Why Canberra's light rail is right on track

David Flannery is a Canberra architect and researcher with Canberra Urban and Regional Futures at the University of Canberra

TT: Do Canberrans have a good understanding of the benefits of urban consolidation?

DF: The benefits of containing urban sprawl and concentrating development in the city and town centres are now being more widely embraced by Canberrans. A growing number of us appreciate that we cannot keep building a new suburb every year on the edge of the city and, at the same time, expect our public transport network to cope. Moreover, people understand the problems of increased traffic congestion and emission pollution. Building new and wider roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening one's belt to solve an obesity issue!

You are a researcher at Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF).  What is their take on this issue?

Contemporary urban planning theory and both national and international research is informing urban planning policy. In turn, the research is strongly highlighting the numerous benefits of aligning land-use planning with a transport-oriented approach to urban transformation. These principles are being put into practice today with the design work on the first stage of Canberra's light rail network.


What can we learn from other Australian cities who have attempted light rail networks?

Recently constructed Australian transit networks, not only light rail (for example at the Gold Coast) but also suburban trains (Perth) and rapid bus transit (Brisbane), have revealed opportunities being considered in the ACT. Other larger Australian cities, especially Sydney, are actively pursuing expanded light rail networks. Overall this recent experience has been very positive for inner-urban communities, provided a triple bottom line approach is taken considering economic, social and environmental factors and provided there is a process for meaningful community engagement in sustainability solutions.

Some have suggested the whole concept of light rail in Canberra is flawed!

Most of the objection to the proposed light rail here is focused on the stated project budget, with opposition most frequently predicated on a simplistic cost-benefit-analysis that considers only the direct financial return.

Real economic benefits will stem from increased productivity and the increases in value of land immediately adjacent to public transport corridors and its node points. The increase in land value will provide a revenue source to return a significant proportion of the cost of the light rail to both the government and the community; and this is occurring already. The financial benefits are gained not only in the light rail corridor but also in other areas of Canberra; through urban containment policies savings can be captured to benefit the wider city with recouped fringe infrastructure savings, minimisation of household transport expenditure and in the protection of real estate values in existing outer suburbs.

Can you summarise what you think the tangible benefits of the light rail initiative might be?

The development of public transport-orientated urban growth and the creation of more compact and walkable neighbourhoods can reduce car distances travelled, lower traffic emissions, improve population health and wellness, provide more liveable, sustainable and affordable housing and make a meaningful contribution to climate change mitigation.