Transport Minister: an unreliable narrator

Heritage Park, Forde, Gungahlin

On the 32nd anniversary of the first day of sitting of the Legislative Assembly, active travel was discussed during question time. This time the topic was Gungahlin town centre. Read below about active travel in the hansard from 11 May 2021.

Background

The stage: ACT Legislative Assembly, 11 May 2021

The players:

Gungahlin town centre

Gungahlin town centre is known to be an ongoing saga. The plans for the town centre are being discussed in the context of the 3rd master plan: Gungahlin Town Centre planning resfresh-snapshot (November 2018). The 1st layout was a shopping street with two-way traffic and on street parking. The 2nd narrowed the street, removed on street parking, and added a new light rail and bus station. The 3rd master plan finally includes and considers cycling.

Previous designs forgot cycle paths into the town centre. Gungahlin has existed since at least 2003. Currently, for the last 500 metres from the edge of the town centre, cyclists need to brave the traffic or share the narrow concrete community paths with dogs, scooters, and pedestrians. Considering the town centre is a transport hub, for both the bus station and light rail, we would expect a good network of bike paths radiating out from this point into the suburbs. This is not the case.

The Gungahlin town centre sheds light on Canberra’s urban design practice. While much time has been spent considering traffic flows to underground parking at the shops, little thought has been given to people riding bikes to the shops. The cycling network starts and stops in the most unlikely of places around the town centre. Canberra’s cycling network is a product of a piecemeal approach, and lack of network thinking. It is as though we were expected not to bother where the ACT Government builds new cycling infrastructure. That the network is direct, fast and safe, are secondary requirements. Rather than prioritising walking and cycling as a strategic investment, the goal of the 2018 ACT Strategy, cycling is actually considered last. The Gungahlin shopping centre has now existed for 18 years, and we are still waiting for bike paths! Even the addition of the light rail did not fix that gap.

Hierarchy of prioritisation by mode, 2018 Integrated Transport Strategy Moving Canberra 2019-2045

The cycling infrastructure around the shopping centre in the town centre area is fragmented. Luckily, many town centre blocks have not yet been sold. Space could be rezoned for cycling corridors, outside existing road reserves, in public realm spaces. There is still time and space for good cycling infrastructure. Many streets have on street parking, which is not all that space efficient. Multi storey parking stations are being considered instead. The town centre master plan is an opportunity to rezone areas to future proof Gungahlin.

The master plan, the Gungahlin Town Centre planning resfresh-snapshot, is from November 2018. Three years later, recent Gungahlin Community Council meetings would indicate little agreement with the ACT Government how best to proceed. The discussion is getting heated, and hopefully good things will come from it.

We have the money but not the will

The big difference between Andrew Braddock and Mark Parton is that they are active cyclists, and Minister Steel is not. Without first hand experience of the trials and tribulations of riding a bike in Canberra, it is hard to understand the urgency for getting its cycling infrastructure fixed. Andrew Braddock and Mark Parton are true believers and sing from the same song sheet – although they sit on the opposite ends of the political spectrum (Canberra Liberals versus ACT Greens). In comparison, Minister Steel prefers to build more roads (and light rail). As Abraham Maslow may or may not have said: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

The ACT Government track record of investing in active travel is poor. In recent years, less than 1% of the transport budget has been spent on cycling infrastructure. Most of the off-road cycling paths in the older suburbs of Canberra were built before the territory government was formed 32 years ago. It is rare that the ACT Government has gone back to improve any of these paths. In the exception, path improvements are driven by road improvements. Elsewhere, the path network is left to decay.

Riding on Canberra’s cycling paths.

Building standalone paths is much cheaper than upgrading roads. Building 30 km of cycle highway without a road costs about the same as duplicating 1 km of road. Back on 27 August 2020, Fast Track lacked strategic bike path projects (that is, bike paths built to the ACT Governments minimum standard). At the current rate, it will take 166 years to double the length of off-road paths suitable for cycling in the ACT. We have the money, but not the will. The international benchmark for active travel investment is 20% of the transport budget. The light rail stage 1 and 2 investment is almost $3 billion (not considering investment in roads and buses). The cycle infrastructure investment falls depressingly short.

What we have learnt

Mr Braddock questioned the Minister for Transport, Chris Steel, regarding improvements to the cycling infrastructure in the Gungahlin Town Centre. Minister Steel began with a set phrase: “The ACT Government understands the importance of active travel and investing in public transport as well as being important to creating a vibrant, sustainable and connected city.” Mr Parton questioned the authenticity of this statement: “Minister, why is it that this government continually talks the big talk on active travel but time and time again cannot actually walk the walk of active travel?” Minister Steel laughed: “That question absolutely had no substance at all.

Minister Steel’s perceived inability to understand his own and the ACT Government’s failure would lead us to question what he thinks of us. We could rightly feel a little insulted that he should think we will not notice what is going on. Many of his statements are misleading. In this case he does not answer the question. Rather than answer Mr Parton’s question, Minister Steel repeats the same list of projects that have been planned for the last ten years, and will not be finished for another 10 to 20 years. It is all stated as though these projects are new and interesting. Bike paths are made of asphalt and not hot air. He does not address the claim that little has been done, and little is planned or committed for the next years.

Fast Track: at the current rate of investment, it will take 166 years to double the length of off-road paths suitable for cycling in the ACT.

Canberra.bike, 27 August 2020

A good example of the ACT Government’s procrastination is the CBR Cycle Route 10 Coombs to Civic cycleway (C10). The idea is a decade old. The cycleway was first written into the 2012 ACT Parliamentary Agreement, the study was released in 2014, but the project completion is expected in the late 2030s – after the completion of the new Tuggeranong Parkway flyover, Molonglo River east-west corridor bridge and the most easterly suburb of Molonglo 3 East. The duration of the project from conception to construction is likely to be 25 years (just 0.5 km of path per year).

Clearly something is very wrong with the rate at which we are realising the active travel vision – expressed in the ACT Government’s many strategy documents since as early as 2015.

The discussion

The ACT Government will undertake a feasibility study to investigate how the active travel links can be improved in the Gungahlin town centre. This is a good idea but, as we saw with the CBR Cycle Route 10 Coombs to Civic cycleway feasibility study, a study can take 2 years to complete. Another 2 years could be added to the plan to make any improvements. Three years after the release of the 2018 Gungahlin Town Centre planning resfresh-snapshot, we are still thinking about it. Historical evidence is damning. Belconnen Bikeway and Kuringa Drive cyclepaths have project durations of 8-10 years (conception to completion). Belconnen Bikeway had the scope reduced and the section along Benjamin Way is still not fully finished or funded. Using this baseline and pegging the conception of better active travel in Gungahlin around 2018 with the release of the master plan, would suggest it might be realistically 2026-28 to see the work finished.

Mesascopic modelling has become Minister Steel’s great hope. Urban planning studies are traditionally done at micro and macro levels. At the micro level the studies are very precise and can consider pedestrian traffic, but are only for small areas. Macro studies are for large areas, even whole districts, but offer poor or even no predictions for other modes of transport that are not personal motoring. The mode share for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport is an important part of the 2018 Strategy. TCCS falls back on the engineering mindset with the mesascopic approach.

Mesascopic modelling breaks a large area with a grid and the movement from pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and motorists modelled moving between the cell. The precision of the predictions is dependent on many things, not least the assumptions. Studies for Kenny High School and Molonglo 3 East by RobertsDay has shown these assumptions can be poor or outdated. “Garbage in, garbage out” is an old adage for the best algorithms.

The assumptions, for the mesascopic model, should be made public for closer inspection. The assumptions must align with the strategy documents, and aspirations for the city we want to create, as outlined in the ACT strategic documents. It should not be weighed down by the historical data biased to the mistakes of the past. Infrastructure takes a long to build, so we best start now.

Extracts

Extract from the Debates weekly hansard, Legislative Assembly for the ACT, Tenth assembly, http://www.hansard.act.gov.au, pages 1272-1273

Planning—active transport

MR BRADDOCK: My question is to the minister for transport. The Gungahlin town centre is surrounded by a number of busy roads. What does the government plan to do to ensure that people are able to walk or cycle safely into the Gungahlin town centre?

MR STEEL: I thank Mr Braddock for his question. The ACT government understands the importance of active travel and investing in public transport as well as being important to creating a vibrant, sustainable and connected city. That is one of the reasons we have set out in our transport strategy the objective of shifting the balance of investment towards active travel and public transport. This is particularly important in areas that are growing, like Gungahlin. It is one of the reasons why at the election Labor committed to undertake a feasibility study to look at improved active travel links in the Gungahlin town centre connecting the town centre with the surrounding suburbs of the Gungahlin region.

We have also undertaken to develop a mesascopic model, which is a complex traffic model which will look at traffic movements not only for road transport but also for active travel to help inform future improvements. The government has also been investing in infrastructure improvements in Gungahlin. That has, of course, included the new Flemington Road shared path connections (ed. see the long history of Flemington Road bike path), making sure there are good connections between active travel and public transport. We look forward to undertaking further investment in Gungahlin following the detailed work we have committed to do.

MR BRADDOCK: Thank you, minister; but what about the active travel links between the Gungahlin town centre and Yerrabi Ponds, a source of great recreational value to the local community?

MR STEEL: I thank Mr Braddock for his supplementary. That connection was identified following the Gungahlin town centre planning refresh and will act as an input amongst many other active travel links that will need to be considered as part of the feasibility study that Labor committed to at the election to undertake to provide better connections between the Gungahlin town centre and, as I mentioned, other parts of Gungahlin, including places of interest like Yerrabi Ponds. That will be the first stage of considering the needs in Gungahlin. We will do so in consultation with the community before we move in and consider what investments we need to make and what the priorities are for the Gungahlin community. I am looking forward to visiting Gungahlin Community Council tomorrow night to have that discussion.

MR PARTON: Minister, why is it that this government continually talks the big talk on active travel but time and time again cannot actually walk the walk of active travel?

MR STEEL: That question absolutely had no substance at all—like, literally no point. It was classic shock jock—no substance whatsoever; just a line. It is impossible for me to respond to something with no substance. We continue to invest in active
travel. We have made a massive investment of over $9 million over the past year as part of the stimulus package to make sure we are supporting the increase in walking and cycling we have seen in our community. We will continue to make investments there. We have demonstrated through our strategic transport plan we released in
August last year that we want to invest more in active travel. We are getting on with the job in every budget.

Debates weekly hansard, Legislative Assembly for the ACT, Tenth assembly, http://www.hansard.act.gov.au, pages 1272-1273

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