Better public transport for Christchurch

The Greater Christchurch Partnership are currently engaging with the public on a Rapid Transit scheme for Christchurch. One of the overriding impressions I’ve been getting from talking to people so far is that, yes rapid transit sounds great in theory, but they don’t believe we’ll ever see it. We’ve been talking about trains and light rail for decades but that’s all it’s ever amounted to – talk. These big projects are just too expensive and too difficult to ever get off the ground. And you can see why they think this. NZ hasn’t had a great track record in building these sorts of projects lately – think Auckland Light Rail and Wellington rapid transit.

If this scepticism resonates with you, then the Beehive’s announcement last week is just the antidote.

Firstly I was just happy that the Minister of Transport still remembers we exist. For context, this announcement was first scheduled for 26 January. A few days beforehand, PM Ardern’s shock resignation came out and, with Minister Wood being touted as possible PM material, Christchurch public transport was rapidly relegated to the bottom of the priority list. The announcement got rescheduled but then Auckland flooding happened and it got postponed again. It’s third rescheduling coincided with Cyclone Gabrielle so yet another postponement, and at the same time Minister Wood was given a new portfolio – Minister of Auckland. Also in the background was new PM Chris Hipkins beginning to signal his attitude to climate change by extending fossil fuel subsidies for a fourth time, and knee-capping the Emissions Trading Scheme. At this point I admit I started getting very pessimistic and thought there’s no way this announcement is happening now – we’ve someone managed to miss the boat yet again.

But then, out of nowhere, wallaaa!, he does make it down and give this announcement from the Christchurch bus exchange. Absolutely brilliant.

Secondly, this announcement is the antithesis of city-shaping mega-projects. It’s a thousand small improvements to our already operational bus system, all of which are achievable, pragmatic, and cumulatively will result in a bus system that is way more useful to way more people. $78m may sound like a lot of money but in terms of council/government projects this is cheap – it’s about a tenth of what we’ve spent on motorways in Christchurch in recent years, an eighth of what the stadium is costing us, and a quarter of what we’ll spend on road maintenance in Christchurch over the same period. “Bread and butter” seems to be the catch-cry of the new government: this investment is very much bread and butter.

Thirdly, there was a little unexpected bonus which I almost missed but am increasingly thinking is actually quite significant. On the 6pm news, there was a very short statement read out that says the National Party transport spokesperson Simeon Brown supported the investment. Having been in opposition his entire career, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him support anything before in his life so I wasn’t expecting this. Having cross-party support in an election year is always a nice thing. But also several of our city councillors are affiliated to the National party. I wonder to what extent National’s position will influence their position.

I gave a summary of what’s in the original plan here. The beehive announcement included these components:

  • 100 more buses providing a greater number of seats to a greater number of locations at a higher frequency
  • Over 470 more bus shelters to support a more enjoyable travel experience
  • Almost 200 real time display units providing accurate information on bus arrival times
  • 22 kilometres of bus lanes improving bus reliability.

Map from original business case below.

Most of this stuff was already budgeted but a lot of it was ten years away – this announcement means it can instead be built in the next 5-6 years.

So it all sounds good so far, yet the devil is always in the detail and there’s a fair bit of the detail I still don’t understand. One thing that’s become obvious to me over the last few years is that it’s much easier to fund one-off capital expenditure (e.g. building a bus lane) than ongoing operational expenditure (e.g. running the buses year-in year-out). From what I’ve seen with PT Futures it’s always been the operational expenditure that’s been the bigger challenge for councils to fund. If central government wanted to help that’s the area of most need. Yet this announcement is ambiguous as to whether it’s funding that. The Beehive announcement says it will deliver “100 more buses”. But when the Minister was asked about this at the announcement I thought I heard him say this money would only be used for capital works, not ongoing operating expenses.

To me that’s still a big question mark – there’s no point building bus lanes if there’s no buses to use them.

All up though a hugely positive move for Christchurch, significant that investing in public transport down here is still on central government’s radar, and significant that that applies across both major parties.

Now we just need to deliver it, which is easier said than done…

3 thoughts on “Better public transport for Christchurch

  1. Chris, this is the sort of stuff that made such a big difference in the early 2000s. Small but meaningful service focused improvements. It can work again. Good to see.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great news; the bus lanes in particular!

    Even without an increase to bus numbers or opex budget, bus lanes free up existing busses and drivers. They’re no longer stuck in traffic so each run takes less time, particularly at peak.

    Of course, funding support for opex would be well appreciated.


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