Is Canberra's public transport the best we can do?
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Is Canberra's public transport the best we can do?

Whenever the ACT government is pressured into defending its light rail network plan the response is that overseas experience has shown that wherever light rail has been introduced there have been increases in property values, development and public transport use.

In Canberra it seems that there will be another effect that is exemplified by a proposition made by Hindmarsh developers to the Woden Valley community council in August. Hindmarsh will underwrite a cooperative exercise with the community to plan the surroundings of its proposed twin 27-storey tower development that is to be situated within 200 metres of the light rail route.

This development will dominate and overshadow a swathe of existing three-storey apartment blocks and commercial buildings. Meanwhile, residents of the Bellerive Retirement Village, a few blocks away, find that three hours sunshine a day is all that the codes guarantee as they are to be dominated by the 24-storey Geocon development.

Overall public transport amenity for the city has come as an afterthought in the much-criticised revamped bus/light rail network.

Overall public transport amenity for the city has come as an afterthought in the much-criticised revamped bus/light rail network.

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

One might argue that the ACT government has a very simple approach to urban planning that is based on proclaiming light rail network corridors that the developers will then fill in as densely as possible, starting at the towns, after neutralising the concerns of citizen groups.

No attention is evident towards urban planning aesthetics which the eminent planner, Professor Ken Taylor, recently blamed on the lack, since self-government, of a dedicated authority to manage the vision for the city. The latest example of this problem is the City Renewal Authority, charged with implementing the Northbourne to Lake corridor.

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Overall public transport amenity for the city has come as an afterthought in the much-criticised revamped bus/light rail network that has been introduced in anticipation of the opening of the Gungahlin-Civic light rail link. This is just another compromise that introduces more walking and more interchanges in favour of more frequent services that may well discourage as many commuters as it attracts.

Many are questioning whether this is the best we can do for a city spanning 45x35 kilometres and until recently noted for an urban design that brings the hills and valleys into every aspect. Furthermore, recent technology developments cast serious doubt on the light rail network proposal as economic or a functionally suitable public transport system for Canberra.

The minimalist approach is also evident in the ACT government’s submission to the inquiry into Commonwealth and parliamentary approvals for the proposed stage two of the light rail network. Rather than preparing a detailed design, the light rail plan submitted to the inquiry was nothing more than a line on a map accompanied by elaborate but largely unsubstantiated claims about the benefits.

The official response of the National Capital Authority (NCA) to the inquiry committee was that despite much interaction with the ACT government the NCA would not be able to comment to the committee on the major heritage and traffic issues until there was a detailed design.

This test of reactions from the inquiry committee and the community produced numerous other questions and concerns about heritage, the route, transport amenity and overall cost benefit. In answer to a question about wire-free running of trams along Adelaide Avenue the ACT government response was that there might be suitable technology available by the time construction begins.

Inside on of Canberra's new trams.

Inside on of Canberra's new trams.

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

This selective faith in technology accompanied by a good deal of secrecy is becoming extreme. In his report to the ACT Legislative Assembly on an urban renewal delegation to North American cities having light rail in common, Planning Minister Mick Gentleman failed to mention that, with the exception of Oregon and Vancouver, the latter having a very expensive grade-separated transit system, the new streetcars in US cities are little more than icons of the past, running infrequently. Detroit’s QLine is a 5km downtown line unlikely to undergo any expansion.

Minister Gentleman’s delegation visited the former Google company named X in San Francisco that runs the Project Wing trial in Canberra to deliver small items by drone. However, the Minister elected to overfly Phoenix where Google’s sibling company Waymo is already carrying public passengers in driverless cars and has contracted to Walmart for supermarket deliveries. Similarly, in San Francisco, the Minister might have met with General Motors and San Francisco city officials who are in negotiation for the deployment of a fleet of self-driving Chevy Bolts for a commercial ride-sharing service.

While there are numerous barriers to deploying driverless cars at present, not to mention the community attitude to trusting one’s life to a robot, there seems to be little legal, infrastructure or technology limit to the recent innovation of trackless trams. This technology uses dotted lines painted on the thoroughfare to define a virtual track and presents no new safety questions. It merely blurs the distinction between a bus and a tram. The virtual track tram in the city of Zhuzhou carries 300 passengers at 70km/h, the same as the Urbos trams now beginning to operate in Canberra.

There are no details about requirements for the trackless tram thoroughfare, but it does seem that the dotted lines that define the virtual track could be painted on existing roadway and that roadway could still be shared with other vehicles. By following the Woden-Civic rapid bus route, a trackless tram line could be put in place quickly and at a small fraction of the estimated cost of a steel rail line, and not infringe on any heritage consideration. Moreover, the option exists of having both a fast, direct route and a route through Barton, still at a small cost compared with the current traditional light rail proposal.

The role of light rail in urban renewal and environmental outcomes has not been fully evaluated in the Canberra context, especially in the light of new technology. The 2016 census shows that of those who travelled to work, 76 per cent drove a vehicle, 7 per cent were car passengers, 8 per cent used a bus and 8 per cent used active transport (walking or cycling). Even if the number of commuters using public transport and active transport was to double by 2030, given the light rail has sufficient capacity, this would not keep pace with population growth and there would still be more vehicles on the road.

If there is to be a solution to traffic congestion and a return to our beautiful urban design, then it lies in the direction being taken by technology giants such as Google-Waymo and General Motors. Ride-sharing in small driverless vehicles may not arrive until after 2025, but until then the ACT government would be well advised to limit its investment to a better bus network. Currently, it has its head in the sand.

John L Smith is a retired CSIRO scientist and Canberra resident since 1969.