Federal Politics


Criticism hits the mark but is too simplistic

Critics of ACT mass transit ignore the real policy shifts.

When an academic titles a chapter in his public transport policy assessment paper ''Canberra: A spectacular transport policy failure'', don't expect there to be too much good news in it. Paul Mees is a scholar with a particular focus on public transport, and has been following the issue in Canberra from a distance for many years.

Many of the assessments on public transport policy in his paper are correct. All governments since self-government have abjectly neglected Action Buses and focused on road construction. The lack of investment has seen the frequency of bus services decline, especially outside peak hour and off the major routes. This service failure has led to patronage declines that have been impossible to reverse.

In his executive summary, Mees concludes: ''Canberra has experienced a sustained decline in public transport, and a steady rise in car driving, for the last two decades (apart from a temporary reversal during 2001-06). The current car driving rate is the highest ever recorded, something that has not occurred in any other capital city except Hobart. Public transport mode share actually declined slightly in the five years to 2011: Canberra was the only one of the seven cities where this occurred. The problems are the result of poor transport policies, which have focused on road construction, while reversing the successful public transport approach employed in Canberra until the late 1980s.''

Mees is also correct in saying the focus on investment on roads over public transport must be addressed. But it's not one or the other; that's a simplistic view which has led to the current public transport system failings. The ACT government needs to consider road and public transport funding as infrastructure. Improve public transport, and car drivers may return to the public transport system. The Action system can be improved, but its role as a mass-transit system is in the past.

It is important when assessing this paper to look at the author's past works. Mees has previously written papers critical of ACT public transport policy; his most recent contribution on Action Buses' failure was last year. He views investment in roads as bad, and in public transport as good.

This simplistic approach doesn't take into account changes in society and employment mobility. Canberra is a spread-out city, and Action's approach has not served that geography well. As it grows, it is likely that employment centres may change from the present focus on Civic and the Parliamentary Triangle. Significant private investment has already created an employment centre at the Brindabella Business Park, very poorly served by public transport.


Decreasing Action service frequencies outside peak hours and long circuitous routes that increase travel times are valid criticisms. Recent improvements to the intertown bus services do not solve the local service frequency failings.

The public has sampled this service and voted with its cars. Arresting this decline in patronage has proved difficult by successive governments reluctant to invest in changes to a public transport system that they can't figure out how to improve. As the cost to acquire a car has declined, it's become more viable to buy one and bypass poor public transport.

ACT Light Rail has long argued that the best way to improve public transport in the ACT is to build light rail as a mass transit backbone, increase local bus services to feed passengers to light rail, and properly integrate light rail and buses. Mees' main objection seems to be that there is only one light rail route planned.

This is not the case. There is only one light rail route under immediate consideration - from Gungahlin to Civic - but there is a plan for light rail to be the territory's long-term mass transit solution. It's a massive change in policy direction from the ACT government and its ''Capital Metro'' plan needs political and financial support.

If the Capital Metro plan receives funding and construction begins within the current assembly term, then a future version of Mees' paper may contain a vastly different assessment.

Canberra has the potential to lead the way in showing how a medium-sized city can reverse car usage and deliver sustainable public transport.

This modal change away from buses, and to light rail, as mass transit presents the territory with significant future benefits.

Outside the city building nature that transit-oriented development along light rail corridors provides, it is also an opportunity to reboot attitudes to public transport among Canberrans. People will be drawn to a frequent, reliable and attractive service and choose it over their private car not because they are forced to but because it is reliable and practical.

You can't excuse past policy failures, but credit must be given to present policy initiatives.

The major failing of Mees' paper is that he doesn't recognise that the policy shift has occurred, and that it requires support.

>> Damien Haas is chairman of the advocacy group ACT Light Rail.