27 March 2014 — Canberra’s light rail project shifts into high gear this year, with the appointment of an Arup-led team for Stage One detailed design of the new Capital Metro system.
The ACT Government is looking to the light rail to resolve some complex issues, including reducing congestion, trimming the city’s carbon footprint and enabling increased residential development in a city fast approaching the physical limits of the territory.
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The whole proposal might seem like a new initiative to many ACT residents and onlookers, however, according to ACT Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development Simon Corbell, a similar public transport system was part of the territory’s century-old original masterplan.
“Walter Burley Griffin’s initial design was for a city which is highly compact and walkable and serviced by a city light rail tram network,” Mr Corbell told The Fifth Estate this week.
Medium density and public transport were part of Walter Burley Griffin’s design
The original design proposed walkup apartments of two or three stories in residential areas adjoining public transport routes, a vision which is dramatically different to the current sprawling and predominantly low density city. This widespread urban fabric part of the imperative is behind the current development of light rail, since, according to Mr Corbell, Canberra is rapidly approaching the limits in terms of greenfields expansion.
“Canberra is reaching the limits – the physical limits – of the ACT border. The population is expected to be 400,000 by 2016, so we need to consolidate the population growth centres,” he said.
“Our open space networks are world-standard, and suburban [greenfields] development has relied on the clearing of grassy woodland communities, which are highly sensitive and endangered [areas] subject to the Endangered Species Act.”
Mr Corbell pointed out that the other consequence of the ever-expanding city has been an increases in commute times and growing congestion of major routes such as Northbourne Avenue.
Stage One of the light rail will ease this by providing a service to and from the new city centre of Gungahlin, the commercial area of Mitchell, residential areas including Dickson and Watson, Canberra’s main artery of Northbourne Avenue and into Civic.
Transport corridors enable higher density housing
The wider plan includes higher density residential developments within areas close to the light rail corridor.
“[The light rail] will be a catalyst for a more liveable environment close to jobs and services,” Mr Corbell said.
“High density [residential] is here to stay. It is driven strongly by people who place a high value on time for cultural and recreational pursuits instead of time spent caring for a house and yard. These include highly paid inner-city professionals and also retirees who are choosing a more urban environment. [High density] contributes to a more compact city.
Northbourne Avenue and Adelaide Avenue designed for public transport
“We will be able to accommodate more people in those [public transport] corridors – between 30,000 and 50,000 people. The latter planning [expanding on Burley Griffin’s original plan] of the 1950s and 1960s set aside rapid transit corridors, roads such as Northbourne Avenue and Adelaide Avenue were deliberately designed with generous provision for public transport.
“It has always been envisaged to have that connection, which allows for greater intensification of land use along those corridors.
“The benefit of Canberra as a master planned city is these corridors have been reserved, so land resumptions will be almost nil, which reduces the risk for the project as the land is mostly in public ownership anyway.”
The main issues that will make the planning process complex are the utilities and potential relocations required for underground power, gas, water, communications and data assets. There will also be some changes to road operation.
Mr Corbell said light rail was a form of public transport that works with people walking or riding bikes, and is suited to short journeys throughout the day. This, the ACT Government believes, will include people who currently make numerous short trips by car between points on Northbourne Avenue, or between the new town centre at Gungahlin or the light industrial and commercial centre of Mitchell and the CBD.
Canberra’s greenhouse gas targets
Light rail is also considered a critical component of the overall greenhouse gas reduction target, which was set at an ambitious 40 per cent by 2020 by the ACT Government.
“The shift in transport is critical [to emissions reduction]. We anticipate significant capacity to increase public transport’s share of journeys through the working day,” Mr Corbell said.
“[The light rail] will also free up resources to be invested in other areas of the [existing] bus network. There are no dedicated bus lanes along Northbourne Avenue, so the bus traffic fights with the vehicle traffic. [Light rail] will see the reallocation of those buses to other parts of the bus network.”
Arup and Capital Metro team set to work
Even though the concept has been part of Canberra’s planning for just over 100 years, there was still a need for the ACT Government to demonstrate the business case for the light rail is sound, and that it is a genuine need in a city which is car dominated and relatively low density.
Having done so, the Capital Metro team was assembled, and the initial design proposal put up for public comment. South Australia’s former rail commissioner, Emma Thomas, was appointed as project director in November 2013. Ms Thomas’s previous roles also included deputy chief executive of public transport for South Australia, vice president roles at Boeing, general manager at RoadTek and engineer for the Royal Australian Air Force.
In February 2014, an Arup-led consultant team was appointed to produce the detailed design for the project. The consortium includes Arup, HASSELL, Parsons Brinkerhoff, Brown Consulting, LandDATA Surveys, Phillip Chung Access, SLR Consulting, GML Heritage and dsb Landscape Architects.
Another round of community consultation will be held later this year to gain public input into the location of stops and details of the final route.
Currently, Stage One of the light rail is planned be operational in 2016, with future stages still under discussion, including possible routes to Tuggeranong and the Woden Valley.
Capital Airport Group also has a vision for light rail
Extending the light rail network is something the Capital Airport Group has already expressed detailed opinions about.
As part of the ground transport strategy in the 2014 masterplan for the Canberra Airport precinct, CAG outlined a proposal for a light rail network which would connect Canberra Airport to key areas of the city.
Currently, CAG estimates 30,000 people travel to and from the airport every day including travellers, workers at the business parks, freight and shoppers. The Master Plan vision proposed a light rail terminal at the airport itself, which forms a key point of a network extending throughout the inner city area and key including the Parliamentary Triangle, Kingston, Manuka and Fyshwick.
The company held its own community consultation in October 2013, and is yet to release any details of what the feedback was from the public and stakeholders.