Friday, September 30, 2016

Don’t wait for driverless cars - build light rail now

The autonomous car
Light rail has already started construction in the first stage of what will be a Canberra wide network. This will transform our city and change our culture over time, from a car-centric society where each family needs to have at least two cars, to a place where public transport is easily accessible, frequent and reliable.

Opponents of better public transport are largely drawn from the 93% of Canberrans who don’t use it now, and can’t see why they should have to pay for it. They are used to driving everywhere and parking at the door for free. That is what it was like when they arrived in Canberra in the 1970’s and they can’t understand why it needs to change.

Canberra is changing. The Y Plan was of its time and followed current planning trends, but the NCDC is not a religion and logic needs to be applied to future planning. Some elements of the Burley Griffin vision were adopted, others weren’t. Some elements of the Y Plan have been successful, others not. The current trend of a family home having not one or two cars, but four or more in the driveway is a trend the Y Plan fostered, that cannot continue.

Parking is no longer free, and the vast free car parks of Civic and our Town Centres are no longer there. Free car parking in the Parliamentary Triangle no longer exists. As our city matures, those vast spaces are being replaced with buildings that are of greater economic use than having a car sit on them for eight hours or more a day.

Buses in Canberra once coped admirably with the task assigned; yet as the Y Plan stretched to Tuggeranong and Gungahlin, a bus trip became long and circuitous. We asked ACTION to be both a local bus service and a mass transit provider. It has struggled with this dual task, and under varying management and union approaches, it has seen patronage trend down as private car use soars.

At the same time, the intertown routes are at capacity. On some routes the buses sail past people, as they are full. Clearly a better approach needs to be adopted, and in 2012 the ALP and Greens went to an election with light rail as that better approach. 

In 2016 light rail construction has started. Over time a network will link Canberra and encourage greater public transport use, better planning around transport corridors and decrease road congestion.

If you could travel in comfort to work every day, why would you drive? Wouldn’t you rather sit and read, or rest instead of wait in a traffic jam and then spend fifteen minutes looking for expensive parking? 

Opponents of light rail talk up a bus only solution, yet it is obvious that more of the same will deliver us, well, more of the same. More buses wont lead to greater public transport use or encourage Transit Oriented Development. More buses on the roads wont reduce road congestion either. Not on Northbourne, and not anywhere else.

They also claim autonomous cars will suddenly emerge from labs and become the panacea to the private car, and miraculously reduce the need for mass transit. While this technology may eventually become practical, it isn’t now and not for the foreseeable future. Even if it was, it really only replaces one car for another, and a robot car going home and returning twice a day doubles road congestion instead of reducing it.
14,000 Raiders fan leave Bruce Stadium and have to wait for 14.000 autonomous cars
The biggest flaw in the self-driving car dream is what happens when fourteen thousand Raiders fans exit Bruce stadium after a victory? Or when the Department of Inland Drainage closes down at 5.30PM and eleven hundred employees walk out the door at once? Which person’s car arrives to pick them up first? Where do they queue?

We replace traffic jams with driverless traffic jams. Driverless cars are not a mass transit solution. They are a part of a larger transport picture with multiple solutions to multiple demands.

Light rail offers passenger capacity beyond current buses, with 220 people able to be carried in a single light rail vehicle.  When light rail service commences, over a million bus kilometers a year will be freed up to increase frequency of local bus services.

Your once an hour bus service in Kaleen could become once every half hour or better. As each light rail stage rolls out, the integration of bus and light rail becomes better, and service becomes more frequent and more reliable.

Driverless cars and buses alone cannot provide these future options. We need to support the politicians that have invested enormous political capital in our future, by recognising that the Canberra of the past has changed, and we need to let that change happen in a planned way.  

A version of this article was published in City News on 2 Oct 2016

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