Can Canberra, a city built for the car, be retrofitted so its commuters prefer public transport?

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Phil Rumble spends an hour getting to work each morning on public transport. Driving would take him 15 to 20 minutes. The long-time public servant’s morning commute involves a 1-kilometre walk from his home in Canberra’s north to the nearest light-rail stop, a tram to the city, and finally a […]

Phil Rumble spends an hour getting to work each morning on public transport. Driving would take him 15 to 20 minutes.

The long-time public servant’s morning commute involves a 1-kilometre walk from his home in Canberra’s north to the nearest light-rail stop, a tram to the city, and finally a bus to his work in Canberra’s inner south.

Phil agrees that many people would chose to drive instead.

“It’s a big difference,” he admits.

But Phil said his commute from Gungahlin to Deakin was not just about time — it was a habit and a chance to watch the world go by.

He said he had been catching public transport in Canberra since he was a kid and enjoyed people-watching and the chance to get his thoughts in order before he started his day.

Phil said it was easy to understand why driving was more convenient for most Canberrans, particularly those with children.

“Compare us to Sydney or Melbourne, the hustle and bustle,” he said.

“Some parts [of Canberra] even have free parking.”

But, while Phil choses to go against the grain for his daily commute, he said improvements to the ACT’s public transport network could help others do the same.

“I think they could probably do it a little bit better, a lot quicker,” he said.

“[In] your main hubs like Belconnen, Civic, Woden, you used to have buses that would go directly to each of those hubs and it would take 15 minutes each time.

“Now, you stop everywhere along the route to pick people up.

“Maybe that needs to come back for the … peak periods.”

While Phil opts for public transport, far more Canberrans are like Sarah Crowe, from Tuggeranong in the city’s south.

“I choose to drive to work just purely because it is more convenient for me,” she said.

“I not only drive to work, I drop my dog off at day care along the way and I also go to the gym after work, all of which I feel would be nigh on impossible to do on public transport.”

On a good day, Sarah drives for 15 to 20 minutes from her home in Richardson to her office in the city.

The bus can take about an hour and light rail — currently only operating in the city’s north — is not an option.

“We’re just a very car-focused city,” she said.

“I think our roads are fantastic. I think the suburbs are very well set out for cars.

“The things we take advantage of in Canberra, like our spacious suburbs, they’re not really designed, in my view, with public transport or walking or cycling in mind.”

Undoing generations of road-centric development

Urban planners say Canberra is recovering from its legacy of being developed for the private motor vehicle.

When the city was expanding quickly last century, its growth was influenced by American planners who had introduced freeways in the 1950s.

Barbara Norman, a professor and chair of urban planning at the University of Canberra, said the task was to build an attractive alternative.

“In many ways, we’re trying to retrofit a car-based city into a really modern, contemporary 21st-century city, a much more sustainable city, reducing reliance on cars, using a much better public transport system,” she said.

“People will only use public transport if it’s priced well, efficient, reliable and safe.”

[chart modes]

According to Census data from 2016, the car is still king in Canberra, with about five in every six people choosing to drive to work.

Fewer than one in 12 catch public transport, and a similarly small number of people use “active transport”, namely walking or cycling.

To date, there is no evidence that light rail, which began operating in 2019 and currently only runs along a 12-kilometre track, has significantly altered these patterns.

Canberra’s outer suburbs are missing out

University of Canberra lecturer Michael de Percy believes the city’s transport woes stem from its spread-out population, with under-serviced pockets far away from the main arterial routes.

“The cost of providing service in those areas is seen as the main factor, as opposed to the increased services to citizens and residents,” Dr de Percy said.

“So addressing those problems is quite the paradox because it costs money, it will require investment and yet, at the same time, it may not be as easy to recover the cost of that investment through the ticket box.”

Dr de Percy agrees with government moves to jack up parking prices and perhaps even introduce toll roads to encourage people to ditch their car.

“We tend to think that roads are free, we get to use them for free and we shouldn’t have to pay for them, even though we do through our taxes,” he said.

He said it could seem cheaper to use cars than public transport but that was a “false economy”.

“If we had to actually pay for our use of the roads then it might encourage different behaviours,” he said.

“Part of the problem with building more roads and making the roads more efficient is that it increases the demand for roads.

“Every time we duplicate a major route, a road corridor, then of course more people tend to use it — which creates the traffic problem once again.”

Public transport in a post-pandemic city

It is not known when bus or tram use will return to pre-COVID-19 levels — the ACT Government is predicting a “very gradual return” in coming months. (A small percentage of people surveyed by the Government said they would not return to public transport at all.)

Working from home may have irreversibly altered the daily commute as we know it, and it has urban planners asking what the future of our cities looks like, and how public transport should accommodate a growing population.

Ride data showed bus and tram use collapsed in April, though there was a slight bounce as coronavirus restrictions eased.

However, the latest data still shows that the number of people using public transport is dramatically down on last year’s levels — about half as many people are catching the tram or bus.

[chart transport pandemic]

Professor Norman said the pause in demand for public transport was a chance to revitalise tired suburban hubs, and redesign a system tailored to the community.

“It isn’t just about going back to where we were, because the nature of work and transport and [the] journey to work, from home to work, is changing, too,” she said.

“So we don’t quite know what it’s going to look like.”

As for whether Canberra — a city built for the car — could ever embrace public transport, Professor Norman said it would have no choice.

But she said its residents needed to move beyond thinking of transport as a competition between light rail, buses, cars, walking and cycling.

“As we grow towards half a million people, we will need all of the above,” she said.

“It’s really making sure that we’re taking that integrated approach to transport in Canberra that serves the people and the environment.

“Over 75 per cent of our emissions come from our cities globally, [and] transport is a very important part of that.”

Professor Norman said light rail was not a silver bullet for the Canberra’s transport woes, nor was investing in buses alone.

But she said as the population of the national capital grew and the look of the city changed, public transport would continue to drive the political conversation.


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