It is good to see Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker making a case for a more sophisticated public transport system (The Press 26 Dec 2009) . He is a keen advocate of light rail. Anyone who has read previous postings on my webblog NZ in Tranzit will realise I am extremely dubious about Christchurch have the metropolitan population density and sympathetic footprint necessary to carry light rail. However, I am very aware of the huge infrastructure costs being met for rail and busway corridors in Auckland, and to a lesser extent Wellington, and believe Christchurch is long overdue to receive funding at least remotely comparable. This will not happen without an identified long term strategy and without specific projects to fund. I think any possibility to get the city moving towards a better "mass rapid transit" strategy should be open to debate.
A good starting point is to gain some perspective is looking at comparable cities. We have a small and low density population, nationally and locally, a very small taxpayer/ratepayer base "per rail kilometre" (so to speak) as compared to Switzerland, Austria or Germany for instance. This greatly inhibits the amount we can comfortably draw upon. It also means congestion, roading, is not really very congested by world standards and parking very cheap or free, allowing for one of the highest car ownership rates in the world.
Looking at countries and cities that I believe best match Christchurch, across the last two years, I have identified 118 cities in Canada, Australia, NZ and USA, with between 300,000 and 1 million metropolitan [US census definition - easy commuting distance] populations. It should be noted that, outside a handfull of the very largest cities, investment, service quality (spread of hours, routes, frequency) patronage in public transport in the USA is among the lowest in the world per capita, and suffering further setbacks in the current recession. Bob Parker's article refers to transit authorities in USA referring to buses as "social transport" (for the poor, disabled) a view far less pronounced in European, Asian or indeed Commonwealth countries., such as Australia, Canada or New Zealand. A recent cross border survey revealed even tertiary student use/attitude/frequency of use differs between Canada and the USA.
Precedent for light rail in cities so small as Christchurch is not great - indeed, a couple of heritage trams aside, not one city of the 65 cities below 500,000 in metropolitan population in these four countries operates a light rail system. We would definitely being going out on a limb, the more so as quite a few cities, in Canada at least, appear to studied and rejected this option as too expensive. I am also completely unable to find any light rail line of any length (let alone a network) built or planned for "tens of millions" - the phrase bandied about in the Press article.
Of 118 cities in Canada, Australia, NZ or USA (CANZUS) between 300,000 and a million only one city, Tacoma USA, operates a very short city section section of light rail, and three others - Kitchener, CA; Gold Coast Aus, and Honolulu USA - have committed to building a (single) light rail corridor.
The smallest CANZUS city committed to building a light rail system is Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. This is actually three adjoining cities (much to that city's chagrin the planners could not afford to extent the light rail to the third city, Cambridge) roughly in line, with a total area population of 451.225 (2006) and whose bus system currently carries 14.4 million passengers a year (compare Christchurch 17.1 million passengers (2008). I am unable to find the length of the proposed length of their single corridor line but it appears less than 20 km and the budget is $790 million. The Waterloo Region is one of the fastest growing in Canada and population is expected to rise to 750,000 with 25 years (the Greater Christchurch population is set to grow from 414,000 to 501,000 by 2026).
Tacoma, Washington, a small city within and forty five minutes south of Seattle. Typical of many north American metropolitan areas, city population (the area administered by the City Council) can be misleading - it would be easy to think of Tacoma is much smaller than Christchurch, a city according to the US census department (2009) of only 203,000 residents. However Tacoma is the county seat of Pierce County, only a tenth the land area of Canterbury but, according to the County's Annual Report of 2008, home to 805,000 people. Pierce Transit which is the public authority operating the buses and light rail system - and also contracts to Seattle based Sounds Transit to supply commuter services to Seattle 51km away - describes its system as serving over 600,000 residents. It is a very impressive up-front system, but refelecting lower US patronage, last year still only carried 16.3 million passengers (2008). Tacoma is the only city of the entire 118 that is currently actually operating a light rail system (Sounds Transit operates the light rail). It cost $80.4 million to build the 2.25km central city line (a cost factor; though it is current essentially a lightweight streetcar system intention is to have heavier light rail trains using the same lines in the future).
The next of the cities planning a light rail system is already bigger than we will be in 15 years, Gold Coast in Queensland with a rapidly rising population, currently 554,000 population. The city is building a single 13km light rail line, now costing [it keeps rising] $1.8 billion. This includes purchase of 131 properties and some part (eg frontage) of another 111 properties. Currently their bus system carries 17 million passengers a year 2008).
The third city, committed to building light rail (after a huge political battle for and against, spanning several years) is Honolulu in Hawaii, with a metropolitan population of 909,683 (2006). The budget here is $5.6 billion dollars to build a 32 km line between outer residential areas, around the bays and inlets to downtown Honolulu. Part of the huge cost is sections of this will be elevated above the city streets, itself highly controversial. Hawaii receives 6.5 million visitors a year, less than Christchurch with 9 million but with-out of course a big portion of those arriving in cars from other parts of the country and this has no doubt spurred bus use. Honolulu punches way above its weight on public transport patronage, "The Bus", patronage is the fourth highest per capita in the USA, at 72 million passengers a year.