Saturday, November 23, 2013

Wellington Transport Spine Study - Bus rapid transit assessed as a better option than upgrading bus priority or building light rail

Jarrett Walker - Human Transit blog - must have leaned out of the conference room 
window to capture such a iconic photograph of Wellington buses! Here threading along 
Manners Street, a bus only section of Wellington CBD city's narrow streets.

A study by international engineering and transport consultants AECOM has identified a Bus Rapid Transit system from Wellington Railway Station to Newtown, and to Kilbirnie, as the most effective mode of meeting expected growth in Wellington public transport use on this primary transport spine.

The relative costs were Bus Priority upgrade $59 million; Bus Rapid Transit $207 million (both systems direct to either Newtown or Kilbirnie) and Light Rail $989 million, to Newtown only (with feeder buses to Kilbirnie etc.)*

A pamphlet outlining the study finding (or indeed the whole report)  is available to read here, and has inevitably produced a lot of debate and perhaps also some justified criticism.  

Almost 9000 passengers per hour in peak hours are expected to come off trains heading into Wellington central city and work and study zones beyond by 2031 (note; in 18 years time).

This presumes that Wellington rail commuting will continue grow significantly, something I don't think can be automatically assumed given Wellington is already far ahead of many, much, much larger cities, in the proportion of commuters using public transport to commute to work.  Wellington may be prove to be a "mature system", unlikely to grow a higher percentage of commuter use, and any growth pegged to slower population growth. 

Among the critics of the study finding have been retired engineer Kerry Wood, whose analysis of Bus Rapid Transit in the built-up areas of Wellington suggests it is unworkable on a logistic level. I am no fan of light rail (on cost factor/even distribution of quality transport dollar factor, mainly) or of seeing millions more of Canterbury transport dollars sent forth to other centres, but Wood certainly makes a very intelligent and sensible case.  

A bus operator, Mana Coachlines (also operating Newlands Transport, both part owned by Scots transport entrepreneur Brian Souter) , has publicly challenged the way that the Bus Rapid Transit operation is distinguished from Bus Priority. 

It is hard to interpret either motive or logic of the latter critique, because bus rapid transit is given exclusive centre lane road space over much of its passage and its own bus corridor in a new (duplicated) Mt Victoria tunnel, reflecting the "think rail;build bus" status benchmark of  properly constructed BRT. In contrast the bus priority only option assessed was pretty much "more of the same" using the existing Hataitai bus tunnel [originally built for trams in 1905] 

Mana seemed to be implying that use of the a new Mt  Victoria tunnel gave BRT systems "unfair" advantage over bus priority using the Hataitai bus tunnel. Yes. It probably does. Isn't that the very point?

My late grandmother used to have a leather plaque on her wall reading "Never put your wishbone where your backbone ought to be".  As applied to the Wellington transport spine concept it is a rather useful saying!!  

However wishbones may win all the same. A factor here is that every generation wants to redefine the world on its own terms. The generations rise to spiritual potency, centre stage and political leadership as they approach their middle 30s and early 40s and tend to set the dynamic coming ethos and style of their era, of the next decade anyway. The rise of the green public servant may be influential.

Wellington for all its small size has the compressed downtown energy of much larger cities and I have a suspicion that the influence of green, urbanist thinking, finding it hard to ride a bike in Wellington's hilly terrain, maybe extra likely to push through the light rail option, irrespective of the logic or cost-benefit analysis of any such study ! People don't always vote on money factors alone, and light rail is a stylish image, if absurdly expensive.

Several points interest to me in this study. Firstly it reveals further evidence of the growing trend in world public transport to discriminate between types of bus system in planning. It seems to be saying that the days of "good old bus" (chug a lug), shove it on a street and it goes anywhere, don't worry about how long it takes, etc, are passing. Likewise (low status, only partly effective) on-street bus lanes are best value option, if you are trying to build a vital city. We moving into an era of more discriminate targeted use of transit technology, and multiple bus use concepts are now in interplay.

South America has led the way in creating bus rapid transit - "Think rail; build bus" - a system of essentially making bus routes like railway lines, spiritually and often practically, separated from other traffic. A minor subsection of this larger mode - painted bus lanes on city streets where other options do not exist (first done in Chicago in the 1940s)  - has lately been more or less hi-jacked by some cities that appear to be mostly trying to avoid major investment in public transport, and  pumped up with a great deal of huff and puff as "Bus Rapid Transit" even when without any major infrastructure support.

The Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) is trying to counteract this dilution of a potent concept for transforming cities by creating industry standards for bus rapid transit systems.

Recently it even created a set of Gold, Silver, Bronze grading for Bus Rapid Transit - reported fairly simply in this Trinidad newspaper.

The other thing that goes through my mind is "here we go again". While our new leaders in Christchurch debate how to spend $40 million across 6 bus transfer stations, five more bus lane corridors etc (lets forget about exclusive bus corridors, bus rapid transit etc)-  while we piddle around on such matters - Wellington dismisses the bus priority option identified by AECOM on this corridor (as it surely will) and debates projects costing between (roughly) $300 million and $1200 million!

*Newspaper reports talk of light rail at $1.2 billion so there may be some subsequent adjustment upwards of all these figures that I am missing

Previous NZ in Tranzit blog postings on  public transport expenditure in Wellington

Dom-Post dismisses light rail in Wellington

Take the money and run