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Past dithering over transport planning may haunt ACT Labor during 2016 election

Many reports from the ACT Auditor-General's Office go largely unnoticed outside the agencies under scrutiny. One suspects, however, that, over the next year, Canberrans will hear a lot about the office's latest investigation.

Auditor-General Maxine Cooper's analysis of the "frequent network", the strategy that underpins the ACT's bus system, is manna for the Canberra Liberals, whose opposition to the city's soon-to-be-built light-rail network is the focus of their 2016 election campaign.

Dr Cooper raised a range of serious concerns about the government's handling of public transport. ACTION Buses has insufficient vehicles and depots to meet its targets; its drivers' rigid wage deal has limited its ability to provide a convenient network, particularly on weekends; and the government's public reporting on its transport goals "has been ambiguous and in some instances inaccurate".

Dr Cooper's critique suits the opposition's narrative well: if Labor and its Greens ally have failed to meet their past transport goals, can they be trusted to implement successfully a light-rail network that will be the ACT's most expensive infrastructure project?

No Australian government has a particularly good record in public transport planning. For a range of reasons, Australians are more wedded to private motor vehicles than people in most other wealthy nations, despite the growing costs of traffic congestion. It's particularly unfair to expect commuting habits to change rapidly in a city as car-dominated as Canberra.

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The ACT's main period of growth in the 1960s coincided with a global fascination with Los Angeles' then lauded system of highways (now a favoured case study of poor planning). The result for Canberra is a spread-out, low-density city served by mostly high-quality roads; it's unsurprising Canberrans are more likely to use cars than other Australians. Undoing this legacy and encouraging alternatives, whether public transport, bicycles or walking, is a long-term task.

Yet Dr Cooper's report highlights failures that are the result of years of dithering. For example, the ACT government has not undertaken a comprehensive, household, travel-to-work survey in 18 years. Nor have the "frequent network" corridors – the city's main public transport routes – been embedded in law via the Territory Plan and National Capital Plan, which would encourage housing and commercial investment along such routes.

On this point, Labor has little excuse. Then planning minister Simon Corbell proposed locking such corridors (albeit for busways that could be converted into light-rail lines later) into the Territory Plan 10 years ago. The lack of progress since is breathtaking, particularly for a government that never really looked like losing power.

The audit report also questioned this very assumption: that high-density corridors along mass-transit routes change the way people travel.

An expert whom Dr Cooper engaged, Geoff Clifton, says that, for this to happen, regular public transport must be available from when residents move in – which, for example, is not the case along Gungahlin's Flemington Road.

Without frequent buses or trams, new residents "will be more likely to develop the habit of using the car as their primary means of transport", Dr Clifton notes.

Nonetheless, his advice on this point is contestable, and contrasts, for example, with the research of prominent academic Professor Peter Newman, as well as the University of Canberra's urban and region futures unit. This debate is far from finished, as the next 11 months will show.