Mass Rapid Transit in NZ – a guide to some myths

This article first appeared at TraNZport blog

The recent news that a study into mass rapid transit has (finally!) been funded by NZTA for Christchurch, is a pretty good reason to celebrate (and there is also another study looking into an improved bus network – yay!). The work will take two years, with preferred routes to the north and southwest identified by August 2020, and a business case – detailing the type and policy changes to encourage development along the route – completed by August 2021.

That’s incredibly good news and well overdue. Meanwhile, Wellington has proposed extending mass rapid transit from the railway station in the northern CBD to the Airport as part of Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM), while Auckland is constructing the City Rail Link in its inner city and planning light rail on two routes, the first along Dominion Rd and onwards to Mangere and the Airport.

These developments have got me thinking about how such ideas are discussed. One topic I’ve come back to again and again on this blog is the nuances in making decisions in the transport policy space, including how ideas and concepts are communicated and digested. Whilst I don’t want to do a full exploration of the psychology of communicating transport policy, what I did think would be an interesting exercise, given the prevalence of mass rapid transit projects in New Zealand right now, is exploring the key mythologies that are still underpinning opposition to them, and providing a sort of guide to why these are misplaced.

Christchurch’s regional public transport plan illustrated plans for rapid transit – this is now heading to the next stage of study

It doesn’t go where I live, so it’s useless

This is the coverage question. Within public discussion there is always a debate about where rapid transit routes should go. It’s important that routes are focused on serving existing and new key nodes along strategic corridors that are ripe for development and intensification. However, at some point the conversation turns to coverage, and criticism is levelled at the plan because it only serves select corridors. Why are we proposing rapid transit to serve only part of the city, shouldn’t we be creating a network that delivers rapid transit to as many people as directly as possible? This usually leads to a conversation about the cost of rapid transit and then concludes that it is a pipe-dream and some other (cheaper and less effective) solution is needed.

The problem is a lack of understanding of the role of rapid/mass transit. The purpose of the line is to create a high capacity, high quality, spine around which the rest of the public (and active) transport network connects to, and where intensive developments can be concentrated. Take our examples of Christchurch and Wellington. In Wellington, the new mass transit spine planned as part of LGWM runs from the north of the CBD, right through to the busy inner-city suburb of Newtown (where the region’s hospital is located). It then crosses through to another suburban centre (Kilburnie) then the international airport, terminating in the eastern suburban hub of Miramar.  This is the main “spine” of Wellington, the other spines of the wider urban area already served by two main commuter rail lines that would meet at the northern end of the CBD. In Christchurch, the main approaches into the city from high growth satellite towns are also busy and intensive corridors for the city. This makes them the obvious choice for the creation of a north-south rapid transit spine, via the CBD.

Understanding the roles of different parts of the transport network and how they interact is vital to understanding why we propose what we propose. Mass rapid transit shouldn’t necessarily criss-cross a city, and parts of a city not served by mass rapid transit directly aren’t necessarily missing out.

We can do it cheaper…

This is something I have covered in other recent posts, particularly when talking about mode choice, but I want to cover it off here again. There is a tendency, even from within official circles, to look at cutting costs by dumbing down rapid transit proposals. Whenever someone says something can be done much cheaper (i.e. with a bus rather than light rail, for example) the cost saving are not usually related so much to the mode of choice (as claimed) but rather to the quality of the total solution. In essence, mode choice becomes a red herring.

For example, claiming that buses are much cheaper usually means that because buses run on roads we can simply paint a line on the ground as a “busway” and we don’t have to dig the road up and lay tracks etc. Sounds good, except you are in the danger zone for your project not really being rapid transit anymore, and, therefore, not getting the desired outcomes.

The cost savings are less inherent to the choice of a bus as it is to the actual infrastructure you are building (or not building). This doesn’t mean one mode is better than the other, but it’s what is built that matters more. If you can think the job can be done with bigger buses and more bus lanes, then that is fine, provided you are still getting the outcomes you need. However, be careful when people claim you can have it all for much less – i.e. a spine for your public transport network that consists of fast and frequent, high capacity services on a dedicated, permanent right of way that will encourage development along the corridor (phew!). Basically, there should be good reasons for why changes and compromises are made that might lead to a cut in costs, and it will depend on the situation and what outcomes are being sought/identified as necessary. Check out the concept of bus rapid transit creep for some insight into how rapid transit projects can get pruned to something much less than.

Are trackless trams a form of bus rapid transit creep? 

Technology X will make mass rapid transit redundant!

This is a common trope of opponents to public transport spending (think driverless and/or or electric cars, for example), but it’s also a go-to for supporters of a particular technological solution that they think will be a game changer (and as such is often used in conjunction with “we can do it cheaper” – think ridesharing and trackless trams, for example).

The problem with relying on a technological silver bullet is that it is usually too good to be true, doesn’t actually solve the problem that its claimed to solve, creates new problems, solves only some problems, or all of the above. This usually, unfortunately, muddies the waters of discussion. Some technologies are perfectly fine in and of themselves, but have their application stretched to make them seem like “game changers”. The issue is that their positive aspects are usually applied to situations where they will have no impact and/or ignore the complexity of transport networks and their problems (this is my main concern with the trackless tram debate in New Zealand and Australia, and, again, is closely related to the “we can do it cheaper” issue above).

Another claim is often related to the way technology will change behaviors (i.e. people working from home). Again, the same reasoning applies. It may well be the case that commuting and travel behaviors will change as a result of technology, but transport demands are only tacking one way, so the true value of the change is probably minimal compared to what is claimed. Essentially, technological advancements in transport (and other areas) is very likely to be part of the solution for a more sustainable and efficient society, but no one technology is going to solve all our problems. Rather, such changes will be part of a holistic response, because there are many things we can do to make how we live and transport ourselves from one place to another more efficiently.

A fixed route is inflexible and less effective

Having a public transport route that is beholden to the rails (or pavement) laid is surely silly? What if we want to move the route sometime in the future? Surely the humble bus should be relied upon to deliver our transport needs, with its flexibility allowing it to shape itself to the way the city develops?

Well, this, again, won’t lead to the sort of outcomes we want. Buses (regular ones, not BRT) are great, but their lack of a permanent right of way doesn’t attract the kind of development our cities need to function more effectively, So, they aren’t a good substitute for mass rapid transit on their own, or even with mild priority measures (this builds on all of the above, btw). Having flexibility isn’t really what you want when you’re trying to develop a transport spine – it’s actually the complete opposite (again, building on the themes explored above).

If you want to develop a strong spine of high quality, high frequency, high capacity transport, along which intense developments can be focused, and which other transport systems, like buses and electric scooters and bikes can integrate with, then flexibility of route is not going to help you. Putting a line in the sand and saying “this is the city’s backbone” is the best response. Don’t take my word for it, go to any city that has done this in the world and you will see why it is so great.


Although positive moves are being made in regard to mass rapid transit in our largest cities, there is still a long way to go. Inevitably, many of the myths outlined above will rear their ugly heads, and most already are. In Auckland, mayoral candidate John Tamihere has proposed cancelling part of the City Rail Link to reduce expenses, regardless of the cost that will have for Auckland (it sounds good, so it has political capital!). The light rail project has had endless delays with two rival proposals seemingly going head to head and delaying progress. In Wellington, LGWM has proven contentious, with a lot of criticism leveled at a supposed attack on roads, and debate about the form and function of the light rail (“trackless trams here to save the day and make things easier and cheaper! Yay!”). In Christchurch, things are just getting going, but already you can see some tell-tale signs that issues will crop up here too. First, I can see that two year date blowing out a bit (Auckland and Wellington have set quite a precedent here). Second, the very process itself will bring these types of arguments forth, and politicians are naturally inclined to look at ways to save money while still “delivering” what is needed.

Mass rapid transit is gaining some serious mileage in New Zealand right now. The government is trying to set a new direction that is different from the “build roads” mantra of the previous administration, but it comes with controversy. Hopefully the above provides a bit of a guide to some of the misdirection seen in the media, and which is discussed at length in various online and offline forums, and provides some insight into how it is misleading. A lot of positive things are happening right now, but the same arguments always seem to come up again and again.

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