Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View, "The single most frequent failure in the history of forecasting has been grossly underestimating the impact of technologies."



In his lead article in the Canberra Times Forum section on March 29, 2014 Ross Peake stated that the main argument offered by the ACT government for the development of light rail in Canberra was “high land values along the rail corridor and the likelihood of attracting more high-tech companies that see the value of easy access for their employees and clients”. This hardly seems relevant for a city in which Peake suggested there is a “woeful state of public transport”.

The real problem for the government is that after 20 years of dilly-dallying on public transport they have come up with a transport plan ("Transport for Canberra 2012-2031") that condemns most Canberrans to second rate service while good public transport is to be restricted to those who live along transport corridors.

Light rail corridors are not essential for development. Good public transport is. In this respect our planners are grossly underestimating the impact of technologies.

Planners seem unaware that when the developer-backed transport study “Towards a More Sustainable Canberra, 1991” was conducted and which led many to the conclusion that Canberra needed light rail and high-density redevelopment, there were no vehicle navigation systems, few mobile phones, no social media, no electric or hybrid-electric vehicles, no vehicle data communications, no roadside to vehicle communications, no vehicle dispatching systems based on these technologies, no vehicle recognition, and so on.

In his substantive review of transport in Canberra (“A centenary review of transport planning in Canberra, Australia”) Paul Mees argues convincingly that the best period for public transport in Canberra was 1975-1985 when public transport journeys were based on local services coordinated with express inter-town services. This meant that journeys from anywhere to anywhere were supported by reliable services, with reasonable frequency and travel times. Admittedly the size of the network was much smaller than that which would be required in Canberra now, or in the future.

“Anywhere to anywhere” services are too difficult for human operators to coordinate in changing and sometimes adverse circumstances. Eventually the scheme was dropped in favour of services such as park and ride, and high volume direct routes that bypassed the town interchanges.

The point I want to make here is that, if planners had kept up with what technology had to offer, ACTION would not have had to abandon its only successful service scheme for public transport. Coordinating local services with express inter-town services for a complex network can be done with the aid of computers backed by modern communications and real time location technology.

Coordinating Interchange

In an ideal world, passengers on a local service arriving at an interchange have sufficient time to transfer to an express service which departs on schedule for the next town destination, and similarly for passengers arriving at an interchange on an express service who need to transfer to a local service.

If a human operator has to rely on voice radio communication with the drivers of several buses (as in the 1970’s) in order to know what delays are occurring, and then assess the implications of delaying the departure of a connecting service from the interchange, the problem becomes impossible in a complex network. All this information is now available automatically though passenger MyWay card readers, vehicle location systems and data communications, for computers to do dynamic dispatching and real time scheduling of any complexity.

Efficient and Frequent Local Service

Anyone who lives in Canberra is used to the sight of ACTION buses plying local routes during off-peak and weekend hours and carrying no passengers, or one or two at the most. There is a cache 22 situation with these services. In order to reduce costs the routes are longer so that fewer buses are required to cover a town and the frequency of services is low. Thus patronage is abysmal.

The simplest technology increment to improve the local service without increasing operating costs would be available to all MyWay card holders. All bus stops would have to be equipped with MyWay card readers, a simple map display of the available local bus stops, and wireless data communications. The most common transaction for an intending passenger on arriving at the bus stop would be to nominate the nearest interchange (e.g. at the town centre) and then confirm the trip with the MyWay card. Once a trip booking was confirmed the intending passenger would be guaranteed a maximum wait time for pick-up and maximum total time to arrival at the local destination. Vehicle dispatching systems similar to taxi dispatching systems (with multiple hire) would be used to schedule and dispatch the passenger vehicles which could be of varying sizes according to the parameters of the local area and the service level.

Variations on the traveller interface for the above service could be implemented for mobile phones and internet. Instead of only having bus stops on defined routes, stops could be implemented across the entire local area. Use of mobile phone and internet bookings would mean that some stops would not have to be equipped with any technology.

As demand for these types of service grows, they would be evolved back to a fixed route, fixed frequency service for areas of high demand, the difference being that services would run at headways of 15 minutes or less and there would be timed transfer to express inter-town services as at peak hour.

Future Public Transport

In addition to heavy rail, the future of public transport in Canberra lies in the integration of small self-drive electric vehicles such as the Toyota i-Road into the public transport fleet. On-street parking at key centres would be largely restricted to these Public Utility Vehicles (PUV). They could be accessed for short term use at any designated parking zone in the local area. These zones would be equipped with recharging points for vehicle batteries.

The main technology development required to deploy such a public transport fleet would be an economic means to shuttle vehicles from sinks, where vehicles tend to accumulate, to locations of unmet demand. The rapid development of autonomous vehicles and the deployment of semi-autonomous vehicle fleets could see this problem resolved in the next ten years.