In its first week light rail from Gungahlin carried over 100,000 passengers and proved to be the success that its supporters knew it would be. It was a long time coming, and although it received overwhelming support from the public at the 2016 election, much political blood was shed, including the toppling of Canberra Liberal Trevor Kaine, former Labor chief minister Rosemary Follet and her transport minister David Lamont.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Transport Minister Megan Fitzharris deserve much credit for the resolve they had to see the benefits of this city-changing project through, and it will be a legacy for generations to come. Former transport minister Simon Corbell may one day be able to catch light rail from Civic to Kingston for a coffee, as he once famously predicted.
On Monday, the ACT received its second major public transport shakeup with Network 19. Integrating light rail, nine rapid bus routes, and more frequent local buses, the aim is to increase local connections to rapid routes, and increase the frequency. Passengers have long complained about the magical mystery local bus tours, and this has been addressed.
Weekend passengers also benefit with rapid buses operating until at least 10pm on Sunday. Over time, it would be good to see local buses offer this same service, but as long as the Transport Workers Union believes working weekends is voluntary and not something that the public expects that may be some time off. Passengers fortunate enough to live adjacent to light rail will be able to travel until 1am on Saturdays and 11.30pm on Sundays. This is the sort of weekend public transport service that Canberra has needed for many years.
Our city has grown. In 1992 Gungahlin had 389 residents, today it has 80,000 - 50,000 of those have arrived in the last five years. Light rail has been delivered under budget, before the major duplicated roads in Gungahlin being constructed at the same time. A startling reminder that under the Stanhope administration, public transport and road infrastructure was very far down the funding priority list, while single dwelling housing blocks were allowed to sprawl across Canberra. We have to stop building in car dependency.
At 420,000 now, and 500,000 soon, Canberra must keep building transport infrastructure that matches our growth, and corrects past mistakes. This government understands this, will future governments? The 2020 Assembly elections will be telling, as the Canberra Liberals are yet to share any thoughts on future public transport infrastructure.
Although the radical Network 19 changes will prove beneficial, there will be many short term issues as passengers start using it, and locating the new bus stops they may have to walk further to use. Not everyone benefits, and indeed some people lose out. Many long used local bus stops are disappearing, requiring people to walk to unfamiliar streets in their neighbourhood.
Fairbairn, Hume, Calvary, Bruce CIT and ANU and other locations to lose a bus service. Although ANU has its own coaster bus, it may not have enough capacity for the students that relied on the former service. Transport Canberra have indicated that on-demand buses will replace some services, but there is no extra funding to expand this fleet and the software for the small fleet of on-demand buses is not yet available. In some instances the services are more likely to be used by the fridge magnet generation, than the app generation.
The loudest voices against Network 19 are the parents of children who use school buses to travel from north to south Canberra. These services have slightly decreased from 246 school buses to 222 school buses, and there are now reportable metrics in place. Some services carry a handful of students a day. Clearly a bus carrying a hundred people is better used decreasing peak hour bus route frequency.
Many schools now have regular bus stops next to them, or nearby. The majority of students travelling to school by bus do so on a regular bus, and it is better for their independence and to stop bullying that they do so into the future. Many former students and bus drivers have advised that a student is less likely to be bullied on a regular bus, when an adult passenger will speak up, than on a school bus with no adult present except the driver occupied navigating our roads. While there is no separate school bus fleet in Canberra, this balance of resources will continue to be played out.
Passenger wayfinding between rapid and local bus services also needs work. Savvy passengers may know they can step off a rapid bus, walk 100 metres and step on a local bus, other passengers may not know this. People won't mind transferring if the frequency of services leads to shorter waiting times for the next bus or light rail.
As only 10 per cent of Canberrans use public transport now, the aim of Network 19, light rail stage one (and stage two when it is built) is to attract new passengers, encourage greater residential and business growth around transport corridors, and to provide incentives to people to park their car at home. A month of free public transport accompanying the new network and the introduction of light rail will attract new passengers, Canberra needs to keep them using public transport. The results of Network 19 may take some time to be realised but they must work if we want to enjoy the bush capital and not live in our cars.
- Damien Haas is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra.