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Light Rail – mistaking the prancing stallion for a white elephant.

Socrates, the champion the examined life, thought democracy was ‘The least bad system available’. Fighting from within the system however he described the role of the individual as ‘a gadfly on the rear end of a noble and sluggish horse’. The noble horse that this columnist gadfly wishes to bite the backside of has unfortunately already bolted. And what horse is this? Having driven Northbourne Avenue recently I completely lost my bearings; the little visual clues from the vanished micro urban forest in the centre of the road had, at a stroke, been sacrificed on the high altar of our gleaming new light rail network.

Although one part of me strongly supports the notion that the disadvantages of a decentralized, spread out urban area are tremendous, and the environmental damage of urban sprawl cannot be ignored I would like to make three main points in an argument against the light rail being the best vehicle to save us from walking backwards into this chaos.

The first point takes a belated round arm swipe at Capital Metro’s economic viability. A ‘Deep Throat’, inside source, and former senior member of the government who had their hands all over the ACT budget described the expenditure on the light rail “fiscal suicide”. He said that if you were to compare the expenditure to one made by the federal budget it would be equivalent to 3 to 10 times the cost of rolling out the costs of the NBN. As with individuals, governments have a limited cheque-book and the question asked is, the light rail the next best thing for us to spend more than $1B on? My feeling is that this level of expenditure is akin to living in government assisted housing blowing your dough on a Ferrari.

For the second point imagine you are an alien in a spaceship looking t at Canberra from above and trying to work out where the centre is? Our green man may logically conclude that the locus is somewhere between the Braddon and Dickson. Scientist say Europe and America are physically moving apart either side of a trench in the Atlantic ocean at about the pace of your fingernail grows although emotionally it seems somewhat quicker on recent times. It seems to me as if the centre of Canberra is similarly on a tectonic plate sliding carelessly and inexplicable northwards away from our most beautiful ‘almost natural’ feature, Lake Burley Griffin.  Only a short time ago we were being soft peddled the virtues of the ‘City to the Lake’ initiative with the West Basin being activated.  The urban fabric between it and the current city centre was to be revitalised with pedestrian links, parks, a conference centre and potentially a stadium. Is this not a better use of resources than seeking to get a couple of thousand people from Gungahlin to the centre of Civic moments quicker?  The rub is that we don’t suffer from peak hours but merely peak minutes. You actually don’t need a light rail to increase urban density along the Northbourne corridor, just a few changes to the planning codes.

Thirdly, in the way that the stagecoach lost out to the canal, which lost out to railways in the Industrial Revolution which in turn lost out to the car, it is not reasonable argument that the light rail will very soon become a technology of the past. Just about every time you turn the television or leaf through an in-flight magazine (…ah! ‘publishing’ another disappearing technology) there appears an article about the oncoming tsunami which is the driverless car. We are a gas guzzling town whose design is predicated on a rolled gold road system, second to none. Would not a serious investment in the technologies of the future be a better bet than laying down inflexible, suburb-skipping pathways for an iron horse?

As I watch the backside of the metaphorical horse bolting down the our now denuded grand boulevard I wonder whether I have mistaken the prancing stallion for a white elephant? History has shown in places such as Copenhagen everyone is an ‘Urban guerrilla’ and can take a city by stealth and intervention. This little gadfly has the same notion.

Tony Trobe is director of the local practice TT Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you’d like to discuss? Contact us now.

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