Barr’s fast track from Bush Capital to concrete jungle

Bruin Christensen 19 March 2019 114
Light rail in the city. File photo.

Light rail is taking Canberra on the fast track to urban densification. File photo.

It’s official: Canberra is getting light rail because it facilitates urban renewal. Thus spake the government at last year’s inquiry into Phase 2 to Woden.

In fact, the government has been saying this since 2013, when its own report on the case for light rail pointed out that a modern bus transit system could meet all public transport objectives just as well for half the price.

The report advised the government to promote light rail as facilitating urban renewal in a way buses could not. This was to be the tie-breaker between buses and trams.
But will the current light rail project optimally deliver on those goals? Light rail carries more people more comfortably and more quickly than standard buses. It is, however, much more costly.

Consequently, it is best introduced where there are already centres of people concentration like universities, colleges, hospitals, stadia, cinemas, restaurants, shops and large employers.

Only there will light rail encourage people out of cars, reduce congestion and speed up public transport travel times. But Gungahlin has no major employer and its retail centre is relatively small. Nor are there any universities, hospitals or large schools along the route.

Mitchell never hosts masses of people and the racecourse and EPIC only occasionally. There are already people in apartments and hotels along Northbourne Avenue but one would hardly build light rail for them alone.
Or rather, the route does not yet have the required concentration. The government believes this can be retrofitted: massive densification will create the throngs light rail needs to be cost-effective. In addition, these masses will bring ‘life’, in particular, commercial life, to the route.

They will encourage businesses to set up shop there, which will, in turn, draw people as customers and patrons to the route, thereby making light rail even more cost-effective. Property values will go up, thereby increasing rates, and thriving businesses can be harvested for revenue.

Perhaps, too, more of this extra value can be captured by imposing special levies for the privilege of living or setting up shop on the route. Light rail will facilitate urban renewal and urban renewal will facilitate light rail.
But will densification create the concentration of people light rail needs while allowing it to make the best possible contribution to public transport across all of Canberra? Will densification create this concentration without undermining the quality of the urban renewal light rail is supposed to create?

The 37,000 people the government plans to pack along the route will not want to travel only to destinations on the route. So unless these people have an integrated bus system that permits them to move quickly and efficiently to and from other destinations, they will be using cars a lot, possibly even most of the time.

This will create congestion and reduce the quality of the ‘life’ created by light rail. A well-integrated bus service with frequencies equal to the tram is thus essential to making the best possible contribution to public transport and urban renewal.
Yet densification makes it harder to achieve such a bus system. The residential concentration of people around the tram generates a low-intensity stream of diverse transport needs across the entire day which the tram will not meet.

Creating the numbers needed for light rail through densification will thus increase the task for buses even as light rail takes resources away from them. Congestion around the tram line will be greater, the quality of urban renewal lower and public transport’s challenge to the car will be weaker than they could be.

The way Canberra is introducing light rail—building it on a route with insufficient numbers, then retrofitting the numbers through densification—is inefficient. Indeed, it is grossly inefficient.

Canberra already has a route with the required centres of people concentration on or near it: Belconnen via Civic to Woden, linking Belconnen Mall, the ABS, a new hospital, University of Canberra, Radford College, Bruce Stadium, Calvary Hospital, the ANU, Civic, the Parliamentary Triangle and Woden Town Centre.

This route does present more engineering difficulties, but if these difficulties rule this route out, then they rule light rail out since no other route is more suitable.

Better then to improve the bus system massively and wait until its success made an upgrade to light rail or some other technology more viable. So why has the government embarked on the current light rail project? It wants the revenues it believes densification will bring. Andrew Barr has traded the best possible improvement of public transport and the quality of urban renewal for this pot of gold.

Bruin Christensen is a philosopher in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University and writes extensively on a number of subjects. Visit his website for more details.

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114 Responses to Barr’s fast track from Bush Capital to concrete jungle
Babs Mabbs Babs Mabbs 10:26 am 24 Mar 19

Canberra needs transport options other than cars.

Stas Idowu Stas Idowu 10:25 am 24 Mar 19

Social Canberra (18-35)

George Brenan George Brenan 10:19 am 24 Mar 19

There's one thing that constitutes the biggest public transport disaster - a half finished poorly functioning hybrid system. Whether Canberra should have taken the plunge is a debate for several years ago. The debate to be having now is how to maximise the opportunities of a light rail network. Many of us think that involves getting on with it and ensuring that ancillary infrastructure like park and ride points are readily available

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 5:27 pm 24 Mar 19

    Scott Anthony "once a tram line is in place, thats pretty much it" That's a tram's advantage; the route it travels is not likely to be taken away, as has happened to many of the bus routes. Surely you have noticed the whinging about people's buses being changed. I whinged myself. Wouldn't have happened if it had been a tram. They would still have the same route. A tram gives certainty that when a person buys a home near convenient public transport, that public transport then won't evaporate like many bus routes have. Like my bus route did. It appeared aged care and other housing had been purposely built along my ex local bus route, but that meant nothing when the bus was cancelled. All those people have now been isolated. They would still have a tram.

    Mirjam Herzog Mirjam Herzog 11:07 pm 24 Mar 19

    Julie Macklin These ever-changeing bus routes are a total mystery to me... I gladly stand corrected but I don't think any major city is doing such radical and frequent changes to their pt network...

    Claudia Marangon-Montagner Claudia Marangon-Montagner 9:21 am 26 Mar 19

    Julie Macklin I’m getting old and have had medical issues..I didn’t drive and rely on bus.. did have one near my house.. every morning there is approximately 5-10 at that stop now I have to walk down 5 blocks down a ditch cross the main road ... and at night it will be in the dark and up hill..wlf... they suggest a push bike to the stop.😂😂😂

    Claudia Marangon-Montagner Claudia Marangon-Montagner 9:23 am 26 Mar 19

    Julie Macklin there is also a boy autism how will not hand the change at all 🥺

Luke Ashe Luke Ashe 10:08 am 24 Mar 19

They put the traffic light buttons to cross the road on the right side rather than the left. That's some good work there

Roger Mungummary Roger Mungummary 9:52 am 24 Mar 19

His vision for Canberra is hideous. Jamming crappy houses on every Green space to satiate his developer backers.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 10:55 am 24 Mar 19

    Roger Mungummary what green spaces are those? Can you name one (usable) green space that has been lost.

    More space would be lost by continuing the urban sprawl!

    Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 11:06 am 24 Mar 19

    Have a look at what’s being done around the Fadden Pines area. What has been done in lake Tuggeranong.

    Roger Mungummary Roger Mungummary 2:16 pm 24 Mar 19

    Ashley Wright there's the area at the top of Mawson drive where kids used to play or the strip along Athlon where they are jamming in more shoddy units. Many other areas that made Canberra the bush capital and not the urban slum

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 6:00 pm 27 Mar 19

    Roger Mungummary oh you mean the land the NCDC set aside 30-40 years ago for future development. The land that no one uses but all whinge when something is planned for it.

Dong Fei Dong Fei 9:36 am 24 Mar 19

Would be so nice if our track could be as green as this.

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 9:35 am 24 Mar 19

I work in the city so I will catch it after driving to Lyneham from Bruce (my boyfriend lives there).

This video explains the benefits of light rail.

Iaian Ross Iaian Ross 9:33 am 24 Mar 19

"Consequently, it is best introduced where there are already centres of people concentration like universities, colleges, hospitals, stadia, cinemas, restaurants, shops and large employers.

Only there will light rail encourage people out of cars, reduce congestion and speed up public transport travel times. But Gungahlin has no major employer and its retail centre is relatively small. Nor are there any universities, hospitals or large schools along the route."

It was never about getting people to Gungahlin, but into the City and back from there.

The buses that go up and down that route are typically filled to capacity during peak hours and are way more congested than going between Belconnen and the City. Just need to look at the number of people at the nortbound platform at City Interchange on Mort Street and compare it to the one on East Row at peak times. It becomes immediately obvious why the Gungahlin line was built first. And this is in addition to the fact Gungahlin is still growing with a few more suburbs still to be built.

The patronage is there, the only problem I think with the line is in the track layout. But that's a completely different issue.

    Trish Roberts Trish Roberts 9:42 am 24 Mar 19

    Oh, Iain, I had copied that section in order to paste and you have already pasted it! I keep banging my head and making inarticulate sounds of distress.

    Chris Horscroft Chris Horscroft 1:18 pm 24 Mar 19

    If I may, ideally urban transport systems should have people magnets at both ends of the line (for example, between an airport and a city business district) as well as all along it. That way you don’t end up with empty carriages going one way and sardine tins the other, allowing maximum passenger miles for your investment. The best option would be to have work opportunities and or attractive sites at both ends of the line. Over time suburban planning goals should also include reducing the need for transport spikes through making it as attractive as possible for people to live close to where they work. I suspect the author of the article agrees with you that the LR was never about getting people to the northern end of the line: but I think his point was that they could have chosen a route that did have people magnets at both ends, and also in the middle. I live in Gungahlin and will be interested to see if the LR makes a difference to the pressures on the roads around here at peak times. While Canberra is obviously not subject to Sydney or Melbourne congestion levels, I hope it helps reduce the pressure we do have.

    Iaian Ross Iaian Ross 2:23 pm 24 Mar 19

    Urban planning is less about creating and engineering transport options to increase the usage of it, and more about responding to existing transportation habits of people, while being able to increase network capacity where it is needed.

    Urban planners rarely, if ever, ask themselves "why are people not using what I created?" They genenerally ask "How am I going to solve this problem, while not upsetting people's habits?"

    Hence the huge backlash over the new network coming in is way bigger than the existence of the tram line seems to be the result of a strategic transport policy overriding urban planning decisions.

Danny Corvini Danny Corvini 9:19 am 24 Mar 19

Bring on the light rail and yes to Canberra becoming a city not a suburb

Pam Hall Pam Hall 9:17 am 24 Mar 19

Not anyone living in Tuggeranong, the buses here aren’t even relevant to people’s needs

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:10 am 24 Mar 19

It all happened because an election was deadlocked between Labor and Liberal with one other elected but deluded member selling his vote for a not-needed tram to enable a Labor/Green minority government to be formed.

JC JC 8:51 am 24 Mar 19

Quote. “It’s official: Canberra is getting light rail because it facilitates urban renewal. Thus spake the government at last year’s inquiry into Phase 2 to Woden.“

I don’t know why this is such a revelation.

The business case for stage 1 clearly states this, even the executive summary for the contract for stage 1 states this. It is because of the urban renewal that gave it a positive (albeit a small positive) cost benifit ratio.

My question is, why is this such a bad thing? And what is the alternative? More urban sprawl and freeways to support it?

Tegan Farrelley Tegan Farrelley 8:44 am 24 Mar 19

The people who catch buses now? Public transport is still not a viable option for plenty of Canberrans who need to drop off/pick up kids, travel to offsite meetings during the day etc. The people who drive to and from work will still be commuting by car once the light rail is up and running.

    Doris Andrews Doris Andrews 10:03 am 24 Mar 19


    Rhonda Vang Rhonda Vang 10:31 am 24 Mar 19

    I can’t believe that there is no provision for car parking at the light rail stations/ stops!

    Louis Sotiropoulos Louis Sotiropoulos 12:14 pm 24 Mar 19

    Rhonda Vang car parks probably wouldn't bring much revenue for Barr. Would rather have grotesque looking apartment blocks everywhere, where they can charge the exorbitant rates per unit

    Kathryn Doyle Hailey Kathryn Doyle Hailey 3:37 pm 24 Mar 19

    Rhonda Vang oh I can. This is Barr’s legacy... blah

Roc Cecere Roc Cecere 8:38 am 24 Mar 19

Canberra was not originally planned or built for soooo many ppl, even most roads now can not handle traffic let alone light rail. Was a nice place to live, not now

    Nate Jennings Nate Jennings 8:52 am 24 Mar 19

    Roc Cecere yes it’s was how little you know.

    Julie Maynard Julie Maynard 9:01 am 24 Mar 19

    Roc Cecere still is as nice place. Try living in Melbourne or Sydney and commuting to work. Been there, done that, no thanks!

    Roc Cecere Roc Cecere 9:20 am 24 Mar 19

    Nate Jennings born and bread in canberra, little do you my friend know how it was like before

    Craig Alpen Craig Alpen 9:29 am 24 Mar 19

    I'm visiting Canberra after 40 years of living here...I wont move back

    Roc Cecere Roc Cecere 9:31 am 24 Mar 19

    Craig Alpen don't blame you mate

    Craig Alpen Craig Alpen 9:31 am 24 Mar 19

    You home?

    Roc Cecere Roc Cecere 9:32 am 24 Mar 19

    Craig Alpen no mate sorry, will be later this arvo

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 4:20 pm 24 Mar 19

    Roc Cecere actually Canberra was designed to have the population we have now and the roads etc were designed to handle it.

    Where we were spoilt is in having use of that infrastructure before demand justified it. It is now being utilised as planned.

    That said we are at the point where there cannot be any more expansion without increase in infrastructure to support that population. Like light rail stage 1 (at least)

    Carmen Isbester Carmen Isbester 8:06 pm 24 Mar 19

    Ashley Wright Wrong. Roads are congested. Drive into the city during "peak hour" where a 6km trip takes 45mins. Ridiculous.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 5:11 am 25 Mar 19

    Carmen Isbester right and wrong. Right, roads are congested, but that doesn’t mean the city wasn’t designed for the population.

    Roads are not designed to be free flowing at the speed limit 24/7. They are designed with a measure of acceptable congestion which we are only starting to experience in the past 10-15 years. Without that measure if acceptable congestion every main road in Canberra would need to be 4 lanes minimum in each direction and every intersection grade seperated. Not practical at all.

    The problem is perception because for the past 50 years that infrastructure, roads in particular were not operating to design capacity. Now they are!

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 11:16 am 25 Mar 19

    Roc Cecere really? I grew up in Canberra and have lived here on and off for 31 out of the last 41 years. I too remember the good old days, but I remember them for being when the NCDC built infrastructure that was well beyond what was needed (not complaining of course) it’s just now that that infrastructure is being used to its planned capacity. Maybe the fact I have lived and experienced elsewhere that I realise what we have now even with congestion for half an hour a day isn’t so bad.

    As for the keyboard warrior comment, grow up. You want to post comments in a public forum you need to expect people to respond.

    And BTW the Y plan which is what modern Canberra and all the 60/70/80’s infrastructure is planned on was design for a population of 500,000. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

Robbie Wallace Robbie Wallace 8:10 am 24 Mar 19

Seems to have added more congestion than it’s solved so far.... try and drive to Gungahlin/Mitchell anytime after 4 weekdays..... the traffic consensus is take Majura Parkway.... usually backed up to Tambareet st or more.... like to see a study on how traffic has been affected on Northbourne...

    Nate Jennings Nate Jennings 8:54 am 24 Mar 19

    Robbie Wallace there won’t be buses travel down northbound any more. Frees up a lane of traffic. Why judge something in its being constructed?

    Stephen Bejamin Duff Stephen Bejamin Duff 8:58 am 24 Mar 19

    Robbie Wallace I avoided Northbourne for over a year during construction due to being like a go kart track. Was rubbish to get anywhere. Drivers can't merge, cyclists are 2 abreast and getting around busses and lane switching with 1/3 of Canberra. No thanks.

    Julie Maynard Julie Maynard 9:03 am 24 Mar 19

    Stephen Bejamin Duff that’s progress. Give it a chance!

    Robbie Wallace Robbie Wallace 9:26 am 24 Mar 19

    I am only sharing what I have observed since 2016 and personal driving experience as a reasonably high volume road user.... if northbourne ave isn’t quicker than Majura parkway for drivers guess which one they will use.....

    Robbie Wallace Robbie Wallace 10:28 am 24 Mar 19

    Regardless if it’s open or not if it takes 25 mins to get up northbourne and get caught up in more congestion and 20 mins to go Majura traveling at 80-100 which way would you drive ?

    Rory Maguire Rory Maguire 10:50 am 24 Mar 19

    Ella Factor it’s that kind of thinking that will get you yelled at on an article about the tram in Canberra!

Nigel Page Nigel Page 8:08 am 24 Mar 19

It won't be anyone that works in Mitchell.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 4:29 pm 24 Mar 19

    Nigel Page doubt anyone working there would have used it even if the stop was installed. Oh and the top part of Mitchell is accessible from the Well Station drive stop anyway.

Christopher Mawbey Christopher Mawbey 7:39 am 24 Mar 19

Canberra can't keep spreading. It has to densify.

    Lauren Melksham Lauren Melksham 8:28 am 24 Mar 19

    Ted Douglas how on earth can you think that about one of Australia’s smallest and best catered for cities? That’s your opinion, and it just doesn’t stack up to the facts.

    Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 8:36 am 24 Mar 19

    I agree. Makes way more sense to increase density closer to the city centre and along major PT corridors than to keep building these awful new developments at the edge of town.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 4:38 pm 24 Mar 19

    Ted Douglas so how do you stop population growth?

    euthanasie all the oldies? That might solve a lot of issues actually.

Annil Singh Annil Singh 7:37 am 24 Mar 19

What a bunch of waffle... yay light rail....

Alen Marin Alen Marin 7:35 am 24 Mar 19

Concrete and weeds beautiful

    Nate Jennings Nate Jennings 8:57 am 24 Mar 19

    Alen Marin and twice as many trees than before the project started.

Claire Wilson Kaspura Claire Wilson Kaspura 7:27 am 24 Mar 19

What government with a social conscience would approve an apartment building of over 1,200 units. This does not fit with town planning principles... it is just greed.

    Tim Rutherford Tim Rutherford 8:52 am 24 Mar 19

    Claire Wilson Kaspura population growth is the reason

    Elizabeth Zatschler Elizabeth Zatschler 9:35 am 24 Mar 19

    Claire Wilson Kaspura and I read it only has 500 car spaces!

    Kriso Hadskini Kriso Hadskini 10:21 am 24 Mar 19

    Tim Rutherford No terrible, corrupted town planning is the problem. There are many cities in Europe with very high density/population that are a pleasure to live in because the planning is up to scratch re transport, greening, hospitals etc.

    Sean Lawson Sean Lawson 10:48 am 24 Mar 19

    How dare the government approve new housing

    Mirjam Herzog Mirjam Herzog 11:02 pm 24 Mar 19

    Kriso Hadskini But forget about owning a car (not really an issue with progressive public transport, but a huge mentality change). Lived in Geneva, taking the car out twice a month - but still. Whereas in Vienna, you'd just hire a car for trips to more remote places. Public parking in many European Inner Cities is difficult to find and/or expensive (parking fines and generally traffic fines seem to often be below Aussie fines...)

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 5:16 am 25 Mar 19

    Claire Wilson Kaspura I assume you refer to the Morris development on London circuit. FYI that is not one apartment building it is the complete development over 4 buildings.

    Still a lot of people of course but not quite as melodramatic as you say.

    And Elizabeth 500 carparks? If the same development stage one has 1300 carparks, 750 are meant for the public, there will be 360 units which means about 1.5 carparks per unit.

    Claire Wilson Kaspura Claire Wilson Kaspura 4:27 pm 27 Mar 19

    Ashley Wright no I refer to ?Geocom project in Belconnen

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 6:06 pm 27 Mar 19

    Claire Wilson Kaspura that is more than one building too. Believe it is spread over 3.

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