MIB, Not BRT

The below article was published on the Scoop website in Scoop website in August 2015. In the 18 months since this was written, it seems like nothing has happened on the BRT front.

BRT in Wellington is a white elephant; a time waster. A “seen-to-be-doing-something” project.

It has no merit, except for lining the pockets of consultants who claim to be experts in the field, or at least are leveraging that. In reality, if the project was about real-world outcomes and the consultants got paid based on the physical outcomes, and not writing pre-determined reports, they would have gracefully told their customer how retarded they are and suggested something better, or run a mile.

But the consultants are doing their bread-and-butter work – the work that council asked them to do: over-inflate other options to make sure BRT wins the costing stakes. Never mind the reality of long busses on narrow streets or the fact the ‘system’ will be at-capacity from the start.

Note that since the article was written, we have a new council, the trolley busses are being replaced by some yet to be described technology, and the costs of light rail used in the reports cited below have been rightfully questioned., and re-proposed with a less cynical view.

Here is the article in full, written by Nicola Young and published on scoop.co.nz

by Nicola Young
Our bus service is in crisis, due to the failed and confused leadership of the two regional authorities responsible – the Regional Council and the City Council.

The trolleys are going in 23 months, no viable replacement has been identified, bus fares are so high that passenger numbers have flat-lined, and now we – the City Council – are trying to con ratepayers with a fraudulent version of ‘Bus Rapid Transit’.

Last week the city council agreed to adopt a ‘Bus Rapid Transit Indicative Business Case,’ to bring forward $1.5m CAPEX funding (noting the Regional Council will contribute $372,000 and the Transport Agency $750,000) and to agree any overspend.

But this proposal is NOT Bus Rapid Transit.

I moved an amendment, seconded by Councillor Paul Eagle, that the words ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ should be replaced with ‘Marginally Improved Bus’. This was about honesty, so ratepayers could know what they are getting – which isn’t Bus Rapid Transit. But our MIB amendment was supported only by Councillor Malcolm Sparrow, so it failed.

This is the biggest change in Wellington’s public transport that we will see for decades. The council should not be making decisions without first giving both councillors and the public more time to understand and consider which are the right options to pursue. There’s been no public review. No public reference group. Wellington needs leadership, the ability to take big decisions; we need to clear the decks and look at the benefits and costs of ALL options. Far more analysis needs to be done.

Voters were misled with promises of light rail, and then came the compromise of Bus Rapid Transit, which would have buses running on dedicated lanes and not sharing corridors. That’s not what Wellington is getting. This is a watered-down, dumbed-down version of a scheme that’s already been criticised for being too weak.

Bus Rapid Transit has internationally agreed standards, against which schemes can be measured; this bogus scheme fails to meet them.

And how can we even start to design bus ways when we don’t know what type of buses the Regional Council will buy? It’s like deciding on railway lines, without choosing the trains.

Will we have diesel buses? Double-deckers? What about the Karori Tunnel? How will we deal with enlarging that, when it’s the main route – effectively the only route – for the residents of New Zealand’s biggest suburb? And what’s the cost of enlarging the tunnel? Will people have to change buses at key points?

We shouldn’t just make assumptions about the need for large-capacity buses; the planning needs to be part of the package. Our roads aren’t built to take the weight of, for example, the Boris hybrid bus (although London’s keen to sell them around the globe) which weighs 18 tonnes. The Transport Agency’s maximum permitted weight for a heavy vehicle with a single tire front and twin tire rear axle is 14.2tonnes, so the Boris hybrid bus could not be used in Wellington.

If we need extra strong roads on core routes to support the weight of large capacity electric buses, then this needs to be included in the detailed business case for the roading infrastructure. Otherwise Wellington could find itself unable to use modern (but heavy) electric buses if the Regional Council wants to choose them.

If we want to get people onto public transport, it needs to be reliable, and for this we do need to invest in contiguous corridors. We have to provide bus lanes at congestion points. Contiguous lanes make buses faster than cars…and that’s the only way we’ll get people out of their cars.

Option 5, with its protected bus ways, is the only genuine Bus Rapid Transit model. But we have eliminated this high-end option, and opted for something that’s neither fish nor fowl. We need peak hour, contiguous bus lanes, but only in one direction. That’s the beauty of Bus Rapid Transit; it only needs contiguous corridors where there’s congestion – unlike Light Rail where the rails are 24/7. Wellington needs one bus lane in the morning, and one in the evening. There’s no need to have dedicated bus lanes 24 hours a day.

Unanswered questions: Buses do get in each other’s way; will they be able to pass each other? There’s no answer in the Indicative Case Study. What about the impact of integrated ticketing that will permit free transfers (including and – especially from – rail at the railway station)?

We are predicting 8% growth across 20 years – that’s less than our average population growth. Reliability will bring growth in bus usage – which is currently flat when population growth is factored in. Is the increase in bus capacity sufficient to meet the future predicted demand, or will it be back to congested unreliable buses in 5 – 10 years? Are we being sufficiently aspirational? No. We are aiming for less than 1% growth per year. It’s not worth the money.

We are obsessed with cycling, but the reality is that more people will always take the bus – including the elderly, the disabled, and those with heavy shopping… Bus Rapid Transit could be done in stages. We should be planning for it, and building towards it. Let’s be aspirational!

Nicola Young is a Wellington City Councillor for the Lambton Ward, portfolio leader for Central City Projects and a trustee of Wellington Museums. This is an edited version of a speech which she made to the council last week.

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