Why we shouldn’t jump on the Light rail bandwagon

By Philip Hayward

Lower Hutt resident Philip Hayward is a concerned citizen who does a lot of research and reading, particularly in urban economics and transport economics. Phil also participates in several online discussion forums and has a small but growing output of published opinion pieces, essays, and fully peer-reviewed papers.

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Light rail is a contentious issue in Wellington. Some see it as the solution to all our traffic trauma, while others warn it will not deliver us to our destinations.

We asked researcher and “concerned citizen”, Philip Hayward to offer his perspective on the proposed push for light rail through Wellington.

Why is the answer for Wellington’s transport issues, “light rail”? Has the original question been logically framed?

Advocacy rests on several main points.

First, light rail has more ridership capacity which makes it the solution for a choke point or urban travel “spine” in which buses are suffering from congestion.

The full picture of costly failures elsewhere tells us why this is the wrong focus. It is all very well to add capacity through a choke point or along a spine. But travellers still have to get to and from the ends of the light rail service.

Wellington has the learning experience right now: the bus system has been altered to a “spine and feeder” model, from the previous “grid of routes” model. Riders are not happy. If light rail is to be the solution, the spine and feeder model needs to work, not fail.

The wrong assumption is that the vast potential capacity of a light rail line automatically becomes “the new public transport ridership”. The obvious reason for ridership constantly falling short of projections is that the entire system of feeder buses plus light rail spine was not as attractive after all.

Looking at our own situation, buses on a spine and feeder model have quickly proven to be slower than the previous model. This is the reality everywhere, whether the spine is served by light rail or buses. It is very difficult to avoid the accumulation of lost time when transfers between services are necessary. The reported longer trip times, of a few minutes, are quite typical, not a temporary teething problem. The solution to this problem might be a lot more buses and a lot more frequent feeder services. In our local experiment so far, we are attempting to save money by using fewer buses than before. It is not certain whether a greatly increased frequency of service would have its substantially higher costs ameliorated by a spectacular increase in patronage. But this would be essential if there was to be any point in a substantial increase in capacity on the spine.

Another problem we need to confront is that a light rail route via Newtown and over the top of the hill will most likely add more minutes to the trip, not save them, compared to the status quo of buses going through Mt Victoria by tunnel.

The motor bus had advantages that our leaders of the past regarded as self-evident. The sheer flexibility, without the need to spend money on rails and control-system capital – buses could simply use the same surfaces as all road vehicles; and new routes could be created without any need for transfers, with the same bus taking riders from the urban fringes to the high-demand destinations.

It would be logical to ask exactly how good a bus-based system could be if instead of cutting our spending on it, we were prepared to spend the billions that light rail is assumed to be “worth”. If it is possible to run light rail “along the waterfront”, isn’t running a whole lot of buses that way in addition to the Golden Mile route, a logical solution?

There are numerous clever options available for speeding up bus services, which need not cost anywhere near as much as a light rail “patch” onto the system which would result in most “whole trips” taking longer! For example, the “bus congestion” problem on the Golden Mile is exacerbated by “within city” travel. A logical solution would be “city spine buses” dedicated to Railway-Station-to-Courtenay-Place services; these buses could be articulated, multi-door, and have cleverly-designed time-saving bus stops that at least match these advantages of light rail, without the considerable additional costs of rails and control-system capital. The original services travelling further in either direction (i.e. to the suburbs) should have a minimum fare to dissuade “within city” riders from using them and crowding out the longer-distance riders.

Furthermore, if light rail can be made faster by costly dedicated corridors, so can buses.

A second standard argument for light rail is that operating costs are lower. But this is negated by the higher capital costs unless the mythical situation occurs where the very high potential capacity is realised. And the capital cost burden is blown out completely if dedicated tunnels and grade separation are added.

A third standard argument is “real estate development” and “property values” which for Wellington, are now claimed to rescue the Benefit-Cost Ratio from its currently-analysed 0.05! But objectively, the “numbers of riders” and the purposes of their trips is all that counts. If property values rose and development occurred along a light rail route, why would it not have also occurred with an improved bus service that carried at least as many riders? There are unfortunately few examples of bus-system high-capacity spines, but the most famous one of Curitiba, Brazil, certainly involved abundant redevelopment on the route.

Lastly, a popular argument is that “everyone else is doing it”. But it seems the same mistaken assumptions about light rail spine capacity, omitting the feeder-service considerations, are a plague in the world of “professional” consultancy and analysis – and no-one is being held accountable. Bent Flyvberg et al in a series of studies, show that the average cost over-run of these projects around the world is around 100%. Failure to achieve ridership projections is the norm. These authors coin the terms “optimism bias” and “strategic misrepresentation” to describe what is going on. This is really part of the growing contemporary problem with unaccountable elites and political “swamps”.

A further argument specific to Wellington is that light rail is ultimately intended to go all the way to the airport. Doing this, we will be assured, will resolve the fiscal disaster that Stage One will have proven to be meanwhile. But the complexities and costs of getting rails into an airport campus, compared to buses, is another whole can of worms that our swamp’s experts are waving away. Wellington airport with its notorious lack of space, would be especially problematic, not a candidate for one of the world’s most cost-effective systems.

While our own advocates assure us that Wellington’s light rail will be one of the rare successes, we should remember that they all said that. Our planners and consultants can have all the fancy mathematical models and formulas the world can offer, but if logic is not guiding the inputs, what comes out is garbage, and if used as a basis for policy, the outcomes are all bad.


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