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  • Writer's pictureDr Jenny Condie

Citizen's Assembly on Mass Transit

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

The largest investment in Let's Get Wellington Moving is mass transit. The highest profile decision we need to make on mass transit is: which vehicle technology will we use?

The contenders are bus rapid transit (BRT), autonomous BRT (sometimes called "trackless trams"), or light rail.

Mass transit with dedicated lanes and boarding platforms. Should Wellington have (autonomous) buses or light rail?

Bus rapid transit is cheaper, but has lower capacity. Light rail is more expensive, and has much greater capacity. Autonomous BRT may be able to provide slightly greater capacity than BRT, but not as much as light rail. It’s big advantage over BRT is needing fewer drivers. Given that Wellington is currently cancelling bus services due to a driver shortage this is obviously an important issue for our decision on mass transit. However, autonomous bus technology is new and they are still in testing in several cities around the world. (All can now be delivered using electricity, so there is no major difference on emissions.)

In Auckland, this decision was easy - they are a much larger city and clearly needed the greater capacity that light rail can provide. The provisional business case on mass transit prepared for Let’s Get Wellington Moving indicates that Wellington is near the capacity boundary between BRT and light rail. Therefore it is unlikely that a business case will deliver a clear "winner" on the best mode for mass transit in Wellington.

The decision will then boil down to a matter of value preferences (cost vs capacity). The people best placed to make decisions about their preferences and trade-offs are ratepayers themselves.

People are smart. I believe the best way to choose the transit technology to take Wellington into the future is a citizen’s assembly.

What is a Citizen's Assembly?

A citizens' assembly asks a representative group of people to develop an informed opinion on a specific issue based on expert advice and evidence. Citizens' assemblies have been used in a growing number of countries and cities.

"Citizens’ assemblies give members of the public the time and opportunity to learn about and discuss a topic, before reaching conclusions. Assembly members are asked to make trade-offs and arrive at workable recommendations." from

There is growing evidence that this form of participatory democracy is effective:

"The balanced and structured process of deliberation results in more informed preferences. A requirement to justify opinions, for example, counteracts the bias of prior beliefs. Opinions tend to be neither polarised nor uniform, with participants developing increased respect and understanding for opposing viewpoints."

A member of the Irish citizens' assembly on abortion described her experience in an article for The Guardian:

"The atmosphere was friendly but serious – we were proud to have been given an important task. We wanted to take in all the information, help shape the debate and make solid recommendations that were representative of our views at the end of a period of deep learning about the topics."

When Melbourne held a citizens' jury on obesity they used social media to include others in the process. One of the members of the jury discusses her experience on the citizens' jury in this video.

How will a Citizens' Assembly on mass transit work?

First, there will be a detailed business case prepared on all the options. We need to make sure that analysis is thorough and of high quality. The analysis in the business case will provide the evidence base that will be presented to the members of the citizens' assembly.

City council would fund the citizens' assembly. It will be organised based on best practice from around the world. This may mean that an independent group would be given responsibility for running the assembly.

As mayor I will support the preference of the citizens' assembly. I will advocate for their choice to the joint decision makers on Let's Get Wellington Moving - Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and New Zealand Transport Authority.

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