Wellington Smart City 1.2: Public Transport

autotram-electric-vehiclePublic Transport has been seen as the ultimate solution to Wellington’s traffic issues over the last decade, however, little has been done to invest in the service and in my opinion the quality has dropped in the last few years.

In order to get people to use public transport there are some basic factors that you just have to get right. These are:

Cost, reliability, availability, safety, speed, a mobile workspace, cleanliness, smart data, impact on the environment, and overall service. So let’s talk about the current problems with Wellington’s public transport.

The cost of public transport in Wellington, although heavily subsidised, is far too high for the service provided. The cost of public transport is very similar to a two person car going in and out of the city each day with early bird parking. Why would I get on a bus when my car is the same cost, more reliable, always available, cleaner, and a better service?

The reliability of the current service is questionable. It is not unusual to have buses that don’t come on time, despite what the boards say. If you follow @metlinkwgtn on twitter you can see the number of services that just don’t run.

Availability is an issue on two fronts. The first is that in order to get to a bus, a lot of people have to walk quite a distance. Given Wellington’s notorious weather this can be a problem. This is set to get worse with proposed changes to the network. It is also common at peak hours simply not to be able to get on a bus because they are so packed.

Safety must be paramount and the service has been found in some cases to be unsafe, so much so that in recent months we’ve seen a lot of buses effectively “pink stickered” because they failed fundamental safety requirements of being on the road. It’s not just the bus either, it’s the way they are driven. I have pictures of buses running red lights and anyone who stands around long enough on Lambton Quay in rush hour, or Willis Street, will see it.

Speed must be paramount, balanced with safety of course. If it takes me an extra hour a day to get in and out of the city using public transport, what’s my incentive for getting on a bus? If my bus is getting stuck in traffic along with everyone else, then by the time we do stop starts, drop-offs, and pickups, it can be a very long experience to get in and out of town.

We have one route in town, the Airport Flyer, which has wireless available for use. Every other bus route is “dumb”, there is no capability for connection to the Internet. This means there is no mobile workspace capability.

While we have boards around the city that, notionally, show when the next bus is due to arrive and a website that shows the same, the data is questionable. This is one area where I think we have seen improvement, however a little goes a long way with smart data, and we need more.

We need to consider the environment versus the cost of the service. What we have today is either trolley buses, which are very expensive for what they are and arguably, if the electricity they are using is generated in a coal fired power plant, not that green, or we have diesel buses, which are not sustainable long term.

The overall service could do with a spruce up. No one wants to get on a bus with a rude, po-faced bus driver. Worse, the default setting for driving seems to be either full on or full off, by the time you get into the city you need a chiropractor some days.

“We need to open up real-time data so people can build apps. For instance, I can foresee someone doing a graphical map of buses and trains. You’ll get a better picture of how far away one is and how a route can be planned. Imagine if that becomes an app that can be adapted to other cities, and a Wellington developer makes money from that. It would encourage more people to use public transport.”- Jack Yan, Mayoral Candidate 

These are the problems that we see with the current public transport, so how do we smarten it up?

I’m going to deal with cost last, it is easy to say that we want a cheaper service, however that can be tricky to achieve without some quite radical changes.

Let’s start with reliability. Jack Yan raises a good idea. If we make all the data about public transport freely available, then a couple of things happen quite quickly.

We know where the public transport is all the time. So, on your phone you can open a local area map and see where the buses and trains are coupled with a gross ETA as to when they’ll reach your nearest stop. This means that you can plan the walk to the bus or train in minimal time. You don’t have to guess when it is going to arrive and risk standing around for thirty minutes if you guess wrong.

You could include information about how many people are on the bus. If you don’t feel like standing in a crowded bus or train, you can look for one with a lighter load, which means that capacity starts to self-manage. If you need a bus with wheelchair access, or a pram bay, then you can see where they are, and when they are arriving.

Because the data is transparent, we can get some actual metrics about how well the public transport is working. This has had quite an impact in Melbourne, where the operators are required to publish data. Those operators have had to pick up their game as a result of poor service being absolutely transparent.

All that data could reside and be made available on our Community Cloud, so that our community of innovators and developers could have free access to it in real-time.

Availability is somewhat increased by the application approach. Though work needs to be done in two areas.

The first is that the public transport service is hopelessly crowded at peak times and then sparse during off peak. Real time data analytics collected over time will allow operators to better manage when to provide service and how much to put on.

The second is that the new routes being proposed, with buses in Wellington itself, needs to be revisited. Any public transport service where I have to change buses at a given point to get in and out of the city where I don’t have to today, is a an immediate fail, and illogical. That will put more people into cars, it’s that simple.

In terms of speed, we have to find a way to get buses out of general traffic. While this has been somewhat achieved across the CBD, in terms of outlying areas it still a major issue. Where new roading is built it needs to have public transport as a priority, particularly in peak hours, so that the bus trip is faster than a car trip.

Safety must be maintained and there are issues that need to be addressed to the transport operators about how they are going to openly demonstrate to the ratepayers that safety is being treated seriously and not being managed by a policeman on the side of the road.

In addition, something has to be done about the inner city buses and they’re red light running ways. Again, open data starts to play a self-managing role. If the public can see the number of safety infractions, the accident reports (no matter how minor), and the number of other traffic offences (including red light running), then the operators will self-regulate their behavior.

One of the core tenants of a Smart City is connectivity. Not just for the local ratepayer, but also the international traveler. Every bus and train should be fitted with high-speed wireless that is city supplied. This is an incentive that an increasingly connected world needs rather than the patchy cell phone reception that we get from inside a giant metal box (bus or train).

“We need to dump the trolley buses. We’re so emotionally attached to them, that their true cost has been ignored: Wellington’s 60 trolley buses cover 1.6 million kilometres a year; consuming 4 GWh of electricity (roughly the equivalent of 500 average households). Diesel buses doing the same distance would use 600,000 litres of diesel a year; which would mean 1,620 tonnes of CO2emissions (32,000 tonnes of CO2 over the 20 year life of the buses) but our beloved trolleys cost about $5 million pa more than diesels to operate and emission rights for 1,620 tonnes of CO2 would cost about $2,000 at current prices. The GWRC has locked in a deal to save $2,000 at a cost of $5,000,000 a year for 20 years.

Wellington needs to invest in battery-operated buses (perhaps using smaller ones for off-peak hours, and shorter journeys), then address the yet-to-be resolved problem of Willis Street (the site of several serious accidents) where there’s no buffer between the road and pavement – I’d suggest big planter boxes at the pavements’ edge, so pedestrians have to think before stepping into the traffic; even more important with battery-operated buses as they’re silent. 

The GWRC needs to think strategically about future requirements, including those of an ageing population increasingly dependent on Public Transport.” – Nicola Young, candidate for Lambton Ward

We need a longer term plan to invest in sustainable public transport. The trolley buses are arguably not the best investment in terms of sustainable energy given their very high cost and maintenance overhead. Diesel is one of the nastiest pollutants as an emission. There needs to be some balance here with a move over time to sustainable transport.

Internationally Smart Cities are moving from pure diesel bus and train to diesel hybrids. Think the Prius of buses. Further on from there is the fully battery powered bus, which can charge in ten minutes. Here’s a list of countries where these are in use. China, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Europe (in general), Spain, Finland, and the United States. So it’s not a pipe dream, it’s a reality, and interestingly the technology is starting to put high gain solar panels on buses so that the requirement for a direct electricity recharge is lessened or removed.

We need a long term plan to get away from options that will become increasingly expensive as the price of oil, and electricity, increases.

Cost. The options outlined here probably seem expensive. I suspect in the current context of the way that Wellington and the wider region buy public transport they would be unaffordable. The Councils have tied themselves into long term contracts with operators that don’t seem to be delivering the kind of public transport we need and with little plan to improve them.

I believe it is time that those services were put out to market again. That we come up with a comprehensive public transport strategy, a good set of requirements for the next ten years, then re-tender the work. There are many operators in New Zealand and internationally that would be able to help us with this vision of the future and being tied into a long-term single operator contract is sub-optimal, in my opinion.

Smart Public transport must be cheaper than my car, faster than my car, as comfortable as my car, give me connectivity, be clean as is affordable using a good balance of technology, provide all its operating data openly, and be safe. Otherwise we’ll never get people to use it.

Pushing people onto public transport by not investing in roading infrastructure, putting up parking prices while reducing their capacity, and implementing other punitive measures on the motorist will not work.


  1. Good analysis!

    As someone who loathes public transport, this is making me reflect on what changes it would take for me to willingly use public transport on a regular basis. I think the key, for me, would be enabling public transport as a productive environment. Driving my car to work is time that is spectacularly unproductive and, with traffic, often an exercise in extreme frustration. Instead, it would be very compelling if I could easily catch a bus that provided with an environment where I could sit down, hop on my cell phone or tablet in order to clear my inbox and review/plan the day ahead. Obviously this hinges not only on connectivity, but on other environmental factors as well: its unlikely that I’ll willing spend much time on busses if the pervading odors are of smoke and urine.

    Battery powered busses are a good idea! I’m a huge proponent of electric transport and New Zealand should be a country that proactively harnesses the best of these technologies – in keeping with its “clean green” image. There has been a lot of innovation in this space recently, and the best technologies involve smaller battery packs in the busses that can be “topped up” in a matter of seconds by quick charging stations at major bus stops. This allows busses to keep running constantly without ever stopping to “fully charge” and allows for much smaller battery packs that are cheaper to build/replace and with a lower environmental impact.

    I have to admit, I’m kind of jealous of all this talk about modernizing Wellington and starting to wonder if I ended up in the wrong city. I guess Auckland’s not SO bad…

  2. ? They’re red light? Tenet NZbus more likely terminate @WGTNzoo than hospital. Service ev ten min station to Newtown. Whereupon continue alternately island bay and zoo etc. Black window cattle bins truck gotta trashed? BATTERY operate or POWER

  3. Lost my comment. They’re red light. Nz bus more likely terminate won not hospital? Black window battle bins truck gotta trashed. BATTERY operate query POWERed.

  4. Black windows cattle truck bins . Terminate more likely at #wgtn zoo than hospital. Typo’s from my cell phone. Correction cheers Don mon 090713

  5. Great to see an article bringing up the pressing transport issues.

    There are many mis-conceptions which I dont have time to address right at this moment. I have worked over the last six years with public transport advocates on some of the problems mentioned. Transport planners regard Wellington as having the ideal configuration and density for public transport, and that has lead to relatively high patronage. However, planners also note that we have a very poorly performing service, because we dont use a network approach – every bus comes right into the CBD and then runs along one corridor, making the route hopelessly congested and unreliable with up to 140 buses in a peak hour. Many of these buses are only half full, as they come from low density suburbs.Therein lies the problem, which real time information highlights but does not fix.

    The answer is to move to a network approach, as in the Hutt Valley, where buses feed onto trains, resulting in more reliable services.
    This means that a small number of services in the outer hill top suburbs should feed into a higher frequency route. This is successfully done in Strathmore. The Wellington Bus Review has compromised on the network approach after extensive public consultation, but will still lead to some improvements. Unfortunately, the recent spine study report, which should have addressed this problem in a more comprehensive way, did not outline fully all the benefits of a fast and efficient service on the high density growth route…..please read some of the articles written on that subject, including my own.

    All contracts will be up for tender next year, and the Trolley Bus contracts will also be reviewed under the new PTOM legislation.
    Central Government is setting the agenda here.

    Battery technology is improving and hopefully, the use of inductive loops will in the end make overhead wires for electric services unnecessary.

    Yes, lets get rid of those darkened windows, put in wifi on the trains and buses, and put in priority lanes throughout the city, with light phasing to make our present service bus service more attractive and reliable.

    Greater Wellington has the highest farebox recovery of any NZ city, and I have constantly argued against further fare increases.
    However, our Council did support the recommendations of the fare reference group, which I was part of, for capped daily fares,
    concessions for families, and off peak bus fares. My amendment in support of student and beneficiary 50% fares was not passed.
    Integrated ticketing is now being investigated, and is planned to be introduced fully in a couple of years.

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