At the time of writing there is significant debate in Canberra about whether or not light rail should be built in the northern suburbs of Canberra to connect residents with the city centre.

Of course there are always detractors, who would like to see the government not get involved in the provision of infrastructure that seems to only provide for a few. In this case, some of these detractors are in the south of the city where the land uses are relatively well established. As is the case in many cities the detractors use economics to argue that public transport infrastructure is not a viable option.

On many occasions, much of this distraction comes from self interest, either in the form of people who want to protect their existing car transport infrastructure, sometimes in the form of the car lobby, or in the form of people who are worried about increases to rates.

Very often there will be legitimate or quasi-legitimate arguments that the money could be more profitably spent on something like a new hospital.

Governments, of course, have to make some very difficult decisions. It would seem that the choice of expenditure on a public transport system would not weigh as heavily on the minds of the community as the choice of putting some money into social infrastructure like a hospital or a school. But it has to be remembered that there are connections between some of these apparently conflicting infrastructure decisions. Public transport systems reduce demand for medical services and prevention can be better than the cure.

For instance, the decision to put public transport rather than road transport into a city might also be reconciled with the idea that it keeps the local community healthier and that there are less accidents, policing costs and consequently lower ongoing overheads from a public transport system compared with cars, where public transport is integrated with other public and private transport systems.

Of course, building roads costs less for a government in the short term. Roads provide access to motorists who purchase their own vehicles and consequently carry a significant proportion of the transport cost privately. This is cost shifting by government and one reason they don’t take the bold steps. So it would seem, at least on the face of it that road transport costs considerably less than public transport. This article will provide some insights to the alternatives to the provision of car transit systems in Canberra.


There are some very significant geographic differences between the far-flung northern suburbs of Canberra and those in the West and South. In the first instance a large proportion of the residents in the southern sector of the city work in the southern sector of the city while those in the North don’t have local work options.


The Tuggeranong Parkway and the Gungahlin Drive extensions were all built by the allocation of taxpayers money. As the population of Gungahlin grows and the demand for work in the city centre increases, there will be increasing pressure on the urban road network. Improving freeways into the city will put increasing pressure on inner city roads and car parking spaces. Commuting by car adds significantly to declining community health and, like sitting at work, is potentially the next major health scenario that we will have to deal with.It adds to the obesity problem very significantly. Even recognising that it is not a singular factor, it is an important one.

There is also a significant proportion of the population that do not have direct access to motor vehicles. In many cities up to a third of the population rely on others for transport.

Good public transport outcomes that are well connected and integrated provide for these people to access work which will continue to be in the city centre for the foreseeable future. This additional work access adds to the economy and has long term benefits.

The bus transport alternative is not a viable option for city to town centre transit, it is expensive and too unreliable and competes for the same infrastructure as cars, reducing lane space and getting caught in congestion. Developers will invest close to rail and light rail interchanges or stations, but will not invest on the basis of a bus station. Where busses work best is getting people from the suburbs to town centres, provided they are regular and cost effective.

Cities are changing very rapidly and cities that don’t transition to meet new demands will be left behind. Change, is an inevitable process in the cityscape. To manage change we must build new infrastructure that will meet changing demand.


Future generations including the X and Y generations are also demanding more city centre amenity and lifestyle and are not as attached to the motor car as previous generations were. To meet the inner-city living expectations public transport will be more necessary than in the past. Second car ownership adds about $5000 per year to the urban household plus parking and other costs and first car ownership adds around $18,000 to the annual household budget. Not counting the cost of that garage space at home and parking at work.


Development within the existing city networks is up to 50% cheaper than new development at the fringes. Work done in other cities and being replicated in Canberra suggests that the cost of a home block on the outer ring of Canberra costs about $650,000 while the cost of a new building block close to the city centre is as low as $300,000, less than half. Adding infrastructure to infill developments or within existing developed suburbs is significantly cheaper than new development on the fringe and adds reuse potential to social infrastructure.

There is a widely held view that subsidies to the public transport are unfair while motorists pay their way. This is a fabrication that is constantly reinforced by the car lobby.To give you an example of how this fabrication has been distorted, in 2011 road transport was subsidised to the tune of $17 billion across Australia while public transport was subsidised to the tune of $3 billion. In Canberra the ratio of subsidy towards roads is slightly higher than the rest of Australia and this does not take into account the cost of roads that were created by developers and added to the road network as part of new subdivisions.

The cost of these new roads is added to the cost of new housing blocks, and this is a small proportion of the figures mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Road congestion is reduced significantly by small increases in public transport subsidies, and this is recognised by the New South Wales NRMA. Roads are a very important part of our transport infrastructure and about one third of our population would not be able to undertake their day-to-day work or social activities without the use of a car, another third of the population does not have direct access to motor vehicles. This part of the population is directly dependent on people with cars for much of their movement and those that do not have access to people with cars are often isolated within their suburb.

An integrated public transport system is a very necessary part of a growing and developing city and a public transport system that is separated from the road system is a very important part of the alternative transport systems that can provide reliable transport during crises or during times when road transport systems are either temporarily or in the longer term ineffective. In other words it adds to a city’s resilience as a result of a short-term crisis or when long-term unpredictable change occurs.

I also note that a large number of people in the south are complaining that they should not have to pay for the North to get a light rail. Other than the fact that this is pure jealousy, how do they think that they got their existing freeways or existing road infrastructure. Other Australians paid for it.