In 25 years' time, how will people get around Canberra? Mostly in electric cars, buses, light rail, bikes and on foot. Many of the cars will be self-driving and shared, dropping off or picking up, with no parking needed in city or suburban centres. Diesel and petrol engines will be unusual and considered a nuisance.
More people will live close enough to their work and shops to walk and ride, which will be made more attractive through better foot and bike paths. The transport system will be better integrated, linking up the different modes.
We will have more space, better air and less noise – an even more people-friendly Canberra. Underpinning that vision is denser housing, much more investment in better urban spaces, and the electric transport revolution.
Canberrans commute mostly by car. This won't change quickly, so a shift to cleaner cars is important. You wouldn't know it looking at traffic in Australian cities, but electric vehicles are coming. Electric cars are technically superior: their drivetrain is simpler, cheaper to produce and lasts longer, requiring little maintenance and repairs. Now that batteries are much better and cheaper, they will be the technology of choice.
The total cost of owning an electric car will likely be on par with conventional cars in the 2020s. Their energy cost is lower, and far lower if charged on rooftop solar, which many in Canberra can do. You can choose the size of the battery pack and thus the range. Plug-in hybrids have no range limits.
The rollout of electric cars is slower in Australia than in most other developed countries. That's because we are low down the priority list for car producers, fuel here is relatively cheap, there are no government incentives to speak of, public charging infrastructure is scarce and range anxiety is still widespread. But it will happen, and we can speed it up.
The ACT government already uses some electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen cars, and will buy only "green" vehicles from 2020. Supply chains are being developed and public charging points are rolling out. ACT government green cars will enter the second-hand market. By then, there will also be a greater range of new electric cars at more affordable prices.
Electric-car owners enjoy registration and duty discounts in the ACT, and they will soon have transit-lane access and more dedicated parking. That falls short of the generous benefits offered in many European countries and some states in the United States. But it seems the federal government will support electric vehicles in some form, and fewer incentives will be needed as their prices come down.
What can you do if you own and use a car, and want to be part of that change? For now, simply hang on to your car, and buy a green car when it becomes affordable. Most importantly, do not buy a new petrol or diesel car, because it would likely still be on the road in the 2030s. And of course, see which of your trips you can make by public transport, bike or on foot. If footpaths or bike paths on your commute are substandard, as some are, tell the ACT government.
This is tough for car dealers, but the solution for them is straightforward: get green cars into the showroom. The car service and repair industry will shrink as electric cars rise, and many petrol stations will disappear. The change will be gradual, so there is time to prepare.
Replacing oil with carbon-free electricity in road transport will be a big part of cutting greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It is central to achieving the ACT's emissions-reduction targets in coming decades, as road transport – mostly cars – makes up about two-thirds of the ACT's annual greenhouse-gas emissions other than from electricity generation. Canberra's electricity will be 100 per cent renewable from the early 2020s, so cutting transport emissions will be crucial for further emissions reductions in line with the ACT's targets. Charging electric cars will be carbon-free in Canberra.
Buses also matter. Even if the light rail is greatly expanded, buses will carry much of Canberra's public transport. Electric buses are already commonplace in China – the city of Shenzhen runs an all-electric fleet of 16,300 buses, and China overall adds almost 2000 electric buses to the country's system every week. Gradually, electric buses are coming into the transport systems of Western cities. They are more expensive to buy, but their running costs are lower.
Canberra recently tested two electric buses; that test has ended. Meanwhile, the ACT ordered 40 new diesel buses in 2018 to expand the fleet of about 450 buses.
Electric buses will require some changes in routes and practices at the depot, which surely can be accommodated. Buses last for decades, and buying new diesel buses is at odds with the ACT's emissions targets, unless they are to be sold second hand to other cities. Going all electric sooner is better.
There is really nothing that is not to like about a green, people-friendly transport system for Canberra. It'll take time to get there, and the time to make a start is now.
Frank Jotzo is a professor at the ANU's Crawford school of public policy and a member of the ACT Climate Change Council, a body advising the ACT government on climate change and paths for action. He commutes mostly by bike, and sometimes by hybrid or conventional car. He looks forward to the age of the affordable electric car. email@example.com