Public transport will be a key battleground ahead of this year's election. The main political parties have signalled their ambitions and the fight for public support is on.

Campaigning by the National and Labour parties follows the Green Party's ambitious plan to bring forward the building of a light rail line between Auckland Airport and the CBD in time for the next America's Cup in 2021.

These bold and audacious goals are exactly what Auckland needs. But we must be brave if we are to develop Auckland into a truly liveable city that competes with the world's best.

One might argue that all these plans are too light on fine detail - and they probably are. But I believe we are looking at a diamond in the rough. Not yet shiny and sparkling but full of potential. It is easy to find flaws, but it is much more difficult to drive progress.


It may be ambitious and, some might say, unrealistic to pursue a light rail solution to the airport and the North Shore. But sometimes progress is only achieved by adopting radical ideas and steadily working towards fulfilling them. And while prudence is required when it comes to the public purse, today's numbers are not everything.

We should suspend immediate judgement and try to understand the problem and opportunities, and explore the possibilities. Urban infrastructure solutions are not static but dynamic, and part of the way we live and commute. Over time, they become embedded in the city's DNA. Ten years ago, nobody would have dreamt of how successful Auckland Rail would be with an increase from three million passengers in 2004 to 20m passengers today.

The question is not if light rail can overcome all practical hurdles, but how we can nurture the idea and develop it. Alongside that, of course, we must address immediate concerns.

Firstly, could we extend the Onehunga line or build a branch line from Puhinui? Could rail offer more capacity and a faster service?

A heavy rail solution comes with a similar number of practicalities that need to be solved. Land needs to be claimed, stations built and transformers put in place. The vehicles need dedicated space for luggage, which limits the ability to use them on other parts of the network. Furthermore, extra trains need to be merged within the existing timetable, which will determine the overall journey time.

Last month, I took the new Waterview tunnel outside rush hour and enjoyed a trip from the airport to the CBD in less than 35 minutes. Unfortunately, Waterview will also become congested as the number of cars increases. The history of the Harbour Bridge is a great example of this.

Today it takes 35 minutes to travel from Puhinui to Britomart; add an extra 10 minutes to get to the airport and the travel time will be close to any other mode of transport.

Secondly, buses are not necessarily better value for money. Auckland is not small anymore and policy makers have consistently underestimated future population growth. My experience also shows that people consistently overestimate the capacity a bus offers. A light rail service at a frequency of six trains per hour compares to 24 buses and 1300 car parking spaces.

This shows the real problem: good public transport relies on a network of connecting services where buses, bikes and other modes of transport feed into a core route. Light rail could be that core route - just like the rail, tram and underground services that form the transport backbone of any major global city.

We then need to consider how light rail will work practically, particularly how it will share the road. Something will need to give and this could, initially, be painful. But in a vibrant city people will find new, more progressive ways to get around.

Developed cities are not measured by how many people own a car, but by how many people choose to use public transport. When considering offering up the road for public transport 'radical incrementalism' comes to mind - taking small but determined steps to implement a daring strategy while staying rooted in reality. Every city has to balance its wishes with available resources and compete with fixed mindsets.

However, success comes from a relentless push for progress. Small positive steps will eventually win the staunchest opposition over. The City Rail Link is a great example of this. And for as far as traffic lights go; technology already exists that gives light rail services a green wave through the busiest part of a city.

In short, what we need is the courage to drive things forward, get the government on board to build and maintain the momentum already established by other transport initiatives under way.

One step at a time, always moving forward to a better city - for us and for generations to come.

Michel Ladrak is the managing director of Transdev Auckland which operates the existing passenger rail service.