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Does Canberra need a road diet? ACT Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury thinks so

An interesting way to think about transport planning is to think about how we manage our own diets.

Immediate temptations are always there. Like the temptation to eat the whole chocolate cake because it looks delicious and we're hungry. Eating it solves our short-term problem. It tastes good and our hunger is satisfied. It's only later, when our long-term thinking kicks in, that we think, "Maybe I should stop doing that if I want to stay healthy. Maybe I should think about a diet."

The same thing happens with transport planning, only the cake is "road building". If we overindulge in road building, Canberra will become unhealthy: a car-centric city that is sprawled, congested and polluted. We'll lose our prized liveability. We'll start to resemble our large and congested neighbour, Sydney. The signs of this are showing already. We're starting to look a little chubby.

Maybe Canberra needs to think about going on a road diet.

The alternative to the car-centric city is one that provides genuine sustainable transport opportunities to residents. It will provide excellent and prioritised public transport services and walking and cycling facilities. It will be a more compact city. People won't have to rely on cars for everything. Even as it grows, Canberra will maintain its convenience and liveability.

But going on a road diet is challenging. As one of Australia's most car dominated capitals, we face constant pressure to build and upgrade roads. Building them solves our short-term problem. We ease congestion and make car travellers happy. This also brings the short-term rewards that politicians love. But we need to acknowledge that it also further entrenches reliance on private car travel. We grow around the car, and so more people drive. Regardless of ongoing road upgrades, the congestion and bottlenecks will return.

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A road diet is not an extreme diet. It doesn't mean we stop building roads altogether, or that we pretend cars are not part of our transport system. Lots of people rely on cars because of their particular job, or family situation, or because the alternative options just aren't there at the moment. A sustainable city makes life easier for everyone. By providing alternative transport options it also eases congestion for people who need to drive.

Just like healthy eating, a road diet should be sensible and balanced. It means at least showing some level of resistance to the constant pressure to build bigger and bigger roads. It means striving to create alternative transport solutions instead of defaulting to planning for car dominance. It means saying, "Do we really need to duplicate that road today, or could we defer it and put the money into quality public transport services?" These are services that might even mitigate the need to duplicate the road at all.

As an example, what if we undertook difficult and expensive upgrades to squeeze even more car capacity into the congested Northbourne Avenue? In the coming years the fast-growing population in Canberra's north would continue to use the road by travelling in their cars. The road would fill up with congestion again. We'd be faced with an intractable problem.

In this example, the ACT government is taking the smart solution. It's taking action now by investing in light rail from Gungahlin to Civic, as the first stage in a long term and sustainable transport solution that also brings our city myriad of other benefits.

But the standard approach to planning in our city excessively focuses on private car travel. Any new project, development or suburb is planned with the assumption that the population will continue to rely primarily on cars. We're building the car-centric city of the future. Convenient for now, yes, but not sustainable. It's like we keep reaching for the chocolate cake, saying we'll think about getting healthy tomorrow.

For a road diet to be successful, decision makers also need to allow a more sophisticated debate about transport planning. They need to engage with the Canberra public on how we want our city to function in the coming decades.

Our current political discourse is hardly able to accommodate a nuanced debate on this topic. When I raised the issue in the Legislative Assembly last week, the Canberra Liberals said it was "a mung-bean soy-latte vision of a utopian society" that "punishes those working hardest to produce another generation of ratepayers… The idea of mode shift [using more sustainable forms of transport] is anti-mum and anti-family."

Canberrans are much more intelligent than this. So let's have a sensible discussion about transport planning. Let's look at road building in a different way, and strive for the sustainable transport systems we know will make Canberra a healthy and long-lived city.

ACT Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury is minister assisting the Chief Minister on Transport Reform.

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