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The best arguments for light rail just aren’t very good

By Kim Huynh - 8 September 2016 74

light rail

Tom Chen and Kim Huynh assess light rail on its merits and can’t find much reason to support it.

This is the challenge that we set ourselves: to impartially weigh up the arguments for and against the tram. Tom had no view on the matter. Kim started off very slightly in favour because he liked the idea of light rail bringing Canberrans together.

After examining a wide range of media articles and opinion pieces, material from the parties and lobby groups and reports by government and non-government organizations, we concluded that the best thing to do is stop the tram.

It’s unlikely to be worthwhile in economic, environmental, transportation or development terms. Plans to extend the system to Woden will only extend the ACT’s debt, deepen our disappointment and further divide our city.

 

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Here are five of the best reasons for light rail and why they are not persuasive.

5. We’re locked in

Given that contracts have been signed and work on the tram line has begun, Simon Corbell argues that it would be “reckless and lunatic” to cancel the contract.

However, just because we’ve started to spend money on light rail does not mean that we should continue to do so. An outlay of $220-$280 million for nothing is better than spending $939 million on a project that will benefit a small minority of Canberrans while in all likelihood imposing long-term costs on all of us.

Moreover, this so-called reckless lunacy could have been avoided if the Barr government had simply waited a few months before signing the light rail contracts. Perhaps the best hope for the tram is it having a strong mandate from the people. Achieving this mandate is now nigh on impossible. Even if Labor is re-elected on this issue there will be a sense that our hearts and minds were not won over but rather that our arms were twisted.

4. It’s good for the environment

The Greens have championed light rail as being good for the environment. However, light rail has no environmental advantage over electric cars or buses. Instead of light rail we could be funding more effective measures of reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses.

For example, bicycle highways advocated by pedal power could go a long way to providing the sort of lifestyle and convenience benefits that many progressive voters desire without having anywhere near as much of an impact on the budget and the environment.

3. Light rail has greater capacity and therefore reduces congestion. 

Each tram by Spanish firm CAF will have room for 207 occupants. This means that a light rail system can move many people with few trips, which is why light rail is so important to metropolises like Tokyo and Hong Kong.

However, rail in Tokyo and Hong Kong are successful because of high numbers of passengers and frequent services. This will not be the case in Canberra where users will have to regularly wait 15 minutes for the next tram.

Despite fears of an impending congestion crisis, Canberra’s buses have significant spare capacity. Canberra’s buses typically have room for 43-48 passengers, yet based on patronage data only 9 out of 92 bus routes carried more than 40 passengers on their trips and 75% bus routes are more than half empty.

In addition, a smaller carrying capacity is an advantage if it allows for more frequent trips and broader coverage.

Just as there’s no good reason to buy an oversized pair of boots, there’s no benefit and potentially much detriment in investing in light rail.

2. Light rail is good value

Another argument for light rail is its relatively low operation costs. However, the Capital Metro contract states that only 28% of the costs over a 20-year period relate to operating costs. The majority of the estimated $939 million bill for stage one between Gungahlin and Civic will go to infrastructure.

By their own analysis, the 2012 ACT Government submission to Infrastructure Australia found that the net social benefits of a bus network servicing the Gungahlin corridor is double that of light rail. Indeed, a 2016 review by the Auditor-General Maxine Cooper questioned whether the non-transport related benefits of the tram have been exaggerated to sell the business case because the transport benefits were so slim. Specifically, Ms Cooper found that almost 60 per cent of the ‘benefits’ of light rail were questionable because they were associated with wider economic and land benefits. The transport benefits amounted to merely 49 cents for every $1 spent.

1. The tram is good for development and the future of the city

For many, light rail represents not just transport infrastructure but the dream of a “modern, liveable and environmentally-friendly city”. Shane Rattenbury argues that light rail will increase property values near stations and facilitate denser apartment and townhouse-style living. Denser living in turn makes it easier to provide public services and amenities which will attract young people and innovators to stay and work in Canberra.

But density is not inherently good and nor is it best achieved in conjunction with light rail. Professor Jenny Stewart concludes that light rail alone is unlikely to deliver the benefits that Rattenbury hopes for. Rather than fueling cross town commutes which will increase congestion in the long run, we should be trying to provide for a balanced mix of housing, employment and recreation in closer proximity, thus reducing the need to commute. This has little to do with light rail and everything to do with good planning.

A better choice
Instead of throwing more and more money into the light rail system, Canberra should upgrade the ACTION bus network in which it has invested so much already. But it is not simply about more infrastructure or having the right routes, which is the focus of both major parties’ bus policies. Public transportation is ultimately about attitudes and behaviour. The use of mass transit in Canberra in 2013 was only 4.2%. The issue is not a shortfall of capacity, but one of uptake since the efficiency of Canberra’s roads means that driving is the preferred option.

A proponent of public transport should instead consider incentives to encourage the use of public transportation. A former finance manager from ACTION we spoke to agreed with our assessment that there were a lot of ways to improve delivery and patronage rates if only the major parties were willing to think outside the box.

For example, why not make buses free? One major factor that skews transportation decisions in favour of cars is the perception by users that driving is free (notwithstanding petrol, servicing and parking costs). The cost of making buses free for users is fairly cheap. In 2015, only 18% of ACTION revenue came from bus fares, amounting to $24 million. As it stands, four fifths of ACTION’s operating revenue is already subsidised by rates payers.

The capital of Estonia, Tallinn has a population of 400,000 and offers free public transportation for residents. By following this example, Canberrans can get a lot more out of our existing transportation infrastructure while spending a lot less than light rail.

Finally, in the long run, light rail will become a relic of the twentieth century. Mass transportation is better delivered by networks of autonomous vehicles that can take us from door to door in a convenient, safe, green and cheap way. This is technology being trialled right now in cities like Austin, Pittsburgh and Singapore.

Canberra’s public transportation system should be informed by our current desires and interests with a view to our future needs. The tram fails in all these regards.

What have we missed? What’s your impartial and considered assessment of light rail? What impact will the issue have on the 2016 election and on local politics more broadly?

Tom Chen is a research officer at the Australian National University. Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist and independent candidate for Ginninderra. Check out more at GoKimbo.com.au

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74 Responses to
The best arguments for light rail just aren’t very good
1
Pankration 9:15 am
08 Sep 16
#

Neither are you are impartial–Kim is openly campaigning against the light rail and Tom is his bloody campaign manager. This is just an insidious piece of self-promoting propaganda so shameless it would make Goebbels blush.

2
devils_advocate 9:36 am
08 Sep 16
#

Excellent and even-handed analysis Kim, and written in a very accessible way.
Very good point about it not being a capacity problem, but a utilisation problem – more could be done to get Canberrans onto public transport. I agree the buses should be free, the other key deterrent is the reliability factor.
RE: the costs of driving, that could use some more analysis. When deciding between driving or taking the bus, it is not the average cost of operating the car that matters, but the incremental cost. In a place like Canberra, everyone needs a car to get around, even if they don’t use it during the week. So, the main costs of operation – registration and insurance – are fixed costs. The variable cost (petrol, some incremental wear and tear) is very low.
The local council tried to “fix” this – i.e. to force people to catch the bus – by imposing punitive parking fees everywhere. But faced with a choice of paying around $10-$12 a day to park (and gaining a much much shorter commute with greater flexibility), and $5-6 a day to catch the bus (and face the prospect of 2-3 hours commuting time with no flexibility to pick up kids from childcare or do groceries) people made the obvious choice.
People are not always rational but in this town the choice to drive a private car is really a no-brainer.

3
devils_advocate 9:39 am
08 Sep 16
#

Pankration said :

Neither are you are impartial–Kim is openly campaigning against the light rail and Tom is his bloody campaign manager. This is just an insidious piece of self-promoting propaganda so shameless it would make Goebbels blush.

Apparently it really stings the tram fanatics when someone introduces some rational analysis into the discussion. Also, does Godwin’s law apply if only Goebbel’s name is invoked?

4
rommeldog56 11:02 am
08 Sep 16
#

Pankration said :

Neither are you are impartial–Kim is openly campaigning against the light rail and Tom is his bloody campaign manager. This is just an insidious piece of self-promoting propaganda so shameless it would make Goebbels blush.

So, we want Independents to come up with policies and to explain those. That’s what the OP does I would think.

If you want to look at something from the ACT Labor/Greens Government that “would make Goebbels blush”, have a look at the business case/benefits costs ratio for tram stage 1 or the fact that ACT Labor/Greens have changed tram stage 2 to be to Woden on the eve of the election, what about the appointment of the ACT Lib’s Brendan Smyth to be some sort of international ambassador for the ACT , etc. It is the spin that comes out of the ACT Labor/Greens Gov’t that would make Goebbels blush, not whats in the Op or anyone who has a contrary view.

5
reddy84 12:56 pm
08 Sep 16
#

Your arguments against light rail are too simplistic and conveniently brush over the wider economic benefits of a fixed transport corridor. If you want a case study, have a look at increased land value and development opportunity that occurs every time the NSW Government nominates an urban renewal corridor which does work in conjunction with rail infrastructure.

To touch on your last point, planning alone cannot always deliver the home/work life balance that many hope for, especially when living away from the city centre. It is not ‘good planning’ that determines where jobs are, it is the market. The majority of jobs in any city will always gravitate toward its economic centre as it provides an environment for knowledge sharing and collaboration, this is called agglomeration economics. BITRE have researched this quite extensively and have found that a city’s economic centre coincides with where the majority of city trade occurs. It is impossible to plan against the market to ensure that jobs are dispersed enough to not need commuting, unless of course you are just talking about moving public service offices, but even that has wider economic effects.

Im not sure why we are getting so hung up on the transport benefits alone in regards to light rail, there are so many more benefits. The recent sale of Dickson on Northbourne for $40m is but the first example of this. The light rail line creates certainty for developers, invites investment, and with it, more people living closer to the city centre.

By the way, it would be great if I only ever had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus or tram.

Tallinn has a population density of 2,618 people per sqm, Canberra is about 450 people per sqm. Free public transport increased patronage by only 3%.

6
Mordd / Chris Richar 1:38 pm
08 Sep 16
#

Very disappointing and I see you cherry picked facts to suit and ignored other important ones. I will reply with my own op-ed soon laying out the opposite argument.

7
devils_advocate 1:56 pm
08 Sep 16
#

reddy84 said :

The recent sale of Dickson on Northbourne for $40m is but the first example of this. The light rail line creates certainty for developers, invites investment, and with it, more people living closer to the city centre.

Those benefits could and would have been achieved in the absence of the light rail. I would argue that reducing the concentration of public housing along Northbourne Ave has improved surrounding land values more than light rail ever could/will.

8
Matt Watts 2:09 pm
08 Sep 16
#

reddy84 said :

Your arguments against light rail are too simplistic and conveniently brush over the wider economic benefits of a fixed transport corridor. If you want a case study, have a look at increased land value and development opportunity that occurs every time the NSW Government nominates an urban renewal corridor which does work in conjunction with rail infrastructure.

To touch on your last point, planning alone cannot always deliver the home/work life balance that many hope for, especially when living away from the city centre. It is not ‘good planning’ that determines where jobs are, it is the market. The majority of jobs in any city will always gravitate toward its economic centre as it provides an environment for knowledge sharing and collaboration, this is called agglomeration economics. BITRE have researched this quite extensively and have found that a city’s economic centre coincides with where the majority of city trade occurs. It is impossible to plan against the market to ensure that jobs are dispersed enough to not need commuting, unless of course you are just talking about moving public service offices, but even that has wider economic effects.

Im not sure why we are getting so hung up on the transport benefits alone in regards to light rail, there are so many more benefits. The recent sale of Dickson on Northbourne for $40m is but the first example of this. The light rail line creates certainty for developers, invites investment, and with it, more people living closer to the city centre.

By the way, it would be great if I only ever had to wait 15 minutes for the next bus or tram.

Tallinn has a population density of 2,618 people per sqm, Canberra is about 450 people per sqm. Free public transport increased patronage by only 3%.

The ACT Government’s own data shows the return on each $1 spent on Stage 1 would be $1.10. That’s not much.

The big problem with light rail is that it is being used as a driver of economic development of ACT Government-owned property along the Northbourne corridor, rather than being used to address transportation needs per se. Some would say this is irrelevant; it is not irrelevant if we are to have an ACT wide network without the same cost benefit along Northbourne. Unless the ACT Government has a plan to sell off land all over the shop (e.g. Belconnen Way, etc.), there is no possible way for there to be a positive economic return.

I would also point out that 12 or so stops between Civic and Gungahlin is too many for it to be classified as “rapid” mass transit. That means the transport economics will be less than what we are being promised.

Developers along the corridor should ask themselves whether they will be compensated when the 12 stops are reduced in number, and it is their property which might miss out. (The answer, of course, is no.)

9
CBRFoodie 2:34 pm
08 Sep 16
#

Pankration said :

Neither are you are impartial–Kim is openly campaigning against the light rail and Tom is his bloody campaign manager. This is just an insidious piece of self-promoting propaganda so shameless it would make Goebbels blush.

lols
OK, just to be up front, I’m pro-Light Rail and Pro-Labor (not going to pretend I’m an independent impartial foodie looking at the pros and cons of a city-wide public transport infrastructure project with non-partisan eyes…)
But seriously, I recently spent a few weeks in Melbourne and the sooner Canberrans/workers/students/tourists/etc. can catch a reliable (as only light rail can be, once the tracks are laid and people and businesses start naturally congregating on the lines) public transport service for a lunch or night out to a restaurant or bar and can catch the reliable light rail back afterwards the better! I also have an engineering degree and reckon, as an engineer, a light rail network, on balance, would clearly have been an enormously attractive transport asset in Canberra for a long time and in 50 years everyone will be wondering what all the fuss was about and why we hadn’t built it earlier, just like they now do in the Gold Coast and in Sydney (which made the terrible mistake of replacing one of world’s best tram networks with buses in the 1950s and regretted it ever since). Let’s not repeat the mistakes of others. Also our light rail will be much better than Sydney or Melbourne trams ever where/are/can be because they will be largely separated from increasingly congested motor-vehicle traffic.

Just think how awesome it would be to catch a light rail service with your family to a restaurant or sports event and not have to worry about driving/drinking/parking/etc! Tens of thousands of Melbournians do it every day – there’s a very simple reason it is much more attractive to live/rent/work/etc. next to a tram line in Melbourne or Sydney.

10
devils_advocate 2:51 pm
08 Sep 16
#

Kim, rather than having a negative campaign against the tram, this could be your opportunity to pick a signature issue and put your name to it (like with Trump’s wall, but less xenophobic and divisive). Eg. Free public transport.
You could refine the details later – e.g. free all the time or just at peak hours? Limit of free trips per day per person?
You could also sell the benefits – e.g. lowering traffic congestion, freeing up carparks to those in genuine need, and reducing barriers to employment.
Presenting people with a meaningful alternative might be better than the scare campaigns being run so far.

11
devils_advocate 2:55 pm
08 Sep 16
#

CBRFoodie said :

Just think how awesome it would be to catch a light rail service with your family to a restaurant or sports event and not have to worry about driving/drinking/parking/etc! Tens of thousands of Melbournians do it every day – there’s a very simple reason it is much more attractive to live/rent/work/etc. next to a tram line in Melbourne or Sydney.

The moment you are catching a tram to a sports event or restaurant with your ‘family’ from and to the same destination, for those living along the tram route, it becomes cheaper (and far more convenient) to get a taxi. Or better yet an uber.

12
pajs 3:32 pm
08 Sep 16
#

Another argument is that an alternative to light rail, like bus rapid transit with separated bus lanes, has been on the table last decade, was opposed by the Libs and then shelved. If you are going to behave like that, and block alternative options, it’s a bit rich to come out in support of those same ideas later when faced with a different (light rail) option. There needs to be some consequences of irresponsible opposition, and I don’t mind one of those being light rail.

13
Spence 3:38 pm
08 Sep 16
#

Possibly the weakest arguments I have ever seen against an infrastructure project.
5. We’re locked in – Please, name one infrastructure project that doesn’t require long-term investment and a government at some point in time to commit funding. It’s not like you can operate a hospital without ever committing to building the thing, can you?
4. It’s good for the environment – Electric buses also have large costs, as does a city-wide charging infrastructure for electric cars. All of these solutions cost money, and yet all have benefits for the environment. Surely given this fact, it would make more sense to move people as efficiently as possible, minimising the costs, and maximising the benefits. Switching all of Canberra to electric cars would not be a cost-effective measure by any stretch of the imagination.
3. Light rail has greater capacity and therefore reduces congestion. The average car has five seats, yet carries an average of 1.1 to 1.2 people. ie. at around 20-25% occupancy. Occupancy varies along routes, as people get on and off. 90% occupancy along a route typically means nearly empty at one end of the route, and completely unsafe crushing volumes at the other end. A light rail vehicle taking up the space of 5-6 cars, carrying 30-40 people is at least 6 times more spatially-efficient than car-travel.
2. Light rail is good value. Wider economic benefits aren’t controversial – their true value is just hard to predict. Not including them would be like building a hospital and not including the benefits gained by people being able to recover from illnesses.
1. The tram is good for development and the future of the city. Everything argument that you’ve said here is included in the business case for the light rail.

There isn’t a word in this article that could possibly be called ‘impartial’. Nice try.

14
dungfungus 3:39 pm
08 Sep 16
#

CBRFoodie said :

Pankration said :

Neither are you are impartial–Kim is openly campaigning against the light rail and Tom is his bloody campaign manager. This is just an insidious piece of self-promoting propaganda so shameless it would make Goebbels blush.

lols
OK, just to be up front, I’m pro-Light Rail and Pro-Labor (not going to pretend I’m an independent impartial foodie looking at the pros and cons of a city-wide public transport infrastructure project with non-partisan eyes…)
But seriously, I recently spent a few weeks in Melbourne and the sooner Canberrans/workers/students/tourists/etc. can catch a reliable (as only light rail can be, once the tracks are laid and people and businesses start naturally congregating on the lines) public transport service for a lunch or night out to a restaurant or bar and can catch the reliable light rail back afterwards the better! I also have an engineering degree and reckon, as an engineer, a light rail network, on balance, would clearly have been an enormously attractive transport asset in Canberra for a long time and in 50 years everyone will be wondering what all the fuss was about and why we hadn’t built it earlier, just like they now do in the Gold Coast and in Sydney (which made the terrible mistake of replacing one of world’s best tram networks with buses in the 1950s and regretted it ever since). Let’s not repeat the mistakes of others. Also our light rail will be much better than Sydney or Melbourne trams ever where/are/can be because they will be largely separated from increasingly congested motor-vehicle traffic.

Just think how awesome it would be to catch a light rail service with your family to a restaurant or sports event and not have to worry about driving/drinking/parking/etc! Tens of thousands of Melbournians do it every day – there’s a very simple reason it is much more attractive to live/rent/work/etc. next to a tram line in Melbourne or Sydney.

“Tens of thousands of Melbournians do it every day – “

And hundreds of thousands don’t.

15
chewy14 4:15 pm
08 Sep 16
#

devils_advocate said :

reddy84 said :

The recent sale of Dickson on Northbourne for $40m is but the first example of this. The light rail line creates certainty for developers, invites investment, and with it, more people living closer to the city centre.

Those benefits could and would have been achieved in the absence of the light rail. I would argue that reducing the concentration of public housing along Northbourne Ave has improved surrounding land values more than light rail ever could/will.

Exactly, the government’s own analysis shows the vast majority of those benefits could have been achieved with a BRT at less than one third of the cost.

And this point also ignores the fact that a large proportion of these benefits accrue to private citizens paid for by the public purse. Why should someone in Belconnen or Tuggeranong pay for someone in the Inner North to have their property price rise by $100K?

If they wanted to take this path, they should have put in place a tram levy for residents along the route and see how many residents supported them at the ballot box because of it.

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