Enhancing Wellington Central City Access through LGWM and Light Rail

In a previous post I wrote about the Wellington light rail proposal that is rumoured to be part of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) package, principally around high level justifications for light rail and a deeper discussion on how it might be implemented.

I’ve retrospectively decided that that post is part one in a series of three. The second part, below, will focus on how the LGWM package  (and by extension light rail) is an opportunity to rethink how access to Wellington’s central city is enhanced. Note: for this post I’m just going to say “light rail”. That sounds a bit presumptuous, but if you are really troubled by it then you can replace it in your head with “rapid transit”. Your call.

Despite the generally popular view that Wellington is a rather liberal and progressive city, with high rates of public transport use, it surprises me how much of a car city it actually is. In fact, many of the inner city streets are jammed with cars, and the waterfront is sectioned off from the city by a multi-lane thoroughfare that is incredibly troublesome to cross for pedestrians.

As I explained in the previous post, it is generally considered that there are two main ways the light rail route could traverse the central city and get to Newtown. I’m not particularly bothered at this stage which one I prefer (perhaps that is the nest post in this vaguely ongoing series) but there are a couple of things I think are necessary to consider:

  • To what extent are existing bus routes to be replaced by light rail?
  • How can light rail enhance bus access to the central city as well?
  • Can we take the opportunity to rethink car access to the city and better connect different precincts for pedestrians and cyclists?

Replacing existing bus routes

When I talk about existing bus routes and how they might be replaced, I’m alluding to the current issues with bus congestion; both in terms of overloaded buses and too many buses being present on key routers. Buses alone are struggling to deal with patronage on a number of bus routes at key times, particularly on the busy and built-up section between the central city and Newtown. This is why this is considered a key corridor and why it is being considered for light rail.

Light rail is also good for increasing capacity between the central city and Newtown, as well as the route along the Golden Mile, which is heavily congested at peak times. The map below from my previous post roughly shows the two preferred routes I’ve seen talked about in various studies and the forum of pubic opinion.

wellington lr
Any combination of these lines could be used to form one enhanced bus route and a dedicated light rail/rapid transit route. Red line = via Mount Victoria; Blue line = via Mount Cook; Black line = “Golden Mile” route; Grey line = “Waterfront” route.

An important concept I’d like to see implemented is one route focused on light rail, with fewer stops and higher operating speeds, and one on buses, also with fewer stops and greater bus priority than present. So in essence, I’d argue for two routes; one bus, the other light rail.

Enhancing bus access

Light rail will have a very specific purpose as a rapid transit route, perhaps kind of like the existing commuter rail system to the north, though shorter. Its existence will free up capacity on the road for buses traversing the city centre, and it will also ease congestion and allow for overall growth in public transport use. Some buses which operate into the city presently will be able to link with the light rail at key points such as Newtown and the Wellington railway station where people can transfer, while others will continue to traverse the city, operating at greater frequencies. In effect, the light rail will unlock the true potential of the much maligned new bus network. Transfers will work much better than present due to light rail’s greater capacity and rapid transit aspects (such as right of way etc). I see the Wellington light rail as a kind of hybrid of the Auckland City Rail Link and Dominion Rd light rail projects for the southern city.

Rethinking car access into the central city

Enhancing the transport network in this way begs the question of whether Wellington needs to maintain excessive accessibility for cars. Whatever route is chosen for light rail, the quays along the Wellington waterfront need to be re-purposed from a quasi-motorway into a multi-modal corridor, that enhances access between the city and the sea. That’s a much better use of the the land than current, which is effectively a six lane traffic sewer, and will serve to enhance the central city’s position as a destination rather than prioritise large tracts of valuable land for moving metal boxes.

Additionally, as part of the light rail/bus dual route proposal, I would suggest that the Golden Mile be largely pedestrianised (with dedicated bus lanes) and the one way streets be removed altogether. This might sound radical but check out this plan for Auckland, and this post about understanding how cities actually work. I won’t bother repeating points made, but I will say that in general people tend to prioritise car accessibility to the detriment of the destination.


LGWM and light rail present an opportunity to greatly rethink how people are moved through and within Wellington’s central city, while still enhancing overall access. It amazes me how much of a traffic sewer central city streets become at rush hour, and generally are throughout the day in some places. The waterfront roads are an eyesore, unnecessary and a waste of space. LGWM can provide a package of enhanced accessibility for Wellington, while making the central city a truly world-class space. It can enhance existing bus services and introduce light rail. IF we want it to.

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