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.