Market Street, a wide, straight swath that cuts diagonally through the centre of the CBD. It is, like the Golden Mile, the main transit spine of the city. Amongst the transit options available are BART, the regional heavy-rail system, running under the street, several light-rail lines that converge into a second tunnel under the street, and a heritage streetcar line on the surface. But there are also tons and tons of plain-old buses, taking off to all parts of the city. San Francisco, at the core of a region an order of magnitude larger than Wellington, has the passengers to fill all these options, but it’s important to note that you can take a bus all the way up the street. The light rail (and heavy rail) lines are there because each of them serves a corridor dense enough to support that line on its own.

I’ve experienced too many fragmented, hodge-podge transit systems in the past, and have seen that it’s almost impossible to make them work, or at least work as well as they should work. I’d hate to see Wellington’s system become one of them, and so I have a hard time getting behind this light rail proposal at this point in time. Important parts of this conclusion are based on gut feel, and if anybody has evidence to the contrary, I’d love to hear it. I want to want the light rail!

This is emphatically not to say that I think nothing should be done. For my thoughts on where we should head, stay tuned for a future post.

This is the first post in a series on the Ngauranga-to-Airport corridor strategic transport study report, comments on which are due February 22, 2008.

1 - 02 - 08

The report states, “It means that all bus users wishing to travel through the CBD will be required to transfer from bus to light rail in order for light rail to maximise its economic viability.”

This is a seriously misleading conclusion that I’m afraid is badly influencing some peoples opinions. The option is there for busses to continue operating in conjuction with light rail. Light rail and busses are *not* mutually exclusive options.

People must remember that the report you’ve linked to is not the technical report. It is the short interpretation, so it already contains biased opinions. If one reads the report with a preference for intensification in the Growth Nodes and longer term transport planning the light rail option appears to be very well favoured by it. People should provide their feedback based _all_ options, not just whats the various reports.

If people want to know more they should pop along to the meeting at St Johns (cnr Willis & Dixon St), 13th Feb, at 6pm to hear about the options and participate in the discussions if you wish.

2 - 02 - 08

I think what Aron is getting at is that light rail and bus transit are certainly not mutually exclusive; but when implemented alongside each other, one (or possibly both) may not able to operate at a viable capacity.

Im not quite as well versed on this as others (Im looking forward to the meeting), but it seems that light rail is obviously a great solution for those that require transit in areas close to the ngaurangi-airport line (which is quite a substantial area).

However if the economic viaibility of the rail relies on people outside of these immediate area making transfers to and from the stations, then it is potentially setting itself up for failure for the reasons Aron outlined.

If light rail it was implemented, I would be curious to see how the bus system adapts. Perhaps the Station and Kilbirnie nodes would become fairly independent, with light rail serving (largely) as the intermediate link. Then, each node could cater more exclusively to the suburbs of its greater area.

2 - 02 - 08

I have also read the technical report, which discusses the same issue and reaches similar conclusions. I understand that it’s not a technical limitation preventing buses and light rail from running on the same corridor; it is, as Philip says, an economic consideration.

Yes, the report does speak of light rail viability in the longer term, the development of which would be eased by creation of the transit corridor (whatever vehicles ride on it at the time). My wording at the end of the post was meant to be rather precise: I have a difficult time with *this* light rail proposal at *this* time.

There are other light rail possibilities that sound very promising, which I intend to write about shortly.

Thanks for the heads-up about the meeting; I’ll try to make it.

5 - 02 - 08

I realise it’s about Auckland, and buses, but this story seems like a salutary demonstration of the issues with transfers and ticketing.

5 - 02 - 08

Thats a great link, having recently taken a few buses around Auckland, there was a lot of room for improvement.

Its sounds like things are far from great, but hopefully a lot of the issues dealt with in the article are just growing pains or policy issues that can be overcome

Eye of the Fish » Light Rail Redux
8 - 02 - 08

[…] my last post, I expressed concerns with the light-rail proposal as detailed in the Ngauranga-to-Airport (N2A) […]