Last Friday we went along to the Smart Transport conference at Parliament in Wellington. The event was an initiative of the Green and Labour parties and featured a number of guest speakers, including Australian public transport advocate Paul Mees, and Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown.
From the start there were a couple of interesting things. Green MP Gareth Hughes used the occasion to announce Green Party transport policy, which included a pledge to fund 60% towards Christchurch (and Wellington) light rail. This is interesting as the Greens are the only minor party consistently polling above the five percent threshold and could have a role to play in the formation of the next government. They also pledged 75% extra for cycling, which is good to hear as cycling funding has taken a hammering recently. The potential for people to cycle in Christchurch is huge if we just create the right conditions – that means safer and better cycle lanes and safe and secure facilities at key destinations for people to leave their bikes. It’s that simple, and the gains are potentially game-changing.
Although the entire afternoon was very interesting it was Paul Mees (Australian public transport advocate and senior lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne) who was of most interest as he spoke quite a bit about Christchurch and the draft Central City Plan. His presentation was certainly interesting, and he seems to be very good at blowing apart some of the more popular myths about public transport. He spoke in length about New Zealand’s recent absurd spend up on roads and the extreme lack of balance in transport funding, pointing out our current 20-1 roads to public transport funding ratio, and the move to a 70-1 ratio in ten years. By contrast, he pointed out that Switzerland spends less than half as much on roads and forty times as much on public transport (Switzerland seems to be Mees’ poster boy for good public transport).
One of the myths that Mees clearly enjoyed blowing apart included the idea that New Zealanders are too obsessed with cars and would never use public transport on the kind of scale seen overseas. As he rightly pointed out, where money has been spent on public transport people have used it. Just look at Wellington, which has the best public transport infrastructure in New Zealand as well as the highest usage. Or look at Auckland and how people have flocked to improved rail services. Sure, the numbers still aren’t great but they were almost non-existent a few years ago and the service is still far from world-class for a city such as Auckland. Perth is a great example of a city that has spent money on public transport and seen a massive turnaround in use, and as a city is roughly the same size as Auckland and has less population density. There is another myth blown by Mees; that you need high population density for public transport to work. Not true of course, and Perth is the prime example.
About Christchurch’s draft Central City Plan, Mees saw both good and bad things. The Christchurch Council had obviously listened to the people who wanted public transport improvements (good), but some of the proposed execution wasn’t quite there; specifically the proposal to deviate bus services around the central city. Mees believes in a need for a central interchange point in the city, and I am inclined to agree with him. Mees example for this was Strasbourg in France, which has a population similar to Christchurch and 60 million tram/light rail trips per annum, and which he used as an example of a city getting it right.
However, Mees reserved his greatest admiration for Zurich, which he called “best in class”, praising the integration between trams (main routes into the city) and buses (which feed into the tram routes at key locations). This is what Mees calls a ‘network effect’, and believes is what we should be aiming for in Christchurch. I am inclined to agree and think the implementation of light rail to the university would be the ideal time to introduce such a concept in the inner-western suburbs (more on that in another post). Another example is Perth where buses connecting with trains at suburban stations account for a large percentage of train passengers.
Mees went on to talk about how public transport can work in areas with small populations as well as low population densities, which to me is just another nail in the coffin of the ‘Christchurch is too small for light rail’ brigade (although there are plenty of other reasons why it is not!). Other speakers included Julie Genter who talked mostly about removing minimum parking requirements, and Chris Harris who started off talking about Auckland but ended with a few interesting general thoughts. There was a panel at the end which I didn’t take notes for as I found it slightly… dull. However if you want to see for yourself (instead of relying on my dodgy note taking!) there are a few videos now up which you can view:
Green MP Gareth Hughs: