Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Looking for the Corridors of Power - brrrmm, bbrrmm

The successful development and growth of public transport, as it is evolving around the world, seems very tied to corridors and land use. All over the world, regardless of whether the mode is light rail or quality bus systems, the big push seems to be towards getting public transport as much exclusive corridor space as possible. This means taking buses, trams or larger light vehicles out of the mixed traffic situation as far as possible, and giving them much of the "clear run" advantages that previously only commuter railway enjoyed.(check out  http://www.humantransit.org/ for a good discussion going on this and related topics) 

In this respect the advocacy of light rail by Mayor Bob Parker is fairly typical of public thinking, which always lags behind technological changes. The core investment is not the mode but the corridor and Christchurch does not do corridors well. It fact it barely does corridors at all! It has taken an inordinately long time to develop part-time, part of road length only, bus lanes, so far on a single alignment - Main North Road & Papanui Road, with bus laning of two more routes in development. Everything else after that up in the air, due to the National Party Government cutting funding. The slow progress of buses leaving the city, up Victoria Street (not laned) and again through the sticking point of the Papanui/Harewood junction and Northlands, takes much of the sting out this solution. Sitting on a recent peak hour bus, loving the sections that were bus laned, I couldn't help thinking with a segregated busway straight up through St Albans, passengers for outer suburbs would have been at Northlands before the bus I was on even got to Merivale. Papanui Road will always be a key arterial corridor and bus lanes are great advantage, even in limited form (bus drivers I have spoken to certainly enjoy them) but I would hate to think this the sum total of Christchurch's strategy to address peak hour congestion, and/or carrying of large numbers of passengers in the event of oil prices going through the roof.
I started advocating a bus corridor, directly from Northlands to Edgeware back in 2002, a fairly modest affair linking feeder streets by attractive green boulevards [with a bus, cycle & pedestrian access only].One that would require minimum purchase of property but wack a huge ten minutes (x 300,000 trips plus a year) or more off commuter journeys from northern areas, as well as providing quality expansion capacity way beyond the potential of bus laned roads. During the early years of this century I watched the Labour Government pump hundreds of millions into public transport infrastructure in Auckland and Wellington. This included all or part of Auckland's new station Britomart, the Northern Busway (about $200 million tax payer dollars each) the Central Connector Busway and, of course double tracking and upgrading Auckland Commuter rail ($600 million - $128 million alone spent just on the New Lynn Bus-Rail exchange). All this was funding towards the rapid transit strategies evolved by Auckland in 1999 - four rail corridors, two busways. Wellington with its existing rapid transit corridors - four commuter rail lines - identified extending and upgrading commuter rail lines and only got a $500 million contribution towards a general upgrade of rail, and $70 million to expand the Kapiti Line to Waikanae and $45 million for a new station at Raumati. Oops, almost forgot, and most of the $31 million to upgrade the carriages and stations on the Wairarapa Line. Everybody over 40 know that capitalism goes in boom and bust, and political cycles shift left lane, right lane, with regularity. I kept thinking (a) surely this can't last (b) where is Christchurch? Almost the same population as Wellington but not getting a brass razoo for infrastructure. How does even a sympathetic government or its transit agency fund projects that don't exist?

I can tell you now (with loony gaze) there is no profit in being a prophet! Unless you like crying in the wilderness. Just a lot of hard work with little response to nourish the soul. Nothing ever penetrated the hide of the body politic, the city lacking any analyse or competent research into what was realistic and appropriate, appeared to undertake no professional studies what other cities overseas of comparable demographics and public transport investment were doing. Anything that was done was rail orientated - a study of the potential of commuter rail twice, not an early starter - obviously looking at the size and dispersement pattern of the population (my consultancy fee - a couple of dollars will do!) - and the building and expansion of a Heritage Tram system, totally clumsy and unusuable for any local purpose; the advocacy by various elected politicians of light rail.
Public opinion looks to Melbourne trams or attractive German light rail systems - oblivious to the times ten population base that fills or finances these expensive systems. Indeed, according to the rough rabbit calculator, if the total land area of the South Island had the equivalent density to that in Germany Te Wai Pounamu would have 60 million population!!  A perverse nature that is attracted to hard slog, long term projects of little obvious reward led me to check out for myself, rail and light rail systems and plans in small cities under 500,000 (later extended to under 1 million) in countries that shared similar demographics - Canada, Australia, NZ and USA. Only one city under 500,000 metropolitan population, of 58 "stand-alone" cities identified - the Kitchener-Waterloo region in Canada has decided to build a light rail system (current transit patronage well below Christchurch at 13 million trips a year). The metropolitan population here 450,000 but expected to grow to 750,000 in the time Christchurch will still not have achieved 500,000.  And only one city out of 118 under 1 million metropolitan population across all four countries (CANZUS) operates its own unique full commuter rail system - Wellington, NZ. (A few such as Wollongong, Newcastle, Tacoma, Bridgeport etc get back flow benefit from being on regional commuter lines to Seattle, Sydney, New York etc). But what is happening is in some of these small cities is the building of segregated corridors - mainly in the larger cities beyond the scope of my 'scope, most notably and successfully Ottawa and Brisbane - but also in some of the medium size Canadian cities, arguably the best match to New Zealand. More of these anon!

Photo Building the Central Connector Busway in Auckland - $46 million to give buses quick access in and out of the city. Government transport agencies gave $20 million and Canterbury residents presumably chipped in about $2.4 million of that amount.  Source Wikipedia Commons

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