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Light rail is about Canberra’s future

It's an exciting time for Canberra as we navigate our second century. In the coming months construction will begin on our first light rail project: Capital Metro Stage 1 from Gungahlin to the City.

The project has elicited strong responses from some Canberrans. It's understandable. Capital Metro is a big project. It has also been heavily politicised by the local Liberal Party to assist their negative campaign for the upcoming ACT election. It's their version of Tony Abbott's 'no carbon tax' war.

When we debate light rail, we are really having a debate about Canberra's future. Capital Metro is a long-term, city-shaping initiative. It requires us to ask: what type of Canberra do we want in the next 10 years, 30 years, and beyond? Light rail also takes our city in a direction that is unfamiliar to many locals. These features make the light rail debate doubly intense and flush out differences that are political, ideological, and even generational.

Imagining "Future Canberra" is a useful exercise for everyone, young or old. Do we imagine ourselves (or our children or grandchildren) in a compact city, with integrated and sustainable transport options? Or do we imagine a sprawling Canberra where most travel occurs in cars, and transport costs continue to spiral?

Do we imagine a future city that is resilient to the challenges presented by population growth, congestion, climate change, and energy security? Or are these problems to defer to future Canberrans? Do we imagine a city of urban liveliness that attracts creative people and businesses and their new ideas and industries? Or do we imagine staying a transient "public service town", with the reputation for "sterility" that comes with that?

As you can probably tell, my preference – and that of the Greens – is for the compact, resilient, sustainable, integrated, attractive and innovative version of Future Canberra.

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And this is one of the key reasons we support light rail for our city. Light rail is a unique investment in high quality public transport, which is needed. It is also a significant decision in city planning – one that helps steer us towards the sustainable, liveable and resilient Canberra that will serve us and our grandchildren well. 

Many light rail critics are focused on Canberra's past. They look at qualities that our city has now, or that it had. They may have grown up in the Canberra that was moulded by the old NCDC's planning decisions. This approach had its roots in 1950s thinking about urban planning, where the city spread out and cars separated people from their surroundings. It also relied on big federal subsidies for big car-based infrastructure. As a planning approach, this is now widely discredited.

While it may have served current residents well, this planning style won't meet the needs of our future residents. Especially as it grows, the car city suffers more and more problems. If it won't bring us the future we need, then we must begin to embrace change.

In fact, the stunning resurgence of light rail in cities all around the world is partly a response to the failures of the sprawling car city. People and planners have realised that a better way to get good social, environmental and economic outcomes as cities grow is to provide the successful combination of high quality public transport and people-friendly environments that are more compact. This is not what Canberra has done so far, but it is where we are headed. A Canberra-wide light rail network is a great tool for realising this vision.

Funnily enough though, critics who look to the past will find that light rail does fit well with Walter Burley Griffin's original design for Canberra. He proposed a geometric, compact urban form with higher density development along tram and rail lines. In a way we are realising the original vision.

Before anyone excludes light rail from their imagined Future Canberra, they should acknowledge some unavoidable facts. One of these is that Canberra's population is growing quickly. This year it will surge past 400,000. In just 20 years it will be near to 600,000 people. A rapid increase is occurring just in the Gungahlin to City corridor – a corridor that is already at its congestion capacity. It will grow to about 85,000 people in just 15 years.  Add the fact that Canberra is already the most car-reliant capital in Australia, and we have a recipe for congestion, pollution and a loss of the liveability we prize.

Light rail helps address this by encouraging more people on to public transport. It catalyses denser development. It is very space efficient, transporting a large amount of travellers in a small space – a quality that is essential for the overcrowded Northbourne corridor. It is also an excellent way to promote a "knowledge economy" in Canberra – that is, denser areas that bring people, business and ideas together. Economists have demonstrated the economic advantages that knowledge economies bring to cities.

Our light rail, and the urban improvements that accompany it, will support the kind of city that both attracts talent to Canberra and stems the 'brain-drain' that occurs as young innovators move away and take their ideas with them. Meanwhile, in other parts of the city, we can still maintain the suburban character that many people enjoy. And as people get out of their cars and on to light rail, road space is freed up for those who need to drive.

Some light rail critics target specifics, saying the project's economic case should be calculated differently, or the patronage won't be high enough. The claims are inaccurate – though the answers are sometimes complicated and take time to explain (for the record, Capital Metro's business case is positive and was calculated by experts using best practice methodology; Patronage projections are also good and light rail will attract new users who wouldn't catch a bus).

But I think the crux of the light rail debate is really about our vision for the future. Don't look back at what we've had; think ahead a few decades. Building this big project takes courage and vision, but it is a positive and necessary investment that our economically-stable city can afford. If we want to address Canberra's emerging challenges and build a modern, liveable and environmentally-friendly city for ourselves and future generations, this light rail project is the great start we need. 

Shane Rattenbury is an ACT Greens MLA and Minister in the ACT government.