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.

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.

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!

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra calls for explicit targets in forthcoming ACT Transport Recovery Plan

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) has called for explicit mode share targets to be included in the ACT Transport Recovery Plan, which has been foreshadowed in the newly released ACT Transport Strategy 2020.

“There is a lot to like in the new Transport Strategy, in particular the commitment to the development of a light rail spine along the high-demand routes between Canberra’s town centres,” said PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley.

“However, we are concerned that the Strategy is silent on the issue of measurable targets and accurate data to evaluate the success of the proposed approach.”

“Now might be a good time for the ACT Government to consider the establishment of an advisory group, comprising community representatives and experts in the transport industry, to assist in the ongoing delivery of key transport projects consistent with the Strategy.”

The Transport Strategy forms part of a suite of city-shaping documents released by the ACT Government in recent years. Other key documents include the ACT Planning Strategy 2018, the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-45, the ACT Housing Strategy and the draft Urban Forest Strategy 2020-45.

“The ACT Government’s Climate Change Strategy gives us a pretty good indication of where we need to be in terms of public transport usage by 2045.” added Mr Hemsley.

“With the added risk of a post-COVID congestion nightmare, we sincerely hope that the Transport Recovery Plan provides us with a clear path towards a more sustainable transport future.”

The ACT Transport Strategy 2020 can be viewed here.

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

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra celebrates one year of light rail

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) today celebrated the first anniversary of Canberra’s light rail network and called on the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to accelerate the planned construction of the network’s expansion to Woden, in order to provide the economy with a much-needed boost during this difficult economic period.

Mr Ryan Hemsley, PTCBR Chair said “Patronage estimates from early March showed Canberrans flocking to the first stage of Canberra’s light rail network, with an average of ~16,000 daily boardings. This is ahead of the ~15,000 daily boardings that the business case projected would not be reached until 2021.”

“This project has proven that there is an untapped demand for high-quality public transport services in the ACT. We believe that similar patronage increases can be expected as future stages of the network are rolled out in the years ahead, providing benefits to both current and future generations of Canberrans.”

Looking ahead to Stage 2 and beyond, Mr Hemsley said “With the projected economic slowdown, the task of starting on light rail to Woden has become all the more urgent. This project will have the double benefit of stimulating the economy in the short term, while providing improved public transport options in the medium to long term. It will also help the ACT meet its planned reductions in carbon emissions, by being powered solely by electricity from renewable sources.”

“Social distancing measures also present an opportunity for both the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to conduct important works during a rare period of reduced traffic, such as upgrades to London Circuit as part of Stage 2A and the modifications to Commonwealth Avenue Bridge that will future-proof it for Stage 2B.”

“We call on both the ACT Government and National Capital Authority to work collaboratively, so that that these projects can be fast-tracked in a manner that provides the greatest long-term benefit, while minimising disruption to road users in the short term.”

On the issue of social distancing, Mr Hemsley said “We support Transport Canberra’s approach of retaining current public transport service levels during the crisis. This approach minimises the risk of overcrowding and enables people to successfully practice social distancing while in transit.”

“As restrictions are lifted in the months ahead, we urge the ACT Government to consider increases to select services to ensure that social distancing can continue for as long as is required.”

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

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes Federal Government support for Light Rail

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes progress on the approvals processes for the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network, as well as Federal Government support for the development of advanced battery technologies for light rail vehicles.

PTCBR Chair Ryan Hemsley said, “The Federal Department of the Environment and Energy has mapped a clear path forward for Light Rail Stage 2 by identifying the assessment processes for this city-shaping project.”

“We welcome the Federal and Territory Governments working together to ensure that Canberra’s fast, frequent, reliable and attractive light rail network is able to starts its journey to Woden. This will bring the benefits of light rail across the lake and improve public transport connectivity between north and south Canberra.”

“Following the success of Stage 1, we call on the ACT Opposition to outline their plans for bringing light rail to Woden ahead of the Territory Election later this year.”

Mr Hemsley added that “We are also pleased about a recent Commonwealth grant to a consortium developing fast charging batteries for light rail vehicles.” The Federal Department of Industry, Innovation and Science recently announced a grant of $1.6 million to a consortium proposing to develop an ‘Advanced Nano-engineered Battery for Fast Charging Catenary-free Trams’. Total project expenditure is expected to be $5 million and consortium members include the CSIRO.

Mr Hemsley further observed “This project has the potential to benefit light rail systems across Australia as well as in the ACT by reducing charging times at stops and lowering the lifetime costs of wire-free running.”

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

Policies for better public transport in the ACT – PTCBR’s 2020-21 budget submission

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Each year, the ACT Government invites community groups and the wider public to make recommendations on how funding should be allocated as part of the following year’s budget.  This presents an excellent opportunity for PTCBR to let the Government know what sort of improvements would benefit the current and future users of Canberra’s public transport system.

The PTCBR Executive Committee have spent the past few weeks preparing our submission, which can be viewed in full below:

View PTCBR’s 2020-21 Budget Submission here.

PTCBR strongly supports the ACT Government’s focus on delivery. Where once the public was fed nebulous planning terms and vague promises of better inter-town public transport at some undetermined point in the future, now they have actual funding commitments and the delivery of real, concrete infrastructure in the form of light rail, that Canberrans can use right here, right now. 

In this year’s submission, PTCBR has reiterated its support for ongoing improvements to the passenger experience and strategic transport planning for the future. In the context of the ACT Government’s recently-released Climate Change Strategy 2019-25, the submission recommends that sufficient funding be allocated to meet the recommended 40-45 per cent mode shift away from private car usage by 2045.

A summary of PTCBR’s recommendations is provide below.  As with our previous submissions, the PTCBR Executive Committee will be lobbying our elected representatives and speaking to Transport Canberra and other ACT Government agencies to implement as many of these recommendations as possible.

PTCBR’s recommendations for ACT Government transport spending:

  • reinstate the pre-September 2019 weekend bus frequencies;
  • drive sustainable workplace cultural reform to ensure the reliable and cost-effective provision of bus services in the ACT;
  • conduct a benchmarking exercise;
  • extend the peak hour frequency for weekday local bus services to align with peak hour arrangements for light rail;
  • standardise amenity at all bus stops, including the provision of seating;
  • expand park and ride facilities; 
  • introduce new ticketing technology;
  • incorporate wire-free technology into Canberra’s existing light rail vehicles;
  • update the Light Rail Network Plan;
  • improve cross-border public transport;
  • introduce a moratorium on new parkway-standard roads;
  • replace registration fees with distance-based charges;
  • continue to roll out light rail; 
  • establish a skills base for future light rail construction;
  • plan for a new heavy rail station that is integrated into the ACT’s public transport network;
  • rebalance the ACT transport budget;
  • meet the urban design requirements of the National Capital Authority;
  • improve the customer experience at interchanges;
  • improve Canberra’s active travel infrastructure; 
  • improve public transport at the district level;
  • reduce the minimum parking requirements for a demonstration housing precinct;
  • locate local and rapid bus stops closer together;
  • develop a Transport Canberra app;
  • expand the on-demand and flexible bus services;
  • improve Transport Canberra’s use of data and analytics;
  • investigate free fare zones;
  • examine free weekend travel for young people;
  • construct additional bus stops on arterial roads;
  • improve public transport and active travel infrastructure in and around Canberra Hospital as part of the SPIRE project;
  • investigate additional orbital bus routes;
  • introduce a passenger counter barometer; and
  • establish predictable funding arrangements for fleet procurement.

PTCBR makes no apology for our focus on getting good outcomes for people who catch public transport in the ACT and surrounding region, whether it be by choice, or because they have no other transport option.

As a former Prime Minister once said of Canberra – “You can never spend too much on the public”. Nowhere does that statement hold truer than in investment in providing fast, frequent and reliable transport options for all citizens of this great city of ours.

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

 

 

 

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra criticises Canberra Liberals for promoting novelty vapourware at the expense of real transport solutions

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) today expressed its profound disappointment in the Canberra Liberals, who have once again refused to support the roll out of Canberra’s light rail network.

Speaking at the Legislative Assembly today, Canberra Liberals transport spokesperson Candice Burch instead expressed enthusiasm for a type of electric bus, that has come to be known in some circles as a ‘trackless tram’.

PTCBR Interim Chair Ryan Hemsley said that “It is profoundly disappointing to see the Canberra Liberals once again fail to support light rail. With the overwhelming success of stage one, we had hoped that there would be bipartisan support for the continued roll out of the network. Instead, we are seeing the same old “bus verses light rail” argument trotted out for what will be the third Territory election in a row.”

On the issue of ‘trackless trams’, Mr Hemsley said “What is being promoted by the Canberra Liberals is in fact nothing more than a novelty electric bus, that manages to combine the impermanence and higher running costs of buses with the high setup costs of light rail.

“Once you factor in the costs of constructing an exclusive right of way, inclusive of utilities relocation, concrete track bed, accessible stops and recharging points, what you will be left with is an unproven piece of technology, locked into a single supplier with no discernible cost advantage over light rail. These ‘trackless scams’ offer the worst of all possible worlds and should not be given serious consideration by the ACT Government.”

Looking to the future, Mr Hemsley said that “Before the next election, I hope the Canberra Liberals will come to their senses and support the roll out of light rail, which has proven itself to be a reliable, popular form of public transport in the ACT and in other cities worldwide.”

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

MEDIA RELEASE – Public Transport Association of Canberra welcomes the fast-tracking of light rail to Commonwealth Park

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The Public Transport Association of Canberra (PTCBR) welcomes the ACT Government’s decision to progress with the first section of the City to Woden light rail route. The decision announced today by Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Transport Minister Chris Steel ensures that work on the second stage of Canberra’s light rail network will get underway as soon as possible.

PTCBR Interim Chair Ryan Hemsley said that “Commencing construction on the leg between Alinga Street and Commonwealth Park is the first important step towards bringing fast, frequent, reliable and attractive public transport to Canberra’s south, and will help retain the skilled workforce acquired during the construction of stage one.”

On the design elements of Stage 2A, Mr Hemsley said that “The details of the route design, operation and approval are the responsibility of the relevant Federal and Territory government entities. On the issue of light rail stage two, PTCBR’s main goal as an outcomes-focused organisation is to see the successful completion of light rail between the City and Woden.”

“We trust that the Federal and Territory Governments will work together to ensure this is achieved in a manner that realises the greatest benefit to the citizens of Canberra.”

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