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How should we select a modern transport system for Canberra?

By Arthur Davies - 23 June 2015 61

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 5.02.14 pm

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!

What’s Your opinion?


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61 Responses to
How should we select a modern transport system for Canberra?
dungfungus 9:29 am 24 Jun 15

rubaiyat said :

Leon said :

justin heywood said :

any solution should start with the problem and THEN look for the solution.

The underlying problem is not actually “transport,” but rather “access” to work, school, shops etc., in a city that was originally planned as a compact city with frequent fast-moving traffic travelling in the median of Northbourne Avenue.”

We can solve many of our “transport” problems by putting more people closer to their everyday destinations.

If you include walking to and from bus stops, walking is Canberra’s second most popular form of transport. Yet we have 1,000 kilometres of streets that don’t even have footpaths. For 50 years, pedestrians crossing Northbourne Avenue have had to wait an extra 90 seconds because our “planners” separated the two carriageways of fast-moving traffic by 30 metres, and then installed traffic lights.

It’s enough to make Walter and Marion turn in their graves!

Be thankful this isn’t Brasilia, the main Eixo Monumental is 1 km wide because everyone was going to fly to work.

Now it is a mere 12 lanes of car traffic with a huge verge between. Canberrans can only dream!

btw Brasilia will be getting its first Light Rail soon.

The population of Brasilia is 2,562,963, making it the fourth largest city in Brazil.
Stop this chalk and cheese nonsense.

rubaiyat 6:47 am 24 Jun 15

Leon said :

justin heywood said :

any solution should start with the problem and THEN look for the solution.

The underlying problem is not actually “transport,” but rather “access” to work, school, shops etc., in a city that was originally planned as a compact city with frequent fast-moving traffic travelling in the median of Northbourne Avenue.”

We can solve many of our “transport” problems by putting more people closer to their everyday destinations.

If you include walking to and from bus stops, walking is Canberra’s second most popular form of transport. Yet we have 1,000 kilometres of streets that don’t even have footpaths. For 50 years, pedestrians crossing Northbourne Avenue have had to wait an extra 90 seconds because our “planners” separated the two carriageways of fast-moving traffic by 30 metres, and then installed traffic lights.

It’s enough to make Walter and Marion turn in their graves!

Be thankful this isn’t Brasilia, the main Eixo Monumental is 1 km wide because everyone was going to fly to work.

Now it is a mere 12 lanes of car traffic with a huge verge between. Canberrans can only dream!

btw Brasilia will be getting its first Light Rail soon.

rubaiyat 6:33 pm 23 Jun 15

You would think the auto manufacturers would love to brag how cheap driving is. Every car could have a meter, adjusted for the number of occupants, with a burning dollar icon, showing just how much that trip was REALLY costing, with a second showing the cost of parking.

There is a reason why they don’t. They’d have to show another for how much money your car is burning just sitting in your driveway, and your bank could tell you how much of the mortgage goes to the garage you built to keep it at home doing nothing.

You can drive 11km (5.5km return) for the cost of an ALL DAY week day unlimited bus fare.

6km on weekends.

A standard bus fare that will get you anywhere in Canberra, will get you less than 3km in your car.

Halve that for a concession card.

Even less if you drive in heavy traffic.

Parking exceeds the cost of a bus fare to anywhere at any time.

People just want excuses to justify what they do. Not reasons.

People ignore the economics. Even if public transport is totally free they just come up with something else as an excuse.

rosscoact 4:24 pm 23 Jun 15

Solidarity said :

Rather than trying to make driving a car less attractive, make your transport system more attractive, otherwise all you’re going to do is make people not vote for you.

Every law that gets people to act in a different way has a carrot and a stick. The government has to apply both and right now it is far easier to drive a car than take public transport so yes, make bus travel more attractive and car travel far less attractive. For the people who still decide to clog the roads regardless, make them pay for the privilege.

If bus travel was free, I still wouldn’t take it if I can park all day for $17 and have the independence that a car offers. Make it $45 to park all day in the city and all the bus routes go directly into town I will take a bus, not ride a pushie, it’s too far for me but certainly a scooter if I could conveniently park instead of looking for a full motorcycle parking station.

Leon 3:07 pm 23 Jun 15

justin heywood said :

any solution should start with the problem and THEN look for the solution.

The underlying problem is not actually “transport,” but rather “access” to work, school, shops etc., in a city that was originally planned as a compact city with frequent fast-moving traffic travelling in the median of Northbourne Avenue.”

We can solve many of our “transport” problems by putting more people closer to their everyday destinations.

If you include walking to and from bus stops, walking is Canberra’s second most popular form of transport. Yet we have 1,000 kilometres of streets that don’t even have footpaths. For 50 years, pedestrians crossing Northbourne Avenue have had to wait an extra 90 seconds because our “planners” separated the two carriageways of fast-moving traffic by 30 metres, and then installed traffic lights.

It’s enough to make Walter and Marion turn in their graves!

rubaiyat 2:28 pm 23 Jun 15

Solidarity said :

Rather than trying to make driving a car less attractive, make your transport system more attractive, otherwise all you’re going to do is make people not vote for you.

What exactly were you thinking of? Floral prints on the bus seats?

rubaiyat 1:38 pm 23 Jun 15

Bajar said :

I’ve seen similar pods function in Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook.

In all seriousness – a reboot and restructure of ACTION Buses would solve a lot of these issues. The way it stands now, it is cheaper and quicker for me and my partner to drive our two cars to work than it is to take public transport.

But it isn’t cheaper.

It may be more convenient, so much so that it is killing you and your family through lack of exercise, but it is WAY more expensive.

You simply don’t get the bill in one hit and ignore the huge amounts of money the government spends on roads and the consequences of the over use of cars.

We are also just getting the bill on maintaining oil supplies from the world’s trouble spots and are starting to feel the consequences of stupidly dumping massive amounts of pollution into our atmosphere. Probably the only bit you notice is the longer commutes and traffic jams as all the single occupant cars jam up the system

rubaiyat 1:28 pm 23 Jun 15

I heard the talk you gave on the Science Show and would love to see more than a 3D animation of the system, which is all we have.

You are asking Canberra to experiment and practically pay for the development of this system because it really doesn’t exist, except on the drawing board, and even not much of that there.

To my eye it is simply over engineering to fix bad planning. People generally move around at ground level. To get to a transport system, as you have pointed out, is already an ask. To add the extra dimension of getting up and down to an elevated system is an even bigger ask and barrier.

From all you showed this system will be extremely difficult to use by frail or disabled passengers.

Also I’d like to see what happens in system saturation ie peak hours. Like with taxis, the pods will be mostly used and all in the wrong locations, in transit to destination, or at the far end of the system.

Practical issues are what happens to a parent with multiple small children and shopping. Or groups of people who want to travel together? Safety requirements for high speed travel? The inevitable trees that will get in the way? The extra width footpaths and lifts (if you still have those) required at every stop?

You never addressed the issue of support failures, the huge number of lifts you said were required (unless you have changed your mind on that) and what happens in a line failure with everyone caught mid air like in a ski lift failure?

All to maintain continued isolated urban sprawl that requires long commutes that sap the life out of communities, chew up time money and energy, and takes away the daily exercise people get from moving around by foot and on public transport.

Isn’t it simpler to consolidate as far as possible our urban boundaries, not trash the countryside with MacMansions and the roads to shuffle people to and from them?

…and stop the massive pollution that this all causes?

Solidarity 1:21 pm 23 Jun 15

Rather than trying to make driving a car less attractive, make your transport system more attractive, otherwise all you’re going to do is make people not vote for you.

damien haas 1:17 pm 23 Jun 15

Arthur Davies said:
“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.”

You are being dishonest Arthur.

There were a range of reasons that supported the Gungahlin to Civic route. You can actually read a range of those reports on this page:

http://www.actlightrail.info/p/act-transport-studies.html

The first Gungahlin specific study dates from 1991.

I know it will amaze you, but the requirement for better public transport was – predictable traffic congestion and the need to move people.

justin heywood 12:18 pm 23 Jun 15

rosscoact said :

First, increase the cost of public parking spaces by 300%, make it hurt to take a car into town.
Then, make motorcycle parking on footpaths legal as in Victoria.
Then make two types of bus, ones that only run centre to centre and suburban busses which are smaller.
Then take one lane from all dual lane carriageway major arterials during peak hours and make them T3/bus lanes and book people who break this law
Then make rat running streets 40kph

That should do it for 20 years or so. If there is a need for trams then, let’s go for it. If doing that creates a need for trams, lets go for it. If the technology being boosted by the OP is proven and viable, then lets go for it.

Great ideas. Stand for the Assembly on those and you have my vote.

Not entirely sure that motorbikes are part a big part of the solution in Canberra though (and I ride). I imagine all but the hardiest biker will need an alternative on mornings when the temperature is in the minus, and the Tuggers parkway in peak hour is only for the brave. Scooter commuters should have their own lane.

rosscoact 11:38 am 23 Jun 15

First, increase the cost of public parking spaces by 300%, make it hurt to take a car into town.
Then, make motorcycle parking on footpaths legal as in Victoria.
Then make two types of bus, ones that only run centre to centre and suburban busses which are smaller.
Then take one lane from all dual lane carriageway major arterials during peak hours and make them T3/bus lanes and book people who break this law
Then make rat running streets 40kph

That should do it for 20 years or so. If there is a need for trams then, let’s go for it. If doing that creates a need for trams, lets go for it. If the technology being boosted by the OP is proven and viable, then lets go for it.

Weatherman 11:14 am 23 Jun 15

From what I’ve known about tram networks in overseas countries, it would be safer to have it grade separated to avoid accidents with other vehicles and pedestrians. Ultimately, I think public transport should be safe and void of as many risks as possible, for example, Melbourne’s train network still contains many level crossing, where as the problem was largely eliminated by building overpasses and underpasses when it came to constructing the railway network in the Sydney metropolitan region.

justin heywood 10:10 am 23 Jun 15

Bajar said :

The way it stands now, it is cheaper and quicker for me and my partner to drive our two cars to work than it is to take public transport.

THAT is the problem.

And any solution should start with the problem and THEN look for the solution.

Creating a city where using public transport is commonplace is desirable from an economic and environmental point of view.

One way would be to close the carparks and restrict the roads in order to force people onto public transport.

A more productive method would be to find a way to make public transport a more attractive option. Make it comfortable, relatively private and easily accessible, much like a car journey where you don’t have to drive.

THEN the masses would willingly come. If we’re willing to spend a $billion on public transport, why just revive old technology?

For that kind of money we (as a small, smart, wealthy city) can do something really innovative and exciting.

Bajar 9:08 am 23 Jun 15

I’ve seen similar pods function in Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook.

In all seriousness – a reboot and restructure of ACTION Buses would solve a lot of these issues. The way it stands now, it is cheaper and quicker for me and my partner to drive our two cars to work than it is to take public transport.

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