What’s up with LGWM?

It’s a fair enough question. Wellington’s flagship transport program of works has some excellent ideas and solutions to the city’s ever frustrating problems. However Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) is currently receiving some pretty negative coverage. And you know what, that’s fair enough. LGWM has left a sour taste in some mouths due to misguided perceptions of “car bashing”, but there are also some very legitimate and serious concerns being raised as well.

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It’s gonna take a looooooooong time…

A major criticism often brought up is around the timing of key projects. This isn’t just limited to things like the Mt Victoria Tunnel duplication, but also things like Mass Transit (post-2029) and the upgrade to the Golden Mile (including the banning of private vehicles). Sure, good things take time, and developing a Mass Transit project requires a lot of work. Still, there’s been a lot of surprise at the lack of shovel ready projects in the plan, and I’m probably one of those that is a little taken aback by such an absence. While the big projects will take time, it’s always good to ensure there are projects included that can get away asap; the low hanging fruit, so to speak. In that regard, some people are surprised we can’t get on with relatively less complicated, yet still critical, projects such as the Golden Mile upgrade.

It’s hard for the public to buy-in to a plan when it doesn’t feel like it is going to happen, and one way plans often feel that way is when the timings are far off in the future. It starts to seem less of a plan and more of an aspirational wish-list.

Who agreed to this thing anyway?

The timing issues lead on to the obvious lack of coordination among the councils and government in the region. Questions are being asked about how much the plan will benefit different councils (there has been significant criticism leveled at the central Wellington focus of the plan at the expense of regional projects like the Melling interchange) and how the costs will be met by them. Councils even had to approve the plan post its release, which further muddled what was happening in the mind if the public. A recent news article stated NZTA is lacking funding for the entire announced package. Accusations have even been made of political interference in the process of deciding on a package, which seems to have been used as ammunition for further accusations of car bashing, whilst it further underscores the lack of readiness and disorganisation of putting LGWM together, who is responsible for what, and a lack of transparency of how it all came together. Altogether, the situation seems to be dissolving into a chaotic mess, which is a shame as it detracts from what is otherwise a pretty forward thinking and potentially game-changing plan.

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Was this even ready for public consumption?

 Alluded to above, there seems to be a sense that the LGWM package was rushed. This feels somewhat counter-intuitive as LGWM had become a bit of a joke due to its constant delays. However, the package that was presented had a distinct feeling of “not quite there” to it. The vague details (i.e. the Mass Transit project), lack of shovel ready projects, and timelines that seemed to go on forever have all underscored this. As I stated above, having one or two projects ready to go to corral councils and the public into getting behind the package should have been essential. Unfortunately, there was nothing there. It seems all the work to-date was largely just agreeing to a list. Even the quick wins that were identified seem to have no clear dates to them (the Golden Mile improvements have only just had their business case tendered). In short, nothing is “ready to go”. That’s fine, things need to be done properly; but, the public was clearly expecting so much more. Which leads me to…

Presentation is… lacking

 And so, with a package that is high-level, vague, with even quick wins at very early stages of development, that has accusations of political interference, issues with funding, and a number of people all too eager for any excuse to bash investment in active and public transport modes, the package really hinged on the way it was presented and how key points were communicated. How did it do, then? Terribly is the answer, terribly.

I’ve already alluded to the failure to meet public expectations, but that really was the biggie. After years of debate about what to do with the Basin Reserve situation, arguments about Mass Transit, what to do with the Golden Mile, State Highway One, the raging wars about cycleways; people were really looking for a decisive way forward. A final word, if you will. They certainly did not get that. In fact, it could be argued that what eventuated was an environment that fanned the flames of debate. Now, debate is all well and good, but what we have is a real lack of certainty, and thus the debate can’t be shaped; it’s open season on anything transport at the moment, and that means we are currently stuck in misinformation junction. As an aside, the LGWM website is atrocious; it’s completely confusing what the actual pan is, which didn’t help public discourse in the weeks that followed the announcement (i.e. misunderstandings between the “recommended programme” from October 2018 and what was actually announced in July 2019).

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So… who wins?

In the end, I worry LGWM – the way it has been rolled-out, not its actual package of projects – could be a shot to the foot for those wanting a sustainable Wellington transport network. The losers will be the people stuck in congestion, the cyclists risking their lives on busy roads, businesses in the CBD surrounded by car-clogged streets, people stuck on rammed to the brim buses crawling along the Golden Mile, and the environment. It seems clear to me that LGWM oversold what it was providing (i.e. too close to being a vision and not enough real progress), is disconnected from the political framework that will see it realised, has miscued its presentation, lost control of expectations and messaging, and is being used by those who see a few votes to gain at the expense of practical and effective solutions to our transport (and environmental and health) woes.

So, does this mean we should just rip it up and start again? No. This is, at its bones, a very good plan. But someone with leadership needs to get on top of it, and quickly. Every week there seems to be a new article in the news trying to pull it down, often misinformed or with a healthy dose of spin. This stems from the lack of readiness of the package that has stoked the flames of uncertainty. Once the public is lost, there may be no going back and the process will need to start all over again.

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Mass Rapid Transit in NZ – a guide to some myths

The recent news that a study into mass rapid transit has (finally!) been funded by NZTA for Christchurch, is a pretty good reason to celebrate (and there is also another study looking into an improved bus network – yay!). The work will take two years, with preferred routes to the north and southwest identified by August 2020, and a business case – detailing the type and policy changes to encourage development along the route – completed by August 2021.

That’s incredibly good news and well overdue. Meanwhile, Wellington has proposed extending mass rapid transit from the railway station in the northern CBD to the Airport as part of Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM), while Auckland is constructing the City Rail Link in its inner city and planning light rail on two routes, the first along Dominion Rd and onwards to Mangere and the Airport.

These developments have got me thinking about how such ideas are discussed. One topic I’ve come back to again and again on this blog is the nuances in making decisions in the transport policy space, including how ideas and concepts are communicated and digested. Whilst I don’t want to do a full exploration of the psychology of communicating transport policy, what I did think would be an interesting exercise, given the prevalence of mass rapid transit projects in New Zealand right now, is exploring the key mythologies that are still underpinning opposition to them, and providing a sort of guide to why these are misplaced.

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Christchurch’s regional public transport plan illustrated plans for rapid transit – this is now heading to the next stage of study

It doesn’t go where I live, so it’s useless

This is the coverage question. Within public discussion there is always a debate about where rapid transit routes should go. It’s important that routes are focused on serving existing and new key nodes along strategic corridors that are ripe for development and intensification. However, at some point the conversation turns to coverage, and criticism is levelled at the plan because it only serves select corridors. Why are we proposing rapid transit to serve only part of the city, shouldn’t we be creating a network that delivers rapid transit to as many people as directly as possible? This usually leads to a conversation about the cost of rapid transit and then concludes that it is a pipe-dream and some other (cheaper and less effective) solution is needed.

The problem is a lack of understanding of the role of rapid/mass transit. The purpose of the line is to create a high capacity, high quality, spine around which the rest of the public (and active) transport network connects to, and where intensive developments can be concentrated. Take our examples of Christchurch and Wellington. In Wellington, the new mass transit spine planned as part of LGWM runs from the north of the CBD, right through to the busy inner-city suburb of Newtown (where the region’s hospital is located). It then crosses through to another suburban centre (Kilburnie) then the international airport, terminating in the eastern suburban hub of Miramar.  This is the main “spine” of Wellington, the other spines of the wider urban area already served by two main commuter rail lines that would meet at the northern end of the CBD. In Christchurch, the main approaches into the city from high growth satellite towns are also busy and intensive corridors for the city. This makes them the obvious choice for the creation of a north-south rapid transit spine, via the CBD.

Understanding the roles of different parts of the transport network and how they interact is vital to understanding why we propose what we propose. Mass rapid transit shouldn’t necessarily criss-cross a city, and parts of a city not served by mass rapid transit directly aren’t necessarily missing out.

We can do it cheaper…

This is something I have covered in other recent posts, particularly when talking about mode choice, but I want to cover it off here again. There is a tendency, even from within official circles, to look at cutting costs by dumbing down rapid transit proposals. Whenever someone says something can be done much cheaper (i.e. with a bus rather than light rail, for example) the cost saving are not usually related so much to the mode of choice (as claimed) but rather to the quality of the total solution. In essence, mode choice becomes a red herring.

For example, claiming that buses are much cheaper usually means that because buses run on roads we can simply paint a line on the ground as a “busway” and we don’t have to dig the road up and lay tracks etc. Sounds good, except you are in the danger zone for your project not really being rapid transit anymore, and, therefore, not getting the desired outcomes.

The cost savings are less inherent to the choice of a bus as it is to the actual infrastructure you are building (or not building). This doesn’t mean one mode is better than the other, but it’s what is built that matters more. If you can think the job can be done with bigger buses and more bus lanes, then that is fine, provided you are still getting the outcomes you need. However, be careful when people claim you can have it all for much less – i.e. a spine for your public transport network that consists of fast and frequent, high capacity services on a dedicated, permanent right of way that will encourage development along the corridor (phew!). Basically, there should be good reasons for why changes and compromises are made that might lead to a cut in costs, and it will depend on the situation and what outcomes are being sought/identified as necessary. Check out the concept of bus rapid transit creep for some insight into how rapid transit projects can get pruned to something much less than.

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Are trackless trams a form of bus rapid transit creep? 

Technology X will make mass rapid transit redundant!

This is a common trope of opponents to public transport spending (think driverless and/or or electric cars, for example), but it’s also a go-to for supporters of a particular technological solution that they think will be a game changer (and as such is often used in conjunction with “we can do it cheaper” – think ridesharing and trackless trams, for example).

The problem with relying on a technological silver bullet is that it is usually too good to be true, doesn’t actually solve the problem that its claimed to solve, creates new problems, solves only some problems, or all of the above. This usually, unfortunately, muddies the waters of discussion. Some technologies are perfectly fine in and of themselves, but have their application stretched to make them seem like “game changers”. The issue is that their positive aspects are usually applied to situations where they will have no impact and/or ignore the complexity of transport networks and their problems (this is my main concern with the trackless tram debate in New Zealand and Australia, and, again, is closely related to the “we can do it cheaper” issue above).

Another claim is often related to the way technology will change behaviors (i.e. people working from home). Again, the same reasoning applies. It may well be the case that commuting and travel behaviors will change as a result of technology, but transport demands are only tacking one way, so the true value of the change is probably minimal compared to what is claimed. Essentially, technological advancements in transport (and other areas) is very likely to be part of the solution for a more sustainable and efficient society, but no one technology is going to solve all our problems. Rather, such changes will be part of a holistic response, because there are many things we can do to make how we live and transport ourselves from one place to another more efficiently.

A fixed route is inflexible and less effective

Having a public transport route that is beholden to the rails (or pavement) laid is surely silly? What if we want to move the route sometime in the future? Surely the humble bus should be relied upon to deliver our transport needs, with its flexibility allowing it to shape itself to the way the city develops?

Well, this, again, won’t lead to the sort of outcomes we want. Buses (regular ones, not BRT) are great, but their lack of a permanent right of way doesn’t attract the kind of development our cities need to function more effectively, So, they aren’t a good substitute for mass rapid transit on their own, or even with mild priority measures (this builds on all of the above, btw). Having flexibility isn’t really what you want when you’re trying to develop a transport spine – it’s actually the complete opposite (again, building on the themes explored above).

If you want to develop a strong spine of high quality, high frequency, high capacity transport, along which intense developments can be focused, and which other transport systems, like buses and electric scooters and bikes can integrate with, then flexibility of route is not going to help you. Putting a line in the sand and saying “this is the city’s backbone” is the best response. Don’t take my word for it, go to any city that has done this in the world and you will see why it is so great.

Summary

Although positive moves are being made in regard to mass rapid transit in our largest cities, there is still a long way to go. Inevitably, many of the myths outlined above will rear their ugly heads, and most already are. In Auckland, mayoral candidate John Tamihere has proposed cancelling part of the City Rail Link to reduce expenses, regardless of the cost that will have for Auckland (it sounds good, so it has political capital!). The light rail project has had endless delays with two rival proposals seemingly going head to head and delaying progress. In Wellington, LGWM has proven contentious, with a lot of criticism leveled at a supposed attack on roads, and debate about the form and function of the light rail (“trackless trams here to save the day and make things easier and cheaper! Yay!”). In Christchurch, things are just getting going, but already you can see some tell-tale signs that issues will crop up here too. First, I can see that two year date blowing out a bit (Auckland and Wellington have set quite a precedent here). Second, the very process itself will bring these types of arguments forth, and politicians are naturally inclined to look at ways to save money while still “delivering” what is needed.

Mass rapid transit is gaining some serious mileage in New Zealand right now. The government is trying to set a new direction that is different from the “build roads” mantra of the previous administration, but it comes with controversy. Hopefully the above provides a bit of a guide to some of the misdirection seen in the media, and which is discussed at length in various online and offline forums, and provides some insight into how it is misleading. A lot of positive things are happening right now, but the same arguments always seem to come up again and again.

What happens next? Beyond roads in Christchurch

Beyond RoNS

One of the key reasons the previous government established the Roads of National Significance (RoNS) programme was to stimulate New Zealand’s economy by providing a programme of large scale infrastructure projects that would provide employment during construction and, reduce congestion and journey times for people and freight once completed.

Now, if you’ve read a few of my previous blog posts you will know I’m not a big fan of the RoNS. Sure, I will concede that having large scale infrastructure projects on the go isn’t necessarily a bad idea. My problem has always been with the execution; i.e. only building roads, building them with questionable economic cases, and questionable contributions to reducing congestion, emissions, changing transport behaviours, and so forth. I’d have preferred to see well thought out transport infrastructure projects that have far better outcomes, economically and socially.

Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch each received a chunk of spending through the RoNS programme, and most of those projects are in their final phases (in the case of Wellington, some aspects of its RoNS – i.e. Terrace Tunnel duplication-  are unlikely to be finished in the form proposed, now subsumed by other projects through Let’s Get Wellington Moving). Christchurch’s RoNS projects included the duplication and extension of the Western Corridor, and the extension of the Southern Motorway and Northern Motorways, and the duplication of QEII drive as part of the latter. During 2020, the final stages of this entire package will be completed (with – unbelievably – the potential for things to actually get worse in terms of traffic congestion). So the pertinent question is, ‘what’s next?’ Are there further transport infrastructure projects that could be packaged as a successor to keep the city’s economy pumping (and can we do it better than just building roads?).

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Wellington has a (controversial) plan – Christchurch needs one too

Auckland and Wellington both have a list of transport infrastructure projects lined up for the coming years and decades. Auckland has the City Rail Link still under construction, a new bus rapid transit that has just kicked off, and is in the business case stages for light rail. Auckland’s long term vision for rapid transit alone ensures a steady stream of projects, and there is still the issue of what to replace the east-west link with, a process that is currently underway. In Wellington, the Government recently launched LGWM, including rapid transit, cycleways, and road improvements, a plan which will continue into the next two decades as it is rolled out. Christchurch… yeah, well, that particular file is a little empty. And that is definitely not a good thing, especially given the city’s transport expenditure is impacting on the local economy’s competitiveness, are according to a recent PWC report.

The “pipeline problem”

Christchurch currently has a pretty strong economy, and enjoys strong population growth, currently adding about 10,000 people per year to the wider metropolitan area. The problem is that, very soon, major projects are likely to dry up – and do so very quickly. Not only are the RoNS projects due to be completed by the end of 2020, other major projects are also nearing completion (think Metro Sports Centre, Convention Centre etc) and the list of projects coming up is not getting added to. This is a concern, because if there is no work in the city, that puts the strong economy at risk. Not only will people look to other cities like Wellington or Auckland, or Australian centres, for work, but businesses will start looking elsewhere too if the city isn’t progressing the right supporting infrastructure. The post-earthquake rebuild boost cant be relied upon to continue to bolster the economy, plans need to be put in place to kick-off a programme of projects that support its health into the future. Transport infrastructure is pivotal for a healthy, growing city, and I would add that Christchurch, having seen a huge investment in roads, really needs to knuckle down on ensuring it has a balanced and sustainable transport network that is fit-for-purpose for the twenty-first century.

While I have previously explored a rapid transit plan for greater Christchurch, I wanted to take a more holistic look at how a wider transport package, which might include such a plan, is put together. So I want to make it clear that this is not a “congestion free” style plan, but a view on what a wider array of multi-modal transport infrastructure projects for the greater Christchurch area could look like.

What transport projects would be critical for Christchurch going forward?

So let’s look at what could be on the table. First, we have the issue with the soon-to-be-completed Northern Motorway, which will see some 40,000 plus vehicles dumped on the doorstep of the inner-city suburb of St Albans. Thankfully, there has been a bit of a turnaround in regard to local government action on this, and improving mass transit options seems to be a key part of the solution to effectively managing this situation. High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes and investment in bus/park and ride stations along the motorway have been mooted, and it seems as though new express bus services of some sort will eventuate. Rail too has been talked about by councillors.

NZTA are currently investigating solutions for the east-west connections in the south of the city, principally the area around Brougham Street and Moorhouse Avenue (I believe an update on this is due soon). While I worry what might eventuate could be a roading monstrosity, consultation work to-date has indicated a preference has been for a holistic solution, including supporting better public transport services to take the pressure off the roading network. My hope is that this kind of investment will drive the approach, with some more minor road improvements that reduce traffic conflicts. This situation is not unlike that with the Northern Motorway ending in St Albans; the completion of the Southern Motorway will bring State Highway One (SH1) traffic from the south and dump it on the already congested Brougham Street route (yet another mess the RoNS didn’t seem to factor in to its strategic planning). Of note, the Government has promised $100 million for commuter rail between Christchurch and Rolleston, but so far there has been little movement from local government to address this offer. It could undoubtedly be part of the solution, particularly as Rolleston’s population growth continues unabated.

I’ve previously proposed what I consider might be a good rapid transit start-up network (see below) and I think adopting an official rapid transit vision for greater Christchurch is well overdue (also see Brendon Harre’s well thought out “Hand Plan” proposal). With a metropolitan population approaching half a million, Christchurch is well behind the eight ball compared to similar sized cities like Wellington (electrified commuter rail and proposed light rail/BRT line), Newcastle (regional commuter rail and light rail) and Canberra (light rail).

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But isn’t the answer “more roads!”?

Recently there has been a lot of media conversation about the so-called “cancelled” motorway projects that the current government have deferred in favour of light rail in Auckland – or so the story goes. The truth is that this isn’t quite what happened. In the case of Christchurch, there were two particular motorway projects that the National Party promised to fund. One was the Woodend Bypass, and the other one was four-laning of SH1 from Rolleston to Ashburton. In reality, there was no funding for either, they were merely election promises from a party that did not get back into government. The Woodend Bypass has been on the books for a while, and the route designated (I think) but it was never formally brought forward. The four-laning of SH1 to Ashburton is literally nothing; there is no business case, and such a project would cost a colossal amount of money for very little economic benefit.

Still, it remains, sadly, that a lot of people in Christchurch – and New Zealand – expect to see tax payer money spent on roads, and some roading expenditure is certainly justified on safety, environmental (of the ambiance kind), and economic grounds – but I would argue only as part of a holistic, mode neutral package. Indeed, LGWM incorporates quite a few roading projects for Wellington, despite the focus being overwhelmingly on people, and active and public transport modes, and it is increasingly likely a regional package, which incorporates a similar mix, will eventually see the light of day.

I am going to put my “political hat” on here (I am a policy adviser by trade after all), and that means I have to conclude that if Christchurch was to put a similar package together (let’s call it “An Accessible City 2.0”) it would undoubtedly include some roading elements. The question is which ones would it include? Well, forget about four-laning between Rolleston and Ashburton; although I would not be opposed to more targeted safety upgrades (see this post for my thoughts on that “project” from Hell). The Woodend Bypass is something more akin to a safety-first approach rather than a “let’s solve congestion” one, particularly with the population growth the area is receiving. Could a case be made to bite the bullet on that one rather than tinker around the edges like NZTA are currently doing? Would it unlock the political capital required to invest in other, sustainable transport infrastructure projects, and get over the hump people seem to have over the make-believe rejected highway to Ashburton? (yes, I still have my political hat on here).

An Accessible City 2.0

Putting all this together, what might a package of transport infrastructure works look like for Christchurch? Well, I’ve given it a go as follows:

  • Expanded and intensified bus network – With more high frequency routes and bus priority measures (as per current Regional Public Transport Plan)
    • Paid for by local authorities and the Government
  • North-south rapid transit spine – I’ve provided my own example above of an initial phase, but this could incorporate whatever mode/s are deemed suitable. This could tie in with major intensive housing and commercial projects along the spine and be integrated with the bus and cycleway networks. It would be the anchor for a significant step-change for the city’s form and function
    • Initial cost (estimated at $400-600m) split between local authorities and the Government
  • Woodend Bypass – Extends the northern motorway to the north of Woodend and Pegasus, improving safety along the current stretch of SH1 through the township and opening that space up to people friendly developments.
    • Government funded
  • Upgraded east-west connection – Targeted improvements along Brougham Street and in surrounding areas, with a focus on limiting access, avoiding rat runs, eradicating major traffic conflicts, and prioritising public and active transport
    • Government and local authority funding
  • Extended cycleway network – Meeting gaps in the current network and ensuring it connects well with public transport hubs
    • Paid for 50/50 local authorities and Government

That’s just an initial high level analysis and a starter-for-ten stab at it. There may be some projects I’ve forgotten about or overlooked, and I’m sure some pretty good arguments could be made against some of these inclusions. There are some measures I have not included, because they get into deeper policy considerations (i.e. road pricing, congestion charging, parking charges etc). Nevertheless, these sorts of policies can be part of the underlying foundation of the investment programme. Yes, there is a bit of give and take here, and I’ve done that purposely without (hopefully) detracting from the overall intent. Perhaps I have gone too far; is a Woodend Bypass needed? Perhaps a metro-wide programme of targeted investments in critical roads to improve safety and flow (like NZTA’s current overarching focus on improvements along SH1 from Tram Rd to Saltwater Creek)?

Regardless, people would have a hard time calling the above “anti-car” as it prioritises road improvements in addition to public and active transport. Yet, it is undeniably based on asserting a vision for a sustainable transport network, something greater Christchurch currently lacks.

Outstanding issues to make this work

There are a couple of barriers to implementing a programme such as this. One that comes up in particular is the way public transport responsibilities are split across the local authorities. This has caused problems in Wellington too, and continues to be the shaky foundation of LGWM, especially post local body elections. Serious consideration should be given to the future of public transport, and indeed all transport, administration. Will the current Joint Committee approach be enough, or is a new semi-independent transport body needed?

Another barrier, which I have hinted at above, relates to the underlying set of policy levers that might be required to give the outcomes sought full effect. This includes policies relating to car parking (including pricing), road speeds, vehicle access to the CBD and suburban hubs, road and congestion pricing, the price of public transport and so on. These things are necessary to underpin investments and ensure that mode change occurs (a carrot and stick approach). Understanding what measures are required is essential and should be part of any package, as it is with LGWM and in Auckland. I think this was something that was seriously lacking from the original Accessible City plan, and undermined arguments for serious public transport investment, and prohibited desired changes in behaviour, entrenching car dominance across the metropolitan area.

Summary

Christchurch has a problem. In the next 2-3 years its current list of transport infrastructure projects will dry up, and the growing city, if it hasn’t sorted and started on a plan for rapid transit, as well as a package of other key transport projects, by then, will well and truly be on the back foot.  This is compounded by the winding down of the end of the rebuild of the commercial centre of the city – key projects over the next few years will become fewer, and the construction sector will suffer, leading to loss of work, people and business to other centres. Underpinning an economic strategy should be a strategic package of mode-neutral transport investments; a partnership between local and central government.

There are outstanding problems that need to be addressed too. Where should responsibility for public transport rest in greater Christchurch? ECan? CCC? Something else? What kind of city does Christchurch want to be? Where do the key public transport and rapid transit routes go? Where does housing go and what type? This is a much bigger project that simply building a few roads to hopefully spur on the economy, this is much more nuanced and long-term. It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary, and time is running out. This is my take on a prospective package, making assumption about some of these issues outlined immediately above. I may be wrong, but it’s a start, and I’ve tried to keep it politically realistic, while still hopeful. What do you think?

Playing the ball? – buses vs light rail vs trackless trams

I’ve written quite a bit about Wellington’s rapid (or “mass”) transit project between the CBD and airport, mostly focusing on the ‘trackless tram vs light rail’ debate thus far. My focus has tended to not be so much about what mode is better, but rather how the argument is put forward for particular modes, how this can mislead the conversation. There is an old saying; “play the ball, not the man” (or “person”, to bring that old saying into 2019 a little), which I think is apt to describe much of the discussion so far.

What’s the “person”?

Local media has tended to focus on the “person” – the “person” being the mode in this instance – and thus getting bogged down in debate about whether one mode is better than the other, and giving column inches to proponents of the next “silver bullet” concept that will get things done for far less dollars. There seems to be a lack of any attempt to generate discussion about what Wellington actually needs from rapid transit. For instance: what is the route rapid transit should take?; to what degree should the route be segregated from other traffic, total or partial?; what is the ideal capacity, now and into the future? what about grade separation? I could go on. These are all pertinent questions, and the answers to them, and others, will go a long way to informing decisions on a preferred mode choice. Why is this? Because the answers to these questions will largely determine the costs of the project irregardless of mode, and will have an impact on the validity of the different advantages and disadvantages inherent in each mode.  Basically, you get what you pay for; there are no short cuts.

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But buses are inherently cheaper! Aren’t they?

So it’s all a bit unfortunate to see, once again, the local media focusing on yet another interest group pushing the mode wheelbarrow, this time with a bus rapid transit proposal (or rather a lack of one as scant detail is provided). Once again, the juxtaposition is light rail, although it has been made clear by Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) that light rail isn’t even the preferred mode at this point (that doesn’t stop criticism of LGWM’s “light rail” plan). I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but suffice to say it is lacking detail and high in ambiguity (for example, there is a strange comment about capacity of buses vs light rail), promising two rapid transit routes instead of one, for a lesser price tag. This will sound familiar to many people. Perhaps my main issue is that there is no way of telling what this proposal is trying to do vs what LGWM is trying to do, and the result is that you are likely comparing apples with oranges. As I said above, you get what you pay for.

But light rail proponents are also not beyond criticism, right?

Now, you may wonder where my criticism of light rail is at, and I am willing to accept that some people reading this may see me as being somewhat biased in this regard. However, rather than advocating for light rail, I am simply arguing that it shouldn’t be demonised or discarded on the basis of high level, unsubstantiated claims that other modes present a better solution, nor do I think the discussion should be about mode p. How can this be when the actual details that inform what mode will work best are not yet known? Yes, light rail advocates are just as guilty, but what I will say is that it is a shame to see that transport policy is being manipulated to such an extent by ideological preferences, and not actual policy.

Playing the ball…

Indirectly, mode arguments may become slightly valid if people disagree on the level of quality of rapid transit. For instance, some may prefer a more segregated route with maximum dedicated right-of-way, and thus come to the conclusion that light rail best serves this. Others might see the benefits of cost savings through a less segregated route, and thus reach the conclusion that buses provide a better solution by making such route compromises. Fair enough, but my point is that these considerations must come first, not mode, and we should be having more honest discussions about those specific features which drive us toward preferred mode choice. That’s the ball. And, yes, we can still talk about mode, we can even have a placeholder mode, but these considerations must always inform the decision making process and chosen solution. There is no silver bullet that will come along and render all other solutions redundant. It simply doesn’t work like that, and when people claim it is so, you will notice that their claims are vague, high level and contradictory. Why? Because they are trying to sell something, make a round peg fit any shaped hole; they are not trying to provide necessarily the best solution for the given situation.

Mode isn’t totally irrelevant, but…

You might well say, then, that it is absurd to not discuss mode, that people who are promoting a particular mode or technological solution are simply trying to better inform the discussion by letting people know what options are out there. Yes, that is true, and there is nothing wrong with that on the face of things. However, there is a big difference between informing a situation by extolling the virtues of one solution, and illustrating how it may be applied in a given situation, and using weasel words to sway official and public support based on ideological positions (you don’t like spending rates and taxes on public transport, for example) or, worse, for your own financial interests (you have a vested interest in a particular mode being chosen).

TT1
Trackless tram in China https://phys.org/news/2018-12-hype-trackless-trams.html

As an example, I was quite taken aback when Peter Newman of Curtin University claimed that trackless trams can be implemented at one tenth the cost of light rail because it seeemed to be pretty misleading as it blatantly isn’t comparing like for like (see my previous posts on that here, here, here, and here). Ambiguous and misleading claims are used to sell something, not truly and effectively solve problems through proper analysis. As I alluded to above, its a round peg being sold to to fit the hole no matter what its shape ultimately turns out to be. That is a problem, not just for Wellington, but in Christchurch and even Auckland.

So what’s the problem, and how do we solve it?

The problem is that complex and expensive issues, that require a holistic process to solve, are subject to claims from some quarters that they can be solved easily, and cheaply. This confuses the discussion that needs to be had, and impinges the political discourse around the issue. It’s also just too good to be true. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you get what you pay for.

Someone claims they can solve the problem with a new technology (trackless trams), or an idea that sounds plausible at a high level (buses are cheaper and more flexible) but no one is talking about what is actually needed, no one is talking about the detail. The result is a sub-par solution that doesn’t offer the quality of service people imagined because it was decided to save money and paint lines on the road instead of building a proper dedicated right-of-way, that doesn’t lead to intensification where it was planned because investments were spread out on multiple routes instead of investing in a single, high capacity corridor.

This isn’t a push for light rail, or any particular mode. This is a push for decision makers to focus on the issue, and undertake appropriate decision making processes before committing to specific ideas, and for ideas that seem to offer an ideal, cheap solution to be taken with a good dollop of salt. The challenge with transport policy discussion in New Zealand is to focus on what is needed before focusing on how to meet it. All that happens when you start doing this the other way around is to clandestinely reset expectations, or in other words convince people they are getting more for less. Play the ball, not the person.

What would $1b buy in Canterbury?

The other day the “Mike Hosking of the South”, Mike Yardley, wrote an opinion piece that outright advocated for a four-lane, 60km expressway or motorway between the soon to be completed Christchurch Southern Motorway from Rolleston, 60km to Ashburton. The title of the piece was “Four-laning to Ashburton makes sense” but, unfortunately for Mike Yardley, it definitely doesn’t make any sense at all.

Making matters worse was the fact he seemed to get confused about the status of this “project” by insinuating it was “cancelled” by the current government, when it was actually a last minute election promise with no proper costings, no benefit-cost ratio or economic analysis of any sort, nor any business case or detailed planning whatsoever. For good measure, it is used by only 14,000 vehicles per day, which means that it is unlikely to stack up economically. Though he admits it is was deemed unsuitable for a PPP, he seems to think that spending, oh, I don’t know, about $1 billion on this roading project would be an economically sensible thing to do. Just to put the boot in, he scoffs at the $100 million for commuter rail between Christchurch and Rolleston promised by the Government in 2017 (neglecting to mention that this requires a detailed business case on top of high level business cases already delivered – check out this post at Talking Transport for more info on that). He also, ironically, calls the treatment of the Roads of National Significance “weaponised”.

I could go on about the fallacies in this opinion piece, but that would be giving it more time than it deserves. Instead, I thought it would be more informative and fun to focus on what other transport projects $1 billion could go towards in Canterbury instead.

Rapid transit

MapChch1

I previously proposed a basic rapid transit network for Christchurch (see here, and here). My high-level, educated-guess costings for this were $300-400 million, which would leave $600-700 million to go even further by doing all or some of the following:

  • double tracking the Main North Line
  • extending the railway into the CBD
  • extending services to Lyttelton
  • building an additional rapid transit line to or via:
    • Airport
    • Lincoln Rd
    • Eastern suburbs
    • Somewhere else

The ability to more than double the plan I outlined would almost certainly do more for the economy, improving road safety, peoples well-being, congestion, etc in Canterbury than four-laning to Ashburton.

Road safety

One of the biggest problems with the Roads of National Significance was the amount of money spent and the total kilometres of upgraded road, which undermined much of the road safety case for them. For instance, Mike Yardley thinks spending $1 billion on 60 km of road is a good deal. In the meantime, the Government is spending $1.4 billion to improve safety on 1500 km of road over three years. That means, instead of spending up on a flash motorway in the name of road safety for just 60 km, and taking years to do it (the RoNS are still being finished ten years on), you could spread that money to in excess of 1000 km of road throughout Canterbury with more targeted expenditure. That’s a win, and it’s actually pretty frightening to think someone asserts otherwise.

Cycling improvements

You could get a lot for $1 billion. $206 million got 101 km of cycleway in urban Christchurch, so you could potentially get about 500 km. That would go a long way towards getting  more people cycling, reducing cars on the road, which would have congestion and safety benefits, not to mention climate change benefits. However, you could also fund less cycleway km and put the rest into public transport or road safety. Speaking of…

Bus improvements

RTcorridors

The Regional Public Transport Plan proposed a supercharged bus network (including more frequent bus routes), which will cost money, not to mention a need for (many) more km of bus lanes. $1 billion would go a long way towards achieving this, and probably a lot more. If you split the spending across better buses, rapid transit, and cycling, as well as targeted road safety projects, the benefits to Canterbury would be enormous. $1 billion can go a long way in the region!

Summary

There are many transport projects that would be a lot better to spend $1 billion on in Canterbury than four-laning State Highway 1 between Rolleston and Ashburton. If reducing congestion and improving safety between those two points is really necessary (and I’d argue in some respects that is somewhat true) then there are better (and cheaper) ways of doing it, including more targeted safety improvements on the road, and investment in a regional public transport route (which could be a train, but could also be a bus) to discourage journeys by single occupancy vehicles.

 

 

 

A feebate is a good idea, but…

The Government’s proposal for a feebate scheme, whereby a tax on the purchase price of less fuel efficient cars is used to offset the price of more fuel efficient ones, has gone down to a pretty mixed reaction. Given the recent apocalyptic reactions to things like building cycleways or the imposition of a CGT , a mixed reaction is actually pretty positive, and industry is interested (probably because they don’t really care, as long as people still buy their cars).

The “feebate”

Now, I’m all for a feebate scheme for the following reasons:

  • People are buying gas guzzlers (SUVs and utes) in record numbers
  • New Zealand is one of the few countries without such a scheme
  • Transport is a big opportunity to cut New Zealand’s carbon emissions, and this could do so by reducing car sizes and encouraging positive changes to peoples transport behaviours
  • It shifts costs to where they need to be (i.e, you want a big gas guzzler, then you pay for it) rather than letting the market dictate perverse outcomes because people “just want” (i.e. no good reason)
  • It could move New Zealand’s fleet to being smaller (i.e. in the opposite direction of where it has been heading) reducing road wear and tear and improving safety

The scheme would be cost neutral, and would make some cars up to $8000 cheaper and others up to $3000 more expensive. It would apply to imported new and used cars only, and would not apply once those cars are resold.

emissions
Stuff.co.nz

The benefits are stark; potentially saving motorists $3.4 billion in fuel costs and removing more than 5 million tonnes of CO2. There is yet another proposed policy that would go even further, again, bringing us in line with much of the rest of the world (we are one of three countries that don’t have such standards), and that is fuel emissions standards (i.e. the thing that Volkswagon tried to beat several years ago in Europe by having their cars manipulate testing conditions). Importers would be forced to gradually reduce the average emissions of vehicles they bring into the country, so that what is on offer in the showroom is generally more fuel efficient. This would likely have the added impact of further increasing the price of less efficient vehicles.

Concerns

Concerns that this would hit the poorest of us in the pocket are unfounded. First, it applies to new and used imported vehicles only, not on-sold vehicles. Second, those with less money to spend are much more likely to be spending up n a more fuel efficient car, so they are actually more likely to benefit. Concerns have also been raised about the effect of the policy given the Kiwi way of life; you know, because every New Zealander has an SUV to tow their boat with, and they will simply keep doing so. In reality, that applies to a very small group of New Zealanders, and I’m sure they are of the type that will happily pay for the privilege of having a huge, gas munching truck just so they can tow their boat, while the rest of us benefit from a reduction in emissions and cheaper, more fuel efficient, cars (for when/if we need them).

But why stop there?

I like the feebate scheme as proposed (although disappointed it actually doesn’t go “bigger” – is $2500 extra for a Ford Ranger really a deterrent?), and would love to see it become reality (and would hate to see it go the way of the CGT). However, there are plenty of other policy areas that could be addressed to change transport behaviours, including:

  • Reducing the farebox recovery policy for public transport
  • Removing car parking minimums
  • Addressing the issue of subsidised car parks provided by businesses
  • Appropriately pricing car parking in cities
  • Managing road volumes through pricing
  • Reducing public transport fares
  • And so much more…

Addressing such topics will help everyday people re-think the journeys they are making, including the way they take them, and will result in a more efficient, and environmentally and economically sustainable transport system. At the end of the day, there just isn’t any truck in supporting inefficient and harmful behaviour just because people are used to doing things one way, or have a personal preference that they think should be imposed on all – which is why boat owners think it won’t work, because we all tow our boats, right?.

 

 

Car parking policy – cheap isn’t good

If you want to see heads explode, start talking about car parking. Better yet, tell someone that car park fees should be increased. Watch their face go red before exploding in rage.

It’s understandable. Well, sort of. Most people in New Zealand still get around in motor vehicles, so their thoughts about transport generally relate to ‘making my car go faster/better’. This is why it is difficult to have discussions about removing car parks for bus or cycle lanes, making streets pedestrian friendly, re-balancing transport spending from predominantly roads to a mixture of modes, including public and rapid transit. Those things actually help people by providing greater alternative transport options that, can improve transport times during peak hours for many people, and also have the benefit of removing unnecessary car journeys from our roads, which is a good thing for those who still need or prefer to drive.

However, when the default position is that most people drive a car, it can be hard for most to see how such solutions directly benefit them. Instead, it is easier to imagine that “improvements” that directly relate to their current transport choices (i.e. driving) are the best ones, even if the devil is in the detail.

The problem is that improving public transport, building cycle lanes, rapid transit investment, and so on, is really only half of the equation of changing transport behaviours. Think of those types of interventions as very much the “carrot”. The other half of the equation is very much the “stick”. Now, I could go into detail about a number of “stick”-type interventions like congestion charging, but what I want to focus on here is the price of inner-city car parking, looking at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and how they compare, and what outcomes each city is experiencing. I will focus on off-street and on-street parking, Monday to Friday only.

Parking in… Auckland

On-street

New Zealand’s largest city has a fairly large on-street metered parking zone in the Central Business District (CBD), and it is divided into three zones with different pricing schedules, as can be seen below.

Parking off aucks

Zone 1, in the most central part of the CBD, is the most expensive at $5 per hour for the first two hours, then $10 for every hour thereafter. After 6pm, prices halve. Zones 2 and 3 are $3.50 and $3 per hour for the first two hours respectively, and $7 and $6 respectively for every hour thereafter. Again, after 6pm, prices effectively halve.

Off-street

I looked at a couple of off-street council car parks to get a feel for prices. The Downtown car park charges $4.50 per hour, and a maximum of $40 for more than eight hours. The Civic car park, further south near the “Zone 2” boundary, costs $4 per hour, and a maximum of $24 for more than five hours.

I also checked out Wilson Parking rates – which I will for each city – and they charge $5-6 per half hour, $15 for an hour, or $7.50 per half hour to a maximum of $60 per day in the area around “Zone 1”. In less central parts of the city, rates were about $5-$4 per hour and $24-$30 for 12 hours. The use of the “ParkMate” app knocked off a bit, and “early bird” parking reduced 12 hour rates by about a third. The parking rates for Wilson, however, were highly diverse, so this just provides a snapshot, and the ParkMate and earlybird deals didn’t apply across the board.

Parking in… Wellington

On-street

The capital city was surprisingly a little cheaper than Auckland, ranging from $2.50 to $4.50 per hour across the CBD and Te Aro. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a map to show this area, nor where certain charges apply, but like Auckland the hours applied are 8am to 6pm most weekdays (to 8pm on Fridays).

Off-street

Wellington’s Clifton car park is $4.50 per hour throughout the day, or a maximum of $18. Other car parks offer $4 per hour parking, some with a maximum stay of two hours, others charging a $14 maximum for up to 12 hours.

Wilson parking offers a very diverse range of fees, depending on location. Near the railway station they are charging $12 for the first hour and $6 per hour thereafter, up to $45 for a 24 hour period. In other parts they charge $5-6 per hour up to a maximum of $45-48. Early bird prices apply at some car parks, knocking off more than half the price (for example at the James Cook Hotel where it is $19 to 7pm).

Parking in… Christchurch

On-street

The southern capital has most meters at $3.10 per hour, with some newly introduced $2 per hour parking in some parts of the city, making it the cheapest of the three. The real interesting thing, however, is where these charges apply and where they don’t. While I don’t have a map for Wellington, I can assure readers that metered parking has quite a bit of coverage and it is quite difficult to find a free and easy car park in the vicinity of the CBD. The map below shows Christchurch’s metered parking, and shows how the coverage is not absolute. many a person will tell you that they know there secret spots, and I myself have one or three when in the city and need to use a car. Remember, Christchurch is a flat city laid out on a grid, so walking seemingly longer distances isn’t too difficult.

Parking off chch

Off-street

Anecdotally, I often hear (and read from angry Stuff commentators) that Christchurch has a dearth of parking. Well, check out the map below. I really don’t think that is the case at all, with six multi-level car park buildings and a plethora of other parking sites (mostly in empty building sites).

Parking1.PNG

The council’s Lichfield Street car park charges $2.80 per hour, or $15 all day. Bear in mind this is right smack-bang in the centre of the CBD. It’s worth noting that there were once quite a few council owned car parks, but now most are privately owned. The Crossing car park building nearby charges just $2 for the first two hours and $2 per half-hour thereafter, for a maximum of $16 per day. The Innovation car park building charges $3 for the first hour and $1.50 per half-hour thereafter, for a maximum of $14 per day.

Wilson parking’s larger car park buildings (West End and Art Gallery) charge $4 and $5 for the first hour, then half those rates per half hour respectively to a maximum of $24 for all day parking. Earlybird and ParkMate rates are $14.

It’s also worth pointing out that there are a plethora of lower quality car parks on building sites that charge very little, sometimes just $3 an hour.

So, what does this all look like?

I’ve created the below table to give an overview of the parking situations in each city:

parkin comp.PNG

There are a couple of things I will point out. First, I am assuming (and will explain below) that cheap parking is a bad thing. Hence the “rankings” which are really just a bit of fun on my part. Second, it’s worth pointing out that Christchurch really appears to have poor coverage paid on-street parking in the CBD, which means it is easy to park somewhere else and walk in, paying nothing for an entire day of parking (see the map displayed earlier). It is definitely worth keeping this in mind, as it makes the Christchurch situation that much worse.

So, what does this mean?

Christchurch has the worst rates of public transport use, the worst transport behaviours, and the worst transport outcomes, by a country mile. Period.

Now, I understand that some people might suggest that the price of parking being cheaper is not necessarily a bad thing, some might even see it as an advantage over living in Auckland and Wellington where you “pay through the nose”. I have two things to say to this: first, I never want to hear someone complain about the pricing or availability of parking in Christchurch ever again; second, there is no doubt that the availability of parking in Christchurch is linked to the poor transport outcomes we are seeing, which is now seen as a millstone around the city’s economy. Total and per capita public transport use is abysmal, and as the metro area grows rapidly beyond half a million, maintaining cheap car parking policies, and other policies that encourage or subsidise car use, simply isn’t sustainable nor desirable.

Auckland, on the other hand, is really showing the way and its recent milestone of achieving a total of 100 million passenger journeys on its public transport network in a year reflects its hard work. This is includes not just investing in rapid transit and other initiatives, but also implementing polices that reflect the true value of things like car parking. You can’t expect people to use a bus or train if you’re effectively undermining it by undervaluing space.

This also illustrates why people who are criticising ‘Let’s Get Wellington Moving’ for being anti-car are extremely misguided. Focusing on mode makes us biased towards the default mode (usually cars), despite wehtehr that is actually the best or even a workable option, and this leads to extremely poor solutions and outcomes. Take, for instance, the debacle about the Mt Victoria tunnel and whether it should be for cars or used by high capacity vehicles only. The focus should be on the best solutions to get the best outcomes, not about “what is in it for cars?”

Summary

Expensive car parking is not a problem – we should be focusing on increasing  accessibility through the means that work the best and lead to desired outcomes, not worrying about how much it costs to park your car or how close you can get your car to work or the shops. Cheap car parking will not do result in the social and economic outcomes desired; it will not reduce congestion, it will not reinvigorate the local economy, and it will not improve overall access. Check out this great post by Brendon Harre for more information on this, particularly in relation to Christchurch.

Finally…

Apologies to all two of my readers for such a long drink between posts, but I’ve been extremely busy lately working on things that put bread (and flat whites) on the table. Rest assured I am slowly compiling a list of topics to write on, and I should (hopefully) have a steady stream of interesting pieces going up over the next few months.