A case study for Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief and urban planning of new estates in the ACT.
The ACT Government announced in the 2012 ACT Planning Strategy that it “sought to create a more compact, efficient and inclusive city” The proximity between new suburbs in Molonglo Valley and the city will help encourage commuting to work with a bike and the achievement of goals of the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25, but the potential benefit of the proximity of the Molonglo Valley will be largely forfeited without good quality, safe and direct active travel infrastructure. This is currently NOT typical for the Molonglo Valley estate developments.
This ACT Government held an Active Travel Design workshop (12 December 2018) and stated that the background to the new Active Travel Design Guidelines included “poor infrastructure outcomes as a consequence of planning intent getting ‘lost in translation’. My concern is that the failure to systematically integrate active travel principles in the planning process will most likely result in the missed potential to develop active travel facilities in the Whitlam and other new estate developments in Canberra. As human behaviour follows infrastructure, this lack of future-proofing active travel facilities is detrimental to achieving an increase in active travel in the ACT.
Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief design tender (2 December 2019), released by the Major Projects Canberra Infrastructure Delivery Partner Group, is for the first stage design of Molonglo 3 East, but not for Whitlam. It is worth monitoring it as it signals the first planning stage of these new, yet unnamed, suburbs has begun. To quote the brief, the ACT’s Indicative Land Release Program 2019-20 to 2022-23, “proposes 200 blocks be released in the study area by 2022-23.”
The importance of estate development for the ACT Government
Canberra has always been the “planned city”. Estate developments are “greenfield” developments and are very substantial in the bush capital. An example is the Molonglo Valley. Molonglo Valley, at capacity, is planned to accommodate approximately 55,000 new residents in three stages: Stage 1 consisting of the suburbs of Coombs and Wright, and the region of North Weston, Stage 2 the suburbs of Denman Prospect and Molonglo, and Stage 3 the suburbs north of the Molonglo River.
In ACT estate development, the majority of the design and construction are outsourced through consulting, engineering and construction companies. The city planning, zoning, regulation, design standards are the municipal responsibility of the ACT Government and its directorates. After the designs are approved and constructed the assets are “returned” to ACT Government and the land released for sale. The profits from the sale of land in new estates are an important source of revenue for the ACT Government.
The ACT Government has other sources of revenue, but the ACT Government finds it difficult to find capital for transport infrastructure projects in the budget. It is easily forgotten that the largest single item in the budget is health. Improvement to the existing ACT transport infrastructure contrasts with estate developments and is called a “retrofit”. Infrastructure upgrades are expensive and fraught with compromise. Greenfield construction is easier and cheaper. Therefore, there is a high price for mistakes in the planning of new estates. Fixes will be capital expenses, which the ACT Government can least afford. That is why it makes sense trying to get it right the first time.
ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25
Last year the ACT Government released the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25. Active travel is one important pillar of this strategy:
“Once emissions from electricity are zero, transport will account for around 62%.” Key priorities to 2025 to reduce emissions will be to “encourage active travel by continuing to improve cycle paths and walkability.” Further, it “will require substantial changes in the way we plan and build our city”, and “there will need to be a greater emphasis on increasing active travel (for example, walking and cycling) and public transport use to reduce transport emissions to 2025.”
Saving Active Travel Corridors
Typically, new developments such as the Molonglo Valley take 10-20 years to build. In the Molonglo Valley, the construction is not from the south to the north, providing one continuous urban surface. The development is done area by area, in a fragmented way. It can be a decade before gaps close in the path networks. Over these long periods, corridors for active travel need to be reserved and not to be touch for other purposes. Preservation of corridors is the key.
This clashes with the existing attitude of building cycling infrastructure “where it doesn’t bother anybody”.
Moving Canberra: Integrated Transport Strategy (2018) on page 51 outlines the primary trunk routes for active travel throughout Canberra. These routes are called Primary or Main Community Routes in the active travel framework terminology. For the general public, they have been rebranded “CBR Cycle Routes“ (see below). These routes are critical to the active travel infrastructure.
There are two Primary Community Routes planned for the Molonglo Valley C10 City to Molonglo and C12 City to Molonglo via the Parliamentary zone. Both are significant but the C10 is important as it runs through Molonglo 3 East estate development.
The Active Travel Infrastructure Practitioner Tool is embedded in the ACT urban development process. The Practitioner Tool shows current and future routes required for active travel. It is intended to reserve these corridors and aid the realisation of active travel infrastructure that has been previously „lost in translation“ of estate development.
Currently, the Molonglo Valley Primary and Main Routes C10 and C12 are not included in the Practitioner Tool. I would conclude that the corridors are therefore not locked in and secured.
Lost in translation
Corridors need to be reserved for optimal bike commuting
To achieve the goals of the ACT Climate Change Strategy 2019-25, cycle highways are required that join town centres in fast and direct routes. To be fast and direct they need to be designed that way, for the best possible result.
Roads are designed with thoroughness and sophistication that are easily taken for granted by most road users. Engineering specifications and design standards guarantee the safety and quality of the roads. Traffic simulations allow you to optimise the routes and designs. That is what makes using a car attractive. Research on congestion shows our road system has become a victim of its own success.
To make active travel competitive the design must be just as good. Remember that behaviour follows design! However, active travel routes are not designed with the same level of dedication. For the Principle Community Route, C10 City to Molonglo through Molonglo 3 East, the planning support tools and documentation for active travel do not appear to be complete as there appears to be no corridor reservation. Design guidelines for bike paths are an extension to the road design (MIS05 Active Travel Facilities Design).
In the Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief corridors must be held free for views, roads, creeks, wildlife, but not for cycle highways.
Now consider the approach the project brief takes with the light rail. The project brief mandates that the light rail corridor must be preserved and the requirements are described in the Transport Canberra Light Rail Guidelines for Light Rail Planning: 01 Corridor Preservation. A similar guideline is required for the preservation of cycle corridors.
For bike paths, an “outline” is good enough. No design is required. (Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief, page 12)
Active travel, and particularly cycle corridors through and connecting Molonglo 3 East to other town centres, should be reserved by incorporating them into the statutory Concept Plan for Molonglo 3 East. Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief does not demand this (outputs/deliverables page 13), and it really should.
We can predict that not specifically requesting this will make it an omission. None-statutory documents are guidelines and not rules. The danger is that they are therefore more easily neglected or not followed with the future in mind.
Active travel facilities must be mandated
Molonglo Valley Stage 3 Planning and Design Framework makes strong statements regarding active travel routes within the suburb. In contrast, the Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief is a disappointment in that it does not reinforce the importance of active travel facilities.
It is helpful to make a comparison within the Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief itself.
The importance of connections between suburbs is vague and may, therefore, be ignored. Section 6.13 uses the words “explore” and “opportunity” as though active travel is optional. Such weak language is unusual in this project brief and stands out.
It is worthwhile comparing the weak language of active travel with a strong mandate for environmental priorities. In section 6.17 it states, “the buffer and its treatment are to be consistent with Kama Interface Management Report” and “the indicative design plan is required to be endorsed by the Conservator of Flora and Fauna, the Parks Conservation Service. “
Nowhere in the project brief does it say that an “indicative design plan” is required for active travel, and it falls far short of mandating that the “indicative design plan” must be endorsed by the Active Travel Office.
The Molonglo 3 East Planning and Infrastructure Study Project Brief downgrades the urgency for active travel infrastructure (facilities), which is a requirement of the ACT Climate Strategy, and prioritises other things. The direction to “explore” and look for “opportunity” is likely to produce a suboptimal design. The reservation of the commuting corridor is essential if a cycle path is to be realised in Molonglo 3 East. Further, the Active Travel Office should have the mandate to endorse the active travel facilities (or lack thereof) in an “indicative design plan” for Molonglo 3 East. Without such oversight and corridor preservation, good cycleway designs are less likely. Consequently, people are discouraged from riding to work and encouraged to drive instead.