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’s in Edinburgh’s 10 year transport masterplan?

Edinburgh. Image: Getty.

Edinburgh City Council has released a draft 10-year transport plan, and put it out to public consultation. The jauntily-named Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Proposed Strategy comes soon after a 20 mph zone was rolled out and the extension of the city's tram line was approved.

The council’s overriding aims are to make the city centre much friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, and to get people out of cars and thus reduce air pollution. With the city forecast to grow larger than Glasgow within our lifetime, and with tourist numbers increasing with every year, it is encouraging that Edinburgh is making ambitious plans for a low carbon future. There is a surfeit of exciting ideas in the proposals, so even if half of them survive the consultation stage it would be a great achievement.

First off, yes there are going to be more trams. The council proposals include a a circular loop with trams going from Princes Street over the majestic North Bridge which connects the Old and New Towns. From there, it will continue over South Bridge, hook west through the University of Edinburgh area before linking back up with the current tram line at Haymarket railway station.

A summary of the plans: click to expand.

This is an exciting update to the tram network, which will provide services to the south of the city centre soon after the trams extend north through Leith. A free hop-on bus will also do a loop around the city centre, and will seek to emulate other cities, such as Talinn, which offer free transport.

North Bridge, which spans over Waverley station, will be closed to cars but will remain open to buses as this is a vital route. There will also be a new lift installed on the south side of Waverley station, to make it easier for people with prams, the elderly and the disabled to get from the platforms up to North Bridge: at present anyone doing this is required to take a lift to Princes Street, on the opposite side of the railway. Further lifts are planned to make it easier to get from the Grassmarket to Edinburgh Castle, from Market Street to The Mound, and from the Cowgate to George IV Bridge.


East of North Bridge there will be a brand new bridge for cyclists and pedestrians connecting the Old and New Towns. Although there is no crossing here at present, those with long memories will recall there was a pedestrian bridge here in the past, originally built as compensation for the fact the railway line had effectively split Edinburgh in half. However, British Rail “temporarily” closed the bridge from Jeffrey Street across the railway line to Calton Road in 1950, and never re-opened it again.

To the west of North Bridge lies Waverley Bridge, which is a lower-level crossing of the railway. At present this is open to all vehicles, and is where the bus to the airports departs from. The council’s plan is for this bridge, which runs from Princes Street to the bottom of the steep Cockburn Street, to be completely pedestrianised.

Actually, in a move that will prove popular with tourists, many streets in the historic Old Town will also be pedestrianised. The city has already began trials of this on the first Sunday of the month, allowing people to have access to Instagram-ready streets such as the winding Victoria Street, which leads to the Grassmarket, and Cockburn Street, which connects the Royal Mile with Waverley Bridge. A greater portion of the Royal Mile, the popular avenue for tourists which is packed during the Fringe, also looks set to be pedestrianised. The plan also promises more support for cyclists, with various segregated cycle lanes, such as one along a newly tree-lined Lothian Road to connect Princes Street with The Meadows.

The proposals for improved cycling access: click to expand.

Altogether, the 10 year vision is very ambitious and in Sir Humphrey-speak, “interesting”. There will surely be a lot of pressure from motorists and the Conservatives to scale back the plans, which aim to seriously reduce when and how car users can access the city centre, in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

Motorists will lose crossings into the Old Town at North Bridge and Waverley Bridge, although they will still be able to drive from the middle of Princes Street up The Mound. Aside from that, car users wishing to enter the Old Town will be forced to either come in from the west via Lothian Road, or to take a long diversion around Abbeyhill to the east.

Of course the plans could still do with improvements such as re-opening the entirely complete suburban railway which circles Edinburgh and is only open to freight at present. Nonetheless, Edinburgh has been presented with an exciting low-carbon vision of the future. Hopefully it will act on it.

You can see the full plan here.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.