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Changing the car capital's habits

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The Canberra Times

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The transport portfolio is among the toughest of government jobs; it certainly attracts a lot of grumbling. In Canberra, for years Australia's car capital, motorists are blessed with what many visitors say are the nation's best roads. Nonetheless, local drivers whinge regularly about a lack of funding for those roads, high rego and parking fees, and a lack of parking. Conversely, other residents complain of a lack of funding for buses and cycling, and of too many free and cheap car parks. Whoever is minister is never able to please everyone.

Both sides unite, however, on one point: their criticism of Action Buses. The ACT opposition says Action fails to provide a convenient service for most Canberrans and regularly implies that it receives too much funding. Public transport advocates agree that Action's services operate too infrequently and some routes are too indirect, though they argue it needs far greater subsidies. (Presently, taxpayers fund about two-thirds of the costs of Action's operations.)

Action had a particularly torrid 2011-12. To its credit, it introduced a smart-card payment system, MyWay. Yet its surveys of passengers showed only 53 per cent were satisfied with its services (its target was 85 per cent). Only seven in every 10 of its buses were on time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fewer passengers used buses than forecast.

This week, the ACT government announced it would increase Action's standard fare by about 5 per cent, its first increase since 2010. It's a small amount, but it's upset some commuters. The decision raises the question: why is the government increasing the disincentive (the fare) to catch a bus when it rightly wants to encourage Canberrans to drive less often? The government's studies on transport demand say fares are an important policy lever that can be used to encourage commuters to switch to buses, and that free fares would ''make a dramatic difference''. We shouldn't discount the idea of much cheaper buses without careful debate; after all, most of our roads were also funded by taxpayers, rather than directly by those who use them.

Yet perhaps what disappoints most about Action is its failure to embrace even simple, low-cost changes that would greatly benefit passengers. An obvious example is real-time information displays - whether at bus stops or via smartphones - that use satellite tracking to tell passengers exactly when to expect the next bus. ACT governments have spoken about this technology for 10 years, yet we are still to see it. An enterprising group of local students, the Imagine Team, even developed the software for such a system and have provided it freely to many commuters. Yet rather than make the satellite data available publicly last year, the ACT government paid a business, Trapeze Austrics, $12.5 million to introduce the system. This may be a worthy investment - the government said it would be ready this year - but Canberrans are becoming used to being disappointed by Action. Please, prove us wrong.

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