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PoliticsDecember 7, 2023

A new plan for Wellington, post-Let’s Get Wellington Moving


A top transport expert lays out some new ideas to fix the capital’s transport troubles.

Let’s Get Wellington Moving is dead. The three-headed transport monster, run equally by Waka Kotahi, Wellington City Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council, but somehow less effective than any of them individually, is set to be cancelled by a new three-headed monster: the coalition government.

Detailing everything that went wrong with Let’s Get Wellington Moving could take up several books. It started as a well-intentioned plan to get everyone together and complete a set list of plans to fix Wellington’s public transport. The plans it came up with were controversial. The right didn’t like light rail, the left didn’t like the Mt Victoria tunnel, and there was lots of petty squabbling about smaller projects like the Cobham Drive crossing. More importantly, the implementation was horrendous. The programme was slow, unaccountable, disjointed, with a confusing name that became bitterly ironic after years of talking and no shovels in the ground.

National wants to continue with one core project, the Mt Victoria tunnel and Basin Reserve road changes. But one project isn’t going to be enough to fix Wellington’s transport problems. As we move past Let’s Get Wellington Moving, it’s clear the city still needs some kind of plan with a broad vision.

There are going to be a lot of debates within Wellington over the next months and years about how to tackle this problem, especially with a Green-led council that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with central government.

Greg Pollock (Photo: Supplied)

There’s probably no one who understands Wellington’s transport better than Greg Pollock. He was the managing director of Transdev New Zealand, which runs Auckland’s and Wellington’s trains, and the general manager of Metlink. He now runs a transport consulting firm. 

He says he felt frustrated by the lack of progress from Let’s Get Wellington Moving, but is even more concerned by the lack of direction the city will have without it. “I feel that Wellington can’t progress without a plan and a story that everyone buys into,” he says. “That plan can’t simply be the sum of three or four projects that different people do. If they don’t tie together, we lose the ability to plan the city properly and deliver something that people love.”

As a personal side-project (“This is not a pitch for business. This is me putting some ideas out there and hoping no one shoots me down in flames”), he’s been working on an alternative plan to replace Let’s Get Wellington Moving that he hopes could kick-start a conversation about the city’s future. “There’s nothing new here, but I’ve tried to stitch it together in a way which I think is balanced and meets the needs of Wellington.”

He describes his plan as “non-political”, but of course that isn’t true. Everything is political, especially government spending that decides what our neighbourhoods look like, how we move and live. Far from being non-political, one of the most interesting things about his plan is how well it navigates the tricky territory of transport politics, balancing transport modes that conservative governments tend to like (roads, tunnels) with the outcomes supported by progressive urbanists (walkability, public transport and denser living). 

He invited me into his office to talk me through his vision for Wellington.

All graphs courtesy of Greg Pollock.

Connect Porirua to the Hutt

The Petone-to-Grenada link road and Cross-Valley link are two dream projects for the Hutt Valley that local MP Chris Bishop has been championing for years. With National in government, it looks likely there could finally be some action (Labour supports the Cross-Valley link but opposed Petone-to-Grenada, claiming it was too expensive).

If the road could be built for a viable price, it would completely reshape regional Wellington’s transport corridors from a large V to a triangle, by providing direct access between Porirua and the Hutt. This would take some traffic away from Ngauranga Gorge, opening up space for a bus priority lane.

The Pōneke Tunnel

This is the most ambitious (and least realistic) part of Pollcok’s plan. National wants to go ahead with a second tunnel through Mount Victoria. Pollock thinks it should be even bigger, connecting Kilbirnie to State Highway 1 on the other side of the CBD, with off-ramp access at the hospital in Newtown.

The so-called “long tunnel” was considered by officials at the very beginning of the Let’s Get Wellington Moving programme but never saw the light of day. Greater Wellington Regional Council chair Daran Ponter said the cost of the long tunnel was “eye-watering“, and it was strongly opposed by Green MP Julie Anne Genter.

At 3km, the Pōneke Tunnel (as Pollock has dubbed it) would be the longest road tunnel ever built in New Zealand, 600m longer than Auckland’s Waterview connection.

“It would be expensive. There’s no doubt it would be a few billion dollars,” Pollock says. However, he predicts it would be cheaper than light rail, and would be less disruptive to build. Undergrounding traffic would improve bus access to the city, as well as making centre-city streets more pedestrian friendly and opening up attractive space for apartment buildings.

Bus lanes of national significance and extra parking buildings

Wellington’s bus priority action plan, which was developed while Pollock was running Metlink, plotted out a network of direct bus lanes feeding into the centre city. The council has made upgrades to the city’s bus lanes since then, but none of the work was done by Let’s Get Wellington Moving.

“You have to think about how a bus actually moves down a corridor. We’ve invested in double-decker buses, and a lot of our bus lanes are on the edge of the road, so the bus hits trees or lampposts, and it’s bouncing down in the gutter because it’s hitting the sumps. That’s not a great experience for people. We need to invest in bus lanes that are genuinely making trips faster, so that the bus network can compete with people choosing to drive.”

Putting in new bus lanes necessarily requires removing on-street car parking, so he suggests constructing parking buildings with 2000 new spaces.

A new plan for the Golden Mile

The Golden Mile is the most contentious part of the LGWM programme, but it’s clear that something needs to spruce up Courtenay Place and Lambton Quay.

It’s still unclear whether the current Golden Mile plan will go ahead. Both Wellington City Council and Waka Kotahi have already committed funding for construction to begin. Newly-minted transport minister Simeon Brown wants to pull government funding, but Waka Kotahi is specifically set up with a barrier of independence from the minister, so it’s not clear what Brown is legally able to do.

Pollock’s plan proposes something so obvious it’s shocking it hasn’t been done already: a trial. Wellington has spent years debating whether to convert the Golden Mile to bus-only, but all it takes is a few bollards and some signs to try it out in real-time.

“I would trial taking cars off the Golden Mile first, I believe it’s the right thing to do and I’m 100% behind it,” he says. But he would pause some of the bigger changes on the street, such as new parklets, cycle lanes, and footpath upgrades. “It would be more affordable for the city if we use more of what we’ve currently got, and just have buses moving down the Golden Mile and make that work really well.”

He suggests cutting off vehicle-turning access to the Lambton Quay side-streets, making Featherston St and all neighbouring streets two-way.

“It’s basically just a one-way flow right now. If you make Featherston St and all the side-streets two-way people will start moving around those and I think you’ll find those streets really come to life.”

As for the bus route, he wants to divert all Golden Mile buses onto Panama St with a new bus stop at Post Office Square, which would free up the narrowest part of Lambton Quay alongside Old Bank Arcade to be fully pedestrianised.

“You can create other fully pedestrian streets which connect through to the waterfront. You could make Waring Taylor Street fully pedestrian, coming off the back of Midland Park.”

A special economic zone for Te Aro

If Pollock got his long tunnel built, it would open up large areas at the back of Te Aro, which were previously dominated by SH1 traffic but could quickly become walkable and well-located streets.

He suggested working with central government to create a special economic zone to support new apartments, retail and entertainment areas.

“There’s the transport elements, planning, policy and property. You’ve got to get all of those pieces working well together to deliver good outcomes for the city,” he says.

How long would all this take? Pollock is optimistic (perhaps too optimistic) that it could all be done within five years.

Pollock is planning to present his plan to Wellington City Council, but he’s careful not to speculate about which political factions might support his plan. He insists, again, that he’s just trying to start a conversation.

“I think it’s a plan that could get support, but that’s not my job. I’m just offering some thinking because I’ve been involved in this stuff for a long time. I’m just gonna put it out there and see what happens.”

Keep going!