Canberrans shouldn't be complacent about quality of life and comparatively low levels of road congestion, a conference considering the government's light rail project heard on Wednesday.
Experts gathered for the Innovative Cities, Innovative Minds event at the National Museum of Australia heard about the challenges of population growth and city planning.
The two-day conference, hosted by the ACT government's Capital Metro Agency and opened by Deputy Chief Minister Simon Corbell, was designed to bring together academics, planners and students to discuss Canberra's transport network and the 12 kilometre tram line.
ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences senior lecturer David Bissell said effective planning of public transport infrastructure and engagement with local communities would bring economic and social benefits to Canberra.
Daily transport patterns had significant impacts across health, work and home life for commuters in cities in Australia and overseas. The government's $783 million tram line to Gungahlin would save Canberra from having to retro-fit more expensive transport options in the future.
"The take home message from a city like Sydney is that it suffers from an incredible transport problem and I think we're in a really exciting position in Canberra at the moment, because we can intervene in these future problems now, before it's too late," he said.
"Population growth here, over the next 20 years, is a problem we will have to deal with. Capital Metro is about dealing with that problem now, in a cost effective manner."
Dr Bissell said everyday transport use was linked to relationships, health and wellbeing. Transit-oriented development would help improve Canberra's urban amenity, lifestyle and ease of living.
"We've tended to rest on our laurels in Canberra, about the city we're in. A lot of the discourse is around what an easy city it is to live and work in ... but that will change as the population grows," he said.
Transport and land use planner and economist James McIntosh said his experience on interstate tram projects including Sydney's Paramatta light rail line project showed how difficult adding public transport to over-developed cities could be.
Canberra's designated tram corridors made the city ideally suited to construction now, which he conceded was long overdue. Dr McIntosh a director of LUTI Consulting said the city was broadly supportive of the development of tram lines.
"The project is just such a wonderful opportunity for Canberra," Dr McIntosh said.
"I've worked on most other light rail projects in recent years here in Australia and this has the opportunity to really positively influence the productive growth of Canberra.
"It's not really about what's here today. We can all look at the population growth forecasts, and even if they're out by a significant amount, Canberra is still going to grow massively over the next 20 years. The debate should be about looking forward to where and how we want this growth to take place.
"You can already see significant amounts of progress around the city. Focusing development around high quality public transport infrastructure, where people don't have to get in the car and can walk to the light rail, it's such a great opportunity."
The conference finishes on Thursday after discussion of integrated transport planning and economic opportunities related to light rail.
The ACT government expects to award contracts for the city to Gungahlin tram line by April.