The ACT government will lean on Canberra's major employers to encourage more flexible working hours to spread out peak-hour demands on the public transport network.
A new recovery plan for the network includes a review of fares to find ways to incentivise more off-peak travel and gradually increase passenger numbers as part of emissions reduction efforts.
However, the business community says any move to promote flexible work needs to consider the needs of small traders in town centres.
The plan also includes providing more dedicated bus lanes, on-demand public transport options and increased services as initiatives to drive uptake after pandemic restrictions have eased.
Transport Minister Chris Steel told a forum on Thursday night the ACT would need to gradually increase public transport usage above pre-pandemic levels in order for the ACT to reduce its transport emissions.
"We shouldn't expect everyone to jump back on a bus tomorrow, but when the time is right we will be strongly welcoming people back aboard," Mr Steel said.
There are no public health restrictions on the number of passengers on buses or light rail carriages, but Transport Canberra is still encouraging people to travel at times when routes are running at half their capacity.
The number of journeys across bus and light rail services fell nearly 87 per cent between February to April last year. In April 2021, patronage was at 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Revenue from fares is down by $9.3 million this financial year, a fall of about 40 per cent.
The recovery plan points to recent data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics which shows one in six public transport users have not returned since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, overall traffic volumes in Canberra are 3 per cent higher than in December 2019, with Woden traffic recording an 8 per cent spike on pre-COVID-19 levels.
Mr Steel told a public transport recovery forum the second stage of light rail will play an important role in making sure Canberra remains accessible and easy to travel around as the population grows.
"We are investing now in Stage 2 to Woden so that we have the right infrastructure in place beforecongestion brings Canberra's south to a halt," he said.
A survey completed in March found around a third of light rail passengers in the ACT had never used public transport before catching light rail, the transport recovery plan says.
"This demonstrates that light rail can be a catalyst for more people choosing public transport, which is why it is an integral part of the ACT government's forward transport agenda," the plan says.
Canberra Business Chamber chief executive Graham Catt said it was important for any flexible work initiatives to consider the effects on small businesses in town centres.
"Otherwise we're simply saying big employers can manage that, we can change the public transport hours and leave the small business to fend for themselves - I think it's an opportunity to engage with everyone to get that right," Mr Catt said.
Mr Catt said larger employers could more easily adapt to allow flexible work, in ways small businesses could not readily follow.
"I think there's been a recognition that cities around the world are changing, and I'm sure there's a consciousness here in Canberra and an awareness that people are rethinking the way our cities work, people are rethinking where people work, how they travel to and from work," he said.
"I think there's certainly an awareness and this is an opportunity for the ACT government to engage with business with how they think this might work for Canberra."
Mr Steel told the forum the decision to increase services during the pandemic, rather than resort to cuts, helped social distancing efforts on crowded routes.
Mr Steel also reaffirmed the ACT government's commitment to making cashless travel on public transport in the territory permanent, with the new ticketing system set to be cash-free.
"Making this system cashless from the start will increase the range of potential providers and solutions in this tender process, so we can get the best deal and best technology outcome for Canberrans," Mr Steel said.
"Providing contactless payment options will also help to minimise the risks of further outbreaks and support the ability of health officials to undertake contact tracing."
Public Transport Association of Canberra chair Ryan Hemsley, who also addressed the forum, said the plan was positive but needed to be backed up with action and funding in the next territory budget.
"There's no way we'll be able to get back a proper, efficiently running city post-Covid if we're not able to get people back onto public transport," Mr Hemsley said.
"This recovery plan is a good start but what we'd really like to see is those actions that are outlined actually implemented."
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