What other cities are doing: Canberra

This post first appeared at TraNZport and is republished with permission.

I previously wrote about what was happening in Canberra (here) but thought it would be interesting to revisit the city and take a more detailed look at their new light rail line which opened earlier this year. First, a little more about the city…

Source: Bidgee

Canberra: a small city investing in rapid transit

The first thing that is notable about Canberra’s investment is the general characteristic of the city; small (less than half a million people), low density, sprawling, car dependent, and – until 2019 – a solely bus based public transport system with no rapid transit. I’ve been there just once and found it to be a quiet city with little street activity. This is a curious aspect of the Canberra light rail project. Rapid transit projects usually come about for two reasons; to increase capacity in response to overcrowding on public transport services (reactive), or/and; to achieve outcomes related to mode shift, density etc. Of course, it is often both, but in the case of Canberra it is interesting just how much it is the latter that seems to be the drive behind the project. A small, spread out, relatively car dependent city deciding to invest in light rail on the basis that it will bring change, rather than waiting for that change to justify light rail, is pretty interesting. It’s worth noting that in 2017-18, Canberra’s public transport patronage was just 18.94 million (and they were stoked with that).

Canberra’s Light Rail


The second thing that is notable about the investment is the quality of the light rail line. I mean, if the Confederation Line in Ottawa (outlined in the previous post in this series) is at the tippy-top of light rail quality, then Canberra’s light rail is only just a small step below that. The line itself is 12 kilometres long, and whilst it isn’t fully grade separated like Ottawa’s line, it runs in its own dedicated right-of-way, and has priority at intersections, which allows for almost uninterrupted running at relatively high speeds. Don’t just take my word for it, check out this video I found on YouTube from behind the drivers shoulder:

The light rail vehicles/trams (Urbos 3 models built by CAF – same company that built Auckland’s electric trains), which have a capacity of over 200 passengers, generally take about 24 minutes from end-to-end, stopping at 13 stations along the way. That’s relatively quick, and really shows how it is, in my opinion, only just a small step below a proper metro-quality level of service. This makes for an average mean speed of 30km/h, which is comparable to a number of metro and heavy rail systems (as an example, the fully grade separated heavy-rail Skytrain system in Vancouver has an average speed of 40 km/h for the Millennium and Expo lines and 32 km/h for the Canada line).

The first stage between Gunghalin in the north to the Civic Centre (City) cost A$707 million and opened on 20 April 2019. Canberra’s wide boulevards, where the light rail was built in generous medians, and relatively flat topography means that major earthworks and infrastructure hasn’t been needed so much. This has done two things; kept costs surprisingly low, and allowed enough space for a dedicated right-of-way without the need to purchase property and cause major disruption. What Canberra have achieved is an impressive blend of effectiveness and affordability. Yes, the city is lucky to an extent, given the room it has had to play with, but it has worked to its advantages rather than finding excuses to double-down on car dependency. I like that.

Canberra Light Rail Stage 2…


Plans are advancing well for a Stage 2, which would see the line extended a further 11 kilometres to the south, to Woden. At an estimated A$1.3-1.6 billion, it is a bit more expensive than Stage 1, requiring a crossing of Lake Burley Griffin and some wireless sections (which, interestingly, seem to add to the cost due to the added complexity).

Canberra Stage 2A.PNG
Canberra Light Rail Stage 2A extension

The project is being split into two phases. Stage 2A will extend the light rail from the City to Commonwealth Park, a total of 1.7km with three new stations, and is due to get underway in 2021 for completion around 2024. Four new light rail vehicles will also be purchased as part of the works. Stage 2B will then extend Commonwealth Park to Woden.

It’s not just about light rail, either…

In addition to adding light rail, Canberra also introduced a new bus network on 29 April 2019, including ten rapid bus/light rail routes with frequencies of at least a bus every 15 minutes from 7am to 7pm. The routes are shorter, more direct, and integrated as a complete network with services connecting at interchanges, including with the light rail line, of course.

Canberra rapid bus
Canberra’s ten route “rapid bus” network plus light rail

There are two things I really like about this rapid bus network. First, you can clearly see how the bus routes are not just integrated with the light rail line, but also emulate potential extensions to the light rail network in future, and thus prepare well from a service provision and, potentially, a land-use perspective. Clearly there was a lot of thinking about the future, where rapid transit and development corridors are likely going to go, and mold the network to that, with direct, frequent services. Second, I really like that there is an effort to having relatively short bus lines. There is a tendency in New Zealand to link lines into one, or have high frequency routes with lots of branches with lower frequencies. Not so here in Canberra, which I am a fan of.

Implications for New Zealand

The most obvious thing to say here is that, given Canberra’s smaller size, lack of density, and low public transport use, why the heck Auckland is dithering around with light rail, let alone why are Wellington and Christchurch full of doubt. The latter two cities seem almost scared of the costs, but Canberra really shows that if you build it, they will come, even for relatively smaller cities.

It also makes the near constant background noise of nay-saying a little ridiculous, particularly those saying that people in a city like Christchurch, for instance, will never change their habits. Canberra’s light rail already hit its 2021 weekly average ridership targets back in June, with well over 80,000 trips being recorded. An interesting side-note is that free trips were offered on the light rail for the first month. I think that is a sensational idea, particularly in a city where public transport use has generally been low, because it gives people a chance to try it out without having to mentally (and monetarily) invest too much. After that period, of course, ridership dropped off a bit, however it almost immediately started building up again to break its targets two years early. Wellington and Christchurch take note!


Will it be bus rapid transit, light rail, or “trackless trams” for Wellington?

I think in regard to Auckland – were two rival proposals are currently being prepared and the effectiveness of light rail over other modes has been questioned – it shows what an at-grade light rail system with a dedicated right-of-way and traffic priority is capable of. That the unsolicited proposal from the New Zealand Super Fund (now officially being considered alongside NZTA’s light rail plans) possibly includes a greater degree of grade-separation, and could use light metro technology similar to the Sydney Metro and Montreal’s under construction REM system, is interesting. Is such expense really necessary for Auckland? Canberra shows possibly not. by the High quality rapid transit possible with light rail (arguments that it should be heavy rail or more high quality light rail or light metro)

In addition to what I outlined above, I think what I would reiterate in regards for what Canberra’s project means for Wellington and Christchurch, is how desired outcomes can drive investment in such cities, rather than waiting for situations to change to justify it. Canberra is especially pertinent to Christchurch, given that pre-2019 its bus patronage was less than 19 million per annum (Christchurch’s was less than 14 million – or just under 18 million pre-earthquake) and, like Christchurch, didn’t have any rapid transit to speak of. I hope this is considered in some depth by the rapid transit business case recently funded by NZTA, because it is a case study with many relevant lessons.

The bus network in Canberra is quite interesting too. I love the idea of Canberra’s rapid bus network and its focus on short, direct, frequent services that are point-to-point. Wellington and Christchurch both have issues with their bus networks, and I think applying some Canberra thinking could pay off for both cities (I intend to cover this in a future post). Christchurch has a new bus plan on the table which would increase service frequencies on four high frequency routes (from 15 to 10 minutes) and add a few more for better coverage. I think there are some tweaks that could be made to the plan in general, but together with the rapid transit business case, it is starting to look similar to the Canberra model. The lesson here is to go for it, and not doubt that a city of such a size, population density, and low public transport usage can make rapid transit work.

A new, much improved, high frequency bus network and rapid transit has been proposed for Christchurch. Does Canberra show that it can be done?

But Wellington could certainly take a leaf out of Canberra’s book too, particularly with how it’s bus network is laid out, and how rapid transit will integrate with that. Again, that will be covered in more detail in a future post (hopefully), but the upshot is that Canberra really casts doubt on some of the assumptions made around the inability of Wellington to support a high quality rapid transit corridor. The search for a silver bullet to cut costs by implementing new technologies (as opposed to just building a good bus rapid transit or light rail line) is seemingly fruitless. Those concerns are not necessary.

A final thought…

Yes, Canberra is kind of unique in having big wide roads to take advantage of in terms of allocating road space for things like light rail. However, the point is that by playing to your strengths  you can implement a pretty high quality service, and people in a smaller, less dense city will use it in numbers. In Christchurch, that could be utilising the under-used rail corridors. In Wellington, that could be taking advantage of the wide footprints of Adelaide Rd, Taranaki St, or Kent/Cambridge Tce.

It also shows the effectiveness of dedicated right-of-way, and traffic light priority, which can circumvent the need for more expense. I really think that Canberra has struck the right balance between cost and effectiveness, and has established a new type of model for other cities to follow. Perhaps, in future, people will be talking about the “Canberra model” as something to aspire to? Shame it probably won’t be the Wellington or Christchurch model. But being a first follower isn’t a bad thing either.

2 thoughts on “What other cities are doing: Canberra

  1. Totally agree. Build it and they will come – which is why, when you build motorways, people use their cars more. Induced demand – so if you aspire to move people more sustainably then build light rail, implement rapid transit on those existing rail corridors. When it is there people will use it.

    Providing a good transit system that means people can live most of the time without a car means Christchurch’s (sana car park) inner city terraced housing units might be more appealing. As to a lack of wide median strips for trams / light rail – most of the inner suburbs of Christchurch were tram suburbs, They were built by trams and those roads still exist. Build out light rail on the rroutes that in earlier decades carried trams.


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