The Lets Get Wellington Moving Commuter Numbers

How many Commuters will a future Wellington’s have and what Mode will they be using?

* Lets Get Wellington Moving expects about 17,000 more peak hour commuters will travel into the CBD by 2036
* But there’s a problem because the Wellington City Council predicts many more future residents and so this may mean over 35,000 more commuters
* The commitment to handle the majority of future commuter growth by bus and rail public transport means majors increases in the capacity of both are needed

What do the LGWM numbers say?
LGWM has a lot of data but it’s goals are not stated in numbers

Wellington City is facing two huge challenges, how to house more people in a city with the highest housing prices in the country and how to improve transport for all the city’s residents.

The Wellington City Council (WCC) is trying to deal with a population increase of up to 80,000 more people through its “Planning for Growth” Spatial Plan. This plan proposes focusses on two areas to take most of the new residents:

  1. 19,600 more people are to go into the city centre and close suburbs that are easily accessible by active modes with the Central Wellington population to grow from 27,500 to 46,800 in the next 30 years.
  2. 32,000 more people are to go to Tawa and the Northern suburbs served by the Railway Lines as required under the Governments Planning Statement – Urban Design … these suburbs are expected to grow from 57,500 to 89,400 in the next 30 years.

Let’s Get Wellington Moving is to solve the Access Problem

Luckily, the key challenge of providing city access for our growing city is already being solved by the $6.4 Billion Let’s Get Wellington Moving (LGWM) Programme of work.  The 2019 Programme Business Case (PBC) outlines the purpose of LGWM as:

an alliance between Wellington City Council (WCC), Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC), and the New Zealand Transport Agency (the Transport Agency). LGWM seeks to deliver an integrated transport system that supports the community’s aspirations for how Wellington City will look, feel and function.
LGWM PBC page 1

Two of the five Programme Objectives are:

    • Access – Provides more efficient and reliable access to support growth
    • Reduced Car Reliance – Reduces reliance on private vehicle travel
      LGWM PBC page 28

The LGWM programme recognises the increased transport demand from a growing population. For example, in Section 14.3.4 Better Public Transport Priority To and Through the Central City, the rational for investing in public transport (PT) says:

To cater for growth, the transport system needs to move more people with fewer vehicles coming into the central city. The main way to achieve this for longer distance journeys will be through increased numbers of people travelling by public transport. This step change in public transport will require a significant increase in public transport capacity. To ensure that public transport provides an attractive travel choice, services will need to be more reliable and this will require increased priority on congested parts of the network, particularly in the central city.
LGWM PBC page 72.

The LGWM Programme Response to this is to build:

A transport system that moves more people, goods and services reliably with fewer vehicles, while:

      • Supporting a safe and liveable city where many more people will live, work and play
      • Recognising and balancing the needs of all transport users and those affected by the transport system
      • Increasing resilience to incidents, natural events and disruptive technology
      • Encouraging development in a way that supports more sustainable transport choices.
        LGWM PBC page 39

The LGWM PBC goes on to outline its measurable goals for mode shift:

System occupancy will increase due to increased public transport and active mode use and more intensification in the central city /Te Aro 

      • Public transport mode share increases from around 35% to 45% in the morning peak
      • 15-20% reduction in vehicle numbers entering the central city during the morning peak.
        LGWM PBC page 89

More recently, LGWM did an internal review of its objectives and then quietly went to partner Wellington City and Regional Councils saying:

Key feedback themes centred around the need for a focus on carbon emission reduction and mode shift, the importance of safety as an integral part of the programme, the need for clarity on the meaning of liveability in the programme context, the importance of housing intensification, urban development and urban amenity, and the need to consider equity of access.”

And the new Investment Objectives are to be:

Liveability – 20%
Access – 15%
Carbon Emissions and Mode Shift – 40%
Safety – 15%
Resilience – 10%

Mode shift is now the Number 1 “Headline Objective” in the 2021 Wellington Regional Land Transport Plan (RLPT):

Headline target 1
Active travel and public transport mode share: increase by 40 percent by 2030

In 2018, 28 percent of trips were made by public transport and active travel – we aim is to increase this to 39 percent by 2030. We will measure this using the household travel survey produced by the Ministry of Transport.
Assuming 10 percent population growth, to achieve this target, we will need an increase in public transport patronage and active travel of around 50 percent.
RLTP 2021 page 15

So, in apparent alignment with the WCC Spatial Plan is focussed on having population growth focussed around the CBD and around rail stations, LGWM and Regional Leadership as a whole are strongly focussed on providing access to growing suburbs mainly by increasing the mode share for both Active Modes (walking and cycling) as well as PT (rail and bus) which makes sense … if it can work.

Turning LGWM Promises into Numbers

However, while the LGWM Programme has outlined a clear strategic approach and it has also provided a wide range of supporting analysis, it has not published any specific numbers that shows it both understands and aligns to the population growth challenges for our city.

This analysis seeks to put numbers to the future transport problem from the population growth under the WCC Spatial Plan and also put numbers to the increase Active/PT Mode Shift approach being implemented by LGWM, the WCC and the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC).

This analysis will be done in three parts:

  1. Model the increase in commuters from now to 2036 based on current transport mode share
  2. Model the changes in commuter Mode share based on the 40% Mode Share increase outlined by LGWM and the RLTP.
  3. Outline the Results of what this analysis shows

Wellington Population Growth

The LGWM published documents are long on principles and detailed solutions, but surprisingly short on specific numbers.  However, the LGWM PBC has two key diagrams that are very helpful in outlining the current and future transport problem.  The first is the LGWM view of future population growth:

LGWM Programme Business Case Figure 7 Wellington Region Predicted Population Growth
LGWM Programme Business Case Figure 7 (page 13)

The LGWM populations Growth predictions are further outlined in Section 2.3:

2.3. Growth Projections
The population of the Wellington Region currently stands at around 510,000 people. Under medium projections the population is forecast to grow by 15% over the next 30 years, equating to 75,000 extra residents.
The distribution of this growth is estimated to be as follows:

      • 30% will be focused around Wellington’s central city and inner suburbs
      • 20% will occur in Wellington City’s northern suburbs
      • 13% will occur in other areas of Wellington City
      • The remainder (37%) will be around urban centres outside Wellington City, …
        LGWM PBC pages 7-8.

From these figures can compare the 30-year population growth estimates being used by LGWM with the growth estimates being used in the WCC Spatial Plan which outlines where future housing growth will occur. Here is a table that outlines the different population growth predictions between LGWM and the WCC:

Comparison of LGWM and WCC Population Growth Predictions
Comparison of LGWM and WCC Population Growth Predictions

If you add up the LGWM Wellington City population growth numbers, you will see that LGWM predicts Wellington City will grow by just 35,000 people but the WCC Spatial Plan predicts Wellington City will grow by 50,000 – 80,000 people! LGWM appears to be basing its transport investment programme for only half the number of new residents the WCC is planning its housing around.

There is an equally important differences between where LGWM assumes Wellington City population growth will occur and where the WCC plans new housing is to be built.  For example LGWM assumes Western suburbs will grow by 1,000 but the Spatial Plan predicts 10,000 more people will live in to the west of the CBD (perhaps this is why LGWM postponed building the Karori Bus Lanes for more than a decade).  Even worse, LGWM is planning based on about 10,000 more living in Wellington City’s northern suburbs but WCC plans to have 32,000 more living there …

The apparent misalignment between the WCC and LGWM with something as fundamental as population growth assumptions is a surprise given that WCC is a core partner to LGWM.  This is not just a timing issue as the LGWM PBC was published in July 2019 but the WCC had already published its “Planning for Growth Issues and Opportunities Report” that stated:

The current population of Wellington [City] is around 216,000. Another 50,000 to 80,000 people are expected to be living here in the next 30 years. The city cannot meet this future demand unless it plans and provides for more housing.
WCC Planning for Growth Issues and Opportunities Report (April 2019)

Obviously if the WCC puts more people into suburbs than LGWM will provide transport access capacity then the affected suburbs will become more congested rather than less.

To better understand this difference, this analysis will also predict commuter numbers for both the LGWM Medium Growth prediction of 35,000 more and the WCC High Growth prediction of 80,000 more.

Wellington Commuter Growth to CBD

The second key diagram from the LGWM PBC is the future growth in commuter travel to the CBD:

LGWM Current and future commuters into the Wellington CBD
Figure 11 Number of people entering the central city during the 2016 morning peak and programme forecast 2036 LGWM Programme Business Case Page 21

The above diagram is based on information from the LGWM Data Report 28 Aug 2017 which has a table of these commuter numbers by mode.

LGWM Background Data Commuter Growth Chart and Table

Based on the numbers from this table (with some splitting of the numbers from the North), we can derive the following table of commuters by mode:

Table of 2016 Commuters into the CBD by Mode
2016 Commuters into the CBD by Mode

The above numbers will form the Current baseline by Mode for our discussion and the number of buses used to carry bus commuters is also noted at the bottom.

We also know from the LGWM diagram that it predicts that CBD commuters will grow to 100,000 by 2036 which is, in turn, based on the Medium Growth Population Scenario.  We can therefore estimate, assuming no mode shift, the mode share for the LGWM future commuter numbers:

Table Commuter Growth High Growth with No Mode Shift
Commuter Growth High Growth with No Mode Shift Table

We can also estimate the commuter numbers for the High Growth population prediction being used by the WCC in their Spatial Plan.  There are various ways of modelling how a higher population translates into future commuter numbers.  The approach used here is, given LGWM predicts a Medium Growth population for the region increase of 75,000 will mean 18,500 more commuters to the CBD, a High Growth population increase which is double this will also mean a double the increase commuter numbers to 118,600.

We also have to adjust commuter numbers due to the WCC Spatial Plan to have a higher proportion of residents to the west and north of the CBD compared to the LGWM assumptions.

On this basis, we can estimate the 2036 High Growth CBD commuter numbers as:

Table Commuter Medium Growth with 40% Mode Shift
Commuter Medium Growth with 40% Mode Shift Table

Now having peak morning car commuter numbers rise from 41,000 to nearly 60,000 is simply not possible without either a major expansion of roads or a major change away from cars and towards PT/Active Mode travel.  The Wellington Regional leaders outlines their “Mode Shift” approach in the Wellington Regional Land Transport Plan (RPLT), Wellington Regional Public Transport Plan and other documents including the Wellington Regional Mode Shift Plan (which I did not know even existed). These plans are committed to a 40% increase in the Mode share of Active Modes and PT Modes.

Well, we can now apply this planned 40% mode shift to see what this means in future CBD commuter numbers.  Firstly, we have the LGWM Medium Growth Estimate:[08]

and also the WCC High Growth predictions for the Spatial Plan with 40% Mode Shift:

Table Commuter High Growth 40% Mode Shift
Commuter High Growth 40% Mode Shift Table

Now, it is great to see our leaders being ambitious with mode shift but this could mean, based on the WCC High growth prediction in their Spatial Plan.  Under the Mode Shift approach for the WCC High Growth Scenario we will see non-car morning peak commuter mode numbers double:

  • Car usage will fall slightly from 41,000 to 35,000
  • rail usage will grow from 15,500 to over 31,000
  • bus usage will grow from 13,000 to over 26,000
  • walking will grow from 11,500 to nearly 22,000
  • cycling will grow from 2,000 to nearly 4,000

Analysis Results

Some observations of commuting to the CBD from this analysis:

  • Significant mode shift is required if car usage is not to continue to increase.
  • Bus mode share is very similar in all suburbs of the city. The lower car mode share from Wellington East, South and West is mainly from much high walking mode share which is mainly due to them being, at least in part, closer to the CBD. To the north, after buses, rail services are the alternative mode but are not as an attractive alternative as walking.
  • Northern Suburbs have the highest car usage even for commuting to the CBD making the challenge of mode shift greater. The most popular alternative is bus followed by rail services.
  • Tawa has the highest PT usage due to its very high rail service mode share. Rail is obviously an attractive alternative to driving from Tawa.
  • LGWM assumes a much higher percentage of growth for Wellington South compared to the WCC Spatial Plan.
  • LGWM assumes that Wellington West has the lowest growth level but it actually has the 2nd highest growth after the Northern suburbs in absolute numbers.
  • Over half the population increase under the WCC Spatial Plan is for areas to the north and west of the CBD. The main need to improve commuter access to the city will obviously come from those areas.  This means the LGWM planned transport improvements to the north and west are of particular importance given commuter capacity must be increased to these areas.
  • The WCC has chosen Northern Wellington and Tawa to be high growth areas because they are served by rail lines. However, because active modes are not a viable alternative option to driving for 90% of commuters, there is a much greater need to increase PT capacity to achieve the 40% Mode Shift on which the region’s transport investment strategy is based. The designation of railway stations for high density housing under the Spatial Plan implies the rail mode share for the Johnsonville Line needs to increase by much more than 40% if it is to be the mode of choice for these areas.
  • In every scenario for Wellington City, whether or not there is mode shift, increasing bus service capacity into the CBD is the most important mode to support an increasing population.
  • In all areas, cycling mode share does not make much of a contribution as an alternative to driving.


The forward of the 2019 LGWM Programme Business Case starts:

Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and the NZ Transport Agency have worked together to deliver a transformational city-shaping programme for Wellington that supports the community’s aspirations for how Wellington City will look, feel and function. It does this by providing a holistic transport system that enables and supports future growth and builds upon Wellington’s unique character as one of the world’s great cities.

The resultant Recommended Programme of Investment (RPI), outlined in this Programme Business Case, aims to improve the way people get around, while enhancing liveability and access, reducing reliance on private vehicles, and improving safety and resilience.

This analysis challenges the claim that LGWM and the WCC are working together.  If they are then why are such fundamental differences between LGWM and the WCC on how many future residents will be living in our city and where they will live?

Wellingtonians are looking to the LGWM to finally fix our transport issues.  But these transport issues can only be fixed if the problem is clearly spelled out and understood. The above analysis is focussed on putting real numbers behind a key goal for LGWM which is to “improve the way people get around”.  These future commuter numbers can be used to check if proposed solutions will deliver the future transport capacity needed for our city.  Because if LGWM does not improve access to/from the CBD then it will be another failure.



  1. Nick Taylor said:

    Fantastic analysis thank you for taking the time do do this. Any chance it can make its way into a sensible pair of hands at either organisation to think about?

    21 Sep 2021
    • Wellington Commuter said:

      Thanks Nick,
      The answer is yes and I am aware that WCC planners have reviewed this article.
      And I expect to provide more such analysis so stay tuned.

      21 Sep 2021

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