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.
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