Why Commonwealth Avenue should be bus only during light rail construction

The recent announcement about how light rail construction will affect the surrounding road network has everyone excited. At the peak of construction, Commonwealth Avenue will lose 80% of its capacity, with the traffic expected to divert to Parkes Way and other arterial roads. The ACT Government has set up a Disruption Taskforce to deal with this, and wants commuters to rethink their routes and routines, taking different roads, leaving at different times or taking up public transport.

Drivers changing their behaviour will definitely be part of this. But the ACT Government should also consider how better public transport can be a big part of the solution. And specifically, that means changing Commonwealth Avenue to bus only. But first, it’s worth looking at what exactly is this big shakeup, and how we might respond.

It’s not all light rail’s fault

While both the ACT Government and light rail detractors are attributing this to light rail to Woden, it’s only part of the picture. The projects to raise London Circuit and strengthen Commonwealth Bridge would likely have gone ahead in some form without light rail, and both would have a big impact on Commonwealth Avenue in any event. The bigger question is whether the National Capital Authority will coordinate the bridge works with light rail construction, which would hopefully mitigate some of the disruption.

It won’t be as bad as you think

Yes, Commonwealth Avenue is an incredibly important thoroughfare for Canberra, accommodating roughly 55,000 vehicles daily. That’s more than major roads in Sydney such as the M2 or Eastern Distributor. Reducing that capacity by 80% will definitely have an impact. But here’s the thing: there have been a number of examples around the world where cities remove major roads and not much changes. When car-mad Los Angeles temporarily closed a 16 lane freeway in 2011, there were mass predictions of “carmageddon”. Yet when the time came, things were remarkably smooth. Similarly, Seoul converted a major freeway carrying 168,000 vehicles to a creek (!), and traffic continued to flow.

Just as building roads doesn’t alleviate traffic congestion, removing road capacity won’t lead to gridlock. People will change their plans, much as the ACT Government hopes they will, to a certain extent. But of course, there are things we can do to make it easier.

Dedicated public transport will speed things up for everyone

A Commonwealth Avenue jammed full of very slow moving cars and buses will not help anyone. The R2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10 all use it: I counted 71 buses leaving City Interchange between 8-9am. At a very conservative average of 30 passengers on each bus (some are very busy, the outbound R7 and R10 are not), that’s over 2,000 passengers being moved in a very space efficient way.

The Downs-Thomson paradox tells us the average speed of road traffic will balance out near the average speed of public transport. This is particularly so where the roads are at capacity. So if it is otherwise construction hell, a free-flowing public transport route will be a big incentive for people to change their behaviour and get out of their cars and onto the buses. Drivers might complain “why can’t we use this half-empty road when we’re stuck on Kings Ave?” But in reality, it would immediately slow to a crawl, without providing any real relief to the other roads. So we may as well prioritise the several thousand passengers using public transport, over the 500-1000 cars per hour we might be able to squeeze onto the bridge.

What other options are there?

If Commonwealth Avenue remains mixed traffic, they could divert some of the Barton services (eg R2, R6) via Russell and Kings Avenue. In fact, most Barton buses used to go this way, as this old 2005 timetable shows. But the recent preference has been for the more direct service via the Parliamentary Triangle, and it’s likely that traffic on Kings Avenue will be rather slow in any event.

We could also look at reducing the demand side of the equation, and consider some form of congestion charging for cars entering the city. This would be a very politically brave measure in a city where the car has historically been king, but it could be a game changer.

Finally, it would be remiss of me to not mention the long-held dream of some PTCBR advocates for a direct Woden-Belconnen service via Molonglo or the Tuggeranong Parkway, providing an additional north-south corridor. Transport Canberra has been skeptical that there’s much demand for such a route, but if the disruption is as bad as predicted, it might be the time to give it a try!

To stay up to date with all public transport and planning issues in Canberrajoin PTCBR here and visit our Facebook group.


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