The BTS Sky Train running from downtown Bangkok to the airport is a similar system to what's proposed for Auckland. (Photo: Getty Images)

Why this new plan for Auckland rapid transit is stupid (and sexist)

They might sound like the same thing, but light rail is quite different from light metro – the system that transport minister Phil Twyford now favours for Auckland. Katy Wakefield and  Emma McInnes of Women in Urbanism explain why the metro option is a poor substitute for LRT.

Transport is a feminist issue. The issue of how we move around our cities and towns is a feminist issue. Women have complex daily lives, more so than men. This is a well-researched fact, the world over.

The reason for this is largely because work is still extremely gendered. Women still have more to juggle in a day – including employment, household work and caregiving for the young and the old. Women do 75% of the world’s unpaid care work, according to Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women, and this has an impact on their travel needs. Women tend to make different trips and journeys than men during the day. They also have different mobility needs. Despite that, we live in a world where the trips women make are overlooked in the world of transport planning. We live in a world that isn’t designed for women at all.

Here’s a transport-specific example: women globally, and locally, are more likely to walk and take public transport than men. Men are more likely to drive than women, and if a household owns a car, it is the man who predominantly has access to the vehicle. Yet we have inconsistent and dangerous walking and public transport networks, but a world-class road system for cars. We invest more in our road network than the modes of transport used mostly by women.

Men are more likely to have a simple daily travel routine, a twice-daily commute in and out of town. Women’s travel is more complex. Women more often “trip chain” – follow a travel pattern of small interconnected trips, such as dropping the kids off at school, getting the groceries, going to work, and taking an elderly relative to the doctor. Yet we don’t have public transport systems that can withstand this complex pattern of travel.

Women are also less happy to travel after dark in unlit, unmaintained areas, devoid of other humans. It’s easy to see why, given that women in Aotearoa regularly report distressing levels of harassment and feeling unsafe in public spaces.

Illustration by Toby Morris

All this leads us to the decision on what light rail will look like in Auckland’s future.

Light rail had been planned for Dominion Road several years ago, and was due to be built before 2021. However in the meantime, another option was tabled – light metro, which the government began to consider alongside the light rail option. With a new election cycle beginning soon, we believe it is critical to make the case for light rail.


Read: A blame guide for the Auckland light rail cluster-shemozzle uber-bungle


The future connection from Māngere to Queen Street needs foremost to be about connecting communities, not just about speed from the city to the airport. Men have a tendency to design the tallest, fastest, most expensive and most phallic infrastructure. We want public transport that looks after the needs of the mum in Mount Roskill who wants to be able to get to childcare and then work in Onehunga. Or to help the student in Māngere to get to university in the city.

Transport minister Phil Twyford in campaigning mode. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

LRT is light rail that runs right along the street, like a tram. Light metro either runs underground, or is elevated above the street.

Here’s why the former works better for Auckland:

Accessibility

Because LRT runs at street level, access is easy and quick for everyone, including those with different mobility needs. There are no lifts or stairs – you just hop on board. Light metro, however, requires people to travel up or down to stations, relying on the use of (working) lifts and stairs. This adds time and complexity to journeys.

Light metro also has fewer stops along the way, favouring saving time over being accessible to more people. Street level LRT allows for more stops along the line to serve a wider catchment of people, especially along the Dominion Road corridor. LRT allows stops to be located in the right places to suit the neighbourhoods it runs through (the middle of town and village centres, near convenient walking connections and side street links, for example), rather than the stations needing to be located where it is feasible to build them – which is often the wrong place for users.

Convenient access to key destinations on the line is particularly beneficial for women, who “trip chain” more often than men.

Green Island Railway Station underpass, Dunedin (Photo: Karlya Smith)

Personal safety

Getting on and off LRT at street level means there are more eyes on the street around you at all times, which counts especially after dark and especially for women who need to be and feel safe to benefit from public transport.

​​Light metro means waiting at lonely station platforms; access relies on lifts and stairwells, and potentially over- and underpasses, which can be isolated places at night.

Light metro also requires lifts, CCTV and lighting to be maintained and kept in working order – working lifts in particular are vital for pushchair and wheelchair users. For light metro to operate accessibly, these maintenance costs need to remain a priority in every budget, whatever the political and economic climate.

Cost

LRT is not only cheaper and faster to build, it requires hardly any station maintenance – since there aren’t any stations to begin with. An LRT line could be built from Māngere to Queen Street plus another line in the northwest, for far less money than one metro line from Māngere to Queen Street. Metro is three times the cost of LRT, so we get only one third as much for the same money (or residents end up paying three times as much for about the same thing through rates, taxes or user charges).

An artist’s impression showing how nice light rail would look on Dominion Road (Image: Auckland Council)

Local business

Light rail increases the number of people walking on the street. That improves walkers’ personal safety, which in turn attracts more people. More foot traffic – along with the peace and fresh air of low-congestion streets – helps create an environment where businesses can thrive. Light metro, on the other hand, requires passengers to wait for trains away from shops, on elevated or underground platforms. It leaves the street dominated by traffic (and potentially by ugly infrastructure) and creates a far less inviting, customer-friendly streetscape.

Streets and homes

There is this strange idea out there that a metro that is elevated, trenched or tunnelled is somehow less impactful because it’s not running on the street. In fact it’s far more damaging than street level LRT. For example, in all light metro scenarios, houses and businesses along Dominion Road would have to be demolished to make way for an overpass or underpass.

A tram on Auckland’s Dominion Road, the last time the city had them in place (Photo: Graham C Stewart / Walsh Memorial Library, MOTAT)

Dominion Road is the flattest, straightest north-south route through the heart of the Auckland isthmus. It’s lined with shops and businesses and schools. It’s a historic tram route. Add LRT and bike-scoot lanes, and it would become Auckland’s great green artery through the most densely populated suburbs, connecting old Auckland to south Auckland, and both to the central city. It’s a great route to run 21st century transport along.

Auckland was originally planned around tram lines, and once had an incredibly comprehensive tram network that covered most of the city. The city is perfectly suited to street-level light rail. We still have the wide arterials that were designed for trams; after Dominion Road, more lines could continue to be added in the future.

Public transport is for much more than making niche city-to-airport trips. It’s for the people, and a people’s public transport route has to serve all kinds. We don’t need ultra-expensive infrastructure with a view of the clouds. We need infrastructure that works for everyday people, trying to make everyday sustainable trips. To do this, we need to start to listen to the voices not heard in our planning process, and start designing an equitable world that is actually inclusive of everyone.

Women in Urbanism Aotearoa is currently running a campaign for a more equitable street level light rail option. Sign the petition here.



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