The ACT Government has opted for light rail for the next generation of public transport. This decision was driven by the desire to redevelop Northbourne Avenue, change the lease purposes and increase land values along either side of this “entry” road. A lot of Canberrans do not believe that trams are the best transport solution. So what are the criteria for a good transport system?
The rise and fall of trams
It is often instructive to look to the past to see how we got to where we are now, and whether this can give us some guidance to our current and future needs.
The first tram in Australia was in Hobart in 1893 (pictured above). In 1900 the city density was double what it was in 2000 and all transport was horse drawn; there was no option but to walk or use a horse to get about. It’s easy to see why people were so quick to take to the cutting edge, risky technology of electric trams.
In the early 20th century 25 Australian towns and cities had (this was the period when the Griffins designed Canberra). But things changed and only two systems survived: Melbourne and Adelaide. There are a few vintage tourist short lines in use but these are not mass transport systems. A couple of short “modern” lines have been added recently but these have proved to be quite expensive
So why did trams fail? New alternative transport systems (mostly cars but also buses) which were faster, cheaper, and more convenient challenged the tram’s dominance. However, road transport is now threatened by its own success. Traffic density is making car travel slower, traffic jams are aggravating and stressful as well as reducing efficiency and causing pollution.
Scheduled versus on-demand transport systems
Most public transport systems run to a timetable. You need to have a timetable and have to be at the stop at the right time. This contrasts with on-demand systems where you can go when you want, such as a car or taxi.
At present public transport systems use large vehicles following fixed routes and picking up passengers at fixed locations at specific times. In addition passengers have to get themselves from home, work etc. to the scheduled stop, i.e. it is not door to door. A minor inconvenience for the young and fit but progressively more of a problem for the aged and incapacitated. This is becoming more and more important with an ageing population.
Traditional transport systems evolved when control systems had to be simple. All you needed was a vehicle, a driver, a route, bus/train stop signs and a timetable. Scheduled systems like these can work well for peak time commuting as the large vehicles can move a lot of people, they have a good load factor and the cost per passenger is low. Fortunately Canberra adopted flexible start and stop times quite early.
Off peak is another matter. Passenger numbers per hour are much lower. If the system offers a good frequent service, passengers are reasonably satisfied but the large vehicles have few passengers per vehicle, efficiency is low and cost per passenger is high. The operator/accountants solution is to reduce the frequency of service in an attempt to increase the number of passengers in each vehicle and hence reduce costs. The result is cranky passengers who find other transport means, and the only passengers left are those who with no alternative.
But technology has not stood still. Sophisticated controls are readily available and cheap so that “on-demand” can be extended to other vehicle types. Other vehicle types have been developed and other propulsion technologies too e.g. linear electric motors. The time is right for a major change in transport modes.
Current and future transport solutions
Our goal should be to get the optimum mix of transport modes to most efficiently meet Canberrans’ transport needs now and into the future.
So what transport options are available to serve Canberra in 2015? Except in large cities where underground trains are justified, public transport moves on the ground. Apart from trains, all ground-based transport moves at about the same speed in order to negotiate intersections etc. To increase speed and reduce trip times, it is necessary to exploit the third dimension: height. While underground is far too expensive for a place like Canberra, riding above the traffic is feasible. By moving above the traffic, interaction with intersections is avoided, speed is significantly higher and trip times are reduced. As the majority of road accidents occur at intersections, safety would also be improved.
Elevated railways have been around for many years, generally with large carriages which need large, heavy, and visually dominant tracks (who can forget the Sydney Monorail?). They are also slowed down by passengers alighting (a similar problem to that faced by ground based systems such as trams and buses). These older elevated systems were limited by the technology available in the past
Personal rapid transit systems are now entering the field. These use small vehicles suspended below a rail mounted on poles above the traffic (thus not interacting with road users). Because the vehicles (often referred to as pods) are small and light, the rail or track can be kept small and light, which makes it visually less obtrusive when compared to the older systems with large vehicles. The smaller track is much cheaper than tram tracks and has a much lower carbon dioxide burden.
The pods can be automatically guided to your destination, no driver is needed and the pods do not stop at intermediate stops or interchanges, just tell it where you want to go, just like in an elevator. Because they operate “on-demand”, as does a lift, there is no need for timetables. Just turn up and take the next pod to where you want to go.
Even though individual pods are small, they are relatively cheap mass-produced items, so the numbers can increase as demand rises on the system. Peak passenger numbers are about 7,000 passengers per hour for each track, much greater than those predicted by Capital Metro for the first stage of Canberra’s light rail.
In Canberra the intention is to take trams down the main transport corridors. The problem is that the city was designed to keep dwellings away from the danger, noise and pollution along these routes, and this has worked very well.
This means the tram lines will be quite a distance from the population (e.g. down Adelaide Avenue) for most of the route. Even if fully developed, Capital Metro says most Canberrans will be too far from a tram line to use it with any regularity. Suburban streets are generally too narrow to take tram lines into suburban centres. Overhead rapid transit lines, however, could be easily installed above the narrower suburban streets, serving a much larger proportion of Canberra’s population.
As we have seen, trams are limited by their interaction with other traffic and by the need to stop to let passengers enter or alight. Capital Metro estimates around 25 minutes Gungahlin to Civic and around an hour and a half from Gungahlin to Tuggeranong. This is really too slow to attract passengers out of their cars. Even buses are faster.
On the other hand, personal pods which do not make intermediate stops and ride above the traffic would get more people out of their cars and ease congestion for remaining road users. Trip times from one end of Canberra to the other could be as short as ten minutes, depending on the system.
Another technology which is likely to be commercial in a few years time is autonomous cars, again due to the availability of sophisticated cheap control systems. Fewer autonomous cars would be needed to do the same job as ordinary cars for most local trips. Given the low cost of electronic controls the autonomous cars would reduce in price to little above the price of conventional cars. There would also be reduced need for parking, potentially freeing up space for better community needs (once the autonomous car drops you off, it moves on to the next passenger needing transport. It does not need to park and wait for you). Accident rates should go down too, as autonomous cars do not text, put on lipstick or shave in the mirror. Add your own horror story.
Autonomous cars would park out of the way when not needed, take the time to recharge their electric batteries, be serviced etc. Very much more economical and efficient. What autonomous cars can not do however is to carry people on commuter trips, especially at peak times. Replacing private cars with autonomous cars will not help with traffic jams; essentially the same number of vehicles would be on the road.
To me, close to an ideal solution would be a high speed overhead rapid transit system in conjunction with autonomous cars to get you to and from the pod stations.
We will of course always have people walking, riding bikes and shopping. But these are not suitable for longer distances in most cases, and are not at all suitable when carrying bulky shopping or when disabled. Beware, we all get older eventually!