Shaun Hendy: Un-Silencing Science

Shaun Hendy is a theoretical physicist from Auckland university. He is also a science communicator and he wrote a book, ‘Silencing Science’, which discusses the problems facing scientists with difficult news to share. This is a long talk, but a fascinating one, so lets crack into it.

Condensed animated version here:

Kāore he pahi (there is no bus)

Some of the many suggestions at the Kilbirnie public meeting
Rachel is furious. She can’t get to work on the bus any more. Nor can she be sure of getting home. Stranded outside a supermarket, she called the council to she what happened to her bus. From the call centre she is told not to buy frozen goods any more. They will simply thaw while she waits.
She’s only one in a hall full of people angry about Wellington’s new bus system. We’re starting to learn some new phrases – posters at bus stops during Te Reo week teach us common phrases, ‘there is no bus’ and ‘the bus is full’.
Meanwhile those of us watching New Zealand’s progress towards zero carbon are almost lost for words. Its been eight years since Nissan introduced the Leaf, the forerunner in the move to electric cars, In the last three we’ve seen the used imports hit a crucial price point – a regular user can make one pay for itself in 3 or 4 years. Charge Net was created and now presents a thin but perfectly usable fast charging system across the country. The nation’s EV fleet rose to 6000 cars.
Now that Wellington’s zero carbon bus fleet of 60 trollies have gone, each providing transport for well over 100 people, we have taken a step back of the same magnitude. A plan to move to electric buses was attempted then abandoned before the trollies went away. Later it becomes clear that those buses were running on diesel anyway, and could only hope to be seen as progress in a country where electricity is made almost entirely from coal.
During this exercise we also learn that Wellington’s most exceptional feature is its hills, which are tough on wireless electric buses since they have to overcome the weight of batteries to climb them. Of those eventually promised to us, it seems unlikely many will see service above 150 metres, where trolley lines were created to solve the same problem. If they do make it into the hills they will damage the road surface (they weigh three tonnes without passengers) and spend some time each day out service as they recharge.
How was any of this allowed to happen? It turns out, the public transport planning is complex, and those engaged in it have to meet the needs of several masters at once.
Jarrett Walker, transport planner and author of the book ‘Human Transit’ points out the seven demands of public transportation. Without them the system simply winds up limited to servicing those who have no other option, the captive market.
– It takes me where I want to go
– It takes me when I want to go
– It is a good use of my time.
– It is a good use of my money
– It respects me
– I can trust it
– It gives me freedom to change my plans.
Sit through any of the recent public meetings and you can tick these bullet points over and over. The new system does not deliver on these requirements as well as the previous one. Another step backwards.
Walker makes some other observations that should sound familiar. One is that frequency, the number of times a bus runs on a particular line, is expensive. Run fewer buses, less often, servicing the same group of people, and the operating cost comes down. Typically this dwarfs the cost of capital and is part of the calculus of public transport. Introduce a double decker, for example, and you may avoid the cost of running a second bus.
If that saving can offset the impositions of the bus, then you’re on to a winner. But these taller buses can’t make it through tunnels linking the city to its most populous suburbs; they also see service on Brooklyn hill: a 200 metre climb where the added emissions and damage to roads create a separate cost.
The other parts of this calculus appear to have been forgotten entirely, along with any considerations around climate change. For a start, the issues around congestion in the city. Transport planners are familiar with ‘Schrodinger’s Road Space’ that turns thirteen lanes of traffic into three by replacing cars with buses and cycle lanes. The affect seems impossible but only because we think so much about the benefit of cars that we forget their price. A commuter’s space requirement is tiny until they get behind the wheel.
Created by 21st Century City
What goals did the GWRC set themselves for the new system? It seems to come back to the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM), a bit of legislation that saw the service being split across a group of operators, under the assumption that the competition would create a better service overall. It seems a strange idea for something as consolidated as a cities’ public transport and I would love to know whether this model has worked anywhere else. It seems that the trollies were a victim of this model, that the playing field might be leveled without them. Which makes about as much sense as that sounds.
Were the city’s congestion to be considered as a problem that might be addressed by increasing public transport, we would have seen a very different system this year.
Were the cost of maintenance to enter into the calculations the number trollies ought to have increased since they outperform both battery and diesel vehicles in every possible measure, largely as a consequence of Wellington’s topography but also, in part because New Zealand’s carbon debt for electricity production is very low, some eighty percent of it coming from renewable, low carbon sources.
We forget this, but battery-less electric vehicles are so resistant to wear and tear that service lives for the trollies were three times as long as those of the diesels, and much of the running gear was re-used from generation to generation. Service lives of substation components were forty years under full load, leaving only the cost of maintenance to the overhead lines to consider. It wasn’t.
Poorly maintained lines were one of the causes of de-wirings and that, along with the many other remedies (fiberglass poles, re-gen braking, self retracting poles) were not extended across the fleet. That along with the generally poorer cosmetic condition caused us to fall out of love with the trollies over the years.
Were emissions to be seen as a serious and life threatening problem, we would simply not be investing in large fleets of diesel buses. It is true that we live in a time where diesel is the most adaptable out-of-the box solution for buses, and the alternatives require some problem solving to implement. But its clearly a problem worth solving, and one where part of the solution was right in front of us.
After considerable pressure about electric buses the Council promised eighty over the next two and a half years. Fifty of those will be re-purposed former trolley buses, which, somewhat conveniently, already sport electrical running gear and just require batteries. One of these has already been seen gracing our streets. It seems unlikely we will see these in the hills, however. Battery buses were trialled in San Francisco, the hilliest city in North America. They were declared unfit for purpose. Wellington is far hillier than San Francisco.
Look for a city as topographically challenged as Wellington, NZ and you find the greatest irony of all. The hilliest city in all of the America’s is Valparaiso, Chile. They installed a trolley system in the 1950s, just as we did in Wellington. Many of the original Pullman buses are still running there.
Maybe battery electric buses will work in the hills of Wellington. Eventually. But for now there are choices to be made. Its clear that the GWRC is being taken back to the drawing board to come up with some new plans for the buses and the hills. When they make up a list of options it ought to include a full installation of a trolley bus system much like the one we had. If only for a point of reference, since we clearly know a few things about them.
We know they worked, that they got by on little maintenance and that their main bug bear was fixable. We know they worked cleanly and quietly for 68 years in an extraordinary location. And last of all, we know that real reason for their removal can’t have been good. If it were surely we would have been told about it.

This report from Allan Neilson, KiwiRail’s former “Manager Traction and Electrical” (retired 2015) describes all components in the Trolleybus system and their states at time of decommissioning

Jarrett Walker, author of the book ‘Human Transit’ runs a blog of the same name:



Unwired: the state of Wellington’s bus system. (ReVolt Wellington)



(Note: scroll to the bottom for the podcast episode. You can get to the ‘Imagine My Relief’ podcast with Spotify or using iTunes search)

Two things convinced me back in 2016 that NZ was headed in the wrong direction on climate change: the abandonment of the Trolley buses and the revert of the rail freight traffic between Hamilton and Palmerston North from electric to deisel.

I’ve been attending some very angry public meetings in the last couple of weeks. I got to meet Herwin Bongers of ReVolt Wellington, a group dedicated to the return of Wellington public transport to electricity. Wellington’s revamped bus system has been something of a disaster. I’m particularly engaged with this problem because of the trolley buses: a fleet of electric buses powered by overhead wires that have been climbing the hills of Wellington for more than 60 years.

Now that it’s gone, we get to pick through the remains of some very dubious decision making and try to understand what happened.

Public Transport is a very big climate change issue. While there is some emotional urge in me that wants the trollies back what is really at stake here is the future of transport. We know, after years of staring into this problem that the future is urban – that resources can be better conserved when we share. While the lifestyler may feel greener than the person living on Mount Vic we know that the townie emits far less carbon.

To that end our cities work better because they enable us to share our resources. Here’s a rough calculation: imagine that each of 60 trolley buses serviced the daily transport needs of only 100 people. That would equate to all of the electric cars in the country at the start of this year.

All of that progress, thrown out the window. The closest thing to a reason I could find was that the underground wiring for the existing system is a lower voltage that off the shelf trolley buses use. Yet till now our buses were always simple, inexpensive retrofits; the running gear in the trollies was from the eighties and since it has plenty of life left, will soon be used to power battery buses promised in the next two years. Which is to say, I’ve looked through a lot of paper and found zero reasons. I stand ready to discuss the parts of that with anyone but I can sense myself becoming boring so, maybe get in touch if you want that argument.

Due to immense pressure from public and (one assumes) the government, we expect to see some 80 battery buses in Wellington in the next two years. And here’s a prediction. If you’re not missing the trollies now wait until you see how the new buses handle some of the hilliest urban areas on earth.

Here’s a couple of statements about battery buses and hills – 2017 from the director of San Francisco Municipal Transport Operations.

‘it is factually incorrect and irresponsible to suggest that anyone knows that off wire electric buses are ready to operate in San Francisco’.

Or from the Prague Transport Company, after 140,000 kms of perfomance data.

‘hilly terrain uses up a lot of battery power and limits the usefulness of electric buses’

Is Wellington as hilly as San Fran or Prague. Yup. It really, really is.

There’s something more important here and I’m so fascinated by trolley buses that I nearly forgot to notice it. This new system broke public transport in basic functional ways. Herwin and I talked about Trollies mostly, the speakers at the last public meeting called out, literally point by point, the ways in which the new system broke the seven basic rules of public transport.

  • It takes me where I want to go
  • It takes me when I want to go
  • It is a good use of my time
  • It is a good use of my money
  • It respects me
  • I can trust it
  • It gives me freedom to change my plans

These rules are outlined in Jarret Walker’s book ‘Human Transit’ – I recommend you look him up on twitter, follow his blog or get the book yourself.

Remember a bus, even a deisel bus, is a much better use of resources than a car. If you prefer cars well good for you but please know that 30,000 people go to and from work each day in wellington and thats probably enough extra cars to bring us to gridlock. When you see bikes and buses remember they are freeing up space on the road for you, so don’t grudge them the bit of space they need.

Finally – I got to meet the unflappable Paul Eagle, MP for Rongotai. I started in on the trains with him and he said he’d join me for a talk. We’re getting progress here. Its hard to recall but in 2016 the National Party was treating climate change like a joke and so was the media. Tonight, in the midst of daily, real world problems like not being able to travel like a normal human in a western democracy, people were also getting up and making a noise about the electric future we’d been promised.

It turns out that we already had it. And now we have to make it again.

In the introduction to Human Transit Jarrett Walker says this:

Political leaders make good decisions when informed and caring citizens want them to.

So here’s to you, angry noisy people who came out and said this is not right, and we deserve better.


(just a smattering of the many suggestions at the Kilburnie meeting)

08:00 cast with a fleet that was 98% deisel
08:50 people said we were getting electric buses
10:15 numner 1 livability
10:50 me being an EV owner
11:05 you don't need to replace it
12:35 perturbed him - reports not backing up their own claims
13:15 emissions profile to go down by 30% - but didn't include CO2 - decisions you'd make if you didn't believe in climate change
16:55 single causal factor
17:05 irony of the carbon piece
19:00 'transport's only a small part of the problem'
19:40 break down of democratic process
21:20 its a way of saying the problem is very big
21:50 affects your descisions about buying an EV
22:59 PT is a state of mind
24:25 People living in Wellington who don't have cars (Welling Region)
24:34 Human Transit - frequency vs speed
26:20 Connection with oil company Anadarko
25:58 History of the trolley bus
30:37 Wrightspeed optics
34:35 Reasons the trollies had to go
05:35 30 Teardown
36:40 Wires look ugly  (visual vs actual pollution )
37:29 Graph of emissions
40:15 Euro emissions standards
40:35 Standard argumnts that some up
41:35 Neilson document on the real maintenance cost
43:53 Herwin about poles
45:23 Solutions available
46:05 Public Transport Operating Model
51:35 Looks like the right direction till you peel back the covers
53:02 No alternative to the trolley bus
54:15 What you do to a bus to call it green
56:53 Shaking the foundations - public meetings that have occurred
57:15 Councillors don't even live in the city
58:19 11 million bus uses per year
60:35 Solutions that were ready to go
61:25 Poles made from hardwood
63:40 Cities putting up trollies
64:35 No one should be forgiven for not treating climate change as a serious problem
64:51 RMA still not recognising CC is a problem
65:24 The Fell engine - running down of services
01:06:55 After so little investment, still better
01:08:13 You don't have to replace it
01:09:10 Number of buses - no mentioning deisel once
01:10:02 Pollution star rating
01:10:28 Graveyard of polluting buses for the next ten years
01:13:15 Petition on website
01:15:20 Thanks driver
01:19:35 Final words - common theme
01:25:15 The food today - hummus and pita bread