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Ridesharing applications may help solve Canberra's coming transport crisis

The more than 124,000 cars needed to keep up with Canberra's population growth by 2040 will require parking space of more than 3 square kilometres, an area larger than the entire parliamentary triangle. 

Car dependency, alongside stagnated public transport use and the city's urban sprawl, makes Canberra well suited to the introduction of ride-sharing businesses including Uber and Lyft, according to a new report by policy think tank the Australia Institute. 

The report says car ownership rates are higher in the ACT than in most states and territories and while there has been a tripling of public transport use in Sydney since the 1980s, Canberra's use has remained about the same. 

Canberra's transport network hosts the most variable conditions of demand in Australia - fluctuating between peaks of parliamentary sitting periods and tourism events including Floriade and cold winter downturns. Casting doubt on the local taxi industry's claims of oversupply in the capital, the report finds Canberra has among the lowest numbers of taxis per capita in Australia, 30 per cent less than Sydney.Taxi density in Australian citiesAuthors Dan Gilchrist and Richard Denniss said ride-sharing applications would help Canberrans overcome the so-called "first and last mile problem" of getting to and from their nearest transport hubs. While high density housing drives public transport use around the world, Canberra's spread out population centres makes some public transport use uneconomical and unpopular. 

Ride-sharing would supplement other forms of transport, allow drivers flexibility to choose when to work and boost public transport use by linking people with buses and the light rail line, due to commence operations in 2019. 

Just like ACTION bus services, low population density has been a critical point of debate about light rail take up, with opponents arguing few potential passengers will be able to walk to stops. The report says ride-sharing alternatives could take passengers from transport lines to their door home or workplace. 

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The report said technological change could fundamentally alter the cost-benefit trade offs for expensive car ownership and taxi use, compared with low cost but less convenient options like bike riding. 

Public transport use in Australia

"Canberra has an enormous transport task ahead of it in the coming decade," Dr Denniss said. 

"The combination of rapid population growth and economic growth means that our current transport system cannot possibly cope. When people can't live very close to the bus or train station, that first and last mile can be a real impediment to the use of public transport. 

"For a city like Canberra ... ride-sharing services like Uber have a real potential to fill that niche and allow people to conveniently access cheap and rapid public transport." 

Dr Dennis said the city had seen a long running debate about the cost and inconvenience of building the 12 kilometre light rail line to Gungahlin - without any debate about the consequences of planned population growth for transport networks. 

"Yes I think people will be shocked by how many cars will be needed within two decades but that shows how low quality our debate about transport has been," he said. 

He welcomed moves by the ACT government to adapt transport regulation for the inevitable arrival of new technologies, including through a review of the local taxi industry. 

Uber has flagged a possible October launch date in Canberra and is currently advertising for a local demand manager in the ACT market

"I think it is really important that regulators get on the front foot and try and harness the potential of these things, rather than put their ahead in the sand and pretend the future will look like the past," Dr Denniss said. 

Other benefits from ride-sharing identified in the report include the safety of cashless transactions, rating systems for drivers and passengers, route selection and transparent pricing systems, flexible work options for drivers and associated reductions in drink driving. 

The ACT government is currently negotiating with industry about a car-share system for Canberra as part of the Greens-Labor parliamentary agreement. The report said one car-share network in San Francisco saw 29 per cent of members subsequently owned one or more fewer cars.