Barr’s fast track from Bush Capital to concrete jungle

Bruin Christensen 19 March 2019 115
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.

What's Your Opinion?

Please login to post your comments, or connect with
115 Responses to Barr’s fast track from Bush Capital to concrete jungle
Darryl Parker Darryl Parker 8:07 am 31 Mar 19

Can anyone send me a link to the business case that the govt relied on to justify the LR? I want to make an informed decision on LR's merits before I comment.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 5:45 pm 31 Mar 19

    Darryl Parker google works well for this kind of thing. But anyway.

Michael Page Michael Page 9:05 pm 28 Mar 19

nimbies dont like progress

Sally Tregellas Wodzinska Sally Tregellas Wodzinska 11:38 am 27 Mar 19

Are there park and ride areas along the way? I'd catch it if so. But I'm not moving to an apartment on Northbourne Ave.

Jo Binkin Jo Binkin 9:32 pm 24 Mar 19

Interesting, a point I have been saying since they started talking about the tram, long before it was built. And very interesting that the max building height seems to have been thrown out the window and we can build as many 20 storey eye-sores as they like 🤔. Seriously thinking of moving to the South side away from all of this stupidity

Baydn Kynaston Baydn Kynaston 6:55 pm 24 Mar 19

Matthew James Evans angry reacts only

Margaret Brauer Margaret Brauer 4:30 pm 24 Mar 19

To much High Rise is stuffing up our beautiful city ,yes I agree just greed ,there is so much on the market and building more ,who is going to buy them ,

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 5:26 am 25 Mar 19

    Margaret Brauer so you would rather the city continue to expand outwards?

Garry Peadon Garry Peadon 4:14 pm 24 Mar 19

After the honeymoon, they will be empty

David Brown David Brown 2:18 pm 24 Mar 19

Just wait until our Show ground and horse racing track are given to developers to build more termite mounds.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 4:27 pm 24 Mar 19

    David Brown the horse racking track cannot be given away because the government doesn’t own it. The Canberra racing club does.

    They also own the strip of land between the light rail track and the race course. I would bet that they (the racing club) might rezone and develop that bit of land, which is not such a bad thing.

    David Brown David Brown 6:17 pm 24 Mar 19

    Ashley Wright Thanks. I did not know that. But I remain confident that Barr will have his eyes on the Show Ground.

Michael White Michael White 2:14 pm 24 Mar 19

1) written by a philosopher, not a town planner

2) all the things he is saying gungahlin is lacking can be found in civic. (Except for ‘stadia.’ But using the word stadia is wanky so we can disregard)

3) Belconnen is a future stage. Stop taking like civic to gungahlin is the first and only.

Michael Blythe Michael Blythe 12:59 pm 24 Mar 19

Roll up! Roll up! The white elephant circus is in town to stay! Hello empty carriages, broken promises, and an out of touch cabinet! 😂😂😂🖕

Sacha Blumen Sacha Blumen 12:55 pm 24 Mar 19

I'm looking forward to a more urban Canberra. It's too spread out as it is. We won't be highly densely populated even in 20 years - any visit to other Australian capital cities or overseas shows that

    David Brown David Brown 2:18 pm 24 Mar 19

    Sacha Blumen I suggest that you move to a city that suits you rather than wreck my garden city.

    Garry Peadon Garry Peadon 4:13 pm 24 Mar 19

    David Brown I concur

    Josh Tye Josh Tye 4:53 pm 24 Mar 19

    I didn’t know a guy named David Brown “owned” Canberra. The things you learn on the internet. 🤷🏽‍♂️

    Peter Murphy Peter Murphy 2:50 pm 25 Mar 19

    "Densification" - where's my fainting couch?

    Sacha Blumen Sacha Blumen 8:09 am 26 Mar 19

    At one stage there weren’t sheep farms where Canberra now is. Perhaps we should go back to the area as it was then

Rob Chalmers Rob Chalmers 11:44 am 24 Mar 19

Paved paradise put up a parking lot....except they're building on all the parking lots.

Colin Wilson Colin Wilson 11:22 am 24 Mar 19

Obscene waste of taxpayers money.

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 11:12 am 24 Mar 19

Off topic I know, but even when they build their concrete battery cages they can’t do that right! They’ve concreted virtually all the southern side of Lake Tuggeranong, and what do they do? Stick all the business and shop fronts on the Anketell Street side of the apartments. If you’re going to concrete the lakeside, at least effing well use it you d***heads!

Sean Lawson Sean Lawson 10:49 am 24 Mar 19

Density is good you muppets

Jp Romano Jp Romano 10:38 am 24 Mar 19

Lyndon Zoukowski Lyndon Zoukowski 10:38 am 24 Mar 19

Can't wait! Will be a great addition to the city. Works great in the Gold coast and I see the similar strategy being adopted here. An actual vision for the city.

Claire de Lune Claire de Lune 10:29 am 24 Mar 19

Canberra needs to build in that infrastructure at the time of development rather than making the public purse pay for it after the development has been finalised

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)

CBR Tweets

Sign up to our newsletter

Region Group Pty Ltd

Search across the site