Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff
Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff

SocietyMarch 22, 2021

Changing the future ‘before it’s too late’: the case for rail in Christchurch

Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff
Image: Getty Images/The Spinoff

For more than 20 years, Christchurch has agonised over rail while its residents continue to drive like no other major centre in the country. The latest mass rapid transit business case is different, planners insist: it might actually come to something.

Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes, the saying goes. In Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand, you can be certain of two more things: people overwhelmingly choose to drive, and any attempt to reduce parking or price it more reasonably will be met with furious protests and political tantrums.

According to the most recent census data, 76.1% of Christchurch residents typically drive or are driven to work – more than either Auckland or Wellington. Just 4.2% take public transport, an indictment on an ailing bus system that has failed to restore patronage levels to what they were a decade ago before the earthquakes. For several years, authorities have spent less per capita on public transport than the other two main centres. 

And it shows.

On any day of the week, you can stand at a busy intersection like the corner of Barbadoes St and Moorhouse Ave, a dour strip of big box retail stores, and watch a stream of cars go by, most with just a single person at the wheel. Cycling is big in Christchurch, thanks to its flat topography and council investment in an integrated cycleway network, but the car is king.

Further down Moorhouse, the fate of one building symbolises that ascension. The former central train station – a beautiful, four-storey brick structure – was demolished in 2012, decades after the final passenger rail services in Christchurch came to a stop. The station, an anachronism in an autocentric city, was repurposed long before it was levelled, housing Science Alive before it was damaged in the earthquakes. Its replacement: a petrol station.

Writing for Slate, local journalist James Dann bemoaned how Christchurch had largely missed the opportunity to rebuild anew after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. It was supposed to be the first 21st century city, he wrote. Instead, it is the last city of the 20th century: sprawling and low density. There are bright spots, like the new central library, Tūranga, but as of 2019 there was still twice as much built floor space in the inner city dedicated to parking than housing people.

And Christchurch has a lot of parking.

A bus pulls up outside the Christchurch Bus Interchange, a new facility built after the earthquakes.
A bus pulls up outside the Christchurch Bus Interchange, a new facility built after the earthquakes (Photo: Supplied)

Roughly 64 hectares within the four avenues is used to store cars. Some city councillors have suggested having more than 35,000 car parks in the inner city might be too much, while others have bucked at the prospect of raising parking charges to be more in line with Auckland and Wellington. Compared to those centres, driving in Christchurch is cheap, easy and far more attractive than public transport.

Having declared a climate change emergency and set a goal of net zero greenhouse gases for the city by 2045, the city council recognises the transport sector – which makes up more than half of city emissions – is unsustainable going forward. The population of Greater Christchurch is forecast to hit 640,000 by 2048; if the city can’t make a dent in car reliance and the number of single-person trips, emissions and congestion will skyrocket. The mode shift plan for the wider Canterbury region says, on current trends, vehicle trips will increase 11% over the next 10 years and 19% over the next 20 years. Better public transport, including mass rapid transit (MRT), is needed.

So where is it?

Before the 2017 election swept Jacinda Ardern to power, Labour was promising commuter rail between Rolleston and central Christchurch. Both Rolleston, to the southwest of the city, and Rangiora, to the north, benefited massively from post-quake migration, attracting new residents with an abundance of cheap, stable land. New motorway connections linking the satellite towns to Christchurch have only made them more appealing to commuters. 

When Labour made its Rolleston pledge, it noted on its website: “Restoring commuter rail in Christchurch has been proposed since before the earthquakes.”

Not wrong. Every five years or so, planners joke, local authorities seem to commission a new study investigating the viability of rail for the city. Like a commitment-phobic lover, Christchurch, stereotyped before the earthquakes as stuffy and conservative, has repeatedly made overtures towards rail only to fall back on the safety of the status quo.

A 1999 report, for instance, commissioned by the city council, investigated light rail, including routes down busy streets such as Riccarton Rd. Costs for each route ranged between $30m and $60m, the report found, before concluding that not enough passengers would use the service and the cost would be hard to justify. The council looked at light rail again in 2007 and again under the leadership of mayor Bob Parker. After the earthquakes, the council included plans for a commuter rail network in its draft central city recovery plan, noting Christchurch was now the largest city in Australasia without any form of commuter rail.

“With the need for significant investment to rebuild the central city, now is an opportune time to consider how rail can play a major role by stimulating investment in the recovery of the city,” the plan said.

This never happened. Earthquake tsar Gerry Brownlee didn’t approve the plan, and its replacement, the Blueprint, didn’t mention rail at all. In the intervening decade, Christchurch has been leapfrogged by similar-sized cities like Canberra, which launched the first stage of its light rail network in 2019. The Australian capital, also known as an autocentric city, has seen uplift in land values and population along the route, as well as solid patronage. Smaller European cities, like Freiburg, in Germany, have extensive tramway networks.

Meanwhile, Christchurch has lagged behind.

Graph courtesy of Andrew Douglas-Clifford

So what was Megan Woods talking about before the election last year? On the campaign trail, the then-Greater Christchurch regeneration minister said she hoped development of a mass rapid transit option for Greater Christchurch would start this term, ie before the 2023 election.

Speaking to The Spinoff last month, Woods reiterated that ambition, but made it plain that the local councils needed to come up with a viable business case first. “It is definitely my hope that we do get shovels in the ground this term,” she said. “It is my hope and my hopes are usually grounded in reality.”

Transport minister Michael Wood, by contrast, was more circumspect, saying he needed to see what the business case recommended in terms of mode, funding and timing before setting any expectations. Given where planning is at, others have shot down the timeline suggested by Woods as unrealistic.

Consultants started on the indicative mass rapid transit business case in mid-2020, with the work expected to be finished later this year. The study is part of the wider Greater Christchurch Public Transport Futures project, an overarching body of work being carried out in partnership with the NZ Transport Agency, Waka Kotahi; Environment Canterbury (ECan); Christchurch City Council; and the Waimakariri and Selwyn district councils. A $115m business case focused on improving the bus network has already been completed as part of the project and is sitting with Waka Kotahi for consideration. In a separate, major development this month, ECan councillors voted to investigate the possibility of making public transport free for a two-year trial period.

The two corridors being considered for MRT run north towards Rangiora and southwest towards Rolleston (Source: 2018 future public transport business case)

But what about MRT?

In many ways, mass rapid transit is more about land use than it is transport – the mode and where it goes will help determine the future urban form of Greater Christchurch. The potential of the project has, accurately, been described as transformative: it will shape the city for decades to come.

Stewart Gibbon, general manager of public transport for ECan, says Christchurch is trying to avoid the problems facing Auckland and Wellington. The city can either install MRT proactively, or, like Auckland, it can wait until the streets are clogged with cars before staging some kind of public transport intervention.

“If you’re going to retrofit MRT to an existing urban environment, it’s going to cost you a lot more than if you were to build the urban environment in sync with the investment in MRT,” Gibbon says.

“We’re trying to do that.”

As for the details, public documents and statements show two things: the two broad corridors being looked at for MRT run from Christchurch north to Rangiora and southwest to Rolleston, and the mode is yet to be determined. Documents from a recent city council meeting suggest planners are looking at three scenarios in their modelling: using the existing heavy rail corridors that run between both satellite towns and the city, a limited-stop on-road service and a frequent-stop on-road service. The on-road options include everything from light rail through to trackless trams or express busways like the Northern Busway in Auckland.

The Spinoff understands there is tension between the councils about the preferred mode and routes. If you use the existing heavy rail corridors, for example, to run passenger rail services between Christchurch and Rolleston and Rangiora, that is likely to concentrate development in the satellite towns and around a small number of stations, though there is also potential to create new transit-orientated developments in the likes of Belfast or under-utilised industrial areas in Christchurch. If you ran light rail up Riccarton Rd or another main arterial, however, development would be less dispersed and more concentrated in the city (MRT increases the value of nearby land, leading to more development and more dense development along the corridor).

The current business case does not assume MRT will go ahead, rather it is looking at different scenarios and modelling what conditions would be needed to make it viable. And planners are taking a long-term view. The Spinoff understands the modelling is looking roughly 30 years out – essentially planners want to understand future demand and then reverse engineer the solution.

“You look out the window today and look at the traffic volumes: there simply isn’t enough demand to warrant mass rapid transit in Greater Christchurch,” Gibbon said.

“When we talk about conditions for MRT, we are talking about what is the population threshold and the density thresholds and the commercial activity thresholds that are needed to make some form of MRT viable.”

While more townhouses, apartments and terraced housing are being built, Christchurch is still extremely low density. A 2018 study setting out the future public transport work programme shows, outside the central city, Riccarton had the highest average density with 14.2 houses per hectare. Medium density zoning aims for a minimum of 30 houses per hectare. That same study had a timeframe for when construction would start on MRT: more than a decade out, so in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

That seems to contradict the optimism shown by Woods.

A decade on, use of the bus network still hasn’t reached pre-earthquake levels (Source: ECan data)

The current indicative business case will help clarify timeframes, Gibbon says. And there is a further $2.5m set aside in the Draft Canterbury Regional Land Transport Plan for a detailed MRT business case (this will provide precise costs to develop a particular mode on a particular corridor). The budget period for this second business case extends out to 2023/24. Notably, the draft plan – which covers transport investments out to 2031 – doesn’t budget any capital costs for MRT because the planning isn’t advanced enough. It can be amended to include MRT funding, though, by variation or through a review process in 2024. Either way, progress seems a long way off.

In a statement provided to The Spinoff, Gibbon said the time frame suggested by Woods is unlikely. In a phone interview, though, he was more flexible. “I can never say never,” he said, pointing to quick progress getting the Te Huia rail service between Waikato and Auckland up and running. And there are things you could do relatively quickly in Christchurch, too, he said, like putting commuter rail services on the heavy rail corridor to Rolleston or greater levels of express bus services between the satellite towns and the city.

Maybe those kinds of solutions might come first, as an interim step before more investment-heavy options like light rail become viable? 

“A possible scenario might be that we take progressive steps towards a final MRT solution,” Gibbon agreed. However, things are still likely to take time. 

“It’s a complex jigsaw puzzle and nothing happens in five minutes.”

To meet the density thresholds to make MRT viable, the relevant district councils will almost certainly need to up-zone land around the corridors, or at least signal they will when the time comes for construction. Other measures to support mode shift could include investigating congestion charging or reviewing parking policies. Authorities will have to decide, too, how to fund the project and whether to look at a targeted rate or development levy to capture land value uplift along the corridor.

And it is important, Gibbon said, that the current MRT work is aligned with spatial and other future-focused planning in the city. 

“Current work is identifying potential corridors and enabling policy changes to support intensification and regeneration in key areas.”

While this may all sound relatively uncertain, The Spinoff has spoken to people involved with this round of planning who believe it has far more chance of success than all the previous, abandoned proposals. 

To date, the only publicly available work from the business case consultants is a set of problem and benefit statements about MRT presented to a partnership committee last December. Future projections show the consequences of current settlement and travel patterns continuing, the document says: significant increases in transport costs, congestion, reduced accessibility to key social and economic opportunities and increasing emissions.

“There is an opportunity to change this future – before it’s too late – by focusing development around high-demand mass rapid transit corridors that significantly enhance low-carbon transport options.”

We have been here before. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Christchurch built extensive rail and tram networks – like muscles on bone, development in the city grew from and followed the tracks. People biked, too. Cycling was once so popular, Christchurch earned the nickname Cyclopolis.

In a way, the city needs to look back to move forward. It can either continue down the path of car reliance and congestion or, with the clock ticking to reduce global emissions, it can choose a different, more sustainable future.

Keep going!