A centenary review of transport planning in Canberra, Australia

Progress in Planning 87 (2014) 1–32

Paul Mees
School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, GPO Box 2476, Melbourne, Victoria 3001, Australia

Summary by John L Smith, Farrer, ACT.

Mees reviews three periods that span the development of Canberra until 2013:

  • Pre 1972;
  • 1972 – 1985;
  • 1985 - 2013.
  • He identifies these periods based on the effects of a major change in transport planning which resulted from the election of the Whitlam government to Canberra in 1972. Until that time the key planning decisions for Canberra regarding land use and transport had focussed on a car city that would not experience traffic congestion.

    The Whitlam government through its instrumentality of the Department of the Capital Territory introduced a major change to emphasise growth in public transport which it aimed to achieve by expanded and improved bus services in combination with reduced investment in roads, increased traffic congestion (from which public transport would be protected by on-road priority measures), and charging for parking. These parameters were the basis of The Canberra Short Term Transport Planning Study commenced in October 1975 – a month before the dismissal of the Whitlam government – and concluded in December 1976. This report predicted the need for bus ways by 1992 funded by parking charges in the main centres.

    The development of public transport was based on express inter-town services between bus interchanges, coordinated with local feeder buses. Services on local routes ran at headways of 15 minutes in peak periods and there was a timed transfer system for connection to the express inter-town routes that allowed a 5 minutes transfer time. By 1985 the usage of public transport had doubled in 12 years and the growth of car use had stagnated. By the mid 1980’s the introduction of inter-town bus ways and an improvement in the off-peak local route headways were real prospects.

    The waning of the influence of the Whitlam years was marked by a public move in the National Capital Development Commission back to providing a high level of service for the private motorist and it was able to carry the day on this shift in policy despite persuasive evidence that continuation of the directions underlying The Canberra Short Term Transport Planning Study would produce the best result for the planned city.

    After 1985 ACTION faced major challenges, first industrial action in 1986 reduced patronage, then an economic debate arose in which ACTION’s deficit was argued to be higher than that of public transport in other states. At the same time a developer backed transport study (Towards a More Sustainable Canberra, 1991) was conducted which led many to the conclusion that Canberra needed light rail and high-density redevelopment. This was opposed by the low density car lobby, leaving ACTION bus services as the ham in the sandwich.

    Cuts to ACTION services began in 1988. Significantly these were accompanied by a move away from the comprehensive, all – purpose service model that had underpinned the growth in patronage between 1973 and 1985, towards a more conventional city commuter focus using express services that travelled direct to the city centre bypassing town centre interchanges and an increase in park and ride services. “The biggest change came in 1994, when local feeder frequencies were substantially reduced and the times of connecting intertown services were dropped from local timetables”. “So in the space of a few years, the peak- period offering on many local routes had declined from a 7 to 8 or 10 min peak service, with guaranteed connections, to a 20 or 30 min frequency with random connections. Outside peak periods, the abolition of timetable coordination ensured even longer waits”. “The timed transfer network that had underpinned ACTION’s success broke down completely.” Public transport declined.

    The ACT government responded by engaging two consultants, a decade apart. The 1997 Graham report resulted in a typical bus route that would “begin in the suburbs of, say Belconnen, stop at the town centre interchange, then continue along the ‘intertown’ route to Woden or Tuggeranong, then continue as a regular suburban route to its terminus”. Graham also recommended that the inter-town route be changed to include additional stops at places like the University of Canberra and a major hospital. Routes would all be operated with regular-sized buses. The main drawback of this service model is that replacing high-capacity buses with smaller vehicles, and slowing the route by adding more stops, dramatically increased the costs of operating the trunk inter-town service, as well as introducing very long routes that were difficult to operate reliably”. “Many patrons experienced slower and less reliable trips. Patronage fell; ACTION responded by cutting services; patronage declined again.”

    “The 2004 Canberra Spatial Plan abandoned the longstanding spatial structure established by the Y-Plan, proposing new suburban developments at Molonglo, at the western end of Parkes Way, and Kowen, at the east end.” “The new land use policies could only function effectively if there was a radical upgrading of public transport.”

    The second consultant led to the 2009 ACT Strategic Public Transport Network Plan which is based on a trade-off between ‘patronage’ routes designed to increase patronage by attracting ‘choice’ riders who might otherwise travel by car, and ‘coverage’ routes provided for social justice reasons for people without cars to which limited resources are allocated. A 2012 document, Transport for Canberra, confirms this break with ACTION’s successful 1970’s model of city-wide minimum service standards by consigning the majority of middle and outer Canberra to ‘coverage’ services running once an hour, or half-hourly after 2021 (a concession to public disquiet). The break with past practice was also confirmed in the new policy’s treatment of waiting times for transferring passengers. Whereas ACTION had, until the early 1990s, provided guaranteed connections between express and feeder routes with maximum waits of 4 or 5 min, Transport for Canberra proposes average waits of 7.5–15 min, gradually reducing to 5–10 min after 2016. Poor connections provide a further disincentive for any passengers not already deterred by the prospect of waiting an hour for a local bus. Hardly surprisingly, then, Transport for Canberra proposes a greater role for park-and-ride, another contrast with the successful ACTION model of the past. Additional stops for new park-and-ride lots are proposed for the inter-town express route, further increasing travel times, yet entrenching the notion that the car is the dominant transport mode, even for public transport users.

    In contrast Mees advocates the ‘network planning’ approach in which similar service standards are applied across an entire city to create an integrated public transport network that mimics the ‘go anywhere, anytime’ convenience of the car. An example is the service plan of the Swiss town of Schaffhausen, population of 45,300, no university, and where employment is dispersed (manufacturing is the major industry). Schaffhausen is served by five regular bus routes, each of which extends from one side of the town, through the centre, to the other side. Each line receives the same service level: a 10-min service all day weekdays, lesser at other times. The reason Schaffhausen provides the same service levels across its network, regardless of differences in patronage, is precisely in order to create a true network – one that offers residents access to any destination in the city, not just those that happen to lie on their local route.