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Photo: Paul Jeffers

The importance of the city’s night-time economy is completely overlooked in the new ACTION bus timetable that has just been released.

Many late evening services from the city have been drastically cut. The last services on some routes are now timed to leave two hours earlier than previously. Route 4 is a case in point. For people travelling southbound the last bus currently leaves  City at 11.10pm. Next month it will leave at 9.05pm.

This means thatmany people who are enjoying a night out in Civic and want to travel home by public transport will have to drink up at around nine o’ clock in the hope of catching the last bus home. People heading out to the movies, theatre, concerts and gigs in the evening will also have no choice but to drive or be forced to get an expensive cab home.

The new timetable is based on the outdated assumption that everyone in Canberra works from nine till five. Those who work in the evening past this time will have no alternative but to turn their backs on public transport.

There are many people who will lose out. But stopping public transport earlier will disproportionately impact on people who do not drive or cannot afford alternative arrangements for getting home later in the evening. It will certainly reduce evening work and leisure opportunities for people who absolutely rely on public transport to get around.

Economically, cuts to late night services are not good news for businesses in Civic that are already feeling the squeeze from public service cuts and office relocations.

From a public safety perspective, the new timetable effectively removes Plan B, potentially tempting more people to risk drink-driving over a costly cab.

The travesty is that where other Australian cities have been steadily improving their night-time public transport options, recognising the important economic, social and cultural benefits that these services provide to cities, Canberra’s has been steadily declining. Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney have all introduced bus services that run until the early hours of the morning either all week or at weekends.

ACTION claim that this is their first demand-driven timetable based on actual passenger numbers from smartcard data, and that late evening services needed to go because they were under-patronised.

But shave a dozen or so minutes from the time of the last bus at every timetable change year on year and it is no wonder that so few people have been choosing to catch a bus home at the end of an evening in recent times. Promote and invest in services and people will use them. Cut them and they won’t. It is hard to envisage how these changes are anything more than a cost-cutting exercise to reduce the burden of paying late night drivers.

Whilst low utilisation of some late buses is a problem, a real opportunity has been missed for doing something more innovative such as providing late night services on Friday and Saturday nights, or running fewer late night services that do longer routes to take in more suburbs, similar to the popular Christmas night rider services.

Civic’s night-time economy has been a real success story in recent years, with buzzy bars, restaurants and cafés that give the place an atmosphere that would have been unrecognisable here a decade ago. But if Canberra is serious about growing its night-time economy further, it desperately needs proper public transport to sustain it.

The new timetable does contain some improvements to daytime services which are certainly welcome. But winding down public transport at 9pm completely changes the geography of the city and the possibilities that are available to people. Put simply it reduces the viability of Canberra as a vibrant and accessible city. Certainly it will change where people will go out, spend money and have fun in the evening. But it will also inevitably consign more people to the suburbs after dark. Is that really the city we want to live in?

Dr David Bissell is a sociologist in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University.