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Could self-driving cars be a death knell for Canberra's stage two light rail?

Fleets of self-driving cars hitting the road in the next four years could upset the rollout of the second stage of Canberra's light rail network, one of the speakers at an upcoming transport forum has warned.

This changing use of passenger vehicles and its effect on emissions will be explored in a forum hosted by Kent Fitch and Warwick Cathro on Thursday night.

Mr Fitch, who has previously advocated for the development of a fleet of autonomous vehicles for Canberra, said major car manufacturers like Ford and BMW planned to have their own fleets of autonomous vehicles running by 2021.

While the cars won't be available for ordinary punters to buy for some years after that and will most likely be operated by manufacturers as a fleet, Mr Fitch said their capability for ride-sharing could make it more convenient and as economical to hail one as jumping on a tram.

"The autonomous car is more about taking someone door-to-door 24 hours a day on demand," Mr Fitch said.

"Whereas a light rail or tram is really another mass transit mechanism that will operate on a fixed timetable and certainly you'll have to walk to and from the stops and have all of the problems mass transport currently does about attracting people out of their cars, it's just not as convenient."

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The forum comes days after the ACT government released two possible corridors the light rail could take from Civic to Woden. The contracts will be signed before the 2020 ACT election.

However Mr Fitch said self-driving cars could solve the problem of keeping emissions down and cutting congestion in the face of Canberra's growing population, two of the main reasons for light rail - and they could be doing it soon.

While logic would dictate self-driving cars make for more vehicles on the road, he said research by urban planners showed it could cut the number of cars on the road during peak hour by half and reduce commute times.  

"There's congestion in Canberra at the moment and, if people have their own self-driving cars, then there's quite persuasive arguments that indicate...people might want to travel further while they're being carried around," Mr Fitch said.

"They'll be able to text or watch movies or catch up on emails before they get to work. They won't care so much if they're stuck in traffic so that will cause people to drive more and cause more congestion.

"Urban planners, however, tend to think that during peak hours at least cars are shared so if I'm travelling from Nicholls to the National Library there's almost certainly someone in Nicholls who's travelling to the Parliamentary Triangle or at least Civic and maybe there's three or four people doing that and if we all get in the car together then instead of the current 1.2 people  in the car in Canberra there might be two or two-and-a-half people per car [on average].

"What that does for congestion is completely amazing, you have half the number of cars in peak hour on the road so you need half as much road infrastructure.

"Travel speed goes up, commute time will go down and the cost of  running the whole service becomes remarkably low per passenger."

  • The 'Transforming transport for low emissions and cheap, universal mobility' public forum will be held on Thursday, May 4, at the Renewables Innovation Hub (19-23 Moore St, Turner) from 7.30pm to 9pm. RSVP through eventbrite.com