RMIT Academic Paul Mees.

RMIT Academic Paul Mees. Photo: James Davies

Canberra has been branded a "spectacular failure in transport policy" by a Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology academic. The ACT government has done too much road building and not enough to encourage the city's commuters onto buses, bikes or walking paths, according to a report by the institute's Paul Mees.

His report contains other surprising conclusions: Canberra has lost the mantle of the nations's most car-dependent capital city to Adelaide, and Sydney now leads Australia in sustainable commuting.

The ACT government conceded on Monday that the RMIT's conclusions were "concerning" and that more needed to be done to change Canberra's transport mix.

Dr Mees, known for his hardline views on public transport in the nation's cities, and his colleague, Lucy Groenhart, also suggested that sexism could be to blame for cycling's primacy over walking in Australia's transport planning.

In their study, Transport Policy at the Crossroads: Travel to work in Australian capital cities 1976-2011, the two researchers have given each capital city a score on its performance in sustainable commuting for the past 35 years, with their latest figures based on the 2011 census.

They concluded that Canberra had gone backward since the 1980s and was the only capital city to register a decline in public transport use, from 7.8 per cent of journeys to 7.7.

"Public transport mode share actually declined slightly compared with 2006: Canberra was the only one of the seven capital cities to register a decline," the report reads. "Walking rates stayed at the 2006 level, while cycling increased only modestly.

"Canberra is nowhere near meeting any of its sustainable transport targets: indeed, in public transport, the city is headed in the opposite direction to the target." While the authors concede that progress was made between 2001 and 2006 in getting Canberrans out of their cars, the report is scathing of subsequent government policy making. "The 2004 commitment to sustainable transport mode share increase was purely rhetorical, and was not backed by any substantive actions," they wrote.

"Instead, the ACT government has done the opposite to its stated intentions, with a substantial program of road building and expansion, including building the Gungahlin Drive Extension as a freeway (and) widening Parkes Way along Lake Burley Griffin."

Nor are the academics impressed with the ACT's most ambitious public transport commitment, the promised Gungahlin-Civic light rail link, saying it did "not change the fundamentally flawed nature of planning a public transport system that offers a real choice to only a minority of the population.

''Rather, it confirms that Canberra's light rail scheme runs the risk of replicating the poor performance of some US light rail systems and Sydney's single line.

''Canberra needs to replace its current transport policies with an approach based on the experience of cities where public transport has succeeded, not where it has failed."

Minister for Territory and Municipal Services Shane Rattenbury agreed that the territory had to improve. "That census data shows we're heading in the wrong direction and we clearly have to do much better … Car driving rates are declining across the rest of Australia and ours are climbing, so we're clearly not getting it right."

Mr Rattenbury said the key to enticing passengers onto buses was to make services better.