Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thinking outside the circle

Nope, the rabbit hasn't got one foot nailed to the floor, he is just trying to be logical (not his best suit).
When people - local politicians, people writing letters to the paper, local residents in casual conversation - talk of public transport growth in Christchurch the words Rolleston and Rangiora slip easily from their tongue. Lazy thinking flows along the easiest path, which is to transpose the situation in Wellington on to Christchurch. Sure, the outer areas are growing rapidly. Rolleston is one day expected to be 14,000 and the Waimakariri District expects to reach 46,000 by 2016.  For all that, pretty small bickies, no massive urban sprawl. My thinking is that we have to be very careful of not talking this situation up, out of proportion.

By and large Christchurch a fairly compact radial city. One contiguous housing area radiating out from Cathedral Square is home to the vast majority of our population. In contrast, Greater Wellington has almost half of its 410,000 population living up either the Hutt Valley (110,000) or through Porirua and the Kapiti Coast (85,000) - it is a very linear pattern, a vee shape with the Wellington CBD at the apex of the Vee. This sort of footprint is very favourable to rail, because of the distances and numbers involved, and the relatively narrow character of the corridors served. 
If we want to do any transposing, lets get off the train and have a look at the actual landscape we are living in. Let us take the equivalent of Wellington's 50% of the population living furthermost from the centre (up those corridors) and say where does the 50% of greater Christchurch population living furthermost from the centre reside?  Currently we have about 340,000 in the city and 40,000 around it, mainly in the peripheral towns. Hey, that's less than 12%  in the commuter belt beyond the city boundary. The 50% of greater Christchurch residents living furthermost from the centre aren't out amongst the cows, they are mainly found living in the outer suburbs of Christchurch itself. About 38% of our outies are actually inside. It appears (particularly with the focus on the Urban Development Strategy of intensifying central city residential growth) that this ratio will not change significantly as we grow. 

That is to say three out of four of our outermost residents (our Hutt Valley/Kapiti coast equivalent) residing  not across the Waimak, nor in the mystical land beyond Cookie Time, but in the collar of suburbs roughly outside the circle formed by the route of The Orbiter if the circle is carried across to Breezes Road. This includes western areas beyond Church Corner, and North Western areas beyond Greers Road, northern areas beyond QEII Drive, north eastern areas around Parklands, and the hill suburbs from Sumner across to Westmoreland. It will also include the southwest area planned for major residential growth, Henderson and Awatea, And, the other quarter, of course, in Rolleston and Rangiora etc.

Anyone who read my posting "Missing the train in Halifax" will realise Wellington is a rare city in CANZUS demographics in having its own commuter rail network. The argument of course is that it probably doesn't have much choice given its geographic footprint. Metlink commuter trains in Wellington carry 11 million passengers a year from a catchment base of about 220,000 population (adding in Wairarapa towns). Presuming that Rolleston and Rangiora/Kaiapoi reach a combined 50,000 population, still some years away, and - absurdly optimistic - commuter trains were used as heavily as Wellington, this might, just might, generate 2 million trips a year. As most trips are return journeys, or daily commutes this equates to about 40,000 trips a week made by, probably, about 5000 actual individuals.

"Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker has made the return of commuter rail services to Christchurch one of his "most important and determined" goals. Estimates show the move could cost at least $250 million" according to a report in The Press (7 May 2008). Leaving aside the figures which look curiously low beside similar projects elsewhere, this seems rather a lot of money to spend on transporting, optimistically 5,000 people, or about 2.5% of the population by that point in time. And of course it is the other 97.5% people in greater Christchurch that will have to pay, in rates and in their portion of taxes for a system that few will be able to use, though doubtless the rest of NZ may also chip in some tax funding too. Of course, the rail line passes through Belfast, Papanui or Hornby (etc) so there will be a bit of local city patronage, but given the relatively short distances involved in driving to the city, and the ratio of time waste involved in driving or busing to Belfast station, waiting for a train, getting off at a station in town, and catching another bus into the c'mon!! Too many en route stops will anyway nullify the speed value of railing from greater distances.  

The alternative is we could create a fantastic multi-direction rapid transit network to serve the whole city!

Ironically while the Mayor and others may be held hostage to the romance of rail there is a new player on the public transport field, with systems being built in many of the world's largest cities - Lagos, Istanbul, Jakarta, New York, London etc - and carrying in some cities hundreds of thousands of passengers a day. Of even greater relevance is these same systems are being built in dozens of medium and small cities under a million in population. The systems are called busways (Australia) quality bus corridors (UK) or bus rapid transit (North America). In particular they are well suited to low density dispersed populations and areas of single unit sprawl, because they combine most of the advantages of a railway line - a clear run from city to outer suburb - with the advantages of conventional buses - being able to pick up and drop off at multiple points across wide areas once they leave the busway corridor. These systems often employ sections of bus lane on roads but their real success is largely linked to having key sections of their route in entirely segregated corridors, purpose built to by-pass congested areas (or go under or over them). As bus corridors - often landscaped and including adjacent pedestrian and cycleways are relatively narrow, two thirds the average suburban street, the numbers of properties that need to be acquired are relatively few, minimal beside houses consumed in building mall carparks and four lane throughways. Without need for transfers, or (except in very distant locations) park and ride facilities total journey times can be vastly superior to rail over short to medium distances. Until patronage reaches a very high level - which might then sensibly recommend a light rail, an alternative which can be factored into design - labour costs are not markedly different higher; more bus drivers but less subsidiary staff (track maintenance, or the conductors, and  transport police needed for longer units).

For the sorts of sums of money with which Mayor Parker believes he can built a single commuter rail line, five or six busway corridors could be built radiating out from the centre of Christchurch. Non-stop (or limited stop) peak hour buses would serve the outer suburbs, whilst extended services, outside these times, and/or services to intermediate locations along the corridor, would be met by a branded service, a la Metrostar or The Orbiter offering 10 or 15 minute services throughout normal operating hours. This system would allow peak hour services to get to outer suburbs, non-stop corridors, accessing Northlands, and Bower Bridge, Hoon Hay Road and Canterbury University etc in less than ten minutes - half the peak hour crawl time -  before fanning out to serve each locality at the top of the trunk.

I have been trying to raise the concept of Busways with the Mayor, Councillors, Ecan since 2003. These systems are not some weird aberration (though dressing as a rabbit might be!), they are mainstream trends, and major investments being made by many cities of comparable size and demographics to Christchurch, as well as those much bigger, after weighing up the options which also typically include rail.  Alas, above the rattle and roar of fantasy trains no voice can be heard. Everybody in this town seems to have a one track mind!

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