Fast track to the future

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Soon, the slow train to Sydney won’t be the only rail option in Canberra.

Things are getting quite exciting in Gungahlin, Canberra’s newest suburb. For a couple of years now, there has been much talk of a light rail line running from Gungahlin to the city centre in Civic, but soon, work on the line is expected to begin.

It may seem odd to get excited about what ostensibly amounts to the start of several years of roadworks – and there are plenty who oppose the idea of building a tram network in Canberra, as the arguments ahead of October’s local elections confirm — but I have my reasons.

First, I think urban planning is best done in advance rather than in arrears. Canberra is growing and Gungahlin is the fastest growing of its suburbs. While its rush hour may pale in comparison to those in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane et al, anyone who tries to get to and from Civic during peak time will tell you that Canberra has a traffic problem that is only going to get worse as the population grows.

But here’s the thing – the very people planning that population growth are also thinking about the transport infrastructure needed to support it. That’s a rare thing in my experience and you might say that it’s a stroke of all too hard to find genius. Except it’s not really their idea. Suburban rail was sketched into the original master plan for Canberra more than 100 years ago by Walter Burley Griffin. So, while modern Canberra can claim credit for actually building the light rail line, the foresight was all Walter’s.

Second, I’m a great believer in integrated public transport and, while Canberra benefits from a pretty good bus service at the moment, it does seems to be creaking at certain points, as Suzanne Orr’s Facebook community charting day after day of overcrowded commuting testifies. Canberra also has some odd anomalies too, like regular bus services to a mainline railway station that only has three departing trains a day, but no bus service to an airport that has just secured international flights for the first time in a generation.

If high-speed inter-city rail ever comes to Canberra, integrating all of these things into a coherent network will be a major challenge for the ACT government of the day. Oh, but wait. There’s already a master plan that shows how that might work. It omits the still unplanned high-speed rail component, but it would link suburbs, city and airport properly for the first time.

Third, I’m not a great believer in voting something down just because you might not benefit from it immediately. As you might expect, in Gungahlin, there is widespread support for the first light rail line. Elsewhere, support becomes patchier and, in the southern suburbs, opposition seems particularly vocal. But I take the view that society has to adopt a big picture approach if it is to function well for everyone, otherwise we’d see schools only funded by parents with school-age kids, or hospitals only paid for by the sick. At some point you have to ask: will this make our community better? If the answer is yes, then you share the cost amongst everyone and hold fast to the ambition that, in the end, more and more people should benefit from that investment.

As regular readers will know, I moved to Canberra from Copenhagen, a city I still love very much. Whenever I go back there, I usually take a moment to reflect on what it is that made the place so liveable for me and the rest of the CBRbound family. Easy access via a top-notch public transport system was one, and continuous reinvestment in the city’s infrastructure was another.

But most of all, it was a sense that this was a city looking to the future; a place where living there seemed a wise choice because its long-term future looked confident, assured and in safe hands. Those are all the same reasons that made us choose Canberra as our next home city, which is why I will see all those pesky roadworks as the first steps on a fast track to the future.

4 thoughts on “Fast track to the future

  1. I agree with you that there is no reason to not commit to big ticket items because a few won’t benefit, and I absolutely support transport initiatives such as light rail and rapid bus. The bus I take in the morning for instance from Calwell uses one bus lane on Adelaide Ave. It takes 30 minutes first stop to last stop. I consider that very reasonable and something that should and could be replicated easily. And it’s not even am ‘express’ service.

    Clearly light rail as sprites by the government is divisive – and I think it’s easy to see why. I would be supportive of it if the system started with a hub and spoke arrangement that serviced city to the airport (and therefore Russell, Barton and possibly then onwards to Quangers), city to inner north and south at the same time as creating a rapid bus system to further passengers on their journey. Later development could then go further into suburbs.

    I think I would also disagree with it more if I lived in Belconnen – possibly seeing it passing you as you sit in traffic with not much reason to park and ride on the actual system itself. And Belconnen is the last stage of development – which seems crazy.

    It seems all the more a divisive and odd strategy close to an election. If it had more in it for others, then maybe they would increase their chances of being re- elected. If they are not re-elected, it’s dead in the water which is a shame for the actual idea. I dont know why they’d risk so much, but then again, points for not compromising.

    And it would be a shame if they did build it and it became the white elephant that never gets any further development because it’s too expensive for such a small place. Copenhagen by comparison probably has more people actually living in the metro area than Canberra has in all of its suburbs, with many thousands more in the wider area?

    So for this Tuggeranong resident to listen to the light rail being touted as the saviour for public transport with no other visible plans for anything else. It’s a thumbs down from me I’m afraid until it’s modified to provide better coverage.

    So, let’s see what happens!

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    • I guess the common point here is that, assuming one considers light rail to be a good idea, then the network has to start somewhere. That’s when it gets tricky because there will always be competing arguments for which should come first, but from a political point of view I’d imagine incentivising a move to Gungahlin so the land releases continue to sell is probably a factor (whereas other suburbs are complete).

      Copenhagen city has a population of 550k, double that for the wider area, although the population density is much greater in the centre. But even there, such disagreements are common. When the (underground) Metro was built last decade, there was much discontent over the initial route. That’s being added to now with a circle line which will ad 17 more stations.

      Regardless of the arguments of which should come first, I think these are the decisions that will continue to make CBR so liveable in the future and you only have to look at the cost of the retrospective solutions being applied in Sydney and Melbourne to see what happens if population outpaces infrastructure.

      Whether it becomes a white elephant or not I think is more a question of time — if it loses money in its early years (as many big projects do), then there’ll be plenty of commentary on that, but in 20-30 years, Canberrans will be thankful for it, and it’s not often that politicians look that far ahead — witness the short-termism at national level that still has us wondering if we’ll ever get high-speed rail.

      I agree with you though, that this makes the forthcoming election a high-stakes one and potentially a single-issue referendum for many. It’s a big ask of the population, to vote for spending now in support of a future vision, when so much else also needs to be funded. But you know, I regularly mourn the death of ideology in favour of poll-led policy making, so I personally applaud the bravery of this vision and hope it is rewarded at the polls.

      Thanks for such a lengthy and thoughtful post though. Especially since it explains the southsider’s view so well.

      Best wishes, Mark

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      • I once read a good example; When they first build harbour bridge in Sydney there wasn’t much to head to on the north side. Northern Sydney wasn’t what it is now. So a lot of people thought it was a stupid and expensive idea. In the end the bridge was build and opened up an area we now take for granted as being integral part of Sydney.

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      • I didn’t know that, but it makes sense. I also read a lot these days about how the existing infrastructure in Sydney and Melbourne is struggling to cope with the ever-expanding populations of those cities but that much of the space that would have been used for infrastructure projects has already been taken by housing, leaving expensive tunnels or the demolition of houses as the only way forwards. Much better to establish the infrastructure first then build around it. Funnily enough, Canberra seems to have a strong history in that regard. I was talking to a local the other day who was saying that, probably until the 1970s, one of the ways Canberra was able to entice people to move here was by offering “gold-plated infrastructure” when they got here. Back then, it was a harder sell, so they had to make the place attractive in other ways. I think light rail will do that for a new generation. Excitingly, since the Labor party won the recent ACT election, we can now see light rail works underway all over the city and discussions have now turned to the route of phase 2 — to Woden.

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