Why can’t Wellington have fast, cheap or dependable public transport?

By Harriet Palmer

Featured in Capital #13
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Aussie company Next Capital, which owns NZ Bus, has issued a lockout notice to Wellington bus drivers in response to their strike action over pay and conditions.

It’s another chapter in the long saga that is Wellington’s public transport.

In 2014 (when the council decided to axe the trolley buses) Harriet Palmer wrote this piece, comparing public transport around the world.

We’re all standing bum to bust on one of Berlin’s clattering U-Bahn trains. This one is old with fake-wooden joinery and upright seats covered in sticky plastic.

We got on at Kottbuser Tor, a busy station that’s been open since 1908 and is known affectionately as Kotti. It’s actually a dive. We get there via viscous tunnels packed with ticket hawkers, mystery puddles and guys clicking their tongues in an effort to sell you drugs.

But we love Kotti. Its primary appeal is that once we’ve made the five-minute walk from the Kreuzberg apartment we’re renting, and you’re past the dog shit, the beggars with their Rottweiler, the passed-out punks, the hipsters, the drunks smashing beer bottles, the young-mum gentrifiers, the 51 burger and kebab joints, and you’ve wound down those dirty tunnels, Berlin is yours. Really, yours. Kotti is our gate. Jump on the U1 or the U8 line and, within half an hour, you could be anywhere in this rambling city for no more than NZ$4.

Compare that to your average Wellington suburban transport hub and you can see how we, a travelling family with roots in Lyall Bay, came to be so enamored with one of Berlin’s skankiest train stations. Who cares about the shambling trains and beaten up bench seats when they’re the gateway to a system which is not only affordable, but also reliable and frequent?

Monthly passes in Berlin cost NZD$45 compared to $150 in Wellington, and while the locals may whine about it, the service is incredible with trains running 24 hours a day.

On this summery German morning, my mother, my partner, my three-year-old son and I stand in the doorway with a group of Turkish youths, a guy in a slim black suit, and perhaps a dozen stern looking frau’s, one of whom is holding a wooden ladder. Her husband, an uncharacteristically smiley character, carries a bucket.

It is a typical midday ride on the U-Bahn, an underground rapid transit system with 143 stations, ten lines and a total track length of more than 150km. Everyone is on it. Look down at the roads and you might see a few shiny Audis and a swathe of bikes, but largely, they’re empty. People are on the U-Bahn, or they are on the S-Bahn – the city’s above ground rapid transit system.

Baxter, the three-year-old, is whining. He’s hot. He’s sick of staring at the backs of legs. No one is standing up for him; he’s not into being carried. People are starting to murmur. And then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he’s perched way above our heads, quite happily, on the ladder. A whoosh of the doors and he’s holding the bucket. The frau and her husband have their hands around his legs and are greatly amused by the little Kiwi demonstrating his German language skills. (This mainly involves counting to ten very loudly and very precisely).

No one else takes any notice, they just keep going, but Baxter, he’s on top of a ladder! He’s having the ride of his life!

Our stopover in Berlin is a two-month break from a year travelling around the world. In cities across Asia, Europe and Central America we make the most of the public transport. We become experts at the different types of tickets, ticket machines and the little coloured maps showing which track or line or U we’re on.

And at every stop, on every tram, train and trolley we ask ourselves “What is wrong with Wellington? Why are we missing out on a system that gets people from A to B quickly, efficiently and cheaply?”

Of course, they’re not all perfect, but they do manage to pull off one of the three things that make public transport great.

Why are we missing out on a system that gets people from A to B quickly, efficiently and cheaply?

London is efficient, but it’s not cheap. Sri Lanka is cheap, but it’s not quick. San Francisco is quick, but it’s fragmented with multiple systems that don’t all link up. 

Paris was clunky, old and smelt like garlic but it was dependable. We evoked incited stares and pursed lips when we got on with backpacks.

Barcelona, Washington DC and Stockholm all felt swish and new with stylish stations and quiet carriages. Vienna was polite and uninspiring. Lisbon was strange – straddling old and run down with architecturally brilliant – the stations had incredible modernist roofs. The city was also full of beautiful graffiti-laden trams perched at the top of steep hills

Chengdu was out of this world. It’s about the newest system on the planet and moved without sound. People queued in straight lines to get on and off and everyone was dressed impeccably, complete with designer handbags.

In Jerusalem, a city of 780,000 that feels very similar in size to Wellington, there was light rail, or HaRakevet HaKala Birushalayim. Currently this is made up of one line stretching about 14km straight through the heart of the city. Buses from suburbs feed directing to this line so it’s always full and runs constantly. It was completed in 2010 and costs just over NZ$2 a ride. It’s always packed and almost impossible to get a seat.  It’s exactly what we need here.

Our first time riding one of these super-clean, super-modern trains, we stand opposite a group of Russian Orthodox Jews. The woman have dark-brown wigs cut into long bobs and wear knee-length skirts and stockings. The men have curling locks down either side of their faces, black broad-brimmed hats and black suits. Together, they gently rock while mouthing passages from bibles they hold in one hand, while using the other to steady themselves against the back of seats.

Then, as the train comes to an unscheduled halt, they lift their heads from their hands and simultaneously start shouting. Prayer is out the window, they are furious. Actually, the whole train is furious. Everyone is yelling and continually bashing the button to open the doors. They are getting off and getting on and shaking their fists in the air. They are fighting as someone tries to get off while another tries to get on. They are using prams to jam doors open and set the siren wailing. The driver has his head turned round and is shouting back at the lot of them. It’s the kind of thing that would inspire a low murmur among bus passengers in Wellington, but here, boy, it’s high drama.  

We sit quiet and bemused. Our fellow passengers keep trying to explain the situation and are puzzled when we don’t get off and join in the yelling. A young female soldier with a lot of eye make up works out where we’re from and repeats an old army saying chanted when someone complains about Israel: “Where do you think you live? New Zealand?”

Another city where life from the streets flowed directly onto the transport system was Mexico City. It got you places but it was chaos. And one day, we thought it might actually kill us.

The train had stopped between stations. We were pressed in a carriage with hundreds of Mexicans from all walks of life. Nothing was happening. Hot and still. People opened windows to let exhaust-fume-scented air in. Then they started talking. Thirty minutes later they began to go pale. One giant tattooed man was bent forward in his chair. His tiny girlfriend and trussed up mother rubbed his back. He took off his shirt, then his singlet.

We were looking for escape routes and talking softly to Baxter when with a great wrenching sound the train started up again. The man leaned back in his chair and poured water down his face and over his belly.

From that year of travel, we have thousands of stories about undergrounds, over-grounds, trains, trams, trolleys, tubes, buses and vans. They make up some of our most vivid memories; the man in Harlem who shook our son’s hand and called him brother, the little girl in Colombo, Sri Lanka who gave him her seat and then her sparkly bracelet, the old US school buses on Ometepe, an island in a Nicaraguan lake. They were brilliant, those journeys. Not only did they take us places, but they told us so much about where we were.

So now, we’re home, and we stand at the bus stop waiting for the irregular, expensive and sometimes cancelled Mairangi 23 every morning and we ask, “Why can’t we have what people the world over have? An affordable, efficient and reliable public transport system that acts as the veins of our city?”

This story was first printed in Capital #13, August 2014.


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