can transit-only streets work in small cities?

Yes, says Wellington, New Zealand (pop. 389,000)!


In North American debates about pedestrian and transit malls, we're usually told that such things only work in Europe, with the implication that age, historic density, and cultural history of European cities makes them unrealistic mentors for the young North American city.  Well, as an urban culture, New Zealand is even younger than North America.  In fact, the urbanization of both Australia and New Zealand happened around the same time as that of the North American west, and the level of attachment to cars is also comparable.  So North America needs a better excuse!

Wellington's "Golden Mile," long the core business strip and highrise office district, is now a two-lane, largely bus-only facility, the last bit of which was finished last November.  It features generous sidewalks, near-continuous awnings for shelter (a city requirement) and hardly any commercial vacancies.   In fact, the whole thing appeared to be bustling throughout my stay the past week, with plenty of pedestrians and plenty of activity around the abundant street-level retail that lines the entire thing. 

The pic above, of course, was taken by the City on a perfect sunny day.  Having spent most of the last week in a conference room, I can offer only pics taken early in the morning:


Note the green paint.  In Australia and New Zealand there is never any question about where bus lanes are, and zero excuse for not noticing them.  Note also that the red bus is about to turn right from one green lane into another; the Golden Mile isn't entirely straight, but the green lines (and abundant buses) make it perfectly clear where it is, and how it works.

I'll come back to some of the interesting details of the Golden Mile, but meanwhile, next time someone tells you that North American cities can't emulate Europe, ask why they can't emulate New Zealand!

First photo:  City of Wellington

30 Responses to can transit-only streets work in small cities?

  1. Eric Doherty June 18, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    Maybe this also suggests that transit only streets work better with electric transit vehicles. Noise, and the stench of diesel exhaust does not make for a great pedestrian street.
    Can’t tell for sure from the photos, is there a mix of diesel/gas buses as well as trolley buses?

  2. Jarrett at June 18, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Mix of trolley and diesel buses, yes, and a more even mix than Granville Mall in Vancouver. 

  3. JJJJ June 18, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    How long until the first person comes in to say
    “That looks nice, but it would be/work so much better with trains instead”
    Ive got 4 hours.

  4. Cap'n Transit June 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    City size isn’t the main factor, and neither is density. The critical factor is modeshare; if you have too many cars people will drive away from the pedestrian center. If transit is infrequent or inconvenient people will not stay where it’s hard to drive.

  5. Alon Levy June 18, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    It’s also a function of street width; this is why it’s easier to pedestrianize in old cities than in new cities, rather than an attachment-to-cars factor. The street in question doesn’t look very wide to me – perhaps 18 meters building to building, which for small-city main streets is narrow enough to be turned into a transit mall.

  6. Gus June 18, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    This street (Manners Street) was actually de-pedestrianised to construct the transit mall. While geographically speaking it does sit near on smack bang in the middle of the CBD, It’s not really a ‘main street’ by any means, as until now there was no road through there. See the map below. The new transit mall runs on Manners St between Cuba and Victoria. The CBD is (roughly) the area bound by Thorndon to the north, the motorway to the west, Buckle/Arthur Sts to the south, and Mt Victoria to the east, with the main high-rise district being north of Manners St around Willis St, Featherston St, Lambton Quay, and The Terrace.

  7. Tom West June 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    @Alon: I’ve heard the opposite argument – that only wide streets can be made transit only, because buses need room to overtake one another!
    The reality is that different street widths need different designs (shockingly!).
    @Eric: Stephenson St, Birmingham, UK has well over 100 diesel buses per hour throughout most of the day. It’s no worse than standing next to a busy street with 500 cars per hour.

  8. Nathanael June 18, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    I consider that a midsized city, but then I come from a small city.

  9. Matthew Flower June 19, 2011 at 12:39 am #

    The AiportFlyer bus is Orange. But it’s awesome you’re in my hometown! You coming to Auckland?

  10. Jarrett June 19, 2011 at 2:22 am #

    @Gus. It’s not fair to say that Manners St was “de-pedestrianised”. There are plenty of pedestrians there, possibly more than before at some times. I’m also referring to the entirety of the Golden Mile, not just this segment.

  11. Scott June 19, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    “In Australia and New Zealand there is never any question about where bus lanes are, and zero excuse for not noticing them” This made me laugh. Just search for “bus lane nzherald” and you will see what I mean.
    “That looks nice, but it would be/work so much better with trains instead”
    Wellington also has a very high ridership heavy rail system for a city of its size. However it has been criticized for a lack of investment in recent decades. The NZR DM class (build 1938 – 1954) are still used in regular service.
    Trolleybuses were used historically used in Wellington for routes too steep for the tram network. The tram network has been ripped up decades ago, the trolleybuses remain.
    Unfortunately due to the high standby cost of line workers (i think) the trolly buses are not run on weekends, instead they are replaced by diesel buses.

  12. Jarrett at June 19, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    I admit I haven't been to every bus lane in Aus and NZ.  I can describe only the ones I've seen in Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland, and Wellington.  Perhaps there are some that I didn't see because they weren't marked.
    Trolleybuses currently look very expensive to operate in Wellington, as they do in Seattle.  Proposals to replace them with motorbuses make bottom-line sense in the short term, but are much more problematic in the long term when you factor in obvious but less quantifiable issues like fuel security and GHG emissions.  So it's understandable that they "economize" in the short term, e.g. by not running trolleys on weekends, but continue to retain the trolleybuses.  Besides, people love them.

  13. Alon Levy June 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    @Tom West: in an LRT-grade transit mall, all vehicles make all stops (unless they’re emergency vehicles), so there’s no need for overtakes. I understand it’s different for Bogota-grade BRT, but I imagine that a trolleybus route would function more like LRT than like diesel BRT.
    By the way, I checked Manners on Google Earth, and it seems to be 15 meters building to building. For comparison, Manhattan streets are 18 meters.

  14. Matt June 19, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    @JJJJ – there is a call for light rail in Wellington, but the best route for it is not the Golden Mile (Lambton Quay, Willis and Victoria Streets, Manners St and Courtney Place) but on the Quays (Waterloo, Customhouse and Jervois Quays with Cable and Wakefield Street). The Quays is currently a bit of a racetrack, and needs to be slowed and tamed and, if it is a word, boulevardised, but that can really only be done if the Inner City Bypass is taken off Vivian and Buckle Street, and is undergrounded under Buckle Street and the Basin Reserve. The NZTA (the transport ministry) is currently doing a somewhat of a sham public consultation on exactly that, and railroading (the irony of the term railroading here is amusing, so maybe I should use the word driving instead) through an ugly flyover option instead.
    The final outcome will be far from ideal. There’ll be a finished inner city bypass motorway (which will soon be congested). The Quays won’t be fixed properly and it will still be a barrier between the city and the waterfront, and there will be no light rail (and the study into it is only to shut up the Mayor and councillors as part of the shambolic consultation). The best Welllingtonians are going to get in the next few years is a few improvements to the bus system south of the Golden Mile. They can ask for a lot more, but no one in central government is listening.

  15. PBY June 19, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    The “Golden Mile” has skinny 2-lane bus only parts like Manners St in the picture and very wide parts like North Lambton Quay where it is 4 lanes + parking + planted median and wide footpaths.
    Its not the width of the road that determines how successful the PT route will be. Its about designing the different width parts differently.
    I think the Golden Mile route is still the best for any future PT spine in Wellington.

  16. Aidan Stanger June 20, 2011 at 12:30 am #

    Note the green paint. In Australia and New Zealand there is never any question about where bus lanes are, and zero excuse for not noticing them.

    Everywhere I’ve been with colour coded roads has red bus lanes and green cycle lanes. What colour are the cycle lanes in Wellington?

  17. PBY June 20, 2011 at 2:53 am #

    Cyclists can use the green bus lanes, unless they are signed as “Bus Only”. Cycle lanes are generally marked with a white stripe and a cycling logo. There are a few areas where cycle lanes crossing vehicle entrances to commercial property are painted green, I think thats just to get the attention of car drivers though.
    Wellington needs more dedicated cycle lanes, the CBD is small enough that cycling is usually the fastest way to get around.

  18. Jarrett at June 20, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    Aidan.  Good point.  Red bus lanes are common in Aus, and are the standard in Sydney where they're quite common.  NZ seems to prefer green, but also uses green for bicycles, with white stencils of bikes on them.  I guess if a green patch of pavement is too small for a bus, we're to understand it as a cycle lane, unless it's just an experiment in developing photosynthetic pavement to scrub carbon from the air.

  19. EngineerScotty June 20, 2011 at 9:47 am #

    What do you mean by “LRT-grade” transit mall?
    Best practice for a transit mall (whether bus only or bus/rail mixed) is to have 2+ exclusive transit lanes per direction with skip-stop service; this is especially true for surface malls where transit vehicles may be stopped by cross traffic. And by “transit mall”, I mean an area where many bus services converge (such as the transit malls in Portland, Minneapolis, or Ottawa) with headways measured in seconds, not a shopping district situated on a busway, with headways measured in minutes. (If you have busses arriving at headways that are a multiple of the average dwell time; then yes, a single lane will suffice).
    Portland’s mall is configured as such, and handles 180 busses and 10 trains per hour per direction without breaking a sweat; Ottawa famously has a single-lane-per-direction mall which is a major bottleneck for its otherwise fine BRT system.

  20. Wad June 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    I would actually like a shopping district along a bus lane, Scotty.
    The California transit malls (Long Beach, San Bernardino, Santa Rosa) have transit amenities stuck on forgotten streets. You’ll often see parking garages or the rear ends of buildings mooning the passengers. This makes the transit malls appear hidden in plain sight.
    Long Beach recently was able to attract development to the Transit Mall itself. A few midrise rental buildings were built along a promenade, and two of the buildings have fronts to the Transit Mall along First Street. A hotel will go up on what is now a surface parking lot.

  21. Alan Robinson June 20, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    @ Jarrett
    Be careful when suggesting photosynthesizing paint.

  22. EngineerScotty June 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    Nothing wrong with shopping districts along bus lanes… I’m just trying to separate two distinct applications that are both commonly called “transit mall”.

  23. Alon Levy June 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    When I said LRT-grade transit mall, I meant one intended primarily for light rail rather than buses. The Calgary transit mall is two-tracked.

  24. Scott June 21, 2011 at 4:23 am #

    Jarrett, In NZ despite well marked bus lanes many people “plead innocence” and blame the bus lane markings. The main news paper has run many “anti bus” lane articles accusing the council of “revenue gathering”. Many car drivers blame bus lanes for congestion despite clear evidence otherwise.
    A study done by the auckland council found most drivers that drove in bus lanes knew the rules and were not put off by additional signage, rather only by the presence of an enforcement officer.
    Your observations about the Seattle trolly buses seem similar to the Wellington situation. Prior to the construction of the current trolly buses the entire fleet very old, run-down and unreliable. The financial modeling favored diesel replacement, however it became a media issue and the council decided to update the trolly bus fleet as a city icon. I really like the trolly buses. Wish we had a cleaner running bus fleet here in Auckland.

  25. M1EK June 21, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    In order for this to be truly applicable to the US experience, we need to know
    – How much does gas cost in NZ compared to, say, median income?
    – What other taxes do drivers pay?
    – How much does the typical driving commuter pay for parking?
    Transit-only malls like this would and do work in a couple of US cities. Nobody’s disputing that. What’s up for dispute is the idea that because suburban people will (sometimes) ride buses in cities like SF and NY, they’ll ride them in Sunbelt cities where parking is free.

  26. Alon Levy June 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Transit malls are done on all surface modes – diesel buses, trolleybuses, light rail. Portland has a light rail transit mall in a one-way pair, and Calgary has one on a two-way street. It’s a standard way to run trains through a downtown area that has no preexisting dedicated right-of-way without blowing the entire budget on a tunnel.

  27. Zoltán June 22, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    Whatever parking costs, and whatever fuel and other taxes area, there will be people that need or want public transport, which most of the time means a bus. Some people can’t afford and don’t have a car; others have difficulty affording a car and would prefer to have no or fewer cars, others live in households with fewer cars than occupants and don’t have use of a car all of the time. So to take an area and say “people won’t ride buses” seems extremely fatuous.
    Working to create an a concentration of the things people need to get to in a pleasant pedestrian environment, and creating as frequent a service there as any city’s circumstances make possible, can only be of benefit to those people who want to use public transport. Often, public transport improvements increase the mobility of those people that already used public transport as much as they attract anyone new, and given that life in North America is hard without a car, that’s no bad thing.
    If what you’re actually getting at here is “people won’t ride buses… but they will ride rail”, I stick by the view that it’s mostly about cost, journey time, frequency and being of tolerable levels of comfort. Besides, if you do build rail in your small North American city, your city will still need a whole lot of buses, and why waste the benefits of the right of way you’ve created for the rail line downtown in being a good route for bus service too? That might even justify exclusivity from general traffic that rail alone doesn’t.

  28. Gus June 23, 2011 at 12:25 am #

    @Jarrett Sorry I was replying to the comment above mine, and I meant de-pedestrianised in the sense that the function of the street changed from pedestrian only to a mix of modes.

  29. M1EK June 23, 2011 at 5:41 am #

    Would that it were that easy. You can sometimes get suburbanites in Sun Belt cities to ride the bus if you give them a good train first, but even that’s iffy. It’s ignoring reality to pretend that choice commuters in, say, Houston are as likely to ride the bus as they are the train – and if you’re not shooting for choice commuters here, you’re never going to get the political will to get any dedicated right-of-way anyways.

  30. Chris Kok June 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    It seems that looking at the difference between Europe, the US, and Oceania is the right level of analysis. Each site needs to be evaluated at street level. I’m sure there are places in suburbanized Los Angeles that would have the urban density, transit density and numbers of pedestrians to make a pedestrian/transit mall work. It all depends on the local characteristics.