Monday, January 14, 2013

Canberra: A spectacular transport policy failure


When an academic titles a chapter in his public transport policy assessment paper ‘Canberra: A spectacular transport policy failure’ don’t expect there to be too much good news in it. Paul Mees is an academic with a particular focus on public transport and has been following the issue in Canberra from a distance for many years.

Many of his assessments on public transport policy in this paper are correct. All governments since self-government have abjectly neglected ACTION and focussed on road construction. The lack of investment has seen the frequency of ACTION services decline, especially outside peak hour and off the major routes. This service failure has led to patronage declines.

In his executive summary, Mees concludes:

Canberra has experienced a sustained decline in public transport, and a steady rise in car driving, for the last two decades (apart from a temporary reversal during 2001-06). The current car driving rate is the highest ever recorded, something that has not occurred in any other capital city except Hobart. Public transport mode share actually declined slightly in the five years to 2011: Canberra was the only one of the seven cities where this occurred. The problems are the result of poor transport policies, which have focussed on road construction, while reversing the successful public transport approach employed in Canberra until the late 1980s.

Mees is also correct that the focus on investment on roads over public transport needs to be addressed, but its not one or the other - that’s a simplistic view which has led to the current public transport system failings. The ACT government needs to consider road and public transport funding as infrastructure. Improve public transport and car drivers may return to the public transport system. The ACTION system can be improved, but its future as a mass transit system is in the past.  

It is important when assessing this paper, to look at previous works from the same author. Mees has written papers critical of ACT Public Transport policy before, his most recent contribution on ACTION bus failure coming in 2012. He views investment in roads as bad, and investment in public transport as good.  

This simplistic approach doesn’t take into account changes in society and employment mobility. Canberra is a spread out city, and the ACTION bus approach has not served that geography well. As it grows, it is likely that employment centres may change from the present focus on Civic and the Parliamentary Triangle. Decreasing service frequencies outside peak hours and long circuitous routes that increase travel times are valid criticisms.

The public has sampled this service and voted with its cars. Arresting this decline in patronage has proved difficult by successive governments, reluctant to invest in changes to a public transport system that they can’t figure out how to improve. As the cost to acquire a car has declined, its become more viable for a person to buy one and bypass poor public transport. 

ACT Light Rail has long argued that the best way to improve public transport in the ACT is to build light rail as a mass transit backbone, increase local bus services to feed passengers to light rail, and properly integrate light rail and buses. Paul Mees’ main objection seems to be that there is only one light rail route planned.

This is not the case. There is only one light rail route under immediate consideration – from Gungahlin to Civic – but there is a plan for light rail to be the territories long term mass transit solution. It’s a massive change in policy direction from the ACT Government and Capital Metro is a plan that needs political and financial support.

If the Capital Metro plan receives funding and construction begins within the current Assembly term, then a future version of this paper may contain a vastly different assessment. Canberra has the potential to lead the way in showing how a medium sized city can reverse car usage and deliver sustainable public transport. 

You cant excuse government policy failure from the past, but credit needs to be given to present policy initiatives - and people need to ensure that these policies move from election platform promises to properly funded projects.

The major failing of Mees paper is that it doesn’t recognize that the policy shift has occurred, and that it requires support. 

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