The past is easy to predict, the future not so much. As custodians of the built environment and designers of long-lasting infrastructure, WSP experts need to balance the needs of today with the possibility of the future. We asked our thought leaders what trends are likely to shape their area of expertise in 2020.

In 2020, New Zealand will face the challenge of how to effectively and efficiently deliver an ambitious programme of rail and mass transit investments across the country.

After many decades of predominantly road-based investment the pendulum has swung dramatically. The scale of rail and mass transit projects in planning, procurement and delivery is substantially larger than anything seen in recent history.

This investment in transit follows a global trend, built on the recognition of the benefits to the community, environment and economy that flow from reliable, well-considered and efficient transit connections. Providing high quality public transport allows for a more imaginative use of urban form and encourages activities such
as walking and cycling, which lead to healthier streets and healthier people.

Whilst this investment is the right thing to do it is going to be difficult; simply because we haven’t done enough of it. Just like going to the gym for the first time or after a break is painful for long underutilised muscles, we should expect this transition period to be painful at times too. New Zealand’s transit infrastructure ‘muscles’ must exist at all levels: policy, planning, procurement, delivery, regulation, operations and maintenance – and they all need a work out.

It’s easy to do what you’re good at, but it’s hard to do what you want to be good at.

The good news is that some of this ‘muscle conditioning’ has already begun, through initiatives such as the City Rail Link project in Auckland as well a series of business cases related to enhancements of the Auckland rail network. These business case activities are not just developing the pipeline, they are stretching policy writers, agencies, funders and decision makers, forcing government agencies and ministries to work together to solve problems and answer new questions. Proposed light rail transit (LRT) and mass rapid transit (MRT) schemes in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch as well as other transit-related projects entering the planning pipeline will continue the workout.

New Zealand can also benefit from the hard lessons learned in Australia, as it grappled with the challenges of an immature end-to-end transit infrastructure market. Around 15 years ago, Australia began a similar journey of mass transit investment. In the beginning it was hard, with significant challenge at the political, planning, procurement, delivery and operational levels. But through commitment and tenacity the hard work paid off. The market matured and the scale of investment in mass transit successfully delivered, or nearing completion is now well over $50B, with another $150B+ planned for the next 10 years.

The recent decision of the government to create the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga, to better manage the pipeline and procurement of significant infrastructure projects is solid evidence that some of these lessons are being considered. There remains much more to achieve, and this is the journey New Zealand must continue to commit to. For our part, WSP is investing significantly in developing a strong local capability in rail and transit infrastructure planning and design, supported by a global network of professionals to assist as required.

As a country, we also need to continue to stretch our ambition, challenging our imaginations to ask bigger and better questions; “How would it change things if there was a one-hour connection between Auckland and Hamilton?” or “What would a high quality rail connection to Northland do for the regional economy in 50 years’ time?”. An industry made fit through investment now, will be ready to implement the answers to these types of questions tomorrow.

In 2020, we’ll witness some hard conversations focussed on the challenges of rapid transit investment, including sensitive topics such as affordability. What I hope will transpire is the maturity to say, “Yes, it’s hard, but this what we have to do”. The benefits for the country are just too big to ignore.

Sean Myers, Head of Rail