Waiting for light rail? Let’s build a busway now!

One question on the mind of everyone suffering from Wellington’s transport problems is – when will Let’s Get Wellington Moving actually get us moving? Guest poster Marko Garlick sees a supercharger hiding in plain sight


There seem to be lots of abstract projects planned to be delivered, maybe years from now: urban State Highway 1 “improvement” with more tunnels, and a rapid (or maybe just frequent) mass transit line from Lambton through Newtown and to the Airport. 

But where will these actually go? And how do we deal with difficult questions about flows around the Basin Reserve?

Wellingtonians waiting for new transport infrastructure to be built…

Where does mass transit go?

For mass transit, there are many things to consider. Is it along the waterfront quays or along Lambton Quay / the Golden Mile? Along Taranaki St or along Cambridge Terrace? Where does it go through the Basin Reserve? Many people are speculating. And the big one: light rail or trackless trams, or both?

Mock-up of a route down Taranaki St

What about the urban motorway?

The LGWM proposal has a pretty good plan to maintain the amenity of the city above. They want to underground the motorway from the Terrace to Mt Vic. A new Te Aro park will be created on top.

However people are questioning the need for more lanes created by a new Terrace and a new general traffic Mt Vic tunnel. More lanes in urban motorways creates induced demand. More lanes means make people drive more which kills off any travel savings created by the bigger road. It’s a transport strategy just as smart as trying to lose weight by buying bigger pants!

Bigger roads take up valuable space and just fill up with more traffic
(looking at you Auckland, thanks for showing us what not to do)

This uncertainty is paralysing!

Those who are in the “pro-car” camp say they like mass-transit but that must come after their bigger road. Those in the “pro-PT” camp want light rail first and a smaller road. Finger-pointing and party lines are being drawn.

Tough and costly decisions will have to be made about irreversible projects around the Basin. Once you make a flyover, tunnel or lay down tracks you can’t (quickly) go back. I think we can break out of this inaction and stupor with an interim middle ground: a busway.

Case Study: Auckland’s Northern busway

The idea for this has come from the success of Auckland’s northern busway. It is a dedicated two-lanes for buses from the northern foot of the Harbour Bridge up SH1 to Constellation Drive with world-class stations and frequent congestion-free services into the city. 

It has seen year-on-year double-digit growth numbers over its 11 years in service, and is being extended to Albany and beyond shortly. Eventually tracks will be laid down for a second-harbour crossing for light-rail.

Radical incrementalism

Initially the busway was just a narrow shoulder each side of the northern motorway. People were sceptical initially but its success was undeniable and has provided the basis for upgrades and extensions.

What the Northern busway shows is that doing something now, and building on it, is more practical and politically palatable than trying to justify a massive spend up front. This is applicable to Wellington’s light rail situation. It is relatively low-cost initially, can display almost mass-transit qualities and is more flexible as progress is made towards light-rail.

Why a busway?

A busway is what Wellington needs now. We cannot wait another 10-15 years for a big decision on the Basin and Mt Vic tunnel. A busway will provide many benefits:

  • It is far cheaper to implement right away and far quicker to implement (I envisage 3 years for the first stage).
  • It also demonstrates demand for mass-transit and will allow us to see whether a certain route is a good idea or not.
  • It also allows for land-use intensification now, providing greater density and amenity to a future light rail line.

What will it look like?

So what would this look like? I think that the busway should start at the train station, go along the waterfront quays, and then either go along Taranaki St or Cambridge/Kent Terrace. Ideally, it should run in the centre of street with weather protected stops and room for cycleway and signal-priority. Stops should mirror light rail ones, being spaced out for speed and reliability. 

Along most of the route the buses could probably hit 60km/h speeds, congestion free, all day.

[Ed: just let that sink in. Congestion free. A clear run.]

Separate branding would be an excellent addition. The Northern Express (NEX) is what Auckland has; the Wellington Express (WEX) is what we could have.

This post is about incrementalism and the key takeaway is something half-done is better than waiting ages for the ‘perfect’ solution. If the busway is barebones at first before getting upgrades then so be it. The mess at the Basin can be avoided by stopping bus priority at the start, then resuming it into Newtown. This is what the Northern Busway does with dedicated lanes ending at the Harbour Bridge, then resuming on Fanshawe St.

What the waterfront quays look like now (shudders). Hardly the “walkable city”.
A thing of beauty: What a complete Wellington busway could look like

The busway can be upgraded over time. Greenspace, cycleways, better stops, a possible underpass on Waterloo Quay to connect to the railway station.

Summing up

In an ideal world, we can all agree on the light-rail and grade-separation issues at the Basin and they may already have been implemented. But that is not the case. Although there is lots of details to work, the principle of a busway now then future conversion to higher-capacity light-rail is a sound one in my mind.

Do you have any ideas why Wellington has not had bus priority – via a busway, or anything else – for so long?
What do you think of fast buses in the city centre, and in the suburbs?


A version of this post was originally published on TraNZport; see the original here.


Image credits

  • Cover image by Smarter Transport
  • Skeleton waiting, original unknown
  • Taranaki mock-up by LGWM
  • Auckland rush hour by Getty images
  • Auckland busway by Greater Auckland
  • Quays now, screen grab
  • Busway by AT

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *