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.


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).

Trackless tram in China

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.

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