When Canberra’s voters go to the polls tomorrow, they need to think long term

The legislative assembly of the Australian Capital Territory. Image: Bidgee/Wikimedia Commons.

This Saturday, the Australian Capital Territory goes to the polls to elect its legislative assembly. One Canberra resident thinks it needs to think long term.

For one day, it is our decision that determines the future of our city.

It is up to us to consider all that we see around us, and all we cannot yet see: the future light-rail lines, hospitals, affordable homes and road duplications our politicians have promised; the future people who will join us and to make our population double in the next fifty years; the future influx of traffic on our roads, pupils in our schools, and jobs required to make our economy grow.

Yet nowhere in Australia are people better qualified to have such foresight - to imagine what a future could be even though it is not before their eyes.

Canberra is a city which waited half a century for a dustbowl separating north and south to become a lake. It did not build in between or give up because that’s not what great cities do: great cities have vision, from which comes a plan, to be implemented over decades. In 1963 the Scrivener Dam was opened, and Lake Burley Griffin was born.

It is a city where world-class scientists race to discover our future possible, where world-class institutions equip students to make our future achievable, where bureaucrats and officials aim to make our future sustainable.

Canberra does long term. The problem is, politics often doesn’t.

Like in late 2014, when a promise to tear up a contract to deliver the East West link saw voters in Victoria remove a first term government for the first time in 60 years. The cancellation cost taxpayers $1.2bn, only for the project to reappear last week in the state’s independently produced long-term thirty-year infrastructure plan. 

Today, here in Canberra, a promise to tear up a light rail contracts is again headlining an election. That’s despite the estimated $300m compensation cost taxpayers will have to cover, the damage it will do investor confidence locally and nationally, and the precedent it sets that long-term projects can be ditched every three or four years.

Politics struggles with long term infrastructure because of the clash of short-term political and long-term infrastructure cycles; the strength of rhetoric relating to cost and debt over value and investment; and the difficulty in communicating a compelling future vision.


If we spend every weekend arguing about the cost of a lawnmower, the grass keeps growing regardless. The longer we argue, the longer the grass, the more expensive the lawnmower required to cut it will be.

All evidence shows the population of Canberra is growing. In half a century it will have doubled. Twice as much traffic. Twice as many people requiring homes, schools, hospitals and employment. We can keep arguing about the type of infrastructure required, but the longer the argument, the greater the population, the more expensive (and disruptive) the infrastructure will be.  

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme would be too expensive to make happen today. It required action in 1949 to enable it to provide a third of renewable energy to the eastern grid in 2016, and water for agricultural produce worth $3bn. This is how infrastructure works – decades in advance – as it is too expensive not to be of relevance 30 years after it is built, or to be part of broader resilience and sustainability plans. 

So to truly consider light rail or any major infrastructure project, voters must zoom out, see the big picture decades from now. The difficulty is that politics likes to zoom in.

A shorter four-year cycle supplemented by a daily news cycle means rhetoric becomes about present day cost and not long term value. Spend is equated to present day debt, like a credit card, rather than to a future investment, like a mortgage. The cost of doing is criticised without consideration of the cost of not doing. By 2013, congestion will cost Australia $53bn a year.

The key is to find a way to keep the focus zoomed out: to keep infrastructure at arms-length from politics through a bi-partisan long-term plan or an independent body; or, sell, sell, sell the bigger picture – set out a compelling long-term vision of which infrastructure forms a part.

I’d advocate both – but I’d emphasise vision. Martin Luther King did not inspire by saying, “I have a plan”. A vision allows cities to have reach beyond their grasp. Constantly pursuing goals which upon achieving are reset to be just out of reach again. Like scientists. Like researchers. Like government. Like Canberra. 

On Saturday we are the government. The present was taken care of by those preceding – so listen for long-term, think in decades, and vote for those with vision. 

Kevin Keith tweets as @KevKeith works for not-for-profit built-environment body Consult Australia and blogs here.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.