Task Force recommendation is a recipe for killing Canberra's city centre
The ACT government this week unveiled its long term plans for Civic, by accepting the majority of recommendations of the Task Force report earlier revealed in the Canberra Times on the 10th of December. One of a number of recommendations in the report was that car use in Civic be discouraged by restrictions on car parks. This suggestion can only be described as yet another ideological attack on the use of private motor vehicles rather than good public policy.
The Planning Minister Simon Corbell has suggested that the government will maintain a "reasonable" and "appropriate" level of parking in Civic, along with other officials who have suggested that the current level of parking in Civic will be "broadly maintained" at current levels. This is not reassuring, however, as there is already a major shortage of convenient and accessible parking in Civic, which the Task Force recommendations would only further undermine.
Canberra is a highly dispersed low density city, sometimes described as a city in a national park, and most Canberrans like it that way. Not only is it scenically very beautiful, but its dispersed nature in combination with its excellent road system actually reduces traffic congestion and associated pollution, helping to give us the clean air we often take for granted.
Canberra's highly dispersed nature, while making the city almost perfectly designed for the motor car, also happens to make it very poorly designed for public transport, which struggles for patronage and annually loses large sums of money. Experience from around the world shows that cities have to have substantially higher population densities than Canberra or indeed any other Australian city to be viable in any serious sense (think of Hong Kong for an example of where it starts to become viable).
The key point here is that many proposals sometimes put forward for reducing parking availability (and the related recommendation of increasing Canberra's population density) are really in fact proposals for improving the profitability of the ACTION bus service. However, this is completely wrong-headed approach to public policy.
It is normally considered the role of government to respond to people's preferences and facilitate their wishes where possible. However, our current ACT urban transport policy seems to operate on a principle of making people's lives more difficult and inconvenient in the interests of propping up a public transport system that few people actually want.
According to the ACT's Sustainable Transport Plan, the government plans to raise the percentage of work trips conducted by public transport from 6.7 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2026, and restrictions on car parking are seen as one of a number of factors necessary to help bring about this uptake in utililisation. This is a staggeringly optimistic goal, however, that will almost certainly prove to be impossible achieve irrespective of what government policies are put in place. Very few cities in the world have managed to increase public transport utilization since 1960, and of those that have, the gains have generally been extremely small and have been achieved at near prohibitive cost to the taxpayer.
One of the main justifications for increasing public transport use are the supposed environmental benefits from doing so. Even this can be brought into question however. Buses only produce less pollution and greenhouse emissions per head of population than cars to the extent that they are well patronized by customers. With few passengers however, a bus may as well be just another highly polluting truck on the road. The fact that so many ACTION buses during the day are poorly patronized (if not close to empty), and will continue to be so in spite of government attempts to raise their utilization levels, greatly undermines the so-called environmental benefits of public transport relative to private vehicles.
Governments and policy makers are going to have to accept that most people live complex lives and prefer the convenience and flexibility of traveling by car to public transport. For many people, catching the bus every day is not a realistic option given they are often simply too infrequent or not otherwise going where people want to go, which leads to unacceptable time delays in getting from A to B.
Furthermore, it is simply not possible to increase the frequency of bus services in a city as dispersed as Canberra - the government is already directly paying for approximately three quarters of the cost of running the bus service. To increase the frequency of services to a level that might actually see a tangible increase in patronage would require enormous taxpayer subsidies well beyond the government's capacity to pay. There are other practical issues in favour of private motor vehicles as well. Think of a parent unexpectedly needing to pick up a sick child from school at short notice as just one of any number of possible examples.
The notion that people can actually be encouraged to use public transport in large numbers by making parking more difficult is a damaging one. In reality, when confronted with a shortage of parking, most consumers will simply drive somewhere else to do their shopping where parking is easier.
City traders know this, and are already suffering from a lack of customer patronage due to an existing shortage of car parking, but the proposals in the Task Force report would only make this worse. For all of the glossy pictures and rosy projections that typically accompany such reports, this suggestion is ultimately a recipe for killing the city centre and as such, the Canberra Business Council is right to be deeply concerned about this proposal.
The ACT government needs to lose its ideological fixation with reducing car use, and accept that most people strongly prefer the convenience and flexibility of personal motor vehicle use. If the government wants to revitalize Civic, it should be looking at further increasing car parking availability, not restricting it.