Sunday, February 8, 2015

Can Light Rail work for Canberra?

Proposed Capital Metro light rail

The recent decision taken by the ACT Government to proceed with the development of a light rail system for Canberra has sparked significant controversy within the community, prompting many locals to take to social media and news websites expressing negative view points and dire warnings of committing to this ‘white elephant’.

Notably, the ACT Opposition have made the declaration they will stop the project if they were to win the 2016 local election, evidently sensing enough opposition to leverage a victory based on the contentious issue. One then, is subsequently prompted to ask, is the light rail such a bad idea? Is the project destined to become the ‘white elephant’ some people are convinced it will?

There are numerous examples of light rail projects around the world from which the answers to these questions can be ascertained. Most notably, many examples are provided by projects in North American cities whose urban planning policies have been similarly reflected in Australia since shortly after World War 2, driven largely by the advent of high levels of car ownership, cheap fuel and a strong sense of individualism.

The large dormitory suburb, full of single family houses with the two car garage and large back yard, isolated from all other urban functions, but connected by networks of high speed roadways is a well known urban form on our two continents. The downsides to this type of urban form, i.e. urban sprawl, are manifold, not least of which is the ever-increasing congestion and daily commute for the majority of city dwellers contributing to significant impacts in economic productivity, quality of life and environmental problems.

As a result there has been a recent explosion of interest within North American cities for light rail and redevelopment projects aimed specifically at combating urban sprawl.

Herein then lays our ability to assess whether light rail in Canberra is destined to succeed or fail. For if light rail is being implemented in North American cities almost entirely devoted to car dependency then why shouldn’t Canberra, a city almost wholly dedicated to sprawl and where over 70% of residents conduct their daily commute in cars, look to do the same?

It is true that not all light rail projects implemented in North America have been successful; some have been outright failures, but when provided the right supporting frameworks light rail demonstrably boosts economic activity, improves the quality of life for residents and lowers the environmental impact of human development.

What this essay outlines are some case studies of projects in North America that demonstrate how light rail can either fail or succeed, what the ACT Government plans to implement in Canberra, and which lessons are of fundamental importance in creating a successful light rail project for our city.

North American case studies

North America has seen a resurgence of light rail and other urban public transport projects in the last three decades, largely as a result of lessons learnt from high rates of car dependence and urban sprawl. Between 1975 and 2012 there were 29 cities across North America that constructed light rail systems, with many more currently planned, or under way.  

There has been a varied level of success in the implementation of these projects across the continent, so in the interest of succinctness this essay will focus on just four, namely Buffalo, San Diego, Calgary, and Minneapolis which provide examples of differing levels of performance.

Success, in this instance, is measured by levels of ridership, impacts on property values (increased revenue for government), development pattern changes, and fare box revenue.
Light rail in Buffalo

Starting with the least successful of these four cities, Buffalo provides a cautionary example of investment in an expensive transport option planned in isolation. Construction began on the 10.3km stage one of Buffalo Metro in 1979 and began operating in 1985. In that time the population of the city was in decline from approximately 360,000 to 345,000, and that has continued with an average decline of 1% per year mainly due to poor macro economic conditions in the region.

The light rail project was seen as a means of urban revitalisation and the original intention was to continue construction beyond the first phase in order to recognise a city-wide transit network. Low ridership, high costs of construction, (political pressure forced several portions of the line to be built underground), and lack of subsequent investment in property development, however, has precluded that from going ahead. The Buffalo Metro remains the third most expensive light rail system to operate in North America.

The Buffalo Metro failed to achieve its established aims for a number of reasons.

Firstly, due to the macro economic conditions of the region, commercial and industry interest in development and growth within Buffalo was low and falling at the time of its inception. This means that even without the light rail going ahead there would have been very limited or zero urban development. In other words, demand for the service was falling even before and during its construction.

Secondly, the 10.3km route fails to service any area outside the inner core of the city, thereby negating any networking effect public transport systems must have in order to be functional. Although its route joins a sporting arena and university with the city’s Main Street, its geographic coverage fails to provide access to sufficient destinations which would otherwise attract a viable level of ridership.

And lastly, a fractured land use/transport planning approach from different tiers of government has resulted in little in the way of Transit Oriented Development (TOD), which is pivotal in the success of any light rail project. Continued ample car parking opportunities within the city, combined with the economically driven desperation to welcome any development has meant new developments have been approved which are counter intuitive to successful public transport outcomes.

Planning in isolation, i.e. not considering the macro economic conditions, failing to construct a viable route, and failing to shape land use appropriately in support, has resulted in the Buffalo Metro project being a failure by any measure of urban amenity and service.

San Diego light rail
San Diego

In 1950 San Diego had a population of 500,000 which grew to 3.1 million as of 2011 and, as was the standard practice across North America in that time period, this growth was mostly captured in car oriented development, or sprawl. In an effort to combat urban sprawl San Diego undertook the development of the San Diego Trolley, which commenced service in 1981, with later coordination of TOD across the city.

The San Diego example shows a light rail project initially planned and constructed to combat urban sprawl, but in isolation from supporting frameworks like TOD and a lack of policies designed to alter travel patterns within the city. Unlike Buffalo, however, lessons were learnt from the limited uptake of ridership and development around transit stations.

Benefitting from more fortuitous economic conditions than those of Buffalo, San Diego was in a position to redirect efforts in support of light rail after an initial shaky start. From the failings of the early 1980’s the city decided to encourage development in direct proximity to light rail stations. Subsequent attempts to create effective TOD during the mid-to-late 1980’s resulted in Transit Adjacent Development (TAD) that was unsuccessful because it was not tailored specifically with public transport in mind, but adhered to what the market was used to, i.e. car dominated usage.

In 1992, however, San Diego created TOD guidelines which pioneered initiatives such as reduced parking standards, higher density allowances in proximity to transit stations, and the allowance of mixed uses. The San Diego light rail experience is now widely acknowledged as a resounding success, being mostly responsible for employment growth of 235% inside the CBD, as opposed to 189% in other areas of the city since 1970 (noting it began service in 1981). San Diego is also recognised as a leader in TOD specifically with market demand for TOD remaining strong across the city, resulting in higher property values, lower traffic volumes and greater pedestrian amenity.

The geographic spread of the San Diego Trolley has also proven successful in that it links important employment, activity and residence destinations across 83km and 53 stops including such places as the Mexican border, convention centre and city CBD.

There is a focus on connections with other public transport modes across the city with many light rail stops collocated with bus and heavy rail nodes linking the system to a wider city and regional network. Unfortunately, however, it fails to provide a link to the city’s airport, and although this doesn’t detract from the overall success of the Trolley, it would add an extra dimension to a highly successful public transport project. There are also plans for extensions of Trolley lines, namely an extension from the CBD to the University of California San Diego, due to the success of the system.

The San Diego Trolley, therefore, provides lessons in both what should, and shouldn’t be done in pursuing a light rail project for a city.

Although slow in its uptake, the employment of effective land use/transport planning created a market demand for high quality, mixed use urban precincts and an associated high level of ridership and fare box recovery for the San Diego Trolley. This situation was greatly assisted by other supporting policies such as restriction of parking availability in the CBD and other built up areas, as well as street redesign for pedestrian amenity and a city-wide ‘General Plan’ envisioning a transit friendly ‘city of villages’.
Light rail in Calgary


Calgary is unique in these case studies as not only the single Canadian example, but also in the structure of its urban form. As opposed to other multi centre settlements, Calgary has developed around a downtown core of 3.5 square kilometres which is home to a high concentration of employment, surrounded by relatively low density suburban residential communities. The population of the city has exploded in the last thirty years from 550,000 to 1.1million as a result of strong regional economic activity.

Thanks to some forward thinking, the Calgary ‘C-Train’ was planned in the late 1970’s as a means of efficiently moving large volumes of people into the city centre. The C-Train system consists of three lines stretching 48.8km with 25 stations based mainly around park-and-ride facilities in the suburbs, connecting with 11 stations in the downtown core.

The system has the highest light rail ridership levels in North America at 267,500 daily trips, and maintains the lowest costs per weekday passenger. Its use is also supported by the practical elimination of car parking within the downtown core meaning motorists are left with little option but to make use of the C-Train.

Although the C-Train can be judged a resounding success in terms of ridership and fare box revenue, the experience of development pattern change has been mixed. TOD has not been widely pursued outside of the CBD due to a number of reasons such as the preclusion of transit supportive development by incompatible land uses, (like big box retail), and a lack of a long term TOD implementation strategy on the part of the city.

A number of the C-Train’s stations are located in the middle of highway medians and remain oriented to car access through the provision of large park-and-ride facilities. These attributes deter would-be TOD due to the extensive works required to alter infrastructure layouts and pedestrian access.

In effect, the C-Train has become a congestion-busting project for the downtown urban core, (much a result of policies aimed at preserving the CBD as the city’s major employment centre), and although there has been some increase in residential land use within built up areas, urban sprawl type development continues to be the norm in the outlying suburbs.

However, as traffic congestion across the city continues to worsen, provision of expensive park-and-ride facilities gives way to income generating TOD, and market demand for transit oriented living becomes greater, the city of Calgary has recognised this as a problem to be addressed.

Coming to the conclusion that land use/transport planning should be an integrated endeavour, planners are pursuing policies to encourage TOD along C-Train corridors in attempts to combat urban sprawl and recognise the full potential of investments in light rail systems.

The case of Calgary’s C-Train provides an example of how to maximise usage of the light rail system itself, but also shows that to neglect the opportunity to alter land use patterns around light rail is to neglect the opportunity to combat urban sprawl.
Light rail in Minneapolis


The city of Minneapolis is a medium sized city of 380,000 which sits in a greater metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St Paul of approx 3.5million. The economy of the region is robust and active, having a history of manufacturing which has moved to a more of a service base in recent decades.

Having been planned in 1997 and commencing service in 2004 the Hiawatha, or ‘Blue Line’, light rail project was in a position to learn the lessons of past failures and successes from across North America. The 19.8km Blue Line has 19 stations including important regional destinations such as the downtown Minneapolis CBD, two airport terminals, the Mall of America, hospitals, stadiums, civic institutions and other attractions. Additionally, 15% of the city’s bus routes feed into the line.

The Blue Line on its own has attracted significant investment in TOD by private developers including a surge of 183% in residential development between 1997 and 2010.

The project was so successful that a second line, the ‘Green Line’ was constructed and opened in 2014. The Green Line has attracted $2.5billion worth of private investment in 121 separate projects over its 18km length. The Green Line connects the Minneapolis CBD with the St Paul CBD and includes stops at important regional destinations such as employment centres, shopping precincts, a major interstate rail station, and the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Ridership on each line has exceeded estimates from day one, and approximately 40% of passengers have reported never having used public transit in the past.

Minneapolis presents the case of a city which has utilised its light rail project as a tool to help generate economic investment and revitalise declining urban areas with great success. Having learnt the lessons from other jurisdictions, the city implemented a plan to educate and engage with the numerous stakeholders affected by the initial project, instituted a development moratorium for neighbourhoods along the lines that did not already have plans in place, and created master plans for station areas along the route that established a vision for each area and identified implementation needs.

The subsequent high level of certainty regarding plans for the two routes, combined with an already growing economy and a desire to consolidate growth inside the existing urban footprint, has produced a development environment in which the city, developers, business and citizens are all benefiting.

Although traffic congestion remains a problem within the Minneapolis-St Paul region, development that would have otherwise occurred in green field sites, further exacerbating traffic congestion, has now been directed into sustainable TOD. Additionally, because of the high level of ridership, the Minneapolis light rail has become a highly affordable method of public transport costing less per passenger than standard bus services.

Even with a number of stations along the Blue Line presenting obstacles in the construction of TOD, (due in part to being located alongside a four lane roadway), the Minneapolis light rail experience is an eminently positive one.

This case highlights the importance of ensuring the alignment of the route is relevant, i.e. it services important civic and cultural destinations, is linked into the wider public transport network, and acts as an anchor to future urban development, or TOD. It also shows the importance of integrated planning; ensuring stakeholders are brought along for the ride so to speak, as well as ensuring there is a solid economic case supporting development within the region.

Key Lessons

Upon analytical review of the successes and failures of these North American case studies, one ascertains the key lessons can be narrowed to four general points. They are as follows:

  • The economic pre-conditions of the regional setting must be positive. Growth and development in the city must be likely to have occurred regardless of the construction of any light rail project. Initial development of a light rail project should be used as a way of redirecting development which would otherwise have happened elsewhere, before relying on it to spur further development; 
  • Light rail projects must be accompanied by complementary strategies to adjust travel behaviour. Strategies such as reduction of downtown parking, congestion pricing signals, and increased pedestrian amenity in proximity to transit nodes aimed at attracting people onto public transport. Park-and-ride facilities should not be allowed to dominate suburban station areas to the detriment of TOD;
  • Route alignment must be relevant and networked. Major destinations that are likely to contribute to ridership, such as centres of employment, concentrated residential, cultural attractions, and civic functions must be linked. Light rail must also link seamlessly with other forms of public and active transport in order to recognise network efficiencies and effectiveness; and
  • Future development, or renewal must be anchored by light rail stations. TOD has been found to be effective precisely because it encourages people to use the light rail system. Internal pedestrian and cycling linkages must be obvious, functional and human scale, which knits stations into a coherent urban fabric. Relying on TAD, i.e. development in proximity to, but not anchored on public transport does not make full use of the project investment.
With these in mind, we now cast an analytical eye over the plan for light rail in Canberra.

Light Rail for Canberra

According to the Capital Metro business case for a light rail system in Canberra, the strategic vision for stage one of the project is to revitalise Northbourne Avenue as the main entrance to our city and link up to renewal already occurring in areas such as Braddon, Dickson and Gungahlin’s town centre. Benefits identified by the Minister for Capital Metro include:

  • new transport options for Canberrans, 
  • reduction of car dependency, 
  • the easing of ever worsening traffic congestion, 
  • support for new jobs and the local economy, and 
  • helping the city to grow comfortably within its constrained borders. 

The local economy remains strong, with anticipated population growth expected to reach 600,000 by 2050 based on robust public sector employment and anticipated employment diversification. Partly based on this, Capital Metro has been identified for further development beyond stage one as part of a Canberra wide transport network, supported by integration with bus services, cycling, walking, and park-and-ride facilities.

Stage one of the Capital Metro light rail project seeks to link the Gungahlin Town Centre with Canberra City via a 12km route along Flemington Road, the Federal Highway, and Northbourne Ave, maintaining a median alignment along the entire route. 13 stops along the route are planned, with the majority located in proximity to mainly residential areas, with the exception of the Gungahlin Town Centre, Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC), Dickson, and the City.

The overriding messages within the business case released by Capital Metro are:

  • the need to build alternative transport options for Canberra residents, 
  • support efficient land use, and 
  • support wider economic benefits. 

Building alternative transport options is hoped to save the economy $222million by reducing traffic congestion and associated costs, reduce individual reliance on car operation and associated expenditure, and improving accessibility for the disadvantaged and non-drivers.

Efforts to support efficient land use are reliant upon complementary ACT Government planning policies, but speak about light rail’s potential to drive urban densification and higher value usage of adjacent land. Wider economic benefits are expected to result from ‘agglomeration benefits’ associated with enhanced proximity of workers, employers and suppliers provided by light rail’s effects on urban densification.

Capital Metro compared

At face value then, it appears the Capital Metro business case has taken on lessons learnt from other cities’ light rail experiences. The economy of the region remains strong, with expected population growth requiring urban development that can be directed into light rail corridors, the ACT Planning and Land Authority and National Capital Authority remain in close liaison with Capital Metro in the implementation of complementary land use and transport policies, (such as restrictive parking practices), and the route alignment has been designed to service at least four major destinations including Gungahlin Town centre, EPIC, Dickson, Braddon and the City.

There are some problems, however, and they can be linked to the last three key lessons extracted from our North American case studies.

Although the regional economy may be robust with a positive future outlook, key to the viability of Capital Metro, the following issues must be addressed if we are to recognise the best return on investment:

Transit Oriented Development

  • There is no specific ACT Government policy guidance for the construction of TOD; although we are yet to see the release of a light rail master plan and variations to the Territory plan in relation to renewal along the stage one route. 

Urban Sprawl

  • Canberra continues to allow urban sprawl developments on the outskirts of Gungahlin in suburbs such as Casey, Bonner, Forde and Moncrieff. There are also indications Molonglo may fall into this trap, although the urban fabric and connectivity of Wright and Coombs do show positive signs of TOD principles. 
  • These types of developments could result in the over bearing park-and-ride facilities so problematic in the outlying suburbs of Calgary, negatively affecting attempts to develop value-generating TOD. 
  • Measures to address this problem, such as improving the cycling infrastructure between Gungahlin Town centre and outlying suburbs, limiting the size and proximity of park-and-ride facilities and imposing an urban boundary should be considered;
Limitations of Stage One Route Alignment

  • The stage one route alignment is limited and presently features very few destinations of high employment density, (Mitchell fails to get a station except on its North Eastern periphery). 
  • The business case uses the example of Minneapolis as a case study in the effectiveness of light rail, but fails to recognise the sheer number of high-traffic destinations along the routes of the Blue and Green lines including airport terminals, hospitals, shopping centres and cultural attractions. 
  • Consideration must be given to extending stage one of Capital Metro to Russell Offices and the Canberra Airport if it is to recognise better efficiencies and ridership levels like those of Minneapolis; and 
Pedestrian Access

  • The location of the rail lines inside the median of Flemington Road, the Federal Highway and Northbourne Avenue presents problems of pedestrian amenity. 
  • Pedestrian crossings over two and three lanes of heavy traffic to make use of transit stops, and adequately anchoring TOD on these types of stops will need careful design if they are to be successful. 
  • Additionally, citing Dickson and Braddon as important places to link with the light rail means there must be clear, logical and pleasant pedestrian connectivity between each location and their respective stops on Northbourne Avenue. 
  •  Other areas of the City, such as the ANU campus, must also receive this treatment. 
  • Without the consideration of adequate pedestrian connectivity, Dickson, Braddon, the City and other new developments are in danger of becoming TAD rather than TOD, thereby negating the benefits associated with light rail. 

There are clearly manifold benefits associated with the implementation of a light rail system in a city with the size and makeup of Canberra.

Careful design, right down to the level of the individual, is of vital importance in the execution of a successful light rail project. Capital Metro truly does have the potential to be a transformative initiative for our city, one that deserves our support and focus.

Political leaders, developers, businesses and citizens all stand to benefit, and we should do our best to get the planning right from the start. The lessons are there to be learnt. Let’s not miss the opportunity.

This article was written by Robert Knight

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