Public transport passenger numbers: why are they still low?

This is the latest in PTCBR’s series on passenger numbers across buses and light rail in Canberra. See here and here for earlier entries.

We have some more patronage data from Transport Canberra. Below is an updated graph of “average weekday boardings” on buses and light rail since 1 July 2019. As you can see, there are three separate ‘plateaus’, where numbers were relatively stable:

  • pre-COVID, it was around 85,000
  • during 2021, before the Delta lockdown, it was around 70,000
  • now the Delta and Omicron waves have passed, we’re closer to 60,000.

Allowing for transfers, this means there are around 10,000 fewer people catching public transport each day than in 2019. Why?

Here are a few possibilities:

Travel patterns have changed

While the office closures of 2020 and 2021 hopefully remain in the past, work from home arrangements are here to stay. Workers who were previously in the office 5 days a week are now working 1, 2 or 3 days at home. This reduces the number of commuter trips, and PT usage in turn.

Separately, transport habits are sticky. When people gave up the bus during the lockdowns, it’s likely some of them changed habits by riding, buying a car, or just driving more.

There’s still a lot of virus going round

ACT authorities are still recording over a 1,000 COVID-19 cases a day. While for most, catching the virus is relatively mild event, there are still a good number of people, who, not unreasonably, wish to minimise the risks of transmission in the confined environment of a bus or tram. Mandatory facemasks help reduce some of these perceived risks, but it is likely that some people are forgoing PT altogether while transmission remains high.

Service levels aren’t back to normal

PTCBR has been quite vocal about the fact that Transport Canberra buses are still operating on the COVID-19 timetable with reduced peak hour frequencies. While Transport Canberra has given PTCBR some assurances there is sufficient capacity, waiting half an hour between buses, instead of 15 or 20 minutes, means that for some people PT is a less attractive option.

Reduced services aren’t the whole story, as numbers are also down on light rail, which is still running a full timetable. But good, frequent and reliable services remain the best way to encourage people onto PT. As an example, Hobart recently had 5 weeks of free public transport: passenger numbers were up 15%, but there were significant complaints of cancellations and poor services, raising the question of whether those passengers would stay when fares returned to normal. Transport Canberra’s original 7 day timetable in 2019 had a lot of promise, and PTCBR continues to urge them to do everything they can to restore services to that level.

PTCBR submission on the Whitlam Local Centre

Current and planned public transport routes in Whitlam (Source image from the Suburban Land Agency)

Canberrans love their local shops. It’s one of the hallmarks of good (sub)urban design in our city, which is all the more reason why we get so upset when they’re empty (see Giralang, Coombs).

This is why PTCBR made a brief submission to the Suburban Land Agency’s consultation about the Whitlam Local Centre, the newest suburb in Molonglo. It has the potential to be a great community hub, connected to the school, local bus routes, and rapid bus/light rail. But they need to start thinking about the little things now.

Our submission has some examples of what we like about our local shops, and what we don’t. In particular:

  • We like high streets, with shops facing out directly onto a street with nice big footpaths. Forde is a really good example of this.
  • Big open car parks are massive no-nos. They keep people locked in their cars, and are barriers to a vibrant high street. Too many of Canberra’s local shops in the last 30 years have this feature, and it can’t be allowed to continue (eg Bonner).
  • Bus stops should be close to the shops, where everyone can see them. The Whitlam local centre will be a big block, there’s no point in having the bus drop people all the way on the other side. Further, having the stops close to other activity increases ‘passive surveillance’, where people feel safer because they know they’re in eyeshot of others.

The submission is below, and we’ll keep an eye on how the centre design evolves.

Why PTCBR is campaigning to bring back the regular timetable

It is early March 2022 and the PTCBR is calling on the ACT Government to reinstate the full bus timetable from Network 19, and return to pre-COVID operating frequencies. This issue means a lot to our members, and this article is going to take a closer look at what’s going on with our bus network, and why we’ve still got subpar services.

Passenger numbers are on the rise

Transport Canberra updates passenger figures on a daily basis. It’s one of the best data sources out there on data.act.gov.au, and it’s well worth checking out. They capture the data by boardings (each time you board a new service) and by journeys (so transfers between services within 90 minutes are counted as a single journey). Both have their own uses, but we’re using boardings in this article, and have averaged Mon-Fri boardings for each week to get an idea of how crowded the buses were in any given week.

The chart above tells a remarkable tale. You can see that patronage steadily increased over 2019 as passengers adapted to the new network. In the final week of February, before COVID really made an impact, there were 93,239 average weekday boardings, a remarkable figure. Of course, passenger numbers plummeted to just 10,779 in April 2020, and slowly began to rise once lockdown ended. This pattern repeated for the August 2021 (Delta) and December 2021 (Omicron) outbreaks. There are also significant seasonal dips for the summer break, and smaller ones for the school holidays.

But most relevantly, people are really starting to get back on buses and light rail, as the Omicron outbreak appears to have settled down. Already, the week ending 4 March had us at 55,406, and that’s even with a good many Canberrans still working from home. Back in 2021, numbers had stabilised at around 65,000 or so. This is consistent with the general experience at public transport agencies around the world, with patronage around 70% of pre-COVID figures. How high will this go? With widespread vaccination and easing restrictions, we could well surpass 70,000 in the next month or so.

The interim timetable is not built for this

Since 2019 there have been two reductions in our seven day bus network, one due to Covid, the other due to Transport Canberra staffing issues. As Covid swept our community, Transport Canberra introduced an interim timetable as a stop-gap measure, with average weekday boardings of less than 8,000 passengers.

As emergency timetables go, it wasn’t bad. Half hourly all day service on local routes was still pretty decent, and there was no real need for additional peak hour services when no-one was catching them. But it’s 2022 and the impact of COVID has been significantly lessened by vaccinations and mask wearing. Unless we get those extra peak services back, things are going to get crowded at peak hour, quickly. Which is neither great for minimising COVID risks or encouraging more public transport use.

This is particularly so for the local routes. While overall patronage may be at 60% of pre-pandemic numbers, last week’s Friday’s local routes carried over 27,000 boardings, or 90% of their pre-pandemic peak of around 30,000 daily boardings. In other words, the local routes are carrying almost as many passengers on far fewer services.

(EDIT: Transport Canberra incorrectly recorded some of the rapid passengers as being on local routes. In the week ending 4 March, the local routes had approximately 20,000 daily boardings, around the same as August 2021. In a statement, Minister Steel’s office said “Transport Canberra is able to provide sufficient capacity and frequency to service local route patronage as part of the current interim network”).

But it’s not just about crowded buses. Ahead of the commencement of light rail in April 2019 Transport Canberra gave us a brand new integrated Network 19 which optimised bus routes and removed some stops, but gave us frequent services in return. And, as they say, frequency is freedom.

Unfortunately this ambitious seven day network met with significant challenges and service cancellations on weekends as Transport Canberra were unable to find drivers that would agree to work the expanded weekend services. As a result, a month after the new network was introduced, weekend bus services were slashed to two hour frequency on local routes, with a focus on maintaining weekend rapid bus services (although buses no longer ran late on Sunday)(EDIT: Thanks to Martin for the clarification). This poor service—inferior to the weekend services it was meant to improve on—has been operating for nearly three years in reduced form.

Light rail weekend patronage, which was unaffected by staffing issues impacting upon service, has continued to grow, although weekend local bus services in Gungahlin fail to create the ‘integrated’ part of the integrated transport network.

Transport Canberra’s staffing issues are the real problem here

The ACT Government blames COVID isolation periods for reducing the number of available drivers. And to a certain extent, that was true during the Delta lockdowns, when 10,000 Canberrans were in quarantine. But there aren’t many excuses now: Omicron cases have stabilised, and in other states bus drivers have been declared critical workers with exemptions from isolation. Canberra Metro, which separately operates the light rail, has been able to maintain full services throughout the pandemic.

The real culprit here is Transport Canberra failing to reliably deploy drivers when and where they’re needed. This has been an ongoing issue for many years, but really came to light when they couldn’t deliver the weekend timetable in Network 19, and we’ve been stuck with substandard weekend services ever since. The stop-gap measure of two hour weekend services dangerously looks like becoming the norm. Three years after the stop gap measure, we have over 200 more bus drivers than in 2016 and Transport Canberra still can’t deliver.

ACTION/ Transport Canberra
bus operators
2016692
2017716
2018740
2019801
2020809
2021897
(Source: Annual Reports for Territory and Municipal Services (2015-16), Transport Canberra and City Services Directorate (2016-17, 2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21))

PTCBR is aware of the debate around industrial relations and rostering practices at Transport Canberra and its predecessors. To what extent union or management practices are responsible for the current situation is neither here nor there. If there are practices or rules which stand in the way of a seven day network, they need to go. We can’t have a network which leaves passengers waiting two hours at a bus stop in an outer Canberra suburb.

Network 19 was a bold statement of an integrated transport network to support a growing city, that the PTCBR supported strongly. Light rail has been a stunning success, the rapid bus route expansion has been a success. Covid has been an enormous disruptive event in our community, but now that our city is returning slowly to a new normal, and with public transport patronage growing, It’s ultimately the ACT Government’s responsibility to deliver on its transport promises. It’s three years since the weekend timetable debacle and the time for excuses is over. Whether it be changing rostering practices, industrial relations reform or considering other options, the Transport Minister must make fixing the situation his highest public transport priority for 2022.

PTCBR’s submission on the “Raising London Circuit” works approval

PTCBR have lodged a submission with the National Capital Authority on the works approval consultation for the “Raising London Circuit” project. While this is not the light rail project itself, it is an important first step towards the future delivery of light rail to Woden.

You can view the submission at the following link:

In summary:

  • PTCBR supports this project as an important improvement for public transport services and the City Hill precinct more broadly.
  • The anticipated 1-2 minute delays to bus services during the construction of this project are as an acceptable short term trade off given the longer term benefits of delivering light rail to Woden. However, the relevant authorities should continue to monitor these delays and institute further mitigation measures if they deteriorate significantly.
  • There are currently no bus stops planned around the new intersection, despite there being numerous developments planned for the area and the closest bus stops being 800 metres away. New bus stops should be included as part of this project.
  • The new intersection should feature bus priority measures to support faster and more reliable bus services along London Circuit east.
  • There are broad footpaths and segregated bike paths around the intersection, however some of the designs should be reconsidered, such as the proposed feature walls which will impede pedestrian movements across Commonwealth Avenue.

Details on the works approval are available at the following link:

Community Consultation | National Capital Authority (nca.gov.au)

The National Capital Authority are accepting submissions on this project until 24 December 2021.

Are trackless trams really ready to replace light rail?

Every few years a “revolutionary” new transport technology arrives on the scene, accompanied by a whole lot of fanfare about how it will render all other comparable forms of transport obsolete. Ten years ago, it was the “Transit Elevated Bus” or “TEB” which promised to solve congestion by straddling the road rather than taking up a lane of traffic.

Technologies like the TEB, which promise to fix our traffic woes at an affordable price thanks to the wonders of new technology, usually have one other thing in common – they never deliver on their wild promises.

When reality bites and these ‘gadgetbahns’ fail to live up to the hype, they often leave a trail of destruction in the form of traditional public transport projects that were delayed or cancelled thanks to unsubstantiated promises that this new technology could do the same job for less. In the end, the real losers are public transport users. 

The latest technology to fit the mould is the “Trackless Tram” – a bi-articulated electric bus with optical guidance technology, manufactured by CRRC. Optically guided buses have been around since the turn of the century, but have struggled to gain traction due to dust, leaves, fog and severe weather limiting the practical functionality of the system in the real world.

Like most gadgetbahns, the Trackless Tram is currently being sold as a replacement for traditional public transport technology such as light rail. It does so by claiming to be cheaper and easier to install, while still giving the impression of being a high-quality system.

The cancellation of Adelaide’s tram network expansion was justified on the basis that Trackless Trams will render such investments obsolete. Since then, there has been no investment by the South Australian Government in trams, trackless or otherwise. Money has instead been poured into extravagant road projects at the expense of public transport.

Other jurisdictions in Australia such as Geelong and Parramatta have also seen Trackless Trams floated as a viable public transport option. Proponents of the technology promise significantly lower costs and reduced delivery times as “there is no need to build rails, they will just use existing roads”. Governments are led to believe that they can finally have their cake and eat it too.

There are many reasons to be sceptical of claims that Trackless Trams are “ready to replace light rail”, made most prominently by Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman. To uncritically buy into this hype is to ignore the many reasons why high-quality public transport is so rare – namely, that it costs time and money to build, which requires strong political support to deliver.

This piece examines the claims made about Trackless Trams to better understand their merits compared with existing public transport technologies such as light rail or traditional bus rapid transit. While focused on the debate in the Australian context, this analysis could be applied to any mid-sized city across the world.

Claim #1: Trackless trams are one-tenth the cost of light rail

The most commonly cited benefit of Trackless Trams is that they cost significantly less to build than light rail. A frequently referenced figure has the system cost $6-8 million per kilometre to install. Newman compares this to the cost of light rail systems such as Canberra’s stage one ($57 million per kilometre) to illustrate the apparent cost savings.

How Newman arrives at the $6-8 million per kilometre figure is unclear. Another article of his suggests that Trackless Trams could cost between three and ten times less than light rail. This relative cost estimate is derived from a 2017 feasibility study on rapid transit for Sydney’s Parramatta Road that estimates the per kilometre cost of light rail at $15.1 million and a “guided electric transit system” at $5.6 million, which it claims are sourced from a separate, unidentified 2014 study by the Canadian Government.

While the Parramatta Road study makes clear that these cost estimates should be used as a comparative guide only, as evidenced by the significant lowballing of the per kilometre cost of light rail, Newman et al. make no such distinction when reproducing the figures in their “manual” for Trackless Trams. This manual also claims that Trackless Trams are cheaper than traditional bus rapid transit, with the methodology behind these calculations being equally unclear.

The inaccuracy of this figure is further highlighted by the details of the first serious proposal for a Trackless Tram system in Australia, between the Melbourne suburbs of Caulfield and Rowville. With no bridges or tunnels required, it should be an ideal demonstration of how Trackless Trams can be implemented locally with minimal cost or disruption.

Instead, at $74 million per kilometre, Australia’s first Trackless Tram system is expected to be significantly more expensive than stage one of Canberra’s light rail. Far from being “one tenth” the cost, the Caulfield – Rowville proposal suggests that the actual cost of Trackless Trams is within the normal bounds of an Australian light rail project, which can start from as low as $30 million per kilometre.

Why is this the case? After all, isn’t a Trackless Tram just a fancy bus with some lines painted on the road? Well, as it turns out the truth is a bit more complicated than that.

Claim #2: Trackless trams can be installed quickly with minimal disruption

Following cost, the second biggest selling point of Trackless Trams is their alleged ability to be installed “virtually overnight”, as claimed by Peter Newman et al.

If this were true, it would certainly give Trackless Trams an edge over light rail, which requires significant upfront construction. The recent experience of the Sydney CBD and South East light rail has shown what happens when projects of this scale and complexity are mismanaged. It is understandable that cities might look for alternatives to avoid repeating the same costly mistakes.

The most complicated part of building a light rail system is relocating critical utilities under the corridor. This enables the construction of a sturdy and dedicated right of way to separate the vehicles from general traffic. It is acknowledged by Newman et al. as being one of the key drivers behind the cost, time and disruption of building light rail that they claim can be avoided with a Trackless Tram system.

One of the traditional problems associated with running mass transit on existing roadways is the rapid deterioration of the pavement (“rutting”) due to the heavy wheels running repeatedly over the same sections of road, resulting in an uncomfortable passenger experience and damage to the vehicles. This issue is one of the key reasons the French city of Nancy is decommissioning its fleet of guided rubber-tyred trams.

In January 2019, Newman et al. claimed that the unique technology of the Trackless Tram meant that rutting would not be an issue. Instead, the system was said to be free to operate on existing roadways without needing to construct a reinforced right of way, therefore eliminating the requirement to build the most difficult and costly component of light rail.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these claims turned out to be wildly premature. By January 2020, rutting at the first commercially operating Trackless Tram line in the Chinese city of Zhuzhou was so severe that the optical guidance system was no longer capable of docking at stations, rendering the line noncompliant with disability codes after only one year of operation.

Despite the early optimism, Trackless Trams appear bound by the same laws of physics that apply to other heavy, rubber-tyred vehicles. To deliver the same smooth ride, level of passenger comfort and long-term infrastructure savings associated with light rail, Trackless Trams are likely to require a similar level of upfront investment to reinforce the roadway, along with all the accompanying time, costs and disruption.

This begs the question – how are proponents of Trackless Trams able to make sweeping statements about cost and disruption that appear to have very little basis in reality? As it happens, they don’t have an awful lot of material to work with.

One of the strangest aspects of the hype around Trackless Trams is the speed with which they have gone from “emerging technology” to “tried and tested” in the public consciousness, despite there being very little publicly available information about the systems that do exist.

In reality, CRRC’s Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) is a proprietary technology that has seen very limited deployment, with less than 50 kilometres of route currently in operation. These routes have already demonstrated shortcomings with the technology, including the identified rutting issues and top speeds significantly lower than the advertised 70km/hr (50km/h at Zhuzhou and 55km/h at Yibin).

Contrary to popular belief, Trackless Trams are an immature technology, with many of the purported benefits yet to be adequately demonstrated in the real world. What little evidence we do have instead suggests that Trackless Trams are destined to be the latest in a long line of gadgetbahns whose lasting impact will be the meritless and premature cancellation of otherwise worthy public transport projects.

Far from solving our congestion problems, there is a real risk that the false hype around Trackless Trams will do significantly more harm than good, leaving our cities more congested, less accessible, and devoid of public transport options that are actually proven to work.

It’s time to bring back the regular buses – UPDATED

Canberra lockdown restrictions are easing! As of Friday, we’ll be able to do pretty much everything we could do before lockdown. Except for catch a peak hour bus, that is.

When lockdown first hit the ACT on 12 August, approximately 10,000 Canberrans were sent into 14 day quarantine, including a lot of bus drivers. This had an understandable effect on Transport Canberra being able to reliably deliver services. So Transport Canberra did a relatively sensible thing, and switched to a ‘holiday timetable’.

If you’re in town over Christmas, you’ll know what this is. Most off-peak and weekend services remain the same. Most rapid routes continue to run every 10 or 15 minutes. But there’s a big cutback in peak hour services, so buses every 30 minutes for local routes, and fewer rapid services during the peak period.

This makes sense during periods of low commuter patronage: regular services throughout the day mean that people who need PT can get to where they need to, but there’s no need for extra peak services to accommodate the commuter rush. In the context of a pandemic and lockdown, PTCBR considered the holiday timetable struck an appropriate balance for drastic times.

But the commuters are coming back, and in significant numbers. In the last week before lockdown, average weekday boardings were 65,000. This dropped to as low as 7,500. But last week they were back to 39,500, and they’re continuing to climb.

We’re opening up now, and while quarantine is still a reality for some, it’s not at a scale where huge portions of the TC workforce are going to be unavailable. PTCBR has strongly applauded the ACT Government for maintaining public transport services at time of declining revenue, and we understood why an emergency workforce situation meant we needed holiday levels of service. But now that the rest of us are going back to normal, it’s time for the buses to do the same.

We’ve reached out to the ACT Government for comment, and will let you know when we hear back.

UPDATE 12/11:

We heard back from the Minister’s office. Sadly, the news isn’t good: no regular services until February. The interim timetable will remain in place until 17 December, then it’s holiday timetable until school starts on Term 1, 2022. And hopefully then we get the buses back.

This is pretty weak sauce from the government. Weekday boardings are already at 70% of pre-lockdown levels and rising, and unless they put on more buses, peak hour will be uncomfortably crowded before Christmas.

While some might say this is a cost saving measure on the sly, I’m inclined to believe them when they say they might not have the drivers to reliably deliver the regular timetable.

Which is a pretty damning admission, actually. It’s been 2 years since Transport Canberra had to scale back the weekend timetable, and it seems they still can’t get on top of their workforce issues, whether that be recruiting enough drivers or more effectively deploying the existing workforce.

In this light, Covid seems like a convenient excuse, as it’s hard to see how more than a handful of drivers might be quarantined at any one time. Here’s hoping the Minister shines a big light on this issue in 2022, as TC is going to need to get this fixed if the planned service expansions have any hope of getting off the ground.

MEDIA RELEASE – Auditor-General’s report reinforces need to deliver light rail to Woden

Five years after Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced that the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network was heading to Woden, the Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) is calling on the ACT Government to knuckle down and get on with the job.

PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley said that the ACT Auditor-General’s report into the economic analysis of Light Rail Stage 2A highlighted the importance of delivering the full extension of the network, rather than stopping short at Commonwealth Park.

“The question we most commonly get is ‘when is light rail getting to Woden?'” said Mr Hemsley. “Of course, we appreciate that it is a complex project with overlapping approvals, and in the middle of a global pandemic, the ACT Government’s attention is rightly focused elsewhere.”

“But the daily work of government cannot be abandoned, and other jurisdictions across Australia are approving big public transport projects, signing contracts and starting construction.”

“By contrast, the initial 1.7 kilometre extension to Commonwealth Park has yet to be submitted to the National Capital Authority for works approval, and the 9 kilometre extension to Woden is still without a planned opening date.”

“While this week’s announcements are welcome, a handful of utility relocations and an expression of interest for enabling works does not a project make.”

Mr Hemsley noted there was a widening gulf between the ACT Government’s election promises and the actual delivery of infrastructure.

“It has been great to see the Commonwealth Government step up and provide funding for this and other key projects across the city, but the ACT Government needs a stronger focus on delivering its transport commitments,” he said.

“While the approvals processes are undoubtedly complex, the ACT Government should be working to resolve any outstanding planning issues as a matter of urgency, to ensure the full benefits of extending light rail to Woden can be realised.”

“It may be time to consider whether a dedicated light rail planning and delivery entity, like the former Capital Metro Agency, can cut through some of the delays and streamline the process for future stages to Belconnen, Tuggeranong, Molonglo, Fyshwick and the Airport.”

Mr Hemsley was concerned the delays also risked adding unnecessary costs to the project.

“The longer this stretches out, the harder it will be to secure the necessary construction expertise, which is presently in very high demand across the country,” he said.

“Canberrans cannot afford to wait until the late 2020s for this much needed public transport infrastructure to be completed.”

History of Light Rail Stage 2

September 2016: Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced the second stage of light rail to Woden.
July 2019: Transport Minister Chris Steel announced the project would be split into two stages, to facilitate faster planning approvals.
February 2021: Federal environmental approvals for Stage 2A granted.
September 2021: The ACT Government is yet to submit a Stage 2A works approval package to the National Capital Authority.
2026: Planned opening for Stage 2A to Commonwealth Park. No dates yet for Stage 2B to Woden.

Comparable Public Transport Projects

Gold Coast Light Rail Stage 2: 7.3km light rail line with 3 stops: announced February 2016, opened December 2017.
Gold Coast Light Rail Stage 3A: 6.4km light rail line with 8 stops: announced 2017, contracts signed October 2020, early works began June 2021, planned to open 2024.
Morley-Ellenbrook line (Perth): 21km railway line: announced March 2017, contracts signed October 2020, enabling works began September 2021, planned to open 2023-24.
Sydney Metro City and Southwest: 15.5km tunnel through Sydney CBD: announced June 2014, planning approval January 2017, major contracts signed June 2017, tunnelling began October 2018, planned to open 2024.
Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel: 9km tunnel through Melbourne CBD: re-announced April 2015, major contracts signed December 2017, planning approvals 2017-2018, tunnel work began April 2019, planned to open 2025.

Ryan Hemsley is the Chair of the Public Transport Association of Canberra, the Canberra region’s peak public transport lobby group.

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.

Are masks discouraging PT use?

It’s been a week since the ACT Government’s mask mandate came into effect. Anecdotally, the buses are a little quieter, but it’s also school holidays, which sees a usual drop off in patronage as students stay at home, and parents take time off work.

Fortunately, dataACT updates Transport Canberra passenger data every day! It’s the only transport data set which is routinely updated, the rest, which are mainly about punctuality and reliability, are several months out of date.

So let’s compare this week and last week’s passenger figures. The mask rule began on 28 June.

DateLocal RouteSchool ServiceLight RailPeak ServiceRapid RouteOtherTotal
4/07/20214027017149
3/07/20213,67204,58607,21141915888
2/07/202113,80809,50222417,57652041630
1/07/202114,68409,09430217,74447342297
30/06/202115,253129,27131418,81846744135
29/06/202115,20809,03631018,68245643692
28/06/202114,41108,20727017,72844741063
27/06/20213,05603,91007,03330014299
26/06/20214,63505,34809,08350519571
25/06/202119,9883,41911,19525021,43162756910
24/06/202117,8173,4469,97532619,76138351708
23/06/202122,0164,34611,88135923,55257462728
22/06/202122,3874,39911,81736624,05658263607
21/06/202121,8344,45711,24534623,23052861640
Source: Daily Public Transport Passenger Journeys by Service Type, ACT Government Open Data Portal

You can see that the data helpfully breaks it down by type of service. Not quite sure why there were 12 kids on a school bus last Wednesday though!

This suggests there’s been a pretty big drop off between the last two weeks, but it’s important to account for school holidays too. To do that, I’ve excluded school services, and compared it to the holiday period in July 2019 (as 2020 was a bit of a write-off).

DateTotal (excl school services)1 week earlierReduction
Monday28/06/2021410635718328.2%
Tuesday29/06/2021436925920826.2%
Wednesday30/06/2021441235838224.4%
Thursday1/07/2021422974826212.4%
Friday2/07/2021416305349122.2%
3/07/20211588819571
4/07/20214914299
Monday8/07/2019576626632113.1%
Tuesday9/07/2019616136949311.3%
Wednesday10/07/2019607666940312.4%
Thursday11/07/2019577616903516.3%
Friday12/07/2019552146580316.1%
13/07/20192168324182
14/07/20191602718444

Or for those of you who like charts:

So the answer is yes! The July drop-off is markedly greater this year than in 2019. This isn’t particularly surprising, a number of Canberra businesses have reported slower trade as well. And of course, from a public health perspective, it’s probably better the buses are a little less crowded, at least during this high risk period.

What’s important is this doesn’t translate into yet another permanent dip in PT usage and increase in car traffic. Unfortunately, we can’t tell whether the mask rules have had a similar impact on car traffic, because the road traffic data only goes up to April this year!

PTCBR’s 2021-22 budget submission

Each year, the ACT Government invites community groups and the wider public to make submissions on how funding should be allocated as part of the following year’s budget. Over the past few weeks, the PTCBR Committee have prepared our submission, which can be viewed in full below:

PTCBR recognises that the provision of high-quality public transport services is essential to ensuring equitable, affordable, and attractive transport options for all Canberrans. Good public transport increases ridership and reduces the use and ownership of private vehicles, with benefits flowing to individuals and households through reduced costs, the community through reduced pollution and congestion, and the government through reduced expenditure on public roads, including externalities such as emergency services and healthcare costs.

PTCBR’s submission has been considered in the context of these well recognised benefits, as well as the ACT Government’s recently adopted ACT Transport Recovery Plan, the Zero-Emission Transition Plan and the ACT Transport Strategy 2020. Our recommendations are consistent with the priorities outlined in these key documents and are outlined below.

PTCBR’s recommendations for ACT Government transport spending in the 2021-22 budget:

  • Construct additional bus lanes to improve the reliability and speed of bus services
  • Provide funding for the proposed northern bus depot to allow for the expansion of the bus fleet
  • Fast track the new ticketing system to provide passengers with a greater variety of means to purchase tickets
  • Provide existing bus stops with shelters, footpaths and lighting to improve passenger amenity
  • Undertake feasibility and consultation work for future light rail stages while construction of stage two is underway

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