Opinion / Don’t wait for driverless cars

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OPPONENTS of better public transport are largely drawn from the 93 per cent of Canberrans who don’t use it now and can’t see why they should have to pay for it.

They are used to driving everywhere and parking at the door for free. That is what it was like when they arrived in Canberra in the ’70s and they can’t understand why it needs to change.

Damien Hass.
Damien Hass.

Canberra is changing. Parking is no longer free and the vast free car parks of Civic and our town centres are no longer there. Free car parking in the Parliamentary Triangle no longer exists.

As our city matures, those vast spaces are being replaced with buildings that are of greater economic use than having a car sit on them for eight hours or more a day.

Buses in Canberra once coped admirably with the task assigned; yet as the city stretched to Tuggeranong and Gungahlin, a bus trip became long and circuitous. We asked ACTION to be both a local bus service and a mass transit provider. It has struggled with this dual task, and under varying management and union approaches, it has seen patronage trend down as private-car use soars.

At the same time, the intertown routes are at capacity. Clearly a better approach needed to be adopted and, in 2012, the ALP and the Greens went to an election with light rail as that better approach.

In 2016, light rail construction has started. Over time a network will link Canberra and encourage greater public transport use, better planning around transport corridors and decrease road congestion.

Opponents of light rail talk up a bus-only solution, yet it is obvious that more of the same will deliver us, well, more of the same. More buses won’t lead to greater public transport use. More buses on the roads won’t reduce road congestion either. Not on Northbourne and not anywhere else.

They also claim autonomous cars will suddenly emerge from labs and become the panacea to the private car, and miraculously reduce the need for mass transit.

While this technology may eventually become practical, it isn’t now and not for the foreseeable future. Even if it was, it really only replaces one car for another and a robot car going home and returning twice a day doubles road congestion instead of reducing it.

The biggest flaw in the self-driving car dream is what happens when 14,000 Raiders fans exit Bruce Stadium after a victory. Or when the Department of Inland Drainage closes down at 5.30pm and 1100 employees walk out the door at once. Which person’s car arrives to pick them up first? Where do they queue?

We replace traffic jams with driverless traffic jams. Driverless cars are not a mass-transit solution. They are a part of a larger transport picture with multiple solutions to multiple demands.

Light rail offers passenger capacity beyond current buses, with 220 people able to be carried in a single, light-rail vehicle. When light rail service commences, over a million bus kilometres a year will be freed up to increase frequency of local bus services.

As each light rail stage rolls out, the integration of bus and light rail becomes better, and service becomes more frequent and more reliable.

Driverless cars and buses alone cannot provide these future options. We need to support the politicians who have invested enormous political capital in our future by recognising that the Canberra of the past has changed and we need to let that change happen in a planned way.

Damien Haas is chair of ACT Light Rail.

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Ian Meikle
Ian Meikle is the owner and editor of "CityNews".


  1. Light rail is to be built on dedicated right of way. Yet when advocates of light rail criticise the bus rapid transit option they imply that buses are travelling in the normal traffic mix (“a bus trip became long and circuitous”) and do not use dedicated right of way.
    How do 14,000 Raiders fans leave Bruce stadium now? Mostly by private car and some by bus. The difference with driverless vehicle fleets will be that there will be more ride sharing so there will be fewer vehicles required than at present.
    Another advantage of driverless fleets is that they do not need to be parked in high cost areas when demand is low, so the parking problem is resolved.
    The capacity of the CAF Urbos 3 tram ordered for the Gungahlin-Civic line is 207 passengers (not 220). The maximum number of passenger on any service will be reduced pro-rata for every bicycle or wheel chair carried.

  2. The maximum passenger capacity of one lane of light rail on Northbourne Ave will be 4000/hour (mostly standing). A bus lane would be 15,000/hour mostly seated.

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