Public transport and a tale of two cities

Pam Blakeley has launched our new Blog, focusing on the upcoming ACT election in October 2024

9 April 2024

The public transport issue, particularly the extension to light rail, is again shaping up as a controversial ACT election issue. The discussion this time is more strident and desperate, and linked to other critical issues. The need to finance more public housing and better health provisions in the context of the ACT budget deficit are being raised as reasons to scrap light rail.

Canberra and Wellington, New Zealand, sister cities since 2016, tie as the most remote capital cities in the world. They both have populations of just under half a million and are growing. Many workers in each city are employed in politics, government, education, and services. Young people come for education and jobs. The standard of living in each city is high relative to the national standard, and New Zealand is facing many of the same social problems as Australia.

Visiting Wellington for a 12-day holiday in December 2022, we were struck by the physical beauty of Wellington, spread around, and rising in green volcanic mountains above a harbour the size of Sydney Harbour. Wellington has water.

The other striking thing was how well Wellington works as a city. We stayed in an Airbnb in the suburb of Karori, 4 km from the city centre. We used public transport the whole time (the Snapper card covers everything), and travelled on buses, trains, and ferries. We went out at night to stand-up comedy shows, restaurants and music venues. No need to hire a car, get a taxi or an uber. We went by bus/train outside the city to the boutique wine region of Martinborough, we caught the ferry across the harbour to Eastbourne where we ate seafood chowder and cheesy scones and we visited Petone, the original site of Wellington, by train.

We walked a lot too. We caught a bus up Mt Victoria, the highest point of Wellington, on a hair-raising steep and narrow road. We saw native tui birds, walked down to Oriental Beach, and then along the wide boardwalk with its crab shacks and oyster fritter stalls, past the Te Papa Museum and back to Courtenay Place to catch the bus back to Karori. None of us had ever spent more than a day in Wellington before and yet it was as comfortable as being at home. No, a lot more comfortable. We loved the way bus passengers always thanked the driver when getting off the bus. ‘Thank you, driver!’ Fair enough too, as the driver had just safely negotiated narrow and steep roads and hairpin bends unlike any in Canberra, with a good-natured muscularity and can-do attitude.

Wellington does not have light rail, but it has an urban train system which services outlying suburbs and goes to other cities. These trains are estimated to carry 12 million passengers a year. Buses service almost every part of Wellington and most run through Courtenay Place in the CBD, a bus hub, and take in Wellington Railway Station.

We wondered why Canberra does not have such an efficient, well connected and well patronised public transport system as Wellington. What is the best system for Canberra with its own special qualities and requirements and its own unique natural beauty. In this election year, who do we vote for to provide it? Indeed, what do most Canberrans want?

We cannot copy Wellington. Canberra has four town centres and potentially five. We have evolved as a city for cars. I have not seen the number or size of car parks we have here, in any other city in the world. It feels anachronistic. The car parks are ugly and take up a lot of land. Imagine the gardens and public and social housing that could be accommodated if some of the prime sites in central Civic, Woden and Belconnen in particular, were used differently. Looking ahead, how many more roads and carparks are going to be needed if we continue this way?

As Canberra has traditionally been a car city, we have neglected other aspects of transport infrastructure in a way that other small cities have not. The cost now to remediate this situation is phenomenal even if it is shared with the federal government. It is an unenviable task for any ACT government to implement infrastructure that would have been better started decades ago. We are almost starting from scratch and with no clear idea of what we want. But we do need to think ahead. Canberra is growing and becoming denser. The reliance on cars and ‘ghost buses’ is not sustainable in the long run. The existing bus service does a good job conveying workers short distances in peak hours. But the city is not connected properly. It is a difficult city to move around in and not welcoming to visitors or those without a car.

Canberra has voted twice now to go ahead with light rail. The existing line from Gungahlin to the City is popular with those who have access to it. It is a comfortable form of transport, easier for the elderly, those with a mobility issue or parents dealing with strollers. You don’t need a timetable, they come every few minutes. They carry hundreds of passengers at one time. It is an effective form of mass transport and doesn’t clog up the roads. At night, the rail stops are well lit and highly visible, and they feel safer than bus interchanges or suburban bus stops. We can already see greater density along the light rail route in north Canberra, although this is controversial.

The choice is not between light rail and buses. The challenge is to work out a hybrid system of public transport that allows us to move easily around our widely dispersed city and to enjoy it. We need a system which will work well into the future even if modifications are needed at times, as they will be. We need to think about how our city could be warmer and more hospitable. As individuals it is vital for us all to think about how much reliance and money, we and our children and grandchildren want to put into car and road transport in the future.

Our best solution for now might be to continue building light rail to provide effective and rapid mass transit between the town centres, with buses, cycleways and walking paths radiating out into the suburbs beyond. Ideally, the airport and Canberra Railway Station would be integrated into the system one day. There would still be a need for cars.

It seems fallacious to think that we would be better off by scrapping plans for light rail to Woden and just getting more buses. The public has lost faith in the existing bus system and needs to see a big change in the role of buses in Canberra’s public transport system.

Nor does a priority of building and maintaining more roads for buses and cars into the future feel like the way to make Canberra a better connected, more appealing city. It’s expensive too. A quick example is Majura Parkway. Completed in 2016 and half funded by the federal government, it cost $288 million for 11.5 kilometres. It would cost far more today.

I’m leaving this blog with more questions than answers but that’s OK. Public transport in Canberra is important in this city which stretches for 60 kilometres from to south. There will be further public discussion on this issue in the leadup to the ACT election in October and hopefully some interesting and constructive ideas will emerge. but looking forward to the day when I hear passengers calling ‘thank you, driver!’ each time.

Pam Blakeley