20 September 2023

What will it take to get urban planning that reflects how Canberrans actually live?

| Zoya Patel
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Zoolander ant scene still

“What is this? A centre for ants?” Zoolander had a point about urban design not meeting the needs of real (human-sized) people. Image: Screenshot.

Each day as I make my way home down a busy street in the inner north, I join my neighbours in a tedious game of dodgem cars, where we negotiate the parked cars on both sides of an otherwise wide road, which makes it impossible for cars to pass each other without pulling over.

Of course, because so many cars are parked on the street, finding somewhere to pull over to let another car pass in the other direction is a puzzle of its own. Sometimes, we can spend several minutes just trying to make the final 50 metres to the driveway for our complex.

An obvious solution would be making the street a no parking zone – but this would be to the detriment of residents in the multiple medium-density townhouse and unit developments on the street because they won’t have anywhere to put their cars. The question I have is, why on earth wasn’t this planned for better in the development process?

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In our complex of townhouses, we have the bare minimum of parking as per the Territory Plan – one-bedroom dwellings have a one-car garage, and two, three and four-bedroom houses have a (just) two-car garage. There are a couple of other spaces that people have purchased separate from their house, and then the minimum of one visitor spot per four dwellings.

But these provisions, while meeting the technical requirements, are out of step with the reality of urban life in Canberra where the majority of adults have their own car. A couple living in a one-bedroom townhouse almost certainly have two cars. Public transport is still so abysmal that driving to work is the easier option. We would have to, at minimum, walk 20 minutes to get to a light rail stop or catch multiple buses to get to our workplaces (and we still do use the light rail, but often drive to parking spots closer to the stop). Doing basically anything after work or on weekends requires a car.

If you’re sharing between two people, you need to be very coordinated or patient. My partner and I shared a car for years, but that was really only possible because we lived in Braddon and the city.

So what ends up happening is that people park one car in their allotted space and the other on the street or in a visitor spot for as long as they can get away with it. Our garages are also so small that you can’t put any storage in them if you’re parking your car there, so people have clearly chosen between the two and opted to park their cars on the street.

And if you have a ute or larger SUV, you can’t actually fit in the garage, so there’s a lineup of Ford Rangers and Hiluxs along our street.

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Having lived in apartments and townhouses across the inner north, parking has always been an issue and the source of many gripes between neighbours as people resort to dodgy tricks (like parking their own car in) to squeeze their second vehicle onto the property.

This seems like one of those issues that could have been easily avoided with better planning, but as community advocates would tell you, residential parking in medium and high-density developments in Canberra has been the source of frustration for a very long time. The provisions in the Territory Plan seem to be made for a different version of our city where driving is a choice and not a necessity.

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For some reason I am not allowed to reply directly, so I will put my comment here.

John Dow, I wish I could tick this.
I rode a bike to work. When younger I even took it as transport on several holidays, cycling between towns. And not having great athletic ability, if I could do that, so could many others.
I used (still do) the bus to get to malls to do my shopping and haul it home. Now older and retired, I take a wheeled trolley with me to assist. I walk to the local shops (500m away) and carry home my shopping. If a bigger shop, I take the trolley. I also walk to a larger supermarket 2.5m away and haul my shopping home.
If people are too far to cycle an ordinary bike to work they could get an electric bike. (I plan to now I am not so young.) Or perhaps cycle to a main bus route and leave their bike (better it be an old bike; less tempting) and catch the bus. Some bus stops have bike cages.
Whinging is boring!

pink little birdie2:12 pm 29 Sep 23

You are right. Of all the couples in Canberra I personally know who live in apartments only 1 of them have 2 cars. The others choose to live in high density either so they don’t need a 2nd car or one of them doesn’t drive at all for medical reasons. They live there because it’s easier to get to everything they need. (all owner occupiers)

Unfortunately the Census shows that your friends are in the minority in Canberra. Very few apartment dwellers don’t have at least one vehicle and many have more than one when there’s at least two adults in the household.

Surprisingly the number of cars per household increased in areas relatively close to Light Rail.

pink little birdie1:46 pm 29 Sep 23

We only had 1 car when living in medium density living as a family of 4 – we had parking for 4 cars though (Double carport used for stuff and the driveway. We would walk to daycare, work and the shopping centre. It was often easier to walk to do shopping as we didn’t need to find a parking spot. We were also more incidentally active as it was actually easier to go for walks and we didn’t need to drive there.
We worked out that when we did have 2 cars and living there we only used them at the same 1 night a week.
Now we are in the suburbs and we have 2 cars which are both used mainly for daily commutes. We could get away with one car really aside from the work. We exceptionally rarely use them both at the same time. Though the kids are still little and don’t independent extracurriculars yet so they aren’t conflicting.

Part of the planning problem comes down to the myopic idealism of the professionals involved. I was in a meeting of Gungahlin council (whatever it’s called — it only has an advisory role), the discussion being a tower residential complex. An architect involved in the planning insisted that no parking needed to be provided because none of the initial purchasers would own cars. Presumably they’d all look like those dreamy computer-aided architectural renderings where everyone is strolling or on bikes along the leafy promenades. I mean, get real. Obviously any development has to plan for extra parking. As this article points out.

Sounds like either improve public transport as part of an active transport strategy or give up and make Canberra one huge parking lot (and keep whinging about not enough parking spaces.)

Exactly Astro.
And if the government wasn’t wasting billions on an unnecessary light rail project, they might have the funds to actually improve public transport city wide and fix the problem.

Stage 1 success shows it’s money well spent and is a start to solving the traffic problems of too much car dependence. (Sounds like Mahony and Griffin were aware of the need for a tram or light rail system). The trick is getting the blend of light rail and bus right and good connections. So far it seems to be working well.

Stage 1 success?

On what metrics? The government refuses to even run a proper quantified benefits realisation study because they know how bad it is.

Patronage is lower than in the government’s business case, Covid has fundamentally changed the way people work. And that’s not even starting on the fact that the majority of “benefits” were supposed to be around land development, nothing to do with public transport.

“The trick is getting the blend of light rail and bus right and good connections. So far it seems to be working well.”

No. The “trick” would be to use taxpayer funds in the most efficient manner possible. So far, it’s not remotely working well.

And Stage2 and beyond have even worse economic and transport benefits than Stage 1. So it only goes downhill from here.

Stage 1 is a success on usage. A benefits realisation study has already been done and published. Not sure what other benefits you are waiting for. However, being a dyed-in-the-wool anti light rail commenter we can take your post with a grain of salt. Let’s face it, you’ll never face the success of light rail. As the network rolls out you’ll keep complaining though.

“Stage 1 is a success on usage.”

As above, usage is below that included in the business case, you’re making stuff up.

“A benefits realisation study has already been done and published.”

You see the bit where I specifically said “quantified” benefits realisation study? Publishing glossy fact free propaganda doesn’t count.

“Not sure what other benefits you are waiting for”

Real ones, rather than fact free emotional claims from people unable to think for themselves.

“However, being a dyed-in-the-wool anti light rail commenter we can take your post with a grain of salt.”

You do like lying don’t you Astro?

When it’s been explained slowly to you multiple times that I’m not against light rail, I’m against wasteful expenditure. Light Rail just happens to have that in spades.

Let’s face it, no matter what actual evidence was put in front of you showing that Light Rail is not needed, you’ll never change your emotional attachment to it. Just like a puppy with a new toy.

But for those of us who can view projects objectively, it’s simply always been a bad decision as the mountains of evidence show.

Not sure of the “ask” but I’ve found a bicycle does the trick. Folding one if you’re multi modal. The car provision challenge is unsolvable IMHO.

They finally got rid of the Leprechaun before he completely destroyed Qantas, surely it must be time for Canberra to rid ourselves of the GreensLab clowns.

GreensLab have been in charge for so long that you can’t blame anyone but them for everything that is wrong with Canberra.

It’s time for the Watermelon coalition to end. The Libs aren’t great but they can’t possibly be worse than incumbent clowns.

HiddenDragon9:09 pm 21 Sep 23

A refreshingly honest article which describes just one of the problems arising from planning policies that are really about gouging as much government revenue and as much private profit as possible from every square metre of land.

Covering that brutal reality is, as others have noted, a fantasy which assumes that Canberra is a compact little European city and/or that the majority of people in this town can and should go back to living the sort of circumscribed lives which many Australians lived in now larger cities in the days before widespread car ownership and well-developed public transport systems.

An article that deals with the reality of density. Hooray

It was so much easier to live in Sydney with frequent buses and trains to all locations, not just to some place. Only idiots drive cars there, as public transport is faster due to transit lanes etc. When our roads become so full (as they did in Sydney) people will leave their cars at home if they have access to frequent reliable public transport.

Zoya complains about having to walk 20 minutes to a Light Rail stop and wait 5-10 minutes max for transport.

The 750 bus stops the ACT government removed when Light Rail started, means many people across the other parts of Canberra walk 20 minutes to a bus stop for a bus that might come every hour or two and take another hour to get you to your destination.

That American bus expert on 666 one afternoon after the 2019 new bus network came into effect said that Canberra now likely has the worst bang for buck public transport system and design in the world, was probably onto something.

Before the light rail was built, I had not realised that the cost of the light rail would be ther removal of hundreds of bus stops to funnel more people onto the light rail and to redirect expenditure from buses. We lost the direct bus to our kids school, but there were many bus routes andstops around the city that were sacrificed.

I agree with the many comments below that urban planning is about how we want to live in the future. Cities with fast, frequent and reliable public transport are a joy to visit ( and presumably live in) as they significantly reduce the reliance on cars and all of the associated negatives i.e pollution, noise, wasted space etc. So what does our tin-pot government do ? Put all their hopes in a ludicrously expensive tram network that will take some 50 years before it adequately covers the main centres in Canberra (I have no faith in the Woden leg being completed by 2030) and at the same time significantly reduces bus services Canberra wide. And then have the gall to say we should all reduce our car usage ASAP. Unbelievable.

The whole drive to force people out of cars was predicated on the need to reduce vehicle emissions. The speedy transition to electric vehicles negates this requirement, which never took into account people with ageing, health and safety issues, or parents dropping children to school/childcare and shoppers with large amounts of groceries.
Also, the push to densify the city is diametrically opposed to sustainability, as the building block style units never provides adequate green infrastructure, daylight, sunlight, through flow for ventilation etc creating heat sinks and requiring intensive heating and cooling in Canberra’s harsh climate.
I’m not surprised that businesses in the city are complaining. I don’t know anyone who does not avoid going into Civic unless absolutely necessary due to parking difficulties including cost.
I don’t believe a bigger city is a better city and Zoya is correct in wondering why the city is not built to meet the residents needs rather than force them into behaviours that are never going to be adopted.
Next steps would be to survey MLAs to see how many have disposed of their vehicles and use public transport on a daily basis.

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