Gold Coast light rail project.

Gold Coast light rail project. Photo: Glenn Hunt

So many of us in Australia are obsessed with our own private mobility. We love driving our cars, but better still, we love buying new cars. We are buying cars in record numbers and, with more road funding flagged in what is otherwise expected to be a tight federal budget, there is little to dissuade us from our self-drive preferences.

However, there are undisputed benefits - personal, environmental and economic - from moving away from a reliance on cars and making a shift towards low-emission public transport such as light rail.

The focus on private cars for transport has influenced the design of our cities - and not necessarily in a positive way. It often manifests in increased congestion, air and noise pollution.

Cities around the world are embracing light rail as they look to re-energise and reshape their cities to reduce congestion and improve the overall health and wellbeing of their citizens. Most Australian cities have very low public transport usage, but anecdotal evidence suggests that private car use has peaked or will peak soon.

Canberra is about to embrace its most ambitious public transport project, energising a century old dream for light rail in the nation's capital. Part of Burley Griffin's vision is being realised, and despite the time lag in realising the dream, it is a real opportunity to rethink Canberra's next 100 years, with light rail as the catalyst.

It is important to point out that public transport investment provides great benefits beyond the infrastructure outlay. A well-planned light rail system is not just about laying tracks from A to B. It also considers every aspect of the corridor through which it travels: housing needs, amenities, ease of use and access, streetscapes, how it influences pedestrian movement and its impact on surrounding businesses.

Any progressive, seamless and well-patronaged light rail system needs to be designed for its people.

Many cities in the world have grown organically and others have been planned, but in the last half century, as their populations have grown, they have all faced similar challenges to better connect where people live to where they work, shop, play and enjoy their cities. So how do we link the distinctive employment, retail, education and public sector zones across a city?

Light rail should complement existing public transport networks, but because it does not need to rely on major interchanges, can be used to create vibrant corridors between key nodes and key urban centres.

That is the beauty of light rail - it acts as a city shaper, and can transform and re-energise public domains, particularly around stops. For it to work, as many people as possible need to be able to walk or cycle to it, and it should be a pleasant, seamless part of their day.

Planners and designers can work out how many people may comfortably live within a 10 minute walk from a light rail stop. To design the corridor, they will investigate a range of options such as the pedestrian approach, housing styles, the provision of amenities such as supermarkets, cafes, retail stores, childcare, community and other services, as well as linked and equitable green spaces.

Light rail presents an opportunity to create new and well-integrated places for people to live, work and play.

How does it do this? Imagine crowds of passengers getting on and off each tram stop at regular intervals, like clockwork, every day. The high turnover of people - ready patronage - will lure additional facilities and services. Underused buildings and land may be transformed for new residential or commercial use.

Whether passengers walk from home or park and ride, they will need a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly means of accessing and waiting at their stop - transforming each of these areas into places as much for people as cars.

The aim with any light rail system is that it will be easier, faster, cheaper and more convenient than other modes of transport. So, as part of an integrated system, we need to carefully and respectfully plan to reduce reliance on our cars.

Linking more centres with light rail results in less congestion in urban centres, and creates more opportunity for pedestrian-friendly zones, which encourages more people to walk and cycle.

There are many light rail systems around the world that seamlessly merge existing streets with light rail - in Lyon, Le Mans, Strasburg, Nottingham, Brest and many others. They prove that well- designed streets for people can work and be successful city shapers. Imagine Northbourne Avenue as a great urban boulevard with a focus on people as much as cars!

Canberra is a city of grand open space, considered and beautiful streets, off-road cycle ways, a strong sense of the seasons and nationally significant ceremonial and civic places. Light rail allows us to rethink the city in ways that will bring more life to its streets and create better public spaces while respecting its character

The Capital Metro project, Canberra's first stage of light rail, is the next chapter in creating a more sustainable future for the city. This investment in public infrastructure is a welcome catalyst for a once-in-a-generation reshaping of Canberra. It will respect and reinforce the original plans for the city with a bold new 21st century vision.

Daniel Bennett is a registered landscape architect and an urban design consultant with Hassell for the Capital Metro Agency developing the Canberra Light Rail Project. Daniel was also Hassell's project leader on the Sydney Light Rail project.