Christchurch – more spending on public transport needed (aka, ‘a review of the draft Regional Public Transport Plan’)

This was first appeared on the TraNZport blog and is republished with permission. Submissions have since closed on this plan but still an interesting take on it.

Christchurch sits at an interesting crossroads in terms of its development, and decisions made now are going to affect the form and function of the city for the next generation or two. This isn’t just because of the earthquake that hit the city eight years ago, but is also because the city’s size and growth projections put it at a critical stage of its development. ECan predicts that from now until 2048, the number of people within the Greater Christchurch partnership area* will grow by 150,000 from approximately 490,000 to 640,000. However, that’s a fairly conservative projection. Greater Christchurch is currently growing by more than 10,000 people per year, which means that, if maintained, that projection could be doubled over the same period to a total of 790,000 people by 2048, and that is still a rather simplistic way of looking at it.

Considering the above, it is probably quite fair to say that Christchurch is at a very similar position to what Auckland was in sometime around the early 1960s. Similar population, similar growth projections (well, to a degree) and the need to enact policies and plans to safely manage it all into an ever increasingly real future. Central to this, of course, is transport. And we know how the period from 1960-2000 went for Auckland on that front. What I am finding rather fascinating, is how Christchurch is going about dealing with its own issues, and how this squares up against Auckland. Is Christchurch simply repeating the same mistakes that Auckland made; enacting polices and plans that led Auckland to car dependence, road congestion, billions being spent on motorways until eventually everyone realised it wasn’t working and big investments in public transport were required to catch-up? This is 2018, not 1960, but amazingly the same attitudes persist in the southern city, which is dominated by high rates of car ownership, low density housing, non-existent rapid transit, and a poorly utilised public transport system. As a former resident of the city, I can attest that views on urban development and transport are rather conservative, particularly in comparison to Auckland and Wellington (which probably says a lot, really). There is definitely a “head-in-the-sand” type mentality among many local politicians too, when it comes to these issues.

Current situation

Responsibility for public transport belongs with the Canterbury Regional Council, otherwise known as ECan. Last month they released the Canterbury Draft Regional Public Transport Plan 2018-28.  This draft plan provides a vision of almost doubling the number of high frequency bus routes, improving the integration of land use and transport planning, introducing two new rapid transit routes, and otherwise greatly increasing public transport expenditure, which is sometimes seen as correlating with low public transport use in the region.

Christchurch’s transport network is overwhelmingly dominated by the car. It’s a city where most people drive a car, families probably own at least two, and the bus is commonly derided as the “loser cruiser”. This car dependence is helped by the city having few geographic choke points for traffic, and the existence of plenty of large, wide, straight roads, and billions having recently been spent on expanding a motorway and expressway network, which should reach its conclusion around 2020.

Public transport is used by very few people in comparison. Currently, there are around 13.5 million trips per year made on public transport, down from the 17.2 million in 2010. This reduction is largely due to the 2011 earthquake, which shifted employment away from the CBD, but the new bus network, which is based on a hub and spoke model and was introduced a few years ago, has also come under some criticism. At peak times, public transport accounts for only 2.5 per cent of trips in Christchurch. When you marry this fact with growth rates, you can see the problem that is developing on the horizon for the city and its surrounding region.

In terms of the network itself, high frequency route coverage is limited (there are five routes mostly running at 15 minute intervals) and there is no rapid transit to speak of whatsoever. Recently, millions has been invested in cycleways, which are proving a reasonably sized success story as they are rolled out, though not without some controversy (mainly from business owners and car enthusiasts, as in many other cities). The uptake of public and active transport modes is also circumvented by a lack of expenditure (particularly in relation to public transport infrastructure) and the way that current policies make using your car in the city incredibly easy and cheap, particularly with abundant car parking (note: complaints about a lack of car parking in the CBD are common in letters to the editor, but Christchurch’s CBD, and suburban and regional centres, are swamped with cheap or free car parking).

Will Christchurch learn from Auckland’s experience?

Christchurch’s high growth areas are to the North (Waimakariri District) and South West (Selwyn District) and this is putting pressure on the city’s transport network, particularly on the key routes into Christchurch. For example, in twenty years Rolleston has grown from about 1,500 people to almost 15,000. The response has been to build much of the motorway network that was planned in the 1960s and subsequently deferred. This has been ongoing since 2009 and is due for completion around 2020. Principally, it involves a northern and southern motorway corridor, which both dump cars onto existing city streets. In the short term, this will undoubtedly reduce congestion in some places, leading to more free-flowing traffic. However, already the negative mid to long-term effects are being thought about. Take the extension of the northern motorway into the inner northern suburb of St Albans. By 2026, NZTA says more than 41,000 vehicles will be using this motorway. NZTA and the Christchurch City Council have already acknowledged the motorway will increase local traffic by 30 per cent when completed. The new southern motorway, when finished, will link Selwyn’s main centre of Rolleston to the western end of Brougham St, just to the south west of the CBD, which already suffers from congestion throughout most of the day.

Will the answer to these problems brought about by the new motorways, coupled with population growth in the north and south be to “finish” the motorway network and “do it properly”? Aucklanders will surely recognise these refrains from conservatives in their midst, and reading the comments section on recent transport articles (which I advise you never to do for your own health) the Christchurch equivalent are starting to come out of the woodwork. In any case, I certainly hope that Christchurch’s future transport expenditure will not continue to be dominated by spending on roads. The outlook, unfortunately, is looking a little bleak. Christchurch continues to spend far less than Auckland or Wellington on public transport. Even the $175m announced for public transport recently through the National Land Transport Programme was paltry compared to Auckland ($1.9b) and Wellington ($614m), even on a per capita basis. The Press called public transport the “big winner” from the announcement as it represented a 24 per cent increase on previous years, but when you change the context you can clearly see the southern city is lagging well behind, and it isn’t as though it is starting off a highly developed base to begin with. Despite this depressing background, there are some promising changes in the air that, if approved, could go a long way to starting to change things.

The Draft Regional Public Transport Plan

In August, ECan released the draft Canterbury Public Transport Plan, which it said would cost about $150-241m over ten years to implement, with consultation due to commence from 17 September. An interesting, and very positive, aspect of the draft plan is that the parts relating to public transport in greater Christchurch have been developed by the Greater Christchurch Public Transport Joint Committee, made up of representatives from ECan, Waimakariri and Selwyn District Councils, Christchurch City Council, and NZTA. The long derided fractured nature of Christchurch’s public transport administration has been sought to be addressed through the formation of this joint committee, so this draft plan could be viewed as its first, and most important, test in getting things done. So, what exactly does the draft plan entail?

Improvements to the bus network

The current network consists of five high frequency bus routes running at frequencies of every 10-15 minutes and a network of less frequent routes running mostly every 30 minutes. Other services terminate at suburban or regional hubs where they connect with the high frequency routes. The draft plan proposes the introduction of four new high frequency bus routes running every 15 minutes during off-peak times on weekdays, bringing the total number of high-frequency routes to nine, with eight running through the CBD (the ninth being the Orbiter). Four of the existing high frequency routes (the Blue, Yellow, Orange, and Purple lines) will have their off-peak frequencies increased to match the Orbiter at a bus every 10 minutes.  The four new high frequency routes proposed in the draft plan are:

  • Lincoln to New Brighton
  • Wigram to Prestons
  • Cashmere to Casebrook
  • Lyttelton to Airport

This would  be a massive improvement on the current network, bringing many more people within a short walking distance of a turn-up-and-go public transport. This comes with the caveat that plenty more investment is needed in bus lanes and other bus priority measures, capacity increases (double deck buses?), and other infrastructure upgrades (suitable bus interchanges, bike/park and ride locations etc). This plan has really hammered in on the parts of the current network that work, and tried to do away with the perceived negatives. The end result is that it is more of an evolutionary change rather than a revolutionary one (although I’m sure many people are hoping for revolutionary outcomes).

There is a supporting network of less frequent cross-town and “city connector” routes. The former seem to replace the meandering, infrequent suburban routes that currently exist by joining them up and straightening them out, I’m surprised they didn’t do in the first place. This is great as it makes far more sense. Cross town routes seem to be a better use of resources and more useful to people. When the current network was introduced, I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t just do this. It serves suburban hubs and creates useful cross town links, win-win. It’s great to see that lessons are being learnt and applied, at least.

The city connector type services are greatly reduced compared to present, which shows how under this draft plan the high frequency network would be much denser in terms of its coverage of the city, which is a real good news story. One really bright aspect of the draft plan is the aim to include a move to a 100 per cent electric fleet, and better integration with land use planning, currently identified as a weak point. This was something that Christchurch was struggling with prior to 2011, and went backwards with in the years after. It’s an issue long ignored and well overdue for addressing. This inclusion lends the draft plan a lot of credit. Additionally, it is envisaged that ‘flexible services’ will help fill hard to service areas in future. Undoubtedly, this is a nod to the increasing role that new technologies are playing in the public transport landscape. The focus on hard to serve areas is also a promising sign that thinking is grounded in reality and is not overly ambitious or fantastical (i.e. it’s not advocating replacing public transport with flying taxis).


Rapid transit is in there too

Finally, there is provision for two rapid transit routes in the 30 year vision, which is a big change in thinking for Christchurch. Two rapid transit corridors are planned from the north and south west into the CBD, offering high speed services draft plan outlines its vision as ‘two rapid  transit corridors from the north and southwest  will offer high speed services using a technology such as light rail, rapid busways or “automated trackless trains” (yikes!). While it is a shame to not have something more tangible, it is good to see that planning for rapid transit is beginning to enter plans and strategies. While proposals for rapid transit, including light rail and commuter rail, have been seriously raised before, this, as far as I am aware, appears to be the first time that provision for rapid transit has been embedded in a planning or policy document. This development should not be understated.

The proposed routes are along the most intensively developed corridors within the city, that also have the most potential for intensification, and head out into the high-growth Waimakakariri and  Selwyn districts. An action from the draft plan is for the Greater Christchurch Partnership to work collaboratively to plan for and protect rapid transit corridors in current and future land use strategies and policies, and to surround rapid transit corridors with transit oriented development. Sure, the “trackless trains” thing send shivers down my spine, but the rest is a more than promising development. Although high level, the case for rapid transit and more details should become more clear in short order, especially once the draft plan is approved and the Future Public Transport Business Case, which helped inform the draft plan, is completed. After this, the draft plan proposes securing an investment package by 2021 and to begin construction of infrastructure before 2028. Ambitious, and the proof will be in the pudding, but this could be a potentially city shaping action. CHCH1.PNG

In summary…

The aim of the draft plan is for a threefold increase in public transport patronage in Christchurch by 2048. Rounding up, that is approximately 42 million trips per year. That’s a rather pessimistic goal, especially considering that a) total and per capita patronage are currently at embarrassingly low levels, b) the population is, at the very least, expected to increase by about 33 per cent over the same time period, and c) this is a 30 year time-span. Still, 42 million is a heck of a lot better than not quite 14 million, I guess, and there is plenty of scope to get there much sooner.

In general, I think this draft plan is a real step in the right direction, potentially greatly affecting the shape of the city (in a good way). While it looks the goods, the big issue will be if it gets any legs. Extra funding from central government will help take it a long way, but much more will be needed in future to implement it to its full potential. The draft plan needs to be approved, after consultation, first, but at the end of the day it takes money and depends on whether that money gets spent on “finishing” the motorway network or is increasingly put into public transport and rapid transit. By my reckoning, Christchurch has spent the last decade broadly following the actions of early twenty-first century Auckland and not the example the larger city set over the later part of the twentieth century. The new draft Canterbury Regional Public Transport Plan presents an opportunity to change that, and jump track to a different way of thinking and doing things, more in line with what is needed for a growing, world-class, sustainable city. Failing to advance this plan could consign Christchurch to decades of under-investment and underachievement, a lack of opportunities, and degradation of its urban (and wider) environment. Time and money will tell, but a great first step will be for the city and region to support and approve this plan for public transport. It’s a step in the right direction.

Consultation on the Plan finished on 14 October, and hopefully a decision on the Plan will be made before the end of the year (and I hope with not too many changes).

PS – you can check the Plan out here.


*Note: The Greater Christchurch Partnership is a collaboration between local and central government and iwi and includes the Christchurch urban area plus surrounding communities in the Waimakariri and Sewlyn districts. In a sense, this could be considered analogous to a metropolitan area. The Partnership plans for, and manages, growth within its self-defined area.

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