Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Opinion

Expert strata, facilities & building management services

Why rails instead of rubber?

By Robert Knight - 12 October 2016 14

Light rail

It’s clearly a polarising question in the lead up to the ACT election, the future direction of public transport in Canberra. The Canberra Liberals are staking their election chances on outright opposition to light rail (it’s not a tram, just to be clear Mr Hanson), and have proposed to effectively provide more of the same. Wider roads, more buses, with maybe a couple of bike paths. Labor and the Greens on the other hand promise to extend light rail across the city as a high capacity ‘spine’ for an integrated bus/light rail public transport network.

So what’s the better option? You’ll get no argument from this author that as a pure transport policy, buses are the cheaper way to provide immediate effects for commuters on the existing road system. So why, I hear people ask, did the Barr government decide to invest in the more expensive, fixed transport option? For me, it all comes down to land use, and human behaviour.

In case you didn’t know, Canberra has a problem with car dependency. We have the highest Vehicle Kilometres Travelled (VKT) per capita in the country, and over 82% of us commute to work by driving. Our urban form makes it nearly impossible to get by without a car. If you doubt it, ask yourself what you’d do if tomorrow you lost your ability to drive. Now think about a person living in Banks, Duffy, MacGregor, or Casey.

The problems associated with urban sprawl, exactly the problems our city has, are not disputed by any rational observer. Canberra’s low urban density, vast single use suburbs spread out like carpet into the distance, extensive road networks and car parks, and large scale retail complexes are the types of land use which produce our high VKT and resultant congestion, energy use, and emissions.

Then there are massive economic drawbacks. It costs an average of $12,000 a year to run a car for individuals, most of which is not returned to the local economy, while the government pours hundreds of millions of dollars a year into road construction and upkeep. This is an expenditure road users come nowhere close to funding, so inevitably it is the ratepayers of Canberra who pay. Additionally, each new suburb that we build piles on the requirement for the territory to not only maintain existing infrastructure, (power, water, sewerage, parks & gardens etc), but to construct and maintain the required new infrastructure. Spreading this compounding liability over a sparsely populated tax base logically results in a higher cost per rate payer.

So what do we do about it? We work to find a way to change land use that encourages better use of existing infrastructure, eliminates car dependency, and encourages ‘trip localisation’, ie creating places where residents can access services locally by walking to it. Light rail, in case examples from all over the world, is a proven mechanism for anchoring Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) which are typically mixed use and walkable. TOD encourages more efficient land use through greater urban density, and a focus on functional design that people react to in a positive way.

And this leads to the next point. While some people point out that a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system would be cheaper to build and result in the same change to land use, the evidence doesn’t support the claim. People are not mathematical constants. You cannot look at passenger numbers on a bus-only transport system and automatically translate that across to a future light rail option. When the Gold Coast light rail commenced operation in 2015, public transport usage overall increased 22.6%. An extension to the light rail in Adelaide saw an increase in patronage of 39% in its first week, and when a new light rail line opened in the US city of Minneapolis, a full 40% of riders professed to never having used public transport in the past. This author’s own wife refuses to ride a bus, but was an avid user of the Sydney train network when we lived there. People will, and do, go out of their way to use rail based public transport over road based.

A lot of this behaviour has to do with the urban amenity supported by an electrically powered, wide & low floored, high capacity transit system that can deliver large numbers of people directly into a pedestrianised environment. It is far more comfortable to walk beside a light rail line in the city than it is a road capable of carrying the same amount of people as that line. Picture George Street in Sydney and the enormous noise problems and danger of being hit by a truck if you step off the curb, compared to Bourke Street in Melbourne. It’s not hard to see why Sydney is moving to emulate Melbourne in this respect.

Oh, but what about self-driving cars I hear people ask. I ask this in return: How does a continuous stream of individual vehicles on roads which are now completely hostile to pedestrians promote urban amenity, so necessary for changing land use habits? Where do we park these vehicles? How do autonomous vehicles move a crowd of 15,000 people away from Canberra stadium after a rugby game? How do we power these thousands of vehicles? Autonomous vehicles have their place, but it isn’t in the role of efficient mass transit which is what light rail is all about.

When the clear benefits to the urban environment that light rail can produce are taken into consideration, it becomes increasingly frustrating to listen to the continuing opposition from certain elements of the Canberra community. What’s more frustrating for this author is the fact that a party who would seek to be our government are promising to reverse the project despite the clear economic, social and environmental benefits.

To accept the current land use/transport status quo is regressive. It denies there’s a problem, shows zero vision for a more liveable city, and exposes their position to inconsistency with reality. How, for example, are they going to pay $300 million in penalties for scrapping the light rail and build better schools and hospitals all while lowering our rates? When are we going to see some bipartisan support for evidence based public transport and land use policy?

I guess that depends on what we all say on the 15th of October.

This article was first published on the ACTlightrail.info website here.

What’s Your opinion?


Post a comment
Please login to post your comments, or connect with
14 Responses to
Why rails instead of rubber?
KentFitch 3:18 pm 14 Oct 16

JC said :

KentFitch said :

With regards autonomous cars, this OP is “not even wrong”. A shared fleet of 23,000 electric autonomous vehicles (about one tenth the number of private cars in Canberra) will, by 2021, meet the transport needs of most Canberrans with on demand, 24×7 door to door, zero tailpipe emissions, much cheaper than private or public transport and remove congestion, allowing us to return much public and private space from parking and even roads.
For a primer on “how”, watch this short video http://uncrate.com/video/the-solution-to-traffic/ and read these: http://www.wsp-pb.com/Globaln/UK/WSPPB-Farrells-AV-whitepaper.pdf
http://canberraautonomouscars.info/

Where are the costings, and how much will it cost to use? Or does that only apply to light rail?

See the model at http://canberraautonomouscars.info/model.html
The defaults are conservative and already being overtaken by technology. In common with other models by Columbia university’s Earth Institute, uni of Texas and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the cost of providing the service, including financing at 10% with an operating surplus, is 25 cents/km in peak, 20 cents/km off peak.

JC 1:19 pm 14 Oct 16

KentFitch said :

With regards autonomous cars, this OP is “not even wrong”. A shared fleet of 23,000 electric autonomous vehicles (about one tenth the number of private cars in Canberra) will, by 2021, meet the transport needs of most Canberrans with on demand, 24×7 door to door, zero tailpipe emissions, much cheaper than private or public transport and remove congestion, allowing us to return much public and private space from parking and even roads.
For a primer on “how”, watch this short video http://uncrate.com/video/the-solution-to-traffic/ and read these: http://www.wsp-pb.com/Globaln/UK/WSPPB-Farrells-AV-whitepaper.pdf
http://canberraautonomouscars.info/

Where are the costings, and how much will it cost to use? Or does that only apply to light rail?

KentFitch 10:08 am 14 Oct 16

With regards autonomous cars, this OP is “not even wrong”. A shared fleet of 23,000 electric autonomous vehicles (about one tenth the number of private cars in Canberra) will, by 2021, meet the transport needs of most Canberrans with on demand, 24×7 door to door, zero tailpipe emissions, much cheaper than private or public transport and remove congestion, allowing us to return much public and private space from parking and even roads.
For a primer on “how”, watch this short video http://uncrate.com/video/the-solution-to-traffic/ and read these: http://www.wsp-pb.com/Globaln/UK/WSPPB-Farrells-AV-whitepaper.pdf
http://canberraautonomouscars.info/

Arthur Davies 4:16 pm 13 Oct 16

Apart from the payback figure of 1.2 being doubtful at best according to the Auditor, that figure is over the contract period of over 20 years. It is about 1% PER YEAR. This figure is way below inflation, let alone not returning a reasonable payback on capital. The Feds figure for a viable infrastructure project is about 2.5, this equates to around 7% return, inflation & a modest return. That is why the Feds would not back the scheme in the first place.

Before we get a tirade, the $60M grant was for selling existing infrastructure (mainly govt housing), & that money was able to be spent on any appropriate new infrastructure project. The Act Govt CHOSE to use it for trams, it could equally well have been water, hospital, roads, whatever.

justin heywood 3:30 pm 13 Oct 16

I think the OP’s argument for light rail would be compelling if your assumptions were correct.
I’ll take just two;

“You cannot look at passenger numbers on a bus-only transport system and automatically translate that across to a future light rail option…”
On the face of it, this would seem reasonable claim, but we are not talking about the entirety of Canberra’s commuters here. We are talking about the much smaller group who live in Gunghalin and commute to the city centre. Even a 25% increase in current public transport usage along that route is I think a poor return for the huge cost.

“When the Gold Coast light rail commenced operation in 2015, public transport usage overall increased 22.6%….”

Again, an assumption that I believe incorrect. Gold Coast’s light rail starts at a huge hospital/university complex and then runs through the tourist precinct, past two Westfield-size shopping centres with densely-packed high-rises and entertainment venues either side of the route. It does not start at an outlying suburb and end at the CBD, where only a small fraction of people work.

If the Metro’s route ran down Northbourne and around the various centres surrounding the city (ANU, Parliamentary Triangle etc), it might looked less of an oddity and a more plausible starting point for a ‘transport revolution’.

Garfield 1:11 pm 13 Oct 16

R_Knight said :

devils_advocate said :

If the ACT Govco had blitzed the field in contract management; had been transparent and upfront in cost-benefit analysis (including future costs); had managed our existing taxpayer funds scrupulously; and was absolutely free of all undue influence by land developers and unions; then maybe – just MAYBE- the people of the ACT could contemplate voting for a massive infrastructure project like this one.

Have ANY of those preconditions been met? I await your answer with baited breath.

G’day devils_advocate. I admit you’ve raised some pretty valid points regarding the government’s performance and shady arrangements with unions and developers. I would say, however, based on case examples from projects elsewhere, the cost benefit analysis is likely to have been on the conservative side. While still coming out at 1.2:1, I think that’s a pretty good incentive to build it.

All of that aside, I don’t think you can take away the fact the fundamental underpinnings of rail based infrastructure in an urban setting are far more beneficial than road based ones. When supported by land use and transport policy designed to create a more compact urban form, improve accessibility for public transport users, and reduce car dependency, light rail provides the bones of a vastly more liveable city. The best thing we can do is hold the government to account on enacting these policies in a transparent way. The worst thing we can do is elect a government who would tear it all down and subject us to more of the current failed neo-liberalist approach to city building.

I’m surprised to see you think the 1.2 figure is conservative. Please consider the following:

The public transport benefits are only 0.50 with the remaining 0.70 of Capital Metro’s analysis consisting of wider economic benefits.

The ACT Auditor General has raised questions around the validity of those wider benefits, suggesting they would not normally be included in an analysis. She also confirmed the full cost of the contract will be $1.78bn.

A light rail expert told the Canberra Times on 10th April that normally the wider benefits of a light trail project come to around 17% of the public transport benefits. That means if our stage 1 is an average LR project, the benefit would be 0.585.

The Grattan Institute said the types of additional benefits included in the Capital Metro business case were normally excluded by Infrastructure Australia as the risk of over estimating them was so high.

Griffith University’s Urban Research Program Deputy Director, a strong supporter of Gold Coast LR, said that a benefit of 1.2 was exceptionally low for a public transport project in Australia, and argued against it going ahead.

The estimated cost benefit as calculated by the ACT public service in 2013 was 1.02 based on a construction cost of only $615m. That was only discovered thanks to a Canberra Times FOI request.

It all adds up to the 1.2 figure the project relies upon is not at all conservative, and to me there’s a good prospect the real return will be less than 1.0, meaning the community will receive less benefits than it costs to build.

Are you also aware that the same internal government discussions from 2013 that said light rail had a benefit of 1.02, said that BRT had a ratio of 1.98 and could still deliver 88% of the total benefits of light rail?

You say the worst thing that could happen is for the contract to be ripped up, but have you done the maths?

At $1.78bn with a 1.2 ratio, we’re set to get $2.136bn of benefits. BRT at 1.98 & 88% effectiveness could provide $1.88bn of benefits at a cost of $949m. Even if it costs the probably inflated figure of $300m to cancel, that still leaves $531m. If that money can be invested in initiatives with the same sort of benefit as BRT, that would provide an additional $1.05bn of benefits, meaning ACT residents could get an additional $794m in total benefits by ripping up the contract.

If we instead used 1.02 for LR and a $200m cost of ripping up the contract we could get an additional $1.31bn in total benefits by ripping up the contract. If we used the average wider benefits for a LR project there may be an additional $2.09bn of benefits in ripping up the contract.

Please keep in mind these calculations are only for Stage 1. Stage 2 is certain to have a lower cost benefit than Stage 1, otherwise they would have built it first. Labor has committed to signing contracts for Stage 2 before 2020, and wants to commence construction before then if possible. If the Liberals get in and stop it going ahead, the benefits to the ACT would be even greater than for Stage 1 because there’s no cancellation fee to pay.

In contrast to you, my worst fear is we return the current government and they proceed with Stage 2 and the rest of the network.

TiffanyCase 12:52 pm 13 Oct 16

I’ve heard there will be a penalty to the ACT of around $20million if the contract is extinguished on light rail and an offer from the Libs would be to have the consortium undertake “other infrastructure activities” instead – such as a rapid bus transport systems – does anyone know if this could be true?

R_Knight 12:08 pm 13 Oct 16

devils_advocate said :

If the ACT Govco had blitzed the field in contract management; had been transparent and upfront in cost-benefit analysis (including future costs); had managed our existing taxpayer funds scrupulously; and was absolutely free of all undue influence by land developers and unions; then maybe – just MAYBE- the people of the ACT could contemplate voting for a massive infrastructure project like this one.

Have ANY of those preconditions been met? I await your answer with baited breath.

G’day devils_advocate. I admit you’ve raised some pretty valid points regarding the government’s performance and shady arrangements with unions and developers. I would say, however, based on case examples from projects elsewhere, the cost benefit analysis is likely to have been on the conservative side. While still coming out at 1.2:1, I think that’s a pretty good incentive to build it.

All of that aside, I don’t think you can take away the fact the fundamental underpinnings of rail based infrastructure in an urban setting are far more beneficial than road based ones. When supported by land use and transport policy designed to create a more compact urban form, improve accessibility for public transport users, and reduce car dependency, light rail provides the bones of a vastly more liveable city. The best thing we can do is hold the government to account on enacting these policies in a transparent way. The worst thing we can do is elect a government who would tear it all down and subject us to more of the current failed neo-liberalist approach to city building.

Leon Arundell 9:19 am 13 Oct 16

Even the Greens have stopped talking up light rail’s greenhouse benefits.

Light rail will not reduce public transport operating emissions, because existing bus services that use the route will be reallocated.

Light rail is unlikely to generate significantly more patronage along the route than bus rapid transit, because it comes as a package that includes longer walks to and from stops, longer off-peak journey times and the elimination of direct and express services.

Steffen, Percival and Flannery assume that 25% to 75% of existing bus passengers will cease to use the route when it switches to light rail.
The EIS for Stage 1 estimated that its construction will cause 60,000 tonnes CO2-e of greenhouse emissions.

The best chance for light rail to compensate for the emissions caused in its construction will be if the reallocated bus services attract enough people out of their cars.

We can achieve the same result by buying a couple of dozen extra buses.

rommeldog56 8:39 pm 12 Oct 16

From the OP : ” How, for example, are they going to pay $300 million in penalties for scrapping the light rail and build better schools and hospitals all while lowering our rates?”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

1) Barr said that it would cost m$200 to cancel tram stage 1 contract. Fitzharris later said it would be m$300. Someone else on here said it would be m$300+. I wish this pro tram scare campaign could at least get its story right. The only way that can be done is to ask the opinion of the Auditor General – or release the contract for scrutiny. I strongly suspect Barr is telling porkies.

2) The Libs have not said they will “lower our Rates”. What they have said is Annual Rates will be capped to CPI (or what ever it is) so that the “rate of increase” of Annual Rates will be much, much lower than the avg.10%pa forever under ACT Labor/Greens. Different things.

Rollersk8r 3:50 pm 12 Oct 16

Four things:

1. We rely on cars in Canberra because we can. It’s one of the advantages of living here. Personally I ride and catch the bus to work but also drive regularly when I need to.

2.The “I won’t catch a bus but would catch a team” argument is absurd. Plain and simple it’s public transport snobbery. They are both metal boxes containing people, moving along exactly the same route. At least buses are scalable.

3. Further to the above, there’s no shortage of people who say they won’t catch the bus because “it’s not very good”. What do you mean? I suspect it’s mainly said by people who’ve never caught a bus and never will. It’s just a blanket excuse for opting out. Of course it’s not as fast, flexible and direct as a car – but using public transport requires patrons to forgo some convenience – that’s the deal!

4. Any comparison to Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast, Adelaide or the USA is not valid in the context of Gungahlin to Civic.

dungfungus 3:47 pm 12 Oct 16

“……….Canberra has a problem with car dependency…….”

Totally subjective opinion there.
I don’t see a problem at all, in fact we should celebrate that we are in one of the few small cities in the world that has benefited from the success of planning for personal motor vehicle transport to be the principal form of transport.

Visitors from overseas often comment to me how great it must be to live in Canberra and use a private motor vehicles so extensively.

There is no way public transport will ever replace this gift we enjoy in Canberra despite what the social(ist) engineers try to do to us.

wildturkeycanoe 3:35 pm 12 Oct 16

“How do autonomous vehicles move a crowd of 15,000 people away from Canberra stadium after a rugby game?”
How indeed? Probably the same way or even more efficiently than the people who drive themselves to and from the rugby matches. Because the bus network can’t cope with the crowds, people inevitably have to use their own vehicles. How many buses, lining up one after another, will it take to move these people in the many different directions they need to go after a game? When we commuted to Manuka oval for a cricket match some years ago, it took us much, much longer to get home after the game as buses queued up outside and families walked around in circles trying to identify which one would get them home. It took us about twenty minutes for our turn to jump in to a bus that filled to capacity, then another hour or more to go via the City to get back to Belconnen and further on to our home. Had our car been parked a block or so away, we’d have jumped in, driven off and been home in under half an hour.
If the tram network were to go past the GIO Stadium, which I dare say will never happen, how could a fleet of a dozen vehicles cope with post match exodus? Almost 300 passengers per tram, shoulder to shoulder with beer-breath supporters raving about the refereeing decisions, riled up, noisy and too close for personal comfort. They aren’t all going to the same location, so a tram to get you home may only arrive once every ten minutes or so, going in either one of two directions, Civic or Belconnen. Then you still need to jump on a bus to continue closer to home and even then, being a weekend, there may only be one late bus left that takes you past your street. A possibly thirty minute trip becomes a lifetime and an anxious wait to see if you’ve missed a connecting service, meaning you have to wait in a cold depot for thirty more minutes for the next bus.
If even half the 15,000 people took public transport, you have over 25 tram trips, with a fleet on that particular line of maybe a dozen trams. If they departed every 5 minutes or so and you are unlucky enough to be on the last tram going in your direction, that is an hour of waiting, before you even begin your journey. With a car you could already be eating dinner in your lounge.

devils_advocate 2:10 pm 12 Oct 16

If the ACT Govco had blitzed the field in contract management; had been transparent and upfront in cost-benefit analysis (including future costs); had managed our existing taxpayer funds scrupulously; and was absolutely free of all undue influence by land developers and unions; then maybe – just MAYBE- the people of the ACT could contemplate voting for a massive infrastructure project like this one.

Have ANY of those preconditions been met? I await your answer with baited breath.

Related Articles

CBR Tweets

Sign up to our newsletter

Top
Copyright © 2017 Riot ACT Holdings Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.
www.the-riotact.com | www.b2bmagazine.com.au | www.thisiscanberra.com

Search across the site