Thursday, March 31, 2016

Canberra Liberals bus only transport policy - is it an election winning vision?

1960's bus photo to match a 1960's bus only public transport reality


The Canberra Liberals released their long awaited response to the Capital Metro light rail master plan today. It is called 'Canberra's Transport Future', and is bus only. This is the transport policy that the Canberra liberals hope will win them the october 2016 Assembly election.

The Canberra Times reported on it here and here.


That this public transport policy comes six months out from an election is a sign that after 25 years of self-government, the Canberra Liberals have finally realised that people do care about public transport. Previous Liberal public transport policies have been released days from elections, when people have already decided on their vote. At the 2008 Assembly election, the Canberra Liberals were very keen on light rail. In the face of an actual light rail system being delivered, they have doubled down on more buses and cancelling light rail contracts (an act described as economic lunacy by the federal Liberal government). 

Before looking at the policy details the big picture needs to be examined. It just won’t work. It is that simple. Canberra has grown beyond the point when a bus only public transport system will suffice. Canberra will have a population exceeding half a million people in less than twenty years, and will continue to grow. If the aim is to get people onto public transport, the new policy won’t achieve that. More bus services sounds great, but the new plan while having some appealing features, won’t provide the infrastructure that Canberra needs for a growing city. Many of the improvements to the bus fleet and network are improvements that are already planned by the Government and ACTION.

The new Liberal policy is really a short term election winning policy. It isn’t a vision. This plan might help for a few years, it may solve some short term complaints about frequency and no public transport to the Airport, but our long term future is light rail. Light rail brings carrying capacity benefits, will attract Transit Oriented Development, will assist the change to a medium and high density future, will guide urban renewal, will attract tourism, will contribute to a reduction in climate change emissions, reduce road congestion, increase public transport patronage and change the way we travel around our city. No longer will a family have to be a two car (or more) family. Better public transport will change our lives and our city for the better.

While the Liberal policy has some appealing features, such as the same route numbering 7 days a week, and expanded late night services, it is a short term plan and seriously underestimates the demand that the increased population will make on transport services. While this plan may not lead to increased public transport use, it will lead to more road congestion.

Let us look at the policy in detail. The Canberra Liberals are promising (from ‘Canberra Transport Future’):

"Eight Rapid routes: six new bus routes across Canberra.
A new Parkway Express route: linking Canberra Hospital and Woden Bus Station to Calvary Hospital and Belconnen Bus Station.
The introduction of non-stop services, ‘X’ routes: to make travelling in peak hours even faster.
A seven day bus network: the same bus routes operating the same services, seven days a week.
Late night services every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night: giving party goers and shift workers a truly safe and economical transport option home.
Summer services: during the summer months, more services to suit the active lifestyle of the season.
Make bus routes faster: by reducing circuitous bus routes in Gungahlin, Tuggeranong and Belconnen.
Introduction of additional Weston Creek to City routes.
Airport services: finally bridge the gap between the airport and the City.
We will keep every bus stop: there will be no reduction in access to services in suburban areas.
Colour coded routes and buses: a fleet of new Rapid buses will be colour coded to reflect the routes they operate including colour matching bus stations, signage, way-finding and timetable information.
Introduction of a simplified frequent timetable with the ambition of being timetable free.
Additional cashless buses: to reduce boarding delays and speed up travel times.
Real time upgrade: create ‘moving dots’ to see actual locations of buses, provide more real time information and push more information to customers across the network using on-board information systems, transport websites, mobile apps and social media.
‘Friday free’ for nine rides or more in a week: we will reward loyal customers who travel with us by offering free travel after eight paid journeys are completed.
Enable MyWay for other purchases: consultation with convenience stores, caf├ęs and other merchants regarding accepting MyWay cards as a form of payment.
100% accessible and air-conditioned bus fleet: to ensure that ACTION is striving towards full compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and to ensure that passengers are travelling in a pleasant environment.
Prioritise the bus network: ensure that our buses and bus stations are reliable and are a first priority when roadworks and major community gatherings are being planned.
Stadium transport: upgrade infrastructure to make travelling to Canberra Stadium and Manuka Oval an easier and more attractive option.
Accessible Canberra: implement a wayfinding system to help passengers navigate our public spaces and find the closest transport services.
A great customer experience: a commitment to putting passengers first through a walk-in centre for bus information and ticket sales in the City and deploying roving customer service ambassadors to help passengers on the network.
Commitment to intersection jump-starts: plan and construct slip lanes as well as priority phasing for buses at traffic lights.
Kiss & Ride facilities: to provide additional locations for easy and safe drop-off locations across the network.
New fit-out for buses: introduction of high capacity four-door articulated buses on Rapid routes to deliver efficiency and elegance. We will also look to bring bikes on board buses so that people can quickly board and depart.
Local technology and innovation budget: making funds available to locals to contribute their great ideas to help make Canberra a truly smart and innovate transport city.
Intelligent transport systems: including signalisation, variable speed limits and other technologies.
Electric buses: undertake a trial to see if electric buses are suitable for Canberra.
Major Bus Station Infrastructure:
improvements to paths, lighting, shelters and security, and mid-to-long-term improvements to the design of the infrastructure.
Audit of bus stops:
to ensure that they are accessible for people of all abilities.
New northside bus depot:
the establishment of an additional facility to serve a growing city.
Creating attractive sheltered bus stops: new super stops and shelters at all Rapid bus stops with all weather shielding and heating, real time information displays as well as detailed way-finding, static passenger information and maps.
Publish performance data and monitor the network: we want everyone to know how the system is functioning. We will also establish a transport service control centre to coordinate the daily running of the bus network with input from the road services group and emergency services.
Possible statutory authority: to enable ACTION to become accountable for its expenditure and service delivery."

That is the list of promises that the Canberra Liberals are making in their bus only policy. Three thoughts occur immediately.
  • Many of the improvements they are proposing are already going to happen under the current governments plans,
  • How much will the really bold proposals like 7 to 15 minute frequency on all routes really cost? That would require a doubling or tripling f the current fleet,
  • Many of the proposals are short term only. The need for light rail will still exist.

ACTION Fleet renewal is already occurring, and will continue. Electric buses have already been flagged as a desirable addition (and almost certainly a long term replacement over decades) to the fleet. The implementation of Apps and software services to make route selection and travel planning easier has already occurred, and will only get better.

How much will this all cost? The Canberra Liberals say that:
“This proposal is an economical solution that is suited to Canberra and will deliver world class public transport services and facilities for all parts of our wonderful city. Through the combined cost of ACTION's current budget and the cost of operating the Capital Metro government department, we can deliver this network.” 

Clearly this isn’t possible. Expanding the frequency of all routes to operate at 7 to 15 minute frequency would mean that the plan to increase the ACTION fleet from 410 buses to 460 buses (by leasing 50 buses) simply wont be enough, it’s a mathematical impossibility. The Liberals claim this can be achieved by combining the Capital Metro operating budget, and the current ACTION budget (a total of around $160 million) and using that money. It defies common sense.

Setting aside the inability to actually pay for the policy, let us assume it is implemented as promised. The proposals may assist in the short term at making local bus services better, but they wont address the conditions that have led to the need for light rail. Yes local bus services need to improve, yes there needs to be higher frequency, but to cancel light rail and hope that the bus only transport plan will get Canberrans out of their cars and into public transport is wishful thinking.

Much of the debate around Capital Metro Stage One has been on capacity, and the claim that buses can achieve what light rail can. The alternative to Light Rail is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). That is buses travelling on their own right of way. This new policy doesn’t mention that at all, so it is more buses on the same roads. Buses are limited in their passenger carrying capacity; even the articulated buses only carry 150 people. The light rail vehicles Capital Metro will use can carry 220 people.

The best transport technology for mass transit in Canberra is light rail, with integrated bus services. Increase the frequency of local buses to feed light rail backbone. When Capital Metro commences operations in 219, one million bus kilometres will be available for allocation across the ACTION network. That will go a long way to increasing frequency on all other routes. As the light rail network expands to the Parliamentary Triangle, Woden, Belconnen and Tuggeranong, all those buses doing intertown work can be reallocated to the suburban local services.

Capital Metro light rail will bring about a dramatic change in Canberra, not only in public transport use, but also in reshaping Canberra for the future. As it has on the Gold Coast, public transport patronage will increase dramatically with light rail. Or, we can go back to the past on a bus only network that Canberrans continue to walk away from, or should I say drive away from, as they choose the private car over public transport.


The electorate now has two visions of our future to choose from at the October election, a Canberra wide light rail master plan with expanded integrated local bus services, to be implemented over 25 years or a bus only system with expanded frequency.

Is the Canberra liberals policy an election wining vision? No, it isn't. The Canberra electorate have already voted for light rail and an integrated expanded bus system. A bus only system offers no long term benefits. 

For more frequent updates on Capital Metro and light rail related news, please visit our Facebook page 'Light Rail for Canberra'. 


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