8 November 2023

I don't expect to see Canberra's public transport improving in my lifetime

| Zoya Patel
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The Gungahlin Light Rail terminal

The ACT Government continues to plough money into light rail, but would electric buses have been a better bet? Photo: Region.

When I was a kid growing up in Canberra, we knew that if you wanted to get around by bus, you needed to plan an hour each way for travel, including wait times. And this was from Civic to the inner south. If you wanted to travel further, especially on a weekend, best to expect to spend several hours waiting and commuting either way.

As we got older, we all got our licenses and cars because it was undoubtedly the easiest way to get between university, home and social gatherings. A few mates never got their licences, and they managed by either living within walking distance from work and university (which also meant their bus commute was semi-reasonable) or scabbing lifts from the rest of us, especially at night. Of course, living in the inner suburbs is not possible for the majority of our population and it’s only becoming more unaffordable.

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When light rail first came to Canberra, I was cynical about its potential impact on our overarching public transport system. Great if you wanted to drive your car to a light rail stop in Gungahlin and ride into the city, or if you lived between Phillip Ave and Civic, but otherwise, not so helpful. I stand by that initial assessment because I’m yet to be proven wrong and it feels unlikely we’ll see a fully geographically accessible light rail system in Canberra anytime soon.

Add to that the fact that, according to what I can glean through Transport Canberra’s somewhat inaccessible website, the ratio of buses to people in Canberra has actually fallen over the years. Given Canberra is a city planned for the automobile, our public bus network should be ubiquitous, easy to use and on a fast timetable. Instead, our fastest buses are, at best, arriving every 15 minutes on weekdays, 30 minutes on weekends and don’t serve everyone everywhere (ie, outer suburbs to the north or south).

I’ve been travelling these past few weeks and have observed how cities overseas manage public transport to meet the needs of their populations. The biggest thing I notice is that the international systems are focused on serving the actual needs of the community – not the aspirational idea of what our city could or should be like in the minds of policymakers.

The ACT Government’s focus on reducing driving in Canberra and improving the walkability and cycling capacity of the city feels like it’s serving some idealised population who are all capable and willing to invest the extra time to get places, who are able-bodied and who happen to live in the suburbs where this is even possible. But tell that to the older woman living in Richardson with arthritis who can’t drive anymore but would really like to be able to catch a bus to the city without having to bank hours of energy to get there and back unassisted.

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The fact is, the roads remain the best way for Canberrans to get places. And as our lifestyles become busier and our expectations of convenience grow higher, the likelihood that we’ll happily wait half an hour for a bus or swap between buses and light rail to undertake our day-to-day activities when we could hop in the car and be there in 20 minutes, is slim.

Having spent the last several weeks happily catching buses, trains and walking places in other cities, I know that, like many other Canberrans, I would happily eschew the car to hop on a bus if it was accessible, timely and well-maintained.

I don’t enjoy driving or parking. Public transport is my preferred method of travel, and I fully support the transition to an electric bus fleet, which, frankly, I feel should have been the focus of investment over the light rail in the first place.

But do I expect to make that switch from car to bus for the majority of my transport in this lifetime? Not in Canberra, no.

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house_husband7:16 am 12 Nov 23

The problem for not just public transport but for most government policy these days is the massive gulf between intent and execution. In over 20 years of living on the western fringe of Canberra bus commute times to Civic from my house have slowly crept up thanks to removing many suburban feeder services. By the time it would take me to walk the 12 mins to my now nearest bus stop (used to be 1 min) I can be over halfway to town by car.

All the local Pollies have ratepayer funded cars. Those preaching public transport and walking don’t practice what they preach. They drive because of the convenience and lack of the options they actually espouse.

Capital Retro5:18 pm 10 Nov 23

And they have ratepayer provided parking too!

Sir Q. Mozart-Sprong1:16 pm 10 Nov 23

Yes, you certainly notice the difference in Europe, where there are towns and cities the size of Canberra that run a network of trams and buses linking every part of the town, and running every few minutes, so that it is actually quicker and easier to take public transport than to drive and look for parking. And the local trains I experienced a few years ago in Switzerland were so unfailingly punctual, you could literally set your watch by them!

Capital Retro5:17 pm 10 Nov 23

These European towns are hundreds of years old and houses were built next to horse and cart trails. There is no space for cars but trams fit nicely where the horses once plodded. Friends of mine who have visited Canberra are envious of the fact that we can park a car at our homes.

They are not the size of Canberra. Only European capitals are the footprint size of Canberra and only in a few cases. Even Amsterdam for example is a lot smaller in area than Canberra urban area. London and Paris bigger but with much much bigger populations and density.

It’s true regardless of other comments here. I’m a regular visitor to Germany and have travelled around there a great deal, and trams – alongside buses – are prevalent in many cities. Leipzig, Nuremberg and Magdeburg are examples of cities around the size of Canberra in terms of population and spread. Trams run frequently, are well supported, and very convenient.
Smaller townships which have a token tram network may fit into Retro’s description, however.

On a point of note, we were outside recently eating at a CBD restaurant in Leipzig watching “people theatre” while chatting. There was a dual tram line along the middle of a street separating us to the Opera House. Trams were passing us and each other literally each 10 of so minutes both ways. We noted that trams, cars, bikes and pedestrians shared this space – with NO accidents or near misses. Amazing what difference a little peripheral awareness can make.

Good article. It sums up the situation perfectly with the comment: “The biggest thing I notice is that the international systems are focused on serving the actual needs of the community – not the aspirational idea of what our city could or should be like in the minds of policymakers’.

Chris Steel couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery and the Greens are so detached from the reality of the vast majority of Canberrans that it’s beyond rhyme or reason. Light rail is not inherently a bad idea, but the way this mob are forcing it on us is devoid of thought.

Capital Retro8:04 pm 09 Nov 23

One rarely sees a CDC bus empty.

The solution for making Canberra public transport work for us is to get ComfortDelGro to take over the buses and the tram/s with the latter mode being extended to Bungendore and beyond.

Private business people can see it as a goer but our myopic government and the dysfunctional cross-border commission will never let it happen.

Crazed_Loner8:32 am 10 Nov 23

You’ve got to stop drinking the privatisation kool-aid! Privatisation and its benighted cousin outsourcing are just a well-worn recipe for cutting staff and services and putting up prices in order to shovel profits to shareholders. How many more total policy failures – aged care, housing, telecommunications (Ausstar into Optus!), for-profit vocational education, ports, electricity, Qantas, inter alia – does it take to get over this neoliberal asset stripping, trickle-up, pea-and-thimble nonsense?
And I know you’re not being serious when you talk of the tram being extended to Bungendore. Good one!

Capital Retro3:51 pm 10 Nov 23

Most Canberra public servants have their superannuation invested in those companies and assets you nominated. They also underwrite the huge losses that our version of public transport is. How many people use the Action buses?

A tram-train project from Kingston to Bungendore which would have taken 5,000 daily car movements off the Kings Highway was ignored by the ACT government. They cancelled a presentation by a European consortium at the last minute.

HiddenDragon7:53 pm 09 Nov 23

If there was an award for the most down-to-earth, bulldust and propaganda-free opinion piece ever to appear on the RiotAct, this would be a strong contender.

The gap between theory and reality in Canberra’s public transport system is probably as wide as it has ever been, a truth which is particularly apparent to those of us who have had the good fortune to have lived with something better (I grew up in a family which never had a car, and didn’t feel the need to acquire one until I moved here).

As has been said umpteen times on this site and elsewhere, the dispersed, low density layout of Canberra presents challenges to even half-decent public transport options, but the pursuit of such options would be that much easier if the people in charge removed the ideological and vested interest blinkers and made choices on their genuine merits.

Sorry to see Zoya’s life expectancy is so short she won’t be around to see any improvements to Canberra’s public transport. I have been around Canberra for a while and seen some improvements. For example, 1. the much reviled Woden bus interchange is gone and the new one will be there sooner or later; 2. the intertown buses used to travel along the main dragways full to the gunnels at ridiculous speeds with front doors open in summer and they are now air conditioned. But you still get the wild ride without the thrill of an open door. 3. Light rail to Gungahlin is finished and actually works.

Alas, some stuff has gone backwards. In particular, scheduling and running seem to be way less coordinated and controlled. For example, try catching a Sunday bus in the suburbs.

And I will add, the underlying statistics to justify the service are awful. They both measure the wrong things and are awful in how they do it. Don’t believe me? Google what good data collection looks like.

I need to add another comment if I may. Getting over the Burley Griffin ditch will require retrofitting to enable wire free trams, and the physical build over it. The budget incl contingency is $110k in the order of, and incl Mitchell Depot $189m incl wire free. Just horrendous this mob. Trams=technical issues but BRT doesn’t!

You don’t think BRT ever has technical issues? What planet are you on?
Most cities have combination public transport services. Trains, trams, buses etc.

davidmaywald3:44 pm 09 Nov 23

Hear, hear! You are spot on Zoya… The public transport share of trips has fallen from 4.6% in 2017 to 3.6% in 2022, coinciding with the introduction of light rail. Bus services have been cut… Light rail isn’t about improving public transport (it will take longer to travel from Woden to Civic than the current bus) or about emissions reduction. It’s about property development, densifying the Woden to Gungahlin corridor with lots of apartments, and providing plenty of jobs for the construction union… Light rail is inflexible. The billions of dollars would be much better spent on improving the poor quality of public schools, boosting the failing healthcare system, reducing the cost of living in Canberra, and lifting the quality of life for disadvantaged families/children.

The whole POINT is to make the back bone of the system stable. And of you don’t think that Canberra needs to increase the density of housing you haven’t actually looked into the housing needs of the city. We done have the land in the ACT to continue having large single occupancy blocks- and the number of people wanting that is decreasing.

I remain gobsmacked that the ACT Government, Canberra Transport, Public Transport Association and that major projects genius Duncan Edgehill thought it was a great idea to remove one of the better elements of our peak hour bus service (the Xpresso’s straight from the outer burbs direct to the city hubs).
I also remain gobsmacked that they thought removing 750 local bus stops across the city on the basis that commuters would happily walk 800 metres to a bus stop would also be a way to improve the Canberra bus network for users.

Even many bus drivers still shake their heads at the mention of Network 2019.

A new bus network designed to provide somewhat regular bus services to anyone who lives near a Rapid stop, a system designed to feed people into Light Rail stage 1 and a big up yours to anyone else who relied on their local bus service to get them where they need to go.

I submit that most of what I read below I agree with. How long is a piece of string? As long as the Govt wants it to be. As it is diabolically committed to the expensive farce that is Light rail, and I am not anti light rail, I suggest if it is about patronage then place orders for immediate replacement of all older buses, with bus rapid transit (try Wikipedia if you don’t know what it is) in its many forms, and re-instate “town hall meetings” in catchments (eg Lanyon) and find out what it would take the car commuting public to switch. Pretty simple in essence.

I have spent a lot of time in Geneva Switzerland. It has a similar size of population to Canberra in a much smaller area. Almost everyone lives in flats. Geneva has an excellent public transport system and is very walkable. It is just not possible to have great public transport in a city like Canberra that is so spread out.

ChrisinTurner1:26 pm 09 Nov 23

The biggest problem for public transport in Canberra is that north-south we are the same size as Sydney. Compare us with Berlin which has 3.6 mil people and is the size of greater Belconnen.

Nailed it Chrissin. I laugh when advocates talk about the amazing 4 line light rail network in the city of Szeged Hungary that quickly gets you wherever you have to go. Szeged is a city the size of Kambah and Wanniassa. Many of the other successful light rail or tram cities of Europe are the size of either Belconnen or Tuggeranong. And the huge mega cities that match our geographical spread have exponentially greater population density and none of the vast empty land reserves of

The aspect everyone keeps missing when they talk about Canberra being designed for cars is where do you park those cars? The big carparks around the town centres have long gone (thanks developers). It was always inefficient to have large parcels of land tied up by cars that just sit there most of the day.

GrumpyGrandpa10:27 am 09 Nov 23

Zoya has understated how pathetic the bus service is on the weekend. It’s only a half-hour service, if you live close to an R Service. If you live in the suburbs – say Richardson, it’s every 2 hours.

Light Rail City to Gunners works, because it’s basically a straight line (with a bend at Epic), the traffic lights have been sequenced to give it priority, the buses have been rerouted to remove competition and to feed passengers to the train along it’s route.

Stage 2 has none of those advantages. If your travel time and number of connections you need to make to get to your destination is important, then LR to Woden and beyond is a very poor public transport option.

Make no mistake, LR is NOT about public transport, it’s a out property development and pushing the ALP-Greens densification policy. It’s about you and your kids ditching one of your cars (many two bedders now only have 1 car park), and living in an apartment.

I like LR, City to Gunners. It’s great. I’d rather jump on the train than catch a bus, however, with LR from Woden, the arthritic lady from Richardson would need to catch a bus to Tuggeranong, then a bus to Woden, then LR to the City.

Who, on the weekend, with 2-hour services in the suburbs, would even consider public transport if you had to also make 3 connections? Imagine if this person wanted to go beyond the City, say to Fyshwick…….

How can we have a public transport system so pathetic that you can’t travel between Tuggers and Belconnen, without first going through Woden and the City? We had direct services, before this government took them away and forced us into our cars.

Good luck Minister Steele convincing the lady from Richardson or any of of us who don’t live on a trunk line, that LR is a great public transport option.

I agree at least that we will not see the light rail across Lake BG in probably a decade to come, despite all the semblance of progress of that costly project.

I am all for a flexible, nimble and effective technological solution for public transport in the south of Canberra.

Stephen Saunders9:32 am 09 Nov 23

Not quite right about rail, which is very popular with people not called Zoya, and carries close to a quarter of all our transit trips.

Even if Canberra population stayed constant, it would decades, to bring transit up to scratch. But people like Zoya support the Barr program, to double the population.

Part of the reason why light carries a high proportion of transit trips was the cancellation of some more direct bus routes like school buses. However, I am sure light rail works well for people near the light rail route. For those who used the previous bus routes that were cancelled, I dont think it was a step forward for public transport.

Capital Retro7:45 am 09 Nov 23

But you will still vote Labor/Green, yeh?

It’s probably cheaper for the government to give the disabled woman in Richardson a ration of Uber vouchers than run dozens more tangled-wool hourly bus routes with a grand total of one passenger on each.

Unfortunately another “grand vision” of Canberra’s planners was eschewing a straightforward radial city plan, with a central hub and public transport (as well as high-density residential and retail development) running along each main-road spoke.

In the self-driving car future, the solution for Canberra’s non-drivers might not be all about mass transport, but also driverless pod cars that can navigate the typically Canberran maze of curly roads for individual passengers, basically Uber but hopefully cheaper. That would build on Canberra’s one excellent transport asset — super easy car travel.

I agree with Rusty 100%. This city was always planned to be that way, and it’s quite difficult to change that after so many decades of development around those early principles.

I do find Zoya’s article to be yet another sensationalist one, as there are already too many buses running through the suburbs empty – that certainly isn’t cost efficient, and any route difficult to be effective with Canberra’s sprawling design. I’m not pushing light rail as the solution (although I am a believer of Stage 1 – just not the proposed next stage), but I don’t believe more buses of current configuration are the answer. Canberra’s solution must be multi-faceted.

Two thoughts come to mind. Firstly, Rusty’s idea is a very valid one. For those people with serious mobility issues where public transport isn’t convenient, make car-ride vouchers available on application (I think Veteran Gold Card holders have this option now?). Secondly, put current buses on arterial routes were passenger numbers are assured, and as other buses reach end-of-life, deploy smaller, more economical shuttles through the suburban routes. I recall Action running something similar years back, but was ridiculed when large numbers were unexpectedly encountered on stops outside of peak. For such scenarios, needing to wait an extra 15 or so min for the next should be planned for, and we shouldn’t be so precious about it.

There is unlikely to be an economical or efficient “one size fits all” transport solution for Canberra, so we need to be pragmatic.

Some good points Rusty about Canberra’s urban design. The changes set out by the NCDC from well before self government were that Canberra spatially wise, would cover the widely spread footprint land area of nearby connected cities such as how Birmingham connects with Walsall, Wolverhampton and Dudley.

Belconnen, Tuggeranong, Gungahlin etc were meant to be their own satellite cities and have their own University, hospital, entertainment precincts, community hubs and a decent proportion of nearby local jobs for local residents. Local buses took you quickly to your town centre, not meandering around via other town centres all the way to Civic.

Successive ACT Governments switched to a Civic centric approach over the last few decades and dropped the Y Plan and some of the other Town Centre design principles appropriate for a 400 square kilometre low density garden city that’s separated by ‘dwelling and infrastructure free’ hills and reserves.
I’m not sure our MLA’s have really understood our city’s geographical and topological limitations and think we can simply recreate Amsterdam on the Molonglo.

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