It’s a dreary, wet morning and I’m contemplating how I’m going to get into the city today. Traffic is taking an hour from Eastern Suburbs, many bus services are cancelled, and the chance of getting an Uber for anything other than a hyper-inflated price is non-existent. I could take the car but the likelihood of finding a park is also slim.
Wellington City is increasingly gridlocked and congested. The Wellington City Council has little control over this being reduced to about the same level as any other noisy lobby group in the region. They have no control over public transport, nor do they have any control over state highways, and yet transport is likely to be the primary election issue of 2019.
Even more transport lobby groups have sprung up in the past triennium with the likes of Talk Wellington increasingly vociferous. Old lobby groups such as Cycle Aware Wellington relentlessly hound Councillors on Twitter. Save the Basin has resurrected itself in recent weeks. All indicators are that the dozens of minor interests in transport are gearing up to be as noisy as possible.
The WCC is left with the only option in its power to tinker around the edges and increase the number of cycle lanes around the city, and because cycle lanes are not joined up and often not optimally planned, this creates more issues with transport and associated safety than ever before. Each time the WCC arrives in a suburb to build another version of an international cycleway numerous social media groups coalesce to berate them.
The bus system has descended into chaos, and again, the WCC is reduced to making media statements or outright attacks on the Greater Wellington Regional Council rather than have any ability to change the current state. Indeed, the GWRC appears to have fallen into a sullen position of being under siege, and even central government is reluctant to engage in the shambles.
As a user of rideshare services (Uber, Zoomy, and Ola), I always ask the driver about business. Unsurprisingly, since the bus changes those companies have seen a large surge in activity. “You’d be surprised by how many people we pick up from bus stops these days,” one driver told me.
Interestingly, Google is probably doing more to manage traffic flow across the city than anyone else. It’s “Traffic” App in the last few months has started routing flow more actively leading to congestion in places that are off the state highways and were never designed for such high traffic flows.
As the graphic shows below, the normal route for Eastern Suburbs Traffic is to follow State Highway One, however, as peak flows have increased (if you followed that route at peak, you’d be looking at close to an hour’s travel), Google has moved the optimal route dynamically.
In this case, traffic is routed to avoid the airport, by taking it through Miramar. Then, traffic is diverted around Cobham Drive through Kilbirnie and via Hataitai, rejoining SH1 at the very congested and dangerous intersection on the south side of Mt Victoria tunnel. The resulting congestion through Miramar, Kilbirnie, and Hataitai is anecdotally far higher than previously.
The only company in charge of trying to manage Wellington’s transport issues is a global multi-national from halfway around the world.
This election we are likely to see the same rhetoric as the last, no doubt the “two lanes to the planes” by-line or similar will be rolled out by one or more candidates. It will be interesting to see the Mayor’s stance on this as he has been a proponent of this indirectly as well as the second Mt Victoria tunnel.
But what causes a resident to vote one way or other on the transport issue? What kind of enticements can potential Wellington City Councillors? Well, we can expect to see a few things along the way.
The two lanes to the planes is likely to be reborn into something new, that catchphrase has flown (excuse the pun) and a new brand will be required. That will have to throw a second Mt Victoria tunnel into the mix. Enter the various lobby groups to respond and be outraged, which often has a reverse effect on behaviour of voters. Being told by lobby groups that this is a bad idea will shift people to vote for it. It’s that Kiwi rebellion foible we have; when told we can’t do something then we want to do it.
That move to two lanes to the planes including an extra tunnel is simply unrealistic. Even if the city could afford it, which it can’t, then it would be decades in the making. A second tunnel has been mooted for decades with no progress. However, as an election inducement, it works very well.
The more likely battle area will be public transport, in particular, the bus service. Any candidate that promises to sort that out is going to get votes, let’s face it. The problem here is that the WCC as it currently stands has very little power over the GWRC who are ultimately the controllers of the service itself. In some respects, that makes it a good issue to champion because afterwards you can throw rocks over the fence at GWRC and complain about the lack of ability to change anything.
The bus service issues are not going away anytime in the next year or two. In fact, it is possible that there is a point where if the contracted provider is continually punished for its poor service it may choose to exit the contract, leaving the city with no transport provider. While this would be unusual, it is not uncommon, with similar outsource arranged contracts over the years failing in similar ways. Once the contract is being debated and open on the table in every meeting, the outsource service is ultimately doomed.
There are votes here to win if a candidate can provide an alternate, if unrealistic, approach to public transport. For example, the first candidate that suggests that we throw out the GWRC bus service and replace it with our own Council controlled service, will win a lot of votes.
Any current Councillor that tries to play up the cycleways “successes” is likely to damage their brand and lose votes. Same goes for any potential candidates who push this method of transport. Regardless of what you think about cycleways, they have become a flash point where wars are fought between the Council and the public. The shadow of Island Bay is ridiculously long and will continue to be so because the Council failed to shut down the discussion.
In fact, the reverse angle may prove to be popular with voters. That is, an anti-cycleway candidate, or candidates, that deliberately attack the transport method to score votes. That would be a populist move that would likely suck up a lot of media attention, given that these stories sell significant advertising.
For a cynical candidate there are multiple, emotional, unrealistic levers that can be pulled to garner votes. Promise two lanes to the planes along with a second tunnel. Attack the GWRC over public transport and invoke Kiwi attitude by suggesting we get rid of them and go it alone. Attack the cycleways past and present.
Any other solutions are too complex, regardless of their need, for the public to consume over their reading of Stuff on Facebook for three seconds.
And that’s where this election will be fought with transport at the top of the list.