Bus Ban Mad Or Genius?


Wellington’s local body election is going to see a terrific debate about the role of public transport and pedestrians in an inner city.

I’ve been following property investor Sir Bob Jones’ enthusiastic endorsements of turning Wellington’s inner city into a vibrant, quirky pedestrian mall where buses and cars are banned.

Because the plan is so uncompromising, it’s slightly mad but rather inspiring.

He has assembled a group of people who will campaign on this issue.

It’s appears to be the group’s only election plank or at least it’s the only issue it has declared so far.

The one- time colourful national political figure and wealthy businessman himself won’t stand because he owns 10 major CBD buildings and sees a potential conflict of interest should he become Mayor. Good on him for his integrity but a pity.

No buses or cars but giving Wellington's golden mile to pedestrians

Jones’ plan is for the streets to be for people. He imagines cafes in the street where cars and buses used to travel,  a popular market place, maybe even an ice skating ring.

Possibly at some point later on,  he could see a couple of trams to get people from one end of town to another, or some form of modern light rail. But he adds that he has also seen overseas where trams get in the way of pedestrians enjoying the freedom of a mall.

His ideas have been inspired by his travels not just through familiar pedestrian-friendly European countries but some Eastern European countries where new experiments have created an interesting cityscape by letting pedestrians wander the streets.

To those who point out Wellington’s weather doesn’t feel friendly for outdoor cafes in the middle of Lambton Quay, Jones points out that the same applies to European cities which have even more bitter winters than Wellington’s.

And he says across the Tasman, the further extension of Brisbane’s Queen St as a pedestrian mall has been a success story.

He also points out that Cuba St as a pedestrian space was done decades ago and if it hadn’t been, it could well be a dead part of town.

The big irony in the scheme is this. Should his Vibrant Wellington team win the election against incumbent Kerry Prendergast, seeking her 4th term, they will take office just as buses get ready to return to Manners Mall. The final legal hurdles have been cleared for the city council to go ahead with its plan to mix buses and pedestrians there, in the once pedestrian-only street.

Manners Mall today will soon see buses running through it

And buses is where it gets tricky.

We can easily envisage Lambton Quay with no cars.

The contentious part of the scheme is when it comes to the issues of buses versus pedestrians.

Jones argues that buses and pedestrians are a terrible mix, and interrupts the Manners Mall policy of the council as one of making the city friendly towards buses rather than to its citizens.

He puts forward an interesting thesis that buses are for suburbs not the city and so need only a couple of city depots at which people can get on and off as they travel to the suburbs and city and back.

He’s dismissive of rows of buses tundering through the city streets at present, sometimes half empty but all subsidised by the council, a fact that irks him greatly.

Sir Bob Jones says there are too many buses around Lambton Quay

Wellington’s Chamber of Commerce CEO Charles Finny has expressed caution about the idea:

“I share Sir Bob’s desire for a good-looking, vibrant city with lots of public spaces. I also admire the European-style cities that Wellington is beginning to resemble and that our relatively compact nature tends us towards. But I am not convinced we yet have a sufficiently large population density, which typifies European cities, to sustain the vitality of a pedestrian road as long and large as the Golden Mile. The last thing we want is a dead zone.

Parts of the Golden Mile are so wide that it might not be a good look. Too large a pedestrian area might also dilute the appeal of the existing public spaces we already have. (Even Barcelona’s Las Ramblas and Zurich’s Bahnhoffstrasse might lose their appeal if neighbouring streets were pedestrianised.)

There is plenty of scope to beautify the city and increase public spaces without pedestrianising the Golden Mile and adding to existing congestion. I think the council has done some good things in this regard in recent years. The proposal to extend Cuba Mall as a “shared space”, the creation of Civic Square and the waterfront developments are cases in point. There is also potential to plant more trees, create more sculptures and fountains and introduce public squares and wider footpaths (where roads are sufficiently wide).

These proposals are far more sensible than banning cars.
Buses are often denigrated as an inferior mode of public transport but as technology progresses and buses modernise and become smaller and less obtrusive, there is increasingly less to distinguish them from light rail other than that they travel on rubber as opposed to metal wheels. Modern buses running along the Golden Mile “public transport spine” could look just as good. We already enjoy a hugely improved bus service as a result of the investments made by New Zealand Bus. We can expect continuing improvements.

The issue is all about balance. The city has to look good but it also has to function properly and it needs to facilitate economic growth. Wellington’s compact nature means that scarce road space needs to be used wisely thus limiting the scope for car-less roads.

Personally, I would hate to see the idea done half-heartedly because that is what so often happens, when councils tinker with the idea of a mall.

Or they lose faith, as happened in Onehunga.

Turning Queen St or part of it into a pedestrian mall has been an argument for decades.

Such a compromise was made recently by making Queen St more pedestrian friendly with wider footpaths and more pedestrian crossings, which have more frequent than normal cross now signalling for pedestrians.

All that is commendable and there are moves going on to create shared spaces around the fringes of Queen St but the main street still feels dreary, lifeless and uninviting.

Jones also sees an argument still for Auckland to close off Queen St at least from Victoria St down and to incorporate High St.

Imagine if this lane off Queen St was the norm for Auckland's main street

I wish Auckland councillors had bold ideas like this - well, actually not really that bold when you look at dozens of overseas countries that are getting truly pedestrian friendly, beyond spending millions on pockets of shared spaces, which has been a commendable and far-sighted policy of the present council.

This coming council election needs bold visions for the city instead of the tired old keep-things-as-they-are approach.
Rodney Hide has turned the local government structure upside down to shake out the dead wood and turn Auckland into a vibrant modern economic city, without the divisive fragmentation that has seen the nonsense of debates like what to do with Queens Wharf. That debate typically remains unresolved.

But it may be in Wellington where a vibrant council team that lives up to its name, shows us what can really be done.




  1. Brent C says:

    I think this idea will bring life to Wellington and help it further to become a livable city. But I’m also interested in what other policies they have to offer for Wellington.

    On Monday there was an article in the Dompost about how GWRC are looking to fix bus cogestion along the golden mile:

  2. Anthony says:

    i like the idea of trams but thats the only thing that atrracts me to this idea, bold, but mad.

  3. ingolfson says:

    “Ban everything but peds (and one hopes, cyclists)” is not a panacea. It’s a nice idea of ring-fencing the CBD with bus stations and then let them walk through the CBD, but I don’t think it will work.

    Ban cars by all means, but buses need to continue to have access. Not everywhere, but on sensible routes.

  4. ingolfson says:

    And I disagree with the comment that we needed Rodney Hide to enable us to fix Queen Street* - blame or praise for Queen Street could go entirely to a local ACC council if it decided to go forward with more ambitious plans. You don’t need a unified governance with Waitakere or North Shore to do that.

    *I know that isn’t quite what you meant Jon.

  5. Jon C says:

    @ingolfson No it wasnt!!

  6. KLK says:

    I just don’t see - and never have - why buses need to be on lambton Quay between Willis and (say) Whitmore Sts. It would all be closely accessible from bus stops on the Terrace, Willis, Featherston St and Whitmore - its completely surrounded by bus access on all sides.

    Its not an overly long stretch of road - you could walk one end to the other in 5mins - so I doubt its going to spread people out too thinly as the Chamber of Commerce suggests.

    Its a busy, loud, congested street when it doesn’t have to be. Pave it, line it with pohutakawas like waterloo quay and watch the CBD improve even further - and fast.


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