Christchurch City Council or ECan? Who should manage public transport?

Something that has been going on for a while now is that the Christchurch City Council (CCC) has been attempting to get the Local Government Act (the Act) changed to enable the transference of public transport management and administrative responsibility from the Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) to themselves. The legislation currently stops this from happening. The latest news was that Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel and ECan chair Steve Lowndes had signed a joint letter bemoaning the lack of progress on changing the legislation that would allow this. An amendment of the Act is currently making its way through parliament, and apparently this will address the issue that the mayor and chair want addressed. However, progress is slow, as this amendment has been underway since 2016.

Minister of Transport, Phil Twyford, has basically said that the amendment will be used to change the roadblock, which had been introduced in 2014 that forbids the transferring of responsibilities given by another Act.

A brief history of Christchurch public transport administration

For much of the twentieth century, public transport in Christchurch was administered and operated by the Christchurch Transport Board (CTB). The CTB was an independent local authority, complete with elections, that was responsible for the running and operation of most aspects of the city’s tram and bus networks.  Thus it was independent of the CCC (this wasn’t the case in other cities, such as Wellington and Dunedin).

The CTB didn’t have total control of transport services. The railways had their train services, and a few private operators held the licences for semi-urban and rural routes outside the CTB’s jurisdiction, but from the 1960s-80s the CTB expanded through buy-outs and political manoeuvring to practically take over all routes. Then, in 1989, the government undertook a wholesale reorganisation of local government and the CTB simply ceased to exist.

How does it work now?

In 1989 the responsibility for managing public transport was given to ECan, while the operation of services was to be contracted to private companies. The assets of the CTB were purchased by the CCC, and became a council holding company, today known as Red Bus, which bids for contracts to operate routes alongside of others, such as Go Bus and Ritchies. To complicate matters, CCC is responsible for the provision of infrastructure, much of it crucial to the operation of the network, now and in future. This includes provision of bus stops and bus priority measures like bus lanes.

What are the issues?

The first thing to make clear is that the mayor and chair have not advocated for the transference of public transport management from ECan to CCC, they have simply called for the roadblock in the Act to be removed. They claim that the roadblock, making the move illegal, means that a public discussion cannot be had.

Firstly, I find that slightly disingenuous, although I do understand that there is no point in having a particular discussion that might possibly be irrelevant. However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a discussion about the best way to manage and administer the city’s public transport. That would surely positively inform any advocacy the mayor and chair would undertake to get the relevant changes from the government, legislative or otherwise to change public transport management to whatever form required. The problem is that this lack of action simply cascades into further delay in getting things right, and in a city that is struggling to get mode shift to public transport happening, which is a real cause for concern, time is precious.

The key issues with the current regime seem to be largely related to a lack of alignment between councils on transport policy, particularly CCC and ECan. That’s a very high level issue, within which there are a pile of other, more detailed, issues, such as the integration of transport and housing policy, for example. Basically, it seems to be that the current way public transport is administered in Christchurch does not lead to the kinds of outcomes envisaged, such as increasing mode share.

Another key problem is that ECan represents a very large mixed urban/rural area, and that means decisions on public transport for a city of almost half a million people are being made by a lot of councillors who represent the interests of people with very rural priorities. This has long been a source of contention, and is perhaps the most illustrative example of the current issues.

What’s being done to mitigate these issues?

Currently, there is a joint public transport committee that has members from across the councils as well as NZTA and the Canterbury District Health Board. The purpose of the committee is to make joined up decisions, which are actually recommendations and can be ignored by ECan if desired. Nevertheless, there are signs the committee is actually doing some good. The recent Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan, which proposes a massive expansion of frequent services and rapid transit, is one positive sign as it was recently approved by ECan. However, implementing the vast changes proposed in the plan to Christchurch’s public transport network, as well as securing the funding to do so, remains a test of the committee’s true effectiveness.

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The new plan for public transport in Christchurch has been a win for the joint committee model. However the jury is still out on whether it can successfully be implemented.

 

So what is being proposed through the legislation changes and how would that work?

Is it as simple as transferring authority from ECan to the CCC? The answer is probably “yes” and “no”. For a start, with the joint committee there are probably more integrated decisions being made, provided that ECan agrees. Simply switching to CCC being the body that has to approve those decisions, in place of ECan, would have some obvious advantages in terms of tying up decisions into one body. In essence, it could be seen as a step in the right direction. For Waimakariri and Selwyn, it probably doesn’t make that much of a difference to the status quo given that they would still be differing public transport decisions to another local authority, although this depends on whether the CCC is more in line with their thinking.

There are some obvious issues, however. There is the inherent danger that CCC will make decisions based on what is best, or is perceived to be best, within their own jurisdiction, for example. This is definitely a “maybe” sort of issue, there is nothing to suggest this sort of thing would necessarily happen, although I do see CCC’s continued ambivalence to commuter rail to the north and south as a manifestation of this. There is also the issue of whether it will actually fix the problems with Christchurch’s public transport system. Essentially, you are just shifting the responsibility, not dealing with how the system operates. The question is will that be enough? This is why I think it actually is appropriate to have a public discussion now about how public transport is managed for Christchurch, because this will inform what the best solution will be and what changes are required to make that happen.

I do wonder if the lack of urgency from the government on the issue of changing the Act is due to this. Does the Minister of Transport have concerns that this is actually the best way to achieve the desired change in Christchurch? Perhaps there are better ways?

Is there another option?

Firstly, I do think there needs to be a wholesale discussion on this topic to understand the best way forward and what steps are required to get there. However, if pushed I think the best way forward would be an independent transport authority for the greater Christchurch area. It would be informed by the existing joint transport committee, but perhaps the relationship would be strengthened to appease the councils (i.e. making it more certain that the transport authority will act on recommendations).

What responsibilities such an agency would have I cannot say, although it would at least have to have responsibility for all matters to do with public transport. Whether its responsibilities include other areas of transport is another matter altogether and probably fraught with with the stuff of political nightmares. Nevertheless, there also needs to be scope for ensuring that housing and planning and tied tightly to the decision making process, something that is seriously lacking in Christchurch.

Summary

I’m not entirely confident transferring responsibility for managing public transport from ECan to the CCC will result in a truly better situation. Essentially, I see it as two steps forward and one back kind of move. It could solve some of the issues, but there is an inherent danger it could create new ones, while others simply won’t go away. Creating an independent transport authority, with strengthened ties to a joint committee modelled on the current one, is something I think needs to be seriously considered. However, this is a discussion that needs to be happening, and trying to rush a decision for legislative change that will enable something that might not be the desirable solution seems slightly backward to me, or at least missing the big picture.

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Trackless trams for Wellington?

There was an article in the Dominion Post on the weekend that seemed to imply that Wellington was going to get “trackless trams” on its long talked about rapid transit spine from the Wellington Railway Station to the airport. Apparently, trackless trams are being looked at as a possibility as part of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM)  announcement that never seems to happen.

What are “trackless trams”?

So-called “trackless trams” have received a bit of attention recently as they are seen as a way of avoiding the costs of laying rail yet providing light rail quality infrastructure. Yet I’ve not really been that convinced by this, at least not entirely. I’m not opposed to the concept, I just think it’s a misleading term as comparative costs are incredibly subjective. Trackless trams, in the modern sense, simply amount to a form of bus rapid transit (BRT) that runs along a virtual track, and the costs depend on the quality of service envisaged, as with any transport infrastructure. Sure, if you’re comparing merely laying track on a street to laying paint, there are going to be cost savings with the latter, but when building rapid transit links there is much more to it than that, including dedicated right of way, levels of segregation, operational costs, and so on. In fact, BRT done very well can cost almost as much as light rail (see below).

However, I’m not here to defend light rail or convince anyone of its merits, nor am I here to denigrate trackless trams or BRT. Really, I don’t care what mode so long as it is the best one for the given situation. What I am concerned about is whether LGWM is actually making progress, and if “BRT creep” is starting to come into play.

What is “BRT creep”?

BRT creep is when BRT proposals or projects gradually get eroded so that the level of service offered is substantially short of what was promised, usually through cost savings through reducing the quality of the infrastructure (i.e. replacing dedicated BRT corridor sections with on-road sections) or reduced quality of service (i.e. using normal buses instead of dedicated ones). So when talk turns to trackless trams, I get a bit nervous. Not because I dislike trackless trams, I like BRT and think it’s a good idea in the right applications, but because it sends a signal that policy makers and planners are trying to promise something of a certain quality while providing a get-out clause. Basically, like BRT creep, trackless trams can be anything. They sound cool, they sound affordable and effective, but really by the time your done, you could probably get away with something quite a bit less than was promised.

My concerns

The article describes the trackless trams as trams that “…run on the same dedicated route, but would not require new tracks”. The concern I have here is that if we are going to have a like-for-like quality, then that might be a high cost anyway, even without rails.  What I mean is, there seems to be an implication that you can build the exact same thing but run something on it without rails and therefore it will be just as effective and much cheaper. When you go cheaper, you’re usually cutting back on quality somewhere, and in this instance it probably isn’t just the rails in the ground where savings are intended to be made.

To explain further, if you are to develop a high quality rapid transit route, then you have to build the appropriate infrastructure. That’s true whether light rail or BRT. Greater Auckland recently made a post about the North West Light Rail project in which they produced the cost comparisons below of Bus vs Light Rail. Surprisingly, the differences aren’t that much. Again, let me point out that I’m not saying one is better than the other, it really just depends on the circumstances as to what mode is better for any situation. However, I worry that expectations have been set that simply won’t be lived up to. Once you’re no longer building rails, you’re cutting back on other things; the size of vehicles, the nature of the route, the types of service.

Costs

Where is LGWM at anyway?

I’m also concerned with the progress LGWM is really making. The newspaper article makes the point that Greens and Labour have struggled to reach a compromise, and that has led to the delays. It’s clear that a lot of the roading options (if the article’s sources are to be believed) have been taken off the table, so no Terrace Tunnel duplication and some of the other roading projects have been kicked down the road (!!) as part of a second tranche of investment after 10 years. Although there are no specifics on rapid transit, the article does state that resource consent would be sought “as soon as possible” to lock the rapid transit route down before the next general election. To what detail and how far we will get towards implementation, I really do not know.

Summary

It’s also important to note that the article doesn’t say trackless trams are necessarily the preferred mode, only that they appear to be on the table for consideration along with other modes. The choice should surely suit the situation, including the quality of service envisaged or considered appropriate. This is the point I want to make with this post. Mode is linked to quality of service, regardless of the claims about technologies like trackless trams. All modes have advantages and disadvantages. Trackless trams don’t really have as big an advantage over light rail as claimed, so my concern is when this concept gets put on the table its a way of blurring the message to get away with something lesser than you are promising. In the end, I don’t mind if BRT or something else is the mode of choice, but don’t dress is up as something it isn’t. I certainly look forward to the findings being announced, and seeing what eventuates.

Less cars = good times

There is a a lot of debate going on in Auckland at the moment about restricting city centre traffic to 30km/h. Check out Greater Auckland’s cool piece on this today here but, to summarise, the AA is seeking a compromise solution of 40km/h, but the jury seems to be out on why 30km/h is by far the ideal speed limit in high density inner city streets with lots of activity. Check out this Spinoff article for further reading on this.

Why is this so? Well, basically it results in far fewer incidents (you can slow down a LOT quicker) and any resulting impact from an accident between cars and pedestrians results in far fewer deaths and injuries. Yes, even far fewer than cars travelling at 40km/h. This is important because central city spaces are usually hubs for activity, including business, cultural and leisure, as well as being high density residential areas. What they aren’t is key arterial links designed to move as many cars as quickly as possible. Central city spaces are predominantly for people, not cars, and their economic performance is enhanced by enacting policy that support this, not opposes it.

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In addition to Auckland, I think that Wellington could use a bit of 30km/h love. Surprisingly, for a city so celebrated for its progressive and liberal views, the Wellington central city is a bit of a traffic sewer. It simply blows me away that Lambton Quay still allows general traffic down much of its length, Courtenay Place too. Featherston, Victoria and Taranaki streets are examples of absolute traffic mayhem most of the day, and are either dead zones with little street activity or sever different precincts of the central city from one another, being effective boundaries to pedestrians and stunting economic activity. Don’t get me started on State Highway One or the Waterfront quays. I’m like a broken record on how they disrupt Wellington’s inner city.

It’s not just 30km/h speed limits that are needed, though. Street design is an important part of the traffic traffic calming package that allows cities to reinvent themselves and become much more attractive spaces to being in, becoming more about people than metal boxes of death whizzing about the place. Too often I see streets where a token 30km/h sign is erected, but the street remains a traffic sewer. I mean, lowering the speed limit is great, but there is so much more that can be done. I believe it needs to come with a wholesale rethink of how traffic moves about a city and, indeed, how much even gets into it.

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30 km/h but where is the love, Wellington? Still choked with cars and an unfriendly traffic sewer.

One thing I do not hear often is how these cities could look to Christchurch to see an example of what happens when pedestrians are giving priority n an inner city. Christchurch enacted a 30km/h zone back in 2016, and this is already having a positive impact on injury rates. However, the thing that really strikes me about Christchurch is when you are experiencing it for yourself on foot. Sure, Christchurch’s central city is not as busy a Wellington or Auckland (well, 80 per cent of it was destroyed several years ago and is still being rebuilt) but with traffic and people returning, and more on the horizon, it is an interesting test case.

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Having wandered around the city myself recently, I can attest that it is a much easier city to explore on foot than, say, Wellington (and yes, I’m discounting  hills here!) and I would go so far to say that it is quite a calming experience. While some might point out the difference in number of workers or economic activity overall, which might account for the “calmness”, the biggest observation for me has been the interaction with roads as a pedestrian, which, even when traffic was backed up for blocks (yes, it does that in Christchurch’s central city at times) I didn’t find it hard to navigate, nor find the traffic itself to be  too much of a nuisance. That doesn’t mean the city is perfect, it’s still a car-centric cluster overall, but the central city area definitely has room to make the most of its strengths (socially and economically) with traffic de-prioritised and people prioritised instead.

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In truth, Wellington does have a lot of 30km/h zones, including in the inner city, and I believe more are being explored. However, it is the overall priority that cars have in the city, and the lack of pedestrian priority and good pedestrian linkages that concerns me. Especially for a city centre that is increasingly peppered with high density apartment buildings, has the highest rate of per capita public transport use, highest concentration of employment, and is the country’s self-proclaimed cultural capital.

Auckland is already proposing a wholesale pedestrianisation of its CBD, a really exciting project that you can read about more here. In Wellington, hopefully the “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” project, due to report back soon, will lead to better outcomes for the city. Meanwhile, I think the changes already achieved in Christchurch’s core, with more to come, will enable some great social and economic opportunities, and have contributed to a really great space.

 

What happens when you build more roads? – “improving” State Highway One in Wellington

With Let’s Get Wellington Moving due to be announced soon (unless it gets delayed again) there has been a lot of discussion on the street about what it will entail. I’ve a talked about this a few times previously, particularly in relation to the prospect of a light rail line being announced, however one potential aspect of the plan being talked about is the “completion” of the motorway through Te Aro to the Mount Victoria tunnel.

“Improvements” to State Highway One

So is this what will happen? Will we see more of State Highway 1 (SH1) rammed through inner Wellington at a cost of billions of dollars? And if so, will this help us reduce, manage and avoid congestion?

Recently, we have heard a revelation about how the Wellington inner city bypass, constructed in the early 2000’s, might not have realised its projected costs and benefits. This isn’t surprising to me. SH1 from the Terrace Tunnel to the Basin reserve is a grotty sewer of vehicles, and doesn’t do a thing to enhance Te Aro, the high density suburb it severs. It even cuts across the iconic Cuba St, for good measure.

Talking about the findings on the inner city bypass, and talking in the context of LGWM, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester had this to say:

“The next step for that will be focusing on public space, pedestrian space and putting a lot of that traffic out of the CBD, putting through tunnels effectively: cut-and-cover type facility.”

All of this sounds like really good news. However, a question that is definitely being asked is whether LGWM will be used as an opportunity to not only improve SH1 through the CBD and Te Aro, but to also “finish the motorway” by duplicating SH1, with lots of tunnels.

Essentially, I am not against building roads in principle, provided:

  • They are built for a sensible, sustainable purpose (safety, improving urban spaces etc)
  • Spending on roads is balanced with spending in other areas/modes (i.e. we do not try and solve all our problems with a road)
  • Measures are put in place to ensure use of the road is managed (i.e. countering induced demand and ensuring the infrastructure works as part of an integrated package)
  • It stacks up from a cost/benefit perspective (i.e. it actually makes sense when considering all the above)
Scenario D
“Scenario D” – A better SH1, and mass transit, and improved public spaces. What’s not to like? But we must make sure that everything is necessary. Improvements to SH1 should not detract from the kind of city people want, only enhance it. The whole package needs to be about moving people and not cars.

Why building more roads is a bad idea

First of all, let’s get the concerns out of the way. Why might what is being hinted at in improving SH1 through Wellington’s CBD, as part of LGWM, be concerning? Here are some of my random thoughts on this:

  • Improving SH1 is still seen as the best way of solving traffic issues in Wellington’s CBD, resulting in more traffic entering Wellington (i.e. induced demand and its flow on effects to local streets)
  • Money that could be spent on improving public transport is spent on roads instead (i.e. light rail is deferred or downgraded because building a road is seen as a higher priority)
  • Money is spent on SH1 needlessly, regardless of whether money is also spent on light rail and other improvements, impacting on the sustainability and costs/benefits of the project.

Now that’s a bit of a mish-mash of concerns, but hopefully you get my point. One of the biggest issues when it comes to transport solutions for a city is that widening roads and building more roads is often seen as the way to deal with traffic congestion. I get it, at a high level that sounds quite plausible to the public. The problem with this, however, is the focus on moving cars rather than people, and the end result, once you factor in concepts such as induced demand, is that congestion doesn’t decrease beyond the short-term, and we have more cars entering, and impacting on, already congested areas such as inner Wellington streets. The thing to remember is that when we introduce a means to move more cars from points A to B, when the cars get to point B they still have to go somewhere. Anecdotally speaking, Wellington’s inner city is a traffic mess. You cannot possibly encourage more cars into the city on widened motorways and expect things to get better at point B.

Can we still invest in roads in a way which works for the city?

While I do think encouraging more cars into Wellington city is a bad idea, the next question I think should be asked is whether improving SH1 and maintaining sustainable traffic levels is mutually exclusive. I don’t necessarily think they are, provided we stick to my earlier observations. Essentially, if SH1 is going to be segregated from other roads in trenches and tunnels, I’d like it to be done only on the following conditions:

  • the improvements are primarily made to enhance public spaces the SH1 corridor passes through (and therefore encourage economic activity) and improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists and car users
  • priority is given first and foremost to improvements to modes that are more sustainable, both from an environmental and capacity perspective, such as rapid transit (i.e light rail)
  • Improvements to SH1 which result in vehicle capacity enhancements are used to offset vehicle capacity on other roads where pedestrian, cycle and public transport priority are more desirable (e.g. the quays along the waterfront, one way streets etc)
  • A way to manage traffic demand is put in place to manage the amount of vehicles accessing Wellington’s CBD, either through a cordon and/or tolling of SH1 (and money from this is redirected to funding future transport projects in Wellington)
  • With all the above considered, the project to improve SH1 still makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

Another thing I’d like to see is a plan put in place to manage the traffic flows within Wellington’s CBD. This could be something along the lines of what is due to be implemented in Auckland, discouraging rat runs on local streets that people use to cut across the city.

Summary

Now, what I want to do here is point out that I am not advocating the completion of Wellington’s inner city motorway, but am just stating what I would expect, as an absolute minimum, if substantial improvements to SH1 are going ahead as part of the LGWM package (you will also note that  I have not speculated on exactly what the scale of those improvements are, for that is not the purpose of the post). My concern has always been that any solution needs to prioritise moving people, and it should do this by investing in rapid transit, improving buses, improving street spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, and better managing traffic coming into Wellington’s CBD.  I can, however, tolerate improvements to SH1, provided they fit into this template, and don’t try to solve congestion issues by merely increasing road capacity. We know that simply doesn’t work.

From what I have heard, I am really hoping for something truly progressive to come out of LGWM. I hope I’m not too disappointed.

If you’d like to get your head around Let’s Get Wellington Moving a bit more, then there is a rather hard to navigate website here. You could also read trough some of the awesome posts at Talk Wellington.

 

 

 

Rapid transit: vision versus practicality

I’ve talked before about considerations on mode of choice for rapid transit routes. One thing I always keep in mind when discussing implementation of rapid transit in New Zealand cities is that consideration should be given to how a project could be implemented and the role that choice of transport mode can play in this. To illustrate a point, let me talk briefly about the history of Auckland’s rapid transit network.

The (abbreviated) story of Auckland’s public rapid transit network

Auckland’s story over the last 50 years is a rather interesting tale. You may be aware that during the late 1960s to mid 1970s a rapid rail project was proposed for the city. I’m not going to go into it in any great detail on that, however it  essentially proposed an underground railway in the central city, linking to lines along existing rail right-of-way and along new alignments (for example, to the North Shore). This would have been separate from the barely in existence suburban rail network operated by the then New Zealand Railways. This proposal came reasonably close to reality before being shut down by the government in the mid-1970s.

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A map of the proposed Auckland rapid transit network, showing how it duplicates sections of the suburban rail network and includes new routes to the North Shore, Airport and to the east.

During the 1980s, arguments continued about the need for a rapid transit network for the city. It was both proposed to shut down and to upgrade the Auckland suburban rail network. Light rail and BRT were also both alternately proposed by different interest groups as suitable rapid transit modes for the city. There is a ton of background to this, and it is all very interesting, but the path eventually chosen was to incrementally upgrade the suburban rail network and to develop BRT lines where there was no rail (i.e. the North Shore busway and soon to begin construction eastern busway).

With the completion of the City Rail Link, Auckland will soon have a metro-style rail system along its pre-existing rail corridors (much like the original proposal) while additional proposals for light rail to the Airport and northwest will compliment the busways (of which it is eventually proposed to convert the North Shore busway to light rail). It’s also worth pointing out that the rail upgrades were initially carried out with flexibility on mode in mind. Britomart was originally designed to allow light rail to access Queen Street from the railway platforms, pre-empting possible conversion of the suburban network to light rail or tram-trains.

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So what is the point I am trying to make here?

Essentially what I have observed happening in Auckland is the following:

  • Rapid transit has been developed incrementally utilising what infrastructure and mode was most cost-effective at the time
  • Despite the development of the suburban heavy rail network, options were kept open for its conversion at a suitable point in time if desirable (that decision being made in favour of continuing to develop heavy rail after 2003)
  • BRT has been developed as up-gradable to LRT or another mode (currently proposed)
  • Different parts of the network are utilising different modes, as it suits their situation, yet are integrated into a single network regardless.

Putting these lessons into practice

I think these are valuable lessons to be taken into account when considering rapid transit projects in general, but the lessons are quite applicable to Christchurch and its recently proposed rapid transit corridors in particular (see this post for reference). Coming up with a proposal that is quite mode specific can have its upsides. In particular, it can  garner public support for a project because it becomes more easily visualised. However, it can also have a downside in that it can render the overall proposal hard to obtain.

 

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Christchurch’s new public transport plan approved at the end of last year. The proposed rapid transit routes are in orange, with pink outlining them as far as Belfast and Hornby

In Christchurch’s case this is quite pertinent because it is coming off a very small base (i.e. no rapid transit corridors to speak of) so any proposal has to have a realistic chance of being implemented. That means that it should be phased in a way that allows a pilot or smaller scale first stage to get off the ground. This is where the lessons of Auckland’s experience come in rather handy, and where we start to think about suitability of mode. We may prefer light rail, BRT, or even tram-trains. However, we also have to think about how that might be phased in, and whether other approaches and modes could be considered in the interim. The flip side being that, politically, it becomes too big a step to make, and the fancy plans remain in the filing cabinet (i.e. like Auckland’s original rapid rail project from the 1970s).

An example approach along these lines for Christchurch might be to serve the outer satellite areas with a pilot heavy rail service, and continue to upgrade bus services along Riccarton/Main South Rds and Papanui/Main North Rds. From there you could incrementally develop the delineated corridors. Further on down the line (pun intended) when we reach a point where a decision has to be made, we can make the choice on mode as appropriate, just as happened in Auckland and many other cities. Better heavy rail and LRT? Tram-trains? At the end of the day, whatever is appropriate.

Summary

My point with this post is that there might be a need for careful considerations to be had to even get to the point where a final decision on mode is made. That means that initially choices have to be more immediately practical than what people might want to see in a long-term vision. Mode choice shouldn’t be beholden to such long-term visions. While I’m certainly someone who prefers  to think long-term, and would prefer the best decisions are made that reflect this, I am also aware of political realities. That’s where a compromise solution has to be sought, one where we take practical steps to reach our long-term vision, and where we remain flexible on the method and mode getting us there.

Sometimes the mode debate becomes too fanatical at the earliest stage, and the solution becomes too politically and fiscally impractical. In this post I haven’t explored that potential proposal for Christchurch in detail, but it is something I am keen to explore in the near future.

What city are we talking about? – KiwiBuild article misuses population statistics

Yesterday there was an article in The Press about whether KiwiBuild should even be a thing in Christchurch. The gist of the piece is that property developers think the Christchurch property market, unlike Auckland and Wellington, is doing just fine, thank you very much, so let’s just leave it to the free market. Now, this is a transport blog, so I’m not going to get too much into the property side of things. However, what really bugged me about the article was the incorrect and misleading use of population statistics which essentially underpinned the entire argument of the article, which was well and truly on the side of the property developers who believed KiwiBuild isn’t necessary

How big is Christchurch, really?

In the article there is a section subtitled “How Fast is Christchurch’s Population Growing?“. It quotes Phil Twyford as saying that, despite Christchurch’s lower house prices, continued high population growth in Christchurch means that prices need to be kept within reach of first home buyers. Thus, keeping housing supply at a level that does this is essential to avoid a future “Auckland situation”. That’s a reasonably understandable point. The article then goes on to quote a KiwiBuild spokesperson as saying the following:

There is a need to increase the supply of affordable homes in Canterbury. Christchurch’s population grew by 7000 last year – the second largest population growth of any city in New Zealand, after Auckland.

“Population growth is projected to continue strongly with 150,000 more people over the next 30 years. That’s estimated to require 86,000 new houses.”

Okay, so that actually checks out. The Christchurch urban area did grow by 7000 people last year and the 150,000 extra people over 30 years estimate comes from a Greater Christchurch Partnership report, “Our Space 2018-2048”, the settlement pattern update using Census 2013 data as a foundation.  However, there is an inconsistency there that the journalist then goes on to build into their article that misrepresents the situation, and a few more things too that I will outline.

The article goes on to say that while Christchurch saw the second largest growth of any centre last year, it did so at a growth rate of 1.8 per cent, which is below the national average of 1.9 per cent, and only 37th in the country when it comes to percentage of growth. The article also appears to question the validity of these figures anyway because they are still using the 2013 Census as a basis.

The article uses the wrong population stats for the area it describes

The 7000 people Christchurch gained last year is within the urban area only, so that doesn’t include Rangiora, Rolleston, Woodend, Lincoln or West Melton etc. If we did include those centres, and the peri-urban areas around them, then Christchurch would be adding about 11-12,000 people per annum in an area with a population of a little under half a million, giving a growth rate of well over 2 per cent. Yet, the article specifically references a KiwiBuild project in Rangiora, and talks about “Christchurch” as being beyond the Statistics NZ defined urban area that the population stats are for (i.e. it talks about property developments in Rolleston, Lincoln etc). So, essentially, the population stats are being completely misused to present a particular argument.

There is, unfortunately, more to this. The Greater Christchurch Partnership report that is mentioned by the article is specifically in relation to the “greater Christchurch” as defined by the Greater Christchurch Partnership, i.e it is a wider area that includes Rangiora, Rolleston etc. So,the KiwiBuild spokesperson should not have used it directly in relation to last years growth of the urban area as they relate to two different measurement areas. However, if anything, the figure of 150,000 is quite conservative. If current rates of growth are maintained, then that figure could end up being more like 300,000. Even then, I wouldn’t be surprised for if it ended up being higher than that.

Finally, there is the implication that because these measurements are based on the 2013 Census data  as a foundation (because the 2018 Census figures are unavailable as of yet) then this questions the validity of population growth figures and therefore, somehow, this lends credibility to the claims that Christchurch doesn’t need KiwiBuild. This, of course, makes no sense, for the exact opposite could be said as well, and is probably just as likely to be true. That being that population growth stats are slightly under-presented.

So what does this have to do with transport?

Unfortunately it has everything to do with transport. If a lack of understanding due to ignorance is being used or manipulated to support policy directions, then that will permeate to other policy areas. Population statistics are essential for planning infrastructure, hence the attempt to make it look like Christchurch isn’t really growing that fast at all in order to say that KiwiBuild isn’t needed. Why would people do this? Ideology? Their bottom line? I don’t really know, for it isn’t the point of this blog post.

However, I do think it highlights that there is a real need to understand how our cities are truly shaped so that we can plan accordingly. This is vitally important in Christchurch’s case when it comes to improving transport an planning for things like rapid transit. Right now, the city’s population statistics are easily able to be manipulated by opponents of sustainable transport. Once these arguments are in the public domain, they are incredibly misleading if you don’t have the right knowledge and context.

I am currently working on a more in-depth piece about this very issue, with a particular focus on greater Christchurch as it provides the very best, and most complicated, example of this. However, this newspaper article really touched a nerve, so I decided to post this simplified version. I will, however, still publish that extended piece in the next week or two.

Rapid transit – some observations about mode choice decision making

The road to the mode…

There are two distinct problems that crop up every time I talk to someone about rapid transit, and they are both related to mode choice.

First, people tend to look at the situation of mode from too high a level. An example might be someone looking at the general characteristics of a city, and declare it is unsuitable for “insert mode here“. This could be on the basis of total population, population density, geography, or otherwise.

The second is that people tend to race to a specific mode to solve a problem. This is what I term the “killing two birds with one stone” approach, where a mode is seen as perfect for a particular route because it embodies several different aspects that solve more than one problem. This could be serving two different routes by the same mode rather than different modes, or, if you will, a third “compromise” mode.  It sounds good on paper, but the devil is always in the detail.

Defining what mode to use requires a more refined analysis

Let’s look at the first problem, which is distinctly macro. The problem with taking a view that a city shouldn’t invest in particular modes due to its general characteristics is that the economics of such decisions is far more nuanced. We have a pretty good example of that here in New Zealand with Wellington’s commuter rail network. For a city of not even half a million, Wellington’s rail network is both quite extensive and intensive. It works for its situation. And that is the point I would make.

Choice of mode should always be made in regard to the specifics of the situation. That means looking at the specific characteristics of the area the route operates, how the route fits into the wider network, and should also include the now, the planned and likely, and the could and preferred.

density nz
Christchurch is a low density city compared to Auckland and Wellington. Does that mean some (or all) rapid transit modes are not suited, regardless of the route specifics, future directions etc?

For example, the relatively low-density and low-populated Australian cities of Canberra and Newcastle have just introduced light rail (or will in April in the case of Canberra). That isn’t to say that the likes of Wellington and Christchurch should be introducing light rail, it just illustrates that general urban form on its own isn’t a good determinant of mode (or even the need for rapid transit in general). There is far more to it than that.

Choice of mode should be specific to a problem

At the other end of the spectrum, you have people who approach the issue from a “let’s go with mode X” perspective because it seemingly solves a lot of problems with one solution, or there is a push to maintain unbroken trips over transferring, or there are perceived significant benefits to operating as few modes as possible. Basically, the mode sounds good because it solves several problems in one hit.

An example might be building a busway over using adjacent railway lines because “buses are flexible and all routes can use the busway” or perhaps calls for tram-trains to operate Wellington’s commuter rail network so services can connect with a new light rail route in the city and southern suburbs, giving more “one trip” travel options (for an outline of the tram-trains and their particular application in Wellington, check out this article).

However,  I do think the push to maintain a single mode often overstates the benefits without mentioning the negatives. You can end up in situations  For example, it can put parameters on certain parts of the network that are dictated by the operating needs of others. This is a problem if different parts of the network a trying to do different jobs.

For instance, in the Wellington tram-train example, you would be trying to knit together a very all-day style rapid transit route over a relatively short distance along a quite dense corridor, with a peak-hour focused long-distance commuter service servicing primarily low density regional centres. It shouldn’t be too difficult to see the potential constraints a compromise, generic, solution might place on either section from doing the job they need to do. It could impact on capacity, frequency, and result in mixed operating patterns that negate the assumed benefits.

tram train
A Karlsruhe tram-train. Solving two problems in one? Good? Bad? Right? Wrong? Depends on the situation!

That doesn’t mean that some modes are bad, they can all work in certain situations where they work best, it’s just a reminder that there, generally speaking, is no perfect mode from a network perspective, and there a a lot of considerations that need to be made before mode choice is finalised.

So why is this important?

The reason I am discussing all of this is that it is important to be aware that:

  • modes should not be ruled in or out on the basis of a high level analysis of a an entire city and its general urban form used to dictate what is in or out
  • mode choice should be what is best for that particular situation (and that includes wider interactions with the rest of the transport network).

Sometimes the solution that advocates want isn’t necessarily the one that is going to get the outcomes they desire, or at least not at an early stage. On the other hand, it also means that you can’t just automatically rule anything out based on high level analysis of a city.

Finally, I’d like to point out something that is used quite a bit to drive the mode debate, in a New Zealand context, and that is transfers. There seems to be a focus on avoiding transfers in New Zealand when talking rapid transit. For example, the “station is too far from where people need to go” argument. This is a perfectly legitimate concern, but doesn’t mean that a transfer to a reliable, high quality service using another mode won’t stop it from being effective. Yes, we shouldn’t introduce transfers for the sake of it, but we can also impact on the quality of the overall network if we focus overwhelmingly on avoiding them (as set out above in my Wellington example). Transfers should always be a concern, but we shouldn’t compromise too far if it places limitations on performance. I’ll cover this a bit more later when…

Staging rapid transit projects

In a future post, I want to evolve this discussion to talk about how staging of projects is important, and how this can impact the way a proposal is presented to the public. This is my third problem with mode, but is far more detailed than the above two, so I will do a separate post on that soon.

One more thing…

For what it is worth, this is just my personal observation and opinion. Choice of mode brings forward strong emotions in people, for some reason, at times myself included I must say, so I must reiterate that I am not advocating for or against a particular mode, it is the method of mode decision making that I am particularly  interested in. I am someone who comes from a policy background, so understanding and defining the problem and evaluating solutions from multiple perspectives is in my blood, I’m afraid (yeah, I’m great company!).