Christchurch Northern Corridor – Worst road project ever?

There was good news recently, in Christchurch, when the Christchurch City Council unanimously agreed to reconsider how it manages the downstream effects of the soon to open northern motorway extension. In short, it recognises that the impact of more than 40,000 vehicles being funnelled into inner-suburban streets is not something that is desirable, and creates a lot more problems than benefits. It recognises that more needs to be done to discourage people from using there cars, that public transport alternatives are not up to scratch.

The question that needs to be asked is, how did this situation occur?

A little history…

Back in the mid-1960s the Christchurch Master Transportation Plan was produced which provided for a network of new and improved road links across the city. This included an improved arterial road network, which is where the one-way system and the quasi-motorway Brougham St come from, a network of cross-city expressways, largely built during the 1980s and 1990s as two lane roads like QEII Drive, and a not insignificant north-south motorway spine.

Over time, the motorway aspects of the plan were shaved back. Initially consisting of a northern motorway cutting through St Albans and the Central City, meeting a southern motorway in Waltham, with a short east-west motorway through Hagley Park and across the northern Central City (the much derided “Fendalton-Avonside Motorway”), the later aspect was cut, and the central section through the Central City was removed. Then, later still, the northern and southern motorways were cut back to terminate at Cranford Street and the west end of Brougham Street respectively. So, in essence, the current Christchurch Motorways built as part of the previous governments Roads of National Significance programme, were to complete this motorway plan from the 1960s. However, as you can probably guess, this is a fundamentally flawed plan.

The problem…

Ignore the (many) usual reasons for why investing in roads-only approaches is flawed, and consider that this plan is finishing a network that is no longer fit for purpose. For a start, the northern motorway will terminate into Cranford Street, depositing tens of thousands of vehicles per day onto a Christchurch City Council controlled road. The Council were expected to deal with the downstream effects of this, which effectively meant acquiescing to the governments roads-only approach to transport policy. To boot, there was no money for public transport to mitigate the effects of the motorway extension, no congestion management, and HOV lanes have had to be battled for, with only small wins so far.

The government effectively built State Highway One into inner-suburban Christchurch despite the fact that State Highway One had long ago moved to the west. So it begs the question of why this link was built as it was. A motorway without a proper role, dumping thousands of vehicles daily onto suburban streets, without he city left to pick up the tab and deal with the effects. How this decision came to pass is beyond me, it’s simply appalling.

Image result for christchurch master transportation plan
In 2020, traffic from the north, travelling down the Northern Arterial extension, will be dumped onto Cranford Street in St Albans.

This is possibly the worst road funding decision I have ever heard of in New Zealand, because it’s based on completing a plan that is woefully out of date. It actually makes things worse than they were, by shifting the problem to an area that is even less equipped to deal with it, as well as doubling-down on an unsustainable approach for linking Waimakariri and Christchurch. Although I wouldn’t have been in favour of it, given the previous government’s penchant for roads, I’m actually surprised they didn’t throw in cash to widen Cranford Street while they were at it. This would have locked in auto-dependence, and simply shifted problems again, but at least you could say that they were applying some sort of consistent logic, even if it was flawed.


The Downstream Effects Management Plan (DEMP) attempted to effectively deal with the extra traffic, however it did this by making the journey as nice and lovely as possible for cars rather than taking into account the impact these vehicles would have on the community, both at a micro and macro level. Thankfully, this was plan was canned by the Council a few days ago, and I have to say that the speeches given by a number of councillors were incredibly encouraging. Reducing car dependence by providing mitigation through improved public transport and encouraging higher occupancy of vehicles (i.e. car pooling) is certainly something that should be a priority, yet the initial approach didn’t seem to do enough.

So what should happen? This is potentially a turning point for Christchurch, and you would hope the city pivots from here and begins to look at its transport provisioning with a more open eye. To get people to use public transport some big changes are necessary, beyond anything the city has considered before.

Ultimately, any investment in public transport will need to be good enough to attract people if serious mode shift is desired. The first, and most obvious, action that could be done is improving bus services. That’s no easy feat as buses will be stuck in the same traffic as cars, but introducing HOV lanes on the motorway, and bus lanes on Cranford Street, would be a good start. Improved park and ride facilities would also be desirable, and I see that a park and ride facility at QEII Drive interchange is one proposal being thrown about, to discourage people commuting by car all the way into the inner-suburbs (I guess). See this post on Talking Transport for a really inspiring plan for how express bus services might happen, by Axel Wilke.

HOV lanes would also be a good legacy project regardless of the future direction of rapid transit to the north. I still think developing the rail line is a desirable medium to long term option (see here and here) but investing in better bus services is also desirable and doesn’t impinge on the future provision of rail, as HOV lanes would be very useful for more than just buses (and that’s a good thing, in this instance).

A good outcome from a bad situation…

While I slap my forehead in disbelief at what is an utterly terrible situation that was allowed to develop (including spending millions to get there), it nevertheless could serve as a catalyst for significant, positive change. That is a very good thing. It illustrates the futility of roads-only transport approaches and, in my view, provides a bit of an early warning alarm that the city is going down the old “Auckland approach” to transport, which most people would agree is desirable to avoid. The reaction thus far is overwhelmingly positive, if completely reactive, but the outcome might be a more proactive one in the long term. We have seen that poor funding of public transport in Christchurch leads directly to poor outcomes, and this situation with the Northern Corridor is a microcosm of that issue. Politicians are now realising that they have to seriously engage and strategise, and put their money where their mouths are, to foment positive change. I certainly look forward to the outcomes of this, and hope it is the pivot point the city desperately needs to move to a truly balanced transport network with high quality public transport options.

Just leaving this here, for fun.

Second Mt Victoria tunnel for buses?

The Minster of Transport, Phil Twyford, has said that Wellington’s second Mt Victoria tunnel, planned as part of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving package of transport projects, could be for buses, cyclists and pedestrians rather than cars. This has led to accusations from Opposition MP Nicola Willis that the government has an anti-car bias.

Image result for mt victoria tunnel

This is interesting, because the Minister of Transport also said that this was a “could” rather than a “would”, and said a business case would determine the best form of the tunnel, and whether cars would be part of that. He was backed by the Associate Minister of Transport, Julie-Anne Genter, who said it was yet to be decided what form of transport the “four lanes to the planes” would be. That’s good, leaving it to the business case to show what form and function extra capacity between two points should take is the right way to do things. If public and active transport is the best way of managing congestion and improving journey times, then that should be the best way we could spend the $700m earmarked for the project. Simply saying “people in cars are sick of being in congestion and want their extra two lanes to drive in”. In my (experienced) view, simply wanting something isn’t the best way of deciding how to spend $700m. Would that be the best way? Let’s do a business case and find out, just as is proposed. Sounds good.

Except you wouldn’t think that reading this article. It turns the “could” into a “would” and rather than going into detail about how a business case would determine the best use of the proposed infrastructure, and thus best bang for buck, it instead laments that car users might “miss out”, and turns into a piece seemingly designed to drum up furore amongst motorists, and give the “anti-car bias” allegations of Willis credence. There is no mention at all that public and active transport investments have a benefit for motorists, nor that investing in road capacity, particularly along a constrained corridor, can have detrimental effects, which all exacerbates the misunderstanding, so prevalent in New Zealand, that only road and car based solutions will fix congestion.

So, what are my views on the prospects of a business case considering priority for different modes for the second Mt Victoria tunnel? I think that this is a truly positive and balanced approach to transport policy, something we haven’t seen much of in New Zealand. It’s nothing but net. Finally, we actually have a situation that is more “what form of transport do we build between point A and B” rather than “what form does the motorway take”. That’s good stuff. Bad stuff from the journalist though.

Why do we think it’s okay to speed?

So there is this whole furore around the NZTA’s release of long-term road safety data that suggests many New Zealand roads are posted at speed limits that are too high, and that lowering many speed limits would save lives. While just a starting point for discussion, as the NZTA had to claim, people simply blew up at the mere suggestion (based on fact, in case you were wondering) that lowering speed limits leads to a saving in lives. Yes, really, people don’t give a crap whether people die, they would rather speed.

Just leaving this here, cos, you know…

It’s all a bit perplexing as people get absolutely angry as hell that someone is suggesting discussing the possibility of changing speed limits. We’ve been here before, with changes to inner city speed limits in our major cities being met with hostility that simply wasn’t justified. Some of the things I heard were completely out of whack (“I’ll never get to work on time!”, “I won’t be visiting the central city no more!”) and defy logic. For instance, why would having to go 30km/hr for a period of just a couple of kilometres, in a built up area of heavy traffic where you’d rarely go 50km/hr anyway, cause you to abandon visiting that area for good? What about when you get out of your car and walk around? If you feel safer, have less chance of getting hit by a car, doesn’t that actually improve your experience? It’s ridiculous.

So why do people react this way? Well, there is a whole bunch of psychological behavioural analysis that could be done about this, but one thing that isn’t helping is the way the media address the issue. For instance, much of the reporting is focused on the dropping of speed limits, which implies a negative action, rather than focusing on the link between speed and death. It’s outrageous that hundreds of people die on our roads every year yet discussing the best ways to save those lives is being drowned out by voices who are concerned about getting to the chip shop on time, or road transport companies who want to shave as much time from their deliveries, damn the consequences. Cue the pathetic excuses with no shred of evidence, designed to whip up emotional backlash from laypeople.

If your speed limits are artificially low it causes frustrations and motorists can take unnecessary risks, so could cause more danger. There is a strong possibility of that happening.” – Roy Hughes, AA Chairman (Canterbury and West Coast)

Nick Leggett of the Road Transport Forum (the lobbying group for trucking companies) basically said that slowing trucks down would be bad for the economy and therefore that trumped trying to save peoples lives. Seriously? The NZTA produces real data that suggests New Zealand’s roads are improperly rated for speed, and that it is dangerous and leads to loss of life, and this guy is concerned, without any evidence, with the impact on the wallet of business owners? Not to mention there is no shred of evidence to this. Before people like this get to speak to the media, should they not be required to collect their own data that shows what they are saying is true? Apples with apples? All this does is fan the flames of emotion, and emotion often isn’t strong on fact.

Decision makers can be seduced by pretty pictures on an interactive map. But it’s understanding how this works in the real world that I think we need to expect from decision makers.” – Nick Leggett, Road Transport Forum Chief Executive

This type of reporting, which seems to just confront people with “they want to take away your right to speed” and then interviews a bunch of people with either a visited interest or an ideological position in the status quo is deplorable. I note the article didn’t include a view from any individual or group from the other side of the argument. Poor form.

Believe the hype? 3: Wellington Mayor backs trackless trams

I really don’t like writing about the whole trackless trams thing, because I don’t actually dislike the concept, I just want to see facts, not overly optimistic or misleading sales pitches, discussed. But here we go, again…

Turns out Wellington Mayor Justin Lester is now all for trackless trams, based, it seems, largely on what he has heard from advocates from Curtin University in Western Australia, if this article from this morning is anything to go by. See here and here for my take and concerns about what has been discussed so far.

We don’t want to be the last city in the world to invest in light rail.” – Wellington Mayor Justin Lester

My main concern is that what is being talked about (rather than the trackless trams concept specifically) is not rapid transit. Again, in the aforementioned article, the idea that you can simply paint on the road and the trackless trams follow it s being lazily thrown about by the Mayor and journalist, which is worryingly misleading. The idea that this is rapid transit or that it represents a technological revolution that kills off light rail is a pretty bold statement, as this is no different from painting a line on the road and calling it a bus lane (which we already do and have been for decades). At a high level, it sounds great, but it’ll not even be bus rapid transit unless they invest properly in a dedicated right of way.

A real worry is that this is a precursor to something of a kind of watering down of Wellington’s light rail/rapid transit proposal. What better way to get that kind of wriggle room with a major promise than a fancy name that invokes something better than currently proposed in peoples minds? The devil is in the details, and thankfully Mayor Lester has said he’ll drop his support if a pending business case does not back it up. Sadly, I know how business cases can work, so I hope that it would include a robust investigation of modes after setting the requirements of the rapid transit corridor.

If trackless trams are shown to be a really good idea for Wellington, then I’d support them too. Right now, I am just a bit concerned at the arguments and buzz lines being thrown around by proponents, which don’t appear to make a lot of sense to me, and appear more designed to get people excited. Sounds good, but is it true? I’m also concerned that this has led to the Mayors support. I hope, for Wellington’s sake, we don’t end up with a Springfield monorail.


Believe the hype 2: More musing on trackless trams

One of the key claims by proponents of the trackless tram concept is that it is cheap and easy to implement. That sounds awesome, and makes me wonder what amazing concept would allow the cheap implementation of rapid transit (apparently only 10 per cent of the cost of light rail!) but when you read what is actually being talked about the reality becomes clear – it’s simply not rapid transit, and the benefits start to dry up…

My issue with how the argument is being presented in the media by proponents…

To get trackless trams as cheap and easy as their advocates say, then it simply amounts to turning a lane of traffic or a line of carparks into full-time bus lanes, complete with reseal, along which the trackless trams can operate. The thing that is so striking about this is that this is something that a) could be done now with buses, and b) isn’t comparable to true light rail or bus rapid transit. So its not really new, and it’s not really comparing apples with apples.

“There is no relocation of services, no track construction time, no overhead wires to worry about, and no depots to build – because you could use existing bus depots.

“There are lots of opportunities to make time and cost savings.”

Peter Newman, Curtin University, WA

If the route were instead fully segregated into a dedicated right of way, has utilities like pipes and electricity lines relocated (which is ecessary to provide reliable service levels along a dedicated route), a proper roadbed laid for improved operational life (saving money), and has proper stations built, then you would have something comparable. However, this would also reduce the advantages outlined by the proponents of trackless trams on cost and ease of implementation, because the way they are framing trackless trams is in an entirely different application from light rail and bus rapid transit. They are basically just talking about bus lanes using a bigger (and supposedly better) bus, not rapid transit.

Is there a role for trackless trams in New Zealand cities?

When I heard trackless trams mentioned by official sources in Wellington and Christchurch as a possible rapid transit application, my initial concern wasn’t that this was a bogus technology, but rather an attempt to go down a bus rapid transit route (by pretending your not), and then water the application down as the details are ironed out (i.e. bus rapid transit creep). It was in the way the technology was being promoted that began to really worry me. In all, my concerns are more about what decision makers intend rather than on the mode itself, i.e. don’t say “rapid transit” and then give the people something far less than that.

However, if a city wanted to cheaply improve its buses by providing higher capacity and better ride quality, and introduce full-time bus lanes, perhaps as a prelude to full-time rapid transit, then this type of technology could be a useful option. The only thing I would say is that it might be easier and even cheaper to just use regular high-capacity buses for this task, rather than seeking a specialist concept developed by one company. For example, large, articulated buses that appear like light rail vehicles are already in use in many cities, including Belfast in Northern Ireland which makes use of 18m long Van Hool “Exquicity” buses. Brisbane is introducing a “metro” using vehicles like these, along its spine of (very) high-quality busways.

Van Hool “Exquicity” bi-articulated bus (. Can run on roads, can run in bus lanes, can run in dedicated right of way, exists now, and is unashamedly a development of a good old regular bus. 



In short, what I am saying is that the concept isn’t new, and the method of implementation is neither new nor actually 100 per cent relevant to the rapid transit discussion. Rapid transit is something much more than painting lines on roads – we can do that already, it’s not new. Just be honest about it.


Christchurch Rapid Transit Proposal – further information

This is a follow-up to my previous post on a rapid transit start-up proposal for Christchurch. If you haven’t read that, it might be a good idea to do so before reading further on this one.

I wanted to follow up on what I proposed with a bit of a more in-depth “Q and A” style piece on some aspects of it, hopefully giving a better illustration on why I proposed what I did. As a reminder, here is what I actually proposed:


So. Why heavy rail?

One of the lessons that Auckland’s transport experience over the last 30-40 years tells us is how not to do things. During the 1980s and 1990s various light rail and bus rapid transit schemes were proposed, often getting bogged down in arguments over mode choice, with new technologies being promoted that hadn’t seen much application, in this case being O-Bahn “guided busway” technology. Sound familiar? **cough** trackless trams **cough**.

There were lots of complications associated with implementing light rail, which eventually won the debate against a guided busway, mostly related to form and function, and cost, and this caused further delay during the 1990s. In the meantime, Auckland’s decrepit commuter rail network was kept going as an interim measure, perhaps in part to keep the network intact in case it was needed for an eventual tram-train network. The purchase of diesel multiple units from Perth, and some upgrades to stations caused an increase in use, which led to the idea to extend the railway further into the city at Britomart, completed in 2003. Britomart was designed for conversion to light rail/tram-train operation, but the incremental improvements to the rail network and services led to exponential growth in patronage, which led to electrification, and other network improvements, culminating in the City Rail Link.

As I explained in my post, the cost of introducing light rail or bus rapid transit along the proposed rapid transit routes in Christchurch would likely run into the billions. Wellington’s proposed rapid transit line is costed at approximately $2.2 billion for about 10km for both stages. The sections of rapid transit with dedicated right of way in the Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan, released by ECan in late 2018, amount to a length of approximately 20km between Belfast and Hornby. It’s easy to see where the maths goes on this one, and having or not having rails included won’t make a lot of difference as the road space will require serious reworking, and property purchases wouldn’t be out of the question in places.

Unfortunately, since commuter rail ended in 1976, much of the former infrastructure has been impacted by subsequent development that was done without any thought to its potential re-use. Still, enough exists to create a workable start-up network along the main northern and southwestern corridors, and like Auckland, this could be the start that rapid transit needs, trialling the impact and demand to inform future investment decisions. Better yet, it doesn’t preclude changes in thought on mode. Light rail or bus rapid transit could be developed in future, either supplementing or succeeding heavy rail, and the start-up proposal provides a pathway for this to happen with an initial short BRT section that would, in the interim, be used to link the rail lines to the Central City.

What about cost?

This is really why, to me, this proposal, or one like it, is a “no-brainer”. By using the existing railway lines, huge costs savings are made as the dedicated corridor is already there. In my previous post, I estimated it would cost approximately $300-$400 million to implement what I proposed.  ECan’s report for a temporary rail service between Rangiora and the city was priced at $8.2 million for capital costs . That might be a tad on the “too cheap to be true” side, but the new Hamilton to Auckland commuter rail service is costing $78.2 million for a five year trial.

Where will the money come from?

First, the government has already offered to chip in $100 million to getting commuter rail up and running in Christchurch (initially Rolleston). That’s possible a third to a quarter the way there already. Unfortunately, local authorities are not beating down the government’s door to get their hands on it. For the new Hamilton service, $68.4 million of the cost is being provided by NZTA, with the remaining $9.8 million coming from local authorities. That’s a deal, so if greater Christchurch local authorities went to government with a proposal like mine, it wouldn’t be unexpected to get a similar deal.

What about the bus rapid transit section?

This is probably the part I didn’t go into near enough detail on. This BRT line would connect the two lines into the city centre using a mixture of full-time bus lanes and segregated bus corridor. I would envision it travelling from a station near the Riccarton Rd railway crossing, along Riccarton Ave and Tuam St to the Bus Interchange, then down Manchester St to a station on Moorhouse Ave.

A dedicated service with high capacity buses could operate along the length of the line and onwards, perhaps to the university campus at Ilam, or the airport. Additionally, existing (and future, as per the latest RPTP proposals) bus services can make use of the infrastructure.

The purpose of the bus line is that it would be a win-win for CCC. Integrated with the rail lines, you get a rapid transit network to the inner suburban nodes,  the outer suburban nodes, and major satellite centres, within a fraction of the time and cost as a larger BRT or light rail corridor developed from scratch.

Here is a map of what I propose at a high level, drawn rather crudely and in a hurry (apologies!):

BRT map

Does the proposal allow for intensification?

One of the key outcomes of the RPTP was that it would drive intensification at key nodes and activity centres. The rapid transit corridors in the RPTP seem to be acting on the assumption that key areas for intensification need to be linked with one, purpose built, rapid transit line.

My proposal allows for intensification roughly along the same corridor, but does so using two different mode (rail and BRT). This grants the benefits of ease of implementation and cost that the rail corridors allow, while the “City Line” BRT improves bus connections along Riccarton Rd, and integrates with rail to create a cohesive rapid transit network. In short, yes, this proposal allows for the same outcomes the RPTP seeks.

Does this proposal “lock-in” heavy rail for these corridors?

No. That’s one of the other strong points of this proposal, as it is a start-up/gateway/trial rapid transit system (precisely because it utilises the existing rail corridors ratehr than building new, dedicated ones). This allows, at key decision making points along the process, reconsideration of mode, route, and overall application.

It may be that heavy rail continues to be invested in, the corridors improved, extended, or whatever the case may be (just like Auckland). However, it could also be that at some point another path becomes more attractive, such as utilising a different mode. That’s the strength of using the rail corridors and taking an incremental approach; a different path could be chosen (or not) once the broader concept has time to be suitably trialled and there is greater political and economic capital to invest further. I foresee something along the lines of the below as the decision making process this proposal allows:

RT process.PNG

What would it look like, “day to day”?

A key decision, which would impact upon costs, is what to build or acquire, where, and to what level (i.e. something small, temporary, or something large and permanent), and the service levels.

First, in terms of service levels, my default position is something like 30 mins throughout the day, with 20 minute services at peak on the rail lines (similar to current service frequency on the Blue and Yellow bus lines), and 10 minutes throughout the day (plus more services at peak) on the BRT. However, that’s something that, as far as this proposal is concerned, is pretty flexible.

However, service level will undoubtedly have an impact on infrastructure. This is particularly true for the northern line as it is largely single track, and some expenditure on passing loops and/or double-tracking will be needed to allow the service frequencies desired. Signalling upgrades might also be needed, to ensure those service frequencies can work, especially amongst regular KiwiRail services.

In terms of rolling stock, there are a few options, including reusing former Auckland rolling stock (if available), however I also think it’s desirable to purchase something new. There are some good options out there which could be adapted to the New Zealand loading and rail gauges, including some powered by hydrogen (though whether we have the infrastructure to cost-effectively support that might be worth further investigation). In the end, it’s not the role of my proposal to look too deeply into this, but what it can do is indicate that trains probably don’t need to be too big (maybe two car units similar in size to Wellington’s) and about 12-15 would be sufficient to operate what I propose above. Shorter trains mean smaller stations, and these can be extended in future if required (again, following Auckland’s lead).


Hydrogen train operating in Germany on regional services – RailwayGazette

The BRT could utilise double deck buses (like in Auckland) or articulated buses could be used, that allow for faster boarding and are more suited to short distances (although that might require dedicated infrastructure at the bus interchange).

What else could be considered?

This proposal is merely a demonstration of how  a cost-effective rapid transit network could be implemented, this is not presented as a “be all and end all”. There is flexibility within it, and there are alternative approaches. Here are a few, which could save further money and bring the project forward:

  • Introduce Riccarton to Rangiora as a first stage, with BRT only as far as the bus interchange
  • Introduce peak-hour services only as a start, cutting back on rolling stock and operational costs
  • Preface the introduction of this proposal with improved buses (dedicated express buses) along completed motorway (perhaps by expanding shoulders to create bus priority lanes), and expanding bus priority measures in the inner city
  • Combine elements of any or all of the above.

Where to from “there”?

A question I’ve been asked is where would things go beyond what I proposed? I’ve already touched on the flexibility that this proposal provides, but I suppose it is worth exploring, briefly, what it could lead to. First, I think it would be logical to look at how the BRT might be extended, especially to the west towards the university campus and airport.  Additionally, if successful, I think an extension of rail into the central city could be looked at, which could be heavy rail or a switch to another mode.

The extension of the BRT towards Belfast and Hornby is an interesting one (as is conversion to light rail). It seems to go against the grain of what I am suggesting, but given that heavy rail is a trial and/or gateway to implementing a rapid transit network, it’s possible investing in a dedicated corridor along more favourable lines for development might be desirable (remember, CCC contains over three-quarters of greater Christchurch’s population, so they will ask what is in it for them/their ratepayers). However, what could be interesting is exploring working towards two systems for the rapid transit corridors, one express and regionally focused, the other focused on the more densely populated metro area. In effect, you’d end up with a U-Bahn/S-Bhan or RER/Metro type situation. That’s a pretty cool vision.

Christchurch – An Accessible City 2.0?

The $6.4 billion Let’s Get Wellington Moving package of transport initiatives is great for Wellington, but it also highlights how thoroughly, and embarrassingly, behind Christchurch is in making progress with developing a fit-for-purpose, sustainable transport system of its own. The stark truth is that Christchurch puts very little money into public transport, and the government returns the sentiment.

NZTA spending.PNG

Christchurch’s per-capita bus patronage is actually in decline, which means that increases in annual bus trips are not meeting population growth. This is a problem, because every year greater Christchurch adds more than 10,000 people to its population. This means that it is likely that over the next decade it will add a city almost the size of Dunedin to itself.

Don’t be like 20th Century Auckland

Auckland learned its lessons the hard way, neglecting its public transport network and concentrating on building large roads. Effectively, the policy position was to cater to increasing numbers of cars, not people. The short answer to a long saga is that it didn’t work, so why will it work for Christchurch? Because that is exactly the approach the city is taking, following almost $1 billion of investment in motorways that will come to completion in 2020 without any investment in mitigation to avoid chronic congestion. The new northern and southern motorway extensions are set to create a series of problems from the get go as traffic is dumped into inner suburban streets that are already choked with traffic. Factor in the population growth and lack of investment in public transport, and the long-term prospects look more than problematic. Auckland changed this approach over a decade ago, and now the city is experiencing a public transport renaissance of epic proportions, ditching its old tag of being a car-addicted hell hole (2019 should see the barrier of 100 million trips on public transport in a year broken – Christchurch doesn’t even get 15 million, well behind per capita).

But wait! It gets worse…

Not only does Christchurch have poor public transport and no one using it, but a recent report released by PWC titled “Competitive Cities: A Decade of Shifting Fortunes“, which investigates the economic competitiveness of cities, outlined a number of positive things about Christchurch, including recent increases in income, and affordable house prices. The one thing holding the city back? Transport. In fact, the high costs of transport in the city (due to poor public transport and car dependency) are impacting on the advantages the city offers. Is it a coincidence that Christchurch is the largest in Australasia without rapid transit? Is it also a coincidence that Christchurch spends, in total, less than a third of what Wellington does on public transport, or less than a third per capita than Auckland? No. The answer is, no.

“An Accessible City” was a missed opportunity

After the 2011 earthquake a rebuild blueprint was developed to help the city recover, and part of this was “An Accessible City”, the transport component of this package. Initially, the Christchurch City Council developed a “City Plan” which included funding for rapid transit and substantial inner city bus improvements, but these aspects were dumped when the government of the day took the councils City Plan and mashed it up into their own version. This is a shame, because it could have helped foment greater expenditure on public transport from local and central government, filling the gap that was missing from Christchurch’s transport planning, and paving the way for mode shift, although there is a caveat in that they had to get it right, which isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Nevertheless, it never happened, and since then no other major investments have occurred, the two major public transport initiatives being the new hub-and-spoke model network (which was literally just shifting the deck chairs around rather then new investment), and a bus interchange in the city that replaced the one that was demolished. No increases in bus priority (except a little on Manchester Street), no money for more frequent bus services, no rapid transit, nothing.

So shouldn’t the government commit more money to spending on public transport in Christchurch? Surely the city deserves its fair share?

I agree that the government should be tipping just as much money into Christchurch to make public transport more effective and user friendly so that more people will use it. It’s simply not really even an option, not with the city adding 100,000 people over the next decade. It’s at this point that I need to illustrate that the responsibility doesn’t just sit with central government; both Auckland and Wellington councils have tipped in vast sums of money into their respective packages (well, Wellington still needs to decide on that, but the various councils seem to agree on things there). Basically, the government is willing to get on board if local councils are willing to up there spend. In fact, the government offered $100 million to get commuter rail going between Rolleston and Christchurch, but local councils haven’t been enthusiastic. Yes, that’s right. The funding is basically just sitting there until Christchurch (essentially ECan) submit a proposal for it, which they haven’t done. In the meantime, councils in Waikato have got their act together and now have a Hamilton to Auckland trains service on the way. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so to speak.

An Accessible City 2.0?

Greater Christchurch’s Joint Public Transport Committee recently approved the new Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan, which outlined a vastly improved bus network, with more frequent routes and cross-town services, as well as the first moves towards a rapid transit network. This is great, but it requires a lot more funding than present to become a reality, and that is not guaranteed because greater Christchurch’s councils don’t have a great history of getting there act together on transport. Once they even agree to that, which might require some cuts from the sharp “knife of fiscal concern”, only then can the government consider its support for the increased costs. It’s not just more money that is needed here, though. A wholesale rethink of how people 10 to 30 years from now will get around greater Christchurch is needed.

Transport is not yet a major political issue in Christchurch, although it is an emerging one, and is a ticking time bomb of sorts with forecast population and car growth. The problem is that local politicians don’t really seem to see it as a thing to be proactive about, and instead deal with issues as they emerge (i.e. act re-actively), and do so on the fly with as little money as possible, which means the changes that really need to happen don’t end up happening (as we see with the motorways, which actually help embed car dependency without mitigation, and make traffic worse).

Christchurch had a really good chance after 2011 to reinvent itself, do what Auckland has done in a shorter space of time, and more definitive put together a balanced, strategic approach to transport in the city that was sustainable. An Accessible City had some good aspects, but was overall a strategic failure, in my view. There is a huge gap in the city’s transport strategy, and more investment will be needed to solve the problems that are being created through a lack of a holistic, strategic approach. An Accessible City 2.0, or Let’s Get Chch Going, or whatever you want to call it, would be a great idea to get ahead of the curve and come up with brave, effective ideas that work together to truly increase accessibility in the city (like my affordable, comparatively easy to implement proposal for a rapid transit start-up). Because, whatever is being done now, just isn’t working, and the city will fall further and further behind as other cities get their share of grease.