Posted by: Gregory | April 9, 2013

It’s Your Transport

Greater Wellington and Metlink are inviting passengers and potential passengers to get involved with their transport, an idea which I heartily agree with. The full details are at Metlink, but here’s the short story. They’re looking for artwork that can be used in promotions and as wraps for the exterior of buses and trains, and on the interior of the ferries. The work should describe what public transport means to people, whether it be the journey, the destination or the stops and stations themselves.

I believe that public involvement is an important part of public transportation. Not just for the obvious patronage aspects, but also for a sense of ownership of a system. This promotion gives residents a chance to highlight the positive aspects of the network in a very public way. I’m looking forward to seeing what Wellington’s creative minds come up with.

The entry period is already open and submissions are welcome until 5pm on Friday, May 3, 2013.

Posted by: Gregory | January 22, 2013

Why passenger transport is so important

I am posting this on behalf of Kerry Wood, who describes himself as a retired engineer with an interest in transport and sustainability.

The quality of peak-hour travel by car tends to equal that of public transport.

This simple observation is a formal statement of the ‘Downs-Thompson effect’, a useful way to think about traffic and ‘car dependence’.

London’s M4 motorway opened on a Saturday in 1965 and came to a standstill on Monday morning. It did not relieve congestion on the parallel Cromwell Road. The same thing had happened when the Cromwell Road Extension opened 30 years earlier.

Downs-Thompson effects don’t always come as quickly as this, but come they will. They usually wipe out half or all the expected benefits within three to five years. Other names for the process are induced traffic or triple convergence: existing trips converging from other times of day, other routes and other modes.

  • Another time of day may be as simple as leaving home a few minutes later, or not waiting so long for homeward traffic to ease off. The result is a shorter and more intense traffic peak.
  • Another route may be a switch from back-streets to the new highway, or to another destination. It may be a more distant workplace or shopping centre, or a new home more remote from the same destination.
  • For a new mode, the most common change is to using the car, or using it more often.

While there is real traffic growth, most growth is existing trips filling up the new road space. Triple convergence is a drag on the economy, delaying everybody but supporting only car and petrol sales.

Some drivers will always use their car but others actively explore their options. As triple convergence progressively slows traffic they may try the bus again, but find it worse than ever.

  • Delays in re-entering a fast-moving traffic stream on leaving a stop.
  • Consistently missing traffic signals set to give motor traffic a ‘green wave’.
  • A more indirect route to pick up passengers, such as bypassing a flyover.
  • Degraded access because a busy road is hard to cross and stops become inaccessible.

If there is a parallel rail service the ‘explorers’ will also try the train, but may find it is also worse. Operator responses to lost traffic may include higher fares or less frequent services. Older trains may have been neglected and become unreliable. By the time road traffic stabilizes—at the same overall speed as travel by train—the train service may itself be degraded. Everybody is worse off, unless subsidies have maintained standards.

The pressure eventually builds up and something is done. Suppose that this time the railway is chosen: greater capacity on faster, more comfortable and more reliable trains. Now some explorers find the train suits them best, and some non-explorer friends may also be convinced. As more drivers take the train, road traffic speeds up until the quality of peak hour travel by car again equals that of public transport.

In reality there is no simple either-or here. Traffic surveys in London have shown that about 15% of cars in a morning peak are missing the next day, but the total number is much less variable. Train users often take the car sometimes, just as drivers sometimes take the train. A good central area cycle-hire scheme may remove some of the reasons for taking the car. Other options include car-sharing, cycling, school buses and tele-working.

Trucks and diehard car-users do not need more road capacity: there is already space for them. The question is how to keep it clear for those who need it.

The standard solution is queuing: the most inefficient method there is. Who was it described roads as the last refuge of Stalinism? Road users like to believe they have paid for congestion-free travel, but they are not stuck in traffic: they are traffic. Traffic behaves the way it does because users can game the system; what is the economic value of an extra two minutes in bed?

Nothing can be done while road users make trips having external costs greater than the internal benefits. Fixing it needs not RoNS but road pricing: far cheaper, far more effective but politically unpopular. In Britain, the Royal Automobile Club now supports road pricing.

What can be done to introduce it here?

Posted by: Gregory | December 5, 2012

Reactivating a bus stop

Bus stop 7918 was closed during the construction of the Countdown store in Newtown. I don’t remember how long it was down for, but it was a significant length of time. With the store opening today, I’d asked Metlink when the stop would be reopening. I think we were both surprised by the answer: Also today.

Encouraged by this, I went down to the stop this morning and caught the next bus coming along. The driver insisted that the stop wasn’t open yet. The paint is down and the sign is up, but the bus stop isn’t really a bus stop. She let us on anyway.

A couple questions fall out of this instantly:

  • Why wasn’t Metlink advertising the reopening of the bus stop?
  • Why didn’t Metlink have forehand knowledge that the bus stop was reopening?
  • Why is there different information coming from Metlink and Go Wellington?
  • How are passengers supposed to know what is or isn’t a bus stop if all the markings are there?

This highlights a common failure for Wellington’s public transportation system: communication. Metlink doesn’t handle public communication overly well, which is also hindered by the disconnect between Metlink and the operators. I shouldn’t have to ask when a stop is opening. Everyone should know the details well in advance. We need to do better than this.

Posted by: Gregory | November 4, 2012

Frequent Airport Flyer

I first noticed the news of the changes to the Airport Flyer in an article that appeared in the DomPost. The article is very matter-of-fact – quite refreshing compared to the quote-laden GWRC and NZ Bus media releases. Beginning Jan 14, 2013, there will be a 10-minute frequency between the airport and the Wellington Railway Station as well as a 20-minute frequency between the airport and Hutt city centre. Direct service to Upper Hutt will be replaced by a connection with route 110 from Queensgate.

Achieving a high frequency service takes some trade-offs. In order to have enough buses, service to Upper Hutt will be sacrificed, as well as travel through the Rongotai Retail Park. The media release indicates that the bus will take Cobham Drive to the airport instead of Moa Point Road. This implies that Kilbirnie will be bypassed, but fails to state this clearly. This is my expectation for the route after January 14:

Route from Hataitai to Airport via SH1

Using route 30 as a model, we can expect the travel time from Courtenay Place to the airport to be approximately 13 minutes, making a total travel time from the railway station 25 minutes, down from 30 minutes currently seen at peak hour. It’s still longer travel time than in a taxi, but also much cheaper. Frequency is key, though. Every 10 minutes means that no matter when you’re ready to go, you’ll be there within 35 minutes.

Although the route is more direct, dropping Kilbirnie from the Airport Flyer route would be a disappointing shift, especially in light of the Wellington City Bus Review. The network is being redesigned with the idea that making connections will allow for more frequent services than our current direct-service model. As a core route, the Airport Flyer should be targeting the major connection points. Kilbirnie is a hub for the east and south-east  Although a direct route along SH1 may be faster for city passengers, a stop at Kilbirnie allows for much better connectivity. For the cost of around 2 minutes, I would rather see this:

Hataitai to airport via Kilbirnie and SH1

Access through Rongotai and to the retail park will be picked up by extending route 14. Normally, the 14 terminates at Kilbirnie, so an extension to the service is logistically easy. Timetables for the Airport Flyer indicate that it’s only a 2 minute extension to go as far as the retail park. Personally, I find that hard to believe, so I hope that Go Wellington factors in some extra time for its headway calculation. Although the 14 has several partial runs, the full route is run at half-hour intervals. This is less frequently than the current Airport Flyer, but probably adequate for the purpose. More importantly, passengers to Rongotai are treated to normal city bus fares instead of paying the much higher price of the airport service.

Overall, I think this is good news for the city. A high-frequency service through the city centre and to the parliament precinct should put bus service on near-equal footing with taxi services for business and tourist trips. The free WiFi on board is icing on the cake. I had initially expected that longer travel times for the 14 might lead to an adjustment of either the frequency or the staffing. Having looked at the current schedules, I think my fears are baseless. It appears that the extra few minutes of travel won’t substantially affect the running of the route. It appears to be a net win for Wellington.

Posted by: Gregory | October 16, 2012

Transport and Urban Design on Radio New Zealand

I was recently sent a link to an excerpt from Radio NZ of an interview with David Engwicht, as he was in town for the Safety 2012 World Conference. I listened through the interview, especially the discussion of the barriers along Willis St, and found myself impressed with his approach. While searching Radio NZ for the summary page, I stumbled upon an interview from 2009. There was some overlap between the two interviews, but the older interview is longer and contains more back-story. It’s worth listening to both, but expect some moments of déjà vu.

Eventually, I found the show notes for the newer interview and met with a pleasant surprise. Just ahead of Engwicht on the programme was an interview with Madeline Brozen, talking about parklets and the concept of complete streets. I was thrilled to see that Radio NZ exploring the relationship between transport planning and urban design. It was a full hour of great ideas.

Posted by: paula58 | September 5, 2012

When does street art encourage walking?

“Placemaking” is the term now commonly used to describe making the public spaces between buildings attractive.  Placemaking is now a central concept in encouraging walking.  Improve places and more people will walk in them.  Improve the overall walking environment and experience, and more people will choose that mode of transport.

 Which seems simple, but I’ve been struggling to work out when street art – including elements of council urban design, and also illegal/informal art like graffiti, guerrilla gardening and guerrilla knitting – contributes to placemaking.  

My conclusion is that street art – formal or informal – should be welcomed if it has one or more of the following characteristics. 

It helps makes a space into a place.  A space isn’t a place if it is featureless.  If you can’t easily describe it to someone else (“the one with the cabbage trees and piles of rocks above the little waterfall”) it isn’t a place. It’s a space waiting for transformation.

It makes the place feel more welcoming to everyone.  Some public art and urban design just makes spaces feel formal, elitist, cold, intimidating, uncomfortable, hard to cross.  Some urban design makes spaces feel suitable only for certain groups or uses, and makes those users feel they can exclude others.  Informal street art can send a “this is our territory” message or make an area feel unsafe. 

It keeps you there longer.  The walker should want to detour to look at the art, stay and play with it, pause and think about it – not just walk through the space to somewhere else. 

It adds something positive to the experience.  More of the same is boring.  And nasty is nasty.  Good street art adds a new area of interest, or makes you look at a feature previously ignored.  It makes you smile, not seethe. 

It helps transform the negative to the positive.  In Isaac Corbal’s work a pile of building rubble or an ugly puddle becomes a theatre for quirky tiny concrete figures.  Mark Jenkins transformed the effect of old plastic bags trapped in trees by providing a packing tape giraffe to eat them. 

It gives the opportunity for new activities.  The art might be designed for these activities (chess sets, pianos, seats), or be able to be adapted to another use (e.g. sculptures kids can climb or walls people can rest on).  

It helps connect us to the past.  Street art can draw attention to the history of a place, or reference elements of the past.  It can preserve pieces of the past (bits of old buildings, remaining native vegetation) that might otherwise be lost. 

It helps connect us to what is already there.  Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures use leaves, twigs, snow, rocks, dirt, ice that are already there, and transforms them temporarily into art.  

It makes you think.  About the place, about the world, about colour…

Posted by: Gregory | August 24, 2012

Smarter transport, now on video

Generation Zero continues to push the message of smarter transport with this short video. I’m continually impressed with the work they are doing and with their unrelenting energy.

Submissions on the draft Regional Land Transport Programme close at 5pm on Friday 4 May. Submisions can be made at

Here are some points to include in your submission:

1. The Wellington Regional Land Transport Strategy is the bid from the region’s local authorities and the New Zealand Transport Agency, coordinated by the Greater Wellington Regional Council, for funding from the National Land Transport Fund for transport activities over the next three years.

2. All projects put forward by a City/district council must also be in that council’s long-term plan, so if you’re submitting for or against a project or proposing a new one, you need to do that with respect to both the local plan and the regional programme.

3. This is the only opportunity to submit on whether NZTA should be undertaking the proposed projects or not – NZTA-run consultations (such as on the Basin Reserve) assume that its proposed projects will be built.

4. The proposed activities are divided into those that are:

  • committed (approved projects not yet completed)
  • non-prioritised (essentially local road maintenance and renewals, and support of existing public transport services)
  • first priority (public transport and state highway maintenance and renewals)
  • second priority (projects costing less than $5m, and planning for large projects)
  • third priority (projects over $5m).

5. Of the total expenditure of $1359.75m, $530.69 (40%) is on the 13 large third-priority projects, so they’re worth looking at in some detail (Table 4, p25). Each project is ranked High, Medium or Low according to whether it

  • is the right thing to do, in terms of the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport Funding 2012-22 (strategic fit)
  • does it in the right way (effectiveness)
  • is at the right time and price (economic efficiency).

6. Of the $530.69m, nearly all is on projects rated High against strategic fit and effectiveness, but 83% ($442.57m) is on projects rated Low against economic efficiency, i.e. ones that NZTA says are inefficient, at the wrong time and price. The relevant projects are the three Roads of National Significance (RoNS) projects in the RLTP – Basin Reserve flyover, Mackays to Peka Peka expressway, Ngauranga to Aotea Quay Active Transport Management System – reflecting their very poor benefit/cost ratios. When times are hard, it’s pretty surprising that NZTA and Greater Wellington are proposing spending nearly half a billion dollars on inefficient projects. That’s surely the sort of wasteful expenditure that should be axed, not promoted.

7. Added to that, projects in the RLTP are supposed to meet the outcomes in the Regional Land Transport Strategy (RLTS), which are:

  • increased peak-period public transport mode share
  • increased mode share for pedestrians and cyclists
  • reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • reduced severe road congestion
  • improved regional road safety
  • improved land use and integration
  • improved regional freight efficiency
  • improved links to the north of the region.

NZTA has admitted that Transmission Gully will fail to meet at least the first three of these, and it’s highly unlikely that other RoNS projects will improve on that, so the RLTP is setting the RLTS up to fail on these significant items.

8. The RLTP also lists other significant activities expected to commence within 10 years (Table 5, p26), and $2,477.90m out of the proposed $2,565.15m (97%) is on RoNS and associated projects.

9. But the RLTP is not all bad. It includes some significant sustainable transport projects, such as the Ngauranga-Petone shared walkway/cycleway alongside SH2 and the Hutt Valley railway, part of the Great Harbour Way, and integrated electronic ticketing.

10. However, it does not include projects that would make a sustainable difference, such as:

  • double-tracking the North Island Main Trunk railway between Pukerua Bay and Paekakariki
  • implementing any recommendations that GW/NZTA/WCC High-Quality Public Transport Spine Study will make about improvements between Wellington Station and Newtown
  • implementing any recommendations that the Wellington City Bus Review will make
  • supporting the Capital Connection
  • electrifying the railway to Otaki
  • providing safe pedestrian and cyclist crossings of SH2 at Petone (destroyed by the Dowse to Petone project) and SH1 at Cobham Drive (exacerbated by the ASB Sports Centre).

11. Submissions on the RLTP close on Friday 4 May, and the region’s Mayors and GWRC will consider it. It’s worth asking if they support improving the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the region, or whether they support spending billions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars that will fail to achieve the outcomes that they are committed to, and make us all worse off.

Posted by: Gregory | March 16, 2012

Metlink News

The newest issue of Metlink News is out. There are bits on Matangi deployment, the Wellington Bus Review, integrated ticketing, an upcoming fare-structures consultation and more.

I’m interested in getting feedback on the ticketing aspects, since they will have wide-reaching effects and soon be consulted on. It’s easy to say that we all want fares to be lower, but there is also the issue of cost recovery. What’s more important? Why? Let’s start up a discussion and have a few ideas on the table before consultation time.

Posted by: Gregory | March 12, 2012

Wellington Bus Review

This has been cross-posted to Wellingtonista.

Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently consulting on the Wellington City Bus Review. This is mandated by the Regional Public Transport Plan, which requires a review of transport services at least once every five years. The current shape of the network has existed for decades and the city has changed dramatically in that time. For this review, GWRC has chosen to work with MRCagney to produce a recommendation, which brought Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, into our region.

Although the public transport network works, it’s susceptible to reliability problems. Wellington City Council has tuned some of the road network, generating more than enough controversy, and continues to look at adjustments. The proposed routes are a more radical departure from the status quo. The basic assumptions are being questioned. As expected, there have been complaints.

Disclaimer: this post is my personal opinion. Other opinions are valid, but I ask that any points of discussion be backed up with rationale instead of just emotion. My goal for this post is to encourage people to voice valid concerns to Greater Wellington. The bus review is not an all-or-none situation, you don’t vote for or against it, and this certainly isn’t my word versus yours. It’s up to each of us to be constructive.

The most important part of the proposed changes is the definition of the core network and a promise to keep it for the long term. The core routes operate at 15min intervals or better, all day, all week. The goal of this is to take away the schedule. In a high-frequency network, passengers can show up and get on, rather than planning for when the next bus may arrive. As Walker suggests, frequency is freedom. Core routes in the south and east cross over each other, allowing for those high-frequency services to connect town centres in a way that direct buses can’t justify.

The concept of connecting services is woven deeply into the proposal. It is probably the biggest change to the bus network. Transfers are rare within the Wellington regional network and greeted with anything between suspicion and malice. They are a penalty on travel times and directness, and paying for a second ticket would drive passengers away from a service. However, transfers allow for much more efficient service – both coverage and frequency – for the same transport dollar. They also allow for a simpler system overall; the details of a many-to-many network is hard to keep in your head. The counter-argument is simple: “If I only ever use one bus, why should I care about network complexity?”. The answer is also simple: you’re meant to be able to use the whole network.

GWRC has indicated that transfers between buses on the same network will be free. Snapper already handles transfers from one bus route to another for Valley Flyer, so getting Go Wellington transfers in place is simple. Transferring between operators is harder, but not impossible. People who travel longer distances may be able to use daily or monthly passes across services until we have an integrated ticketing scheme in place, which GWRC has signalled for 2016 (see page 11).

There are a few factors that go into making transfers acceptable. After price, timeliness and environment are probably equally important. While it’s easy to show that a connected service, including wait times, may in fact be faster than a direct service, time spent waiting is more strongly felt than time spent travelling, especially if the weather is raging. GWRC promises to provide adequate shelter at transfer points, which must be large enough to hold a reasonable number of connecting passengers. These connection points offer an interesting opportunity for nearby businesses to pick up customers. Being on the core network has definite advantages, especially on the edges.

Outside of the core network, residential services cannot run at core frequency and should not try. Undoubtedly, residential passengers are going to feel put out if their service frequency is listed as lower than present. This was summarised quite elegantly by a friend. People couldn’t care a less if their service improves, but they’ll scream if they are any worse off. Frequency for the secondary and peak services were derived from ticketing information provided by the operators. (See section 3 in the MRCagney report, part 1 and part 2.) There are areas that are truly worse off, but it may be difficult to justify the extra costs to fill in the expectation gap, knowing the patronage isn’t there. Walker simplifies the point in an interview:

You explain that low-density suburbs must choose between cost-effective transit or high-quality transit. Why can’t they have both?

Because the design of the typical low-density suburb makes it geometrically impossible. Yelling at your transit agency or elected officials won’t change the facts of geometry. Once you see that, you can move beyond blame and start thinking about what kind of transit is reasonable in each situation.

In the face of higher demand, increasing the frequency of a secondary service is possible. It’s merely a question of the higher patronage justifying the cost of the extra bus and driver.

There is a looming question of where the buses travel through the CBD. Traditionally, everything runs through the Golden Mile unless it cannot. At peak hour, there are in excess of 120 buses per hour in each direction of the Golden Mile. Averaging one bus every 30 seconds, it’s common to see buses queueing as bus-to-bus congestion causes a minor delay to cascade backward. While there is room for rationalising bus stop distances and positions relating to intersections, or to speed up boardings with technical measures, the Golden Mile cannot scale to higher capacity. The proposal aims for about 60 buses per hour along the Golden Mile – most core routes and most secondary routes. GWRC has not followed the proposal from MRCagney to create peak transfer points with the core network, opting for complete separation of the peak buses from the Golden Mile. This is a point of contention that I have with the proposed changes. Moving peak buses out to the quays leaves passengers isolated and exposed.

Finally, it is tempting to bring the argument of technology into this review. The number of complaints about the future of the trolley network prompted Walker to write a blog post (see point 4), which was then followed up with a full post on the issue. I think it’s wrong to let the existing trolley lines design the network by virtue of existing. Lines were moved during the Manners Mall redevelopment and lines can be moved again. I think the issue is to get the geometry right. After that, we can argue that trolleys are worth running. Similarly, the routes don’t depend on light rail, nor do they exclude the possibility. That’s the benefit of defining the service quality first. How to implement the service should always be a subsequent question.

The bus review consultation is open until March 16, 2012. Follow GWRC’s instructions about giving feedback, or write something free-form and send it in. All I ask is for you to be constructive. We’re building something here.

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