Canberra’s public transport system: First impressions of a migrant

Exactly a month ago I made my first ever visit to Canberra and that was as a skilled migrant. Both me and my husband had done our research and realised that we cannot live here with a three year old unless we have our own vehicle. However to our surprise the situation was much worse than expected. It was very different to, and much worse than where I was coming from and most third world countries I had travelled to. As a family who were settling in ACT the first thing we did was to collect our ATM cards from the Bank (luckily the accounts were opened prior to our arrival) and walked into a rent-a-car. We had to get a vehicle to ensure we were mobile. Although our initial plan was to purchase a vehicle about a week after our visit, two days in the capital territory we owned a car.

Canberra as the capital city of Australia and the best place to live according to OECD[1] is surprising do not have a public transport service that is definitely not in par with the rest of the capital cities in the world. Few days in this city, I realised there was a policy proposal by the ACT government to introduce a light rail system. This might take another decade or more, but the news was a console. Having read that I also figured out the negative comments listed against introducing such a policy have invaded media spaces more and I decided to share my thinking as a migrant.

Given Canberra has a very small population of only about 358,222 by 2010 according to, investing in a public transport system is seemed as a loss by  the ruling government of the country. However, I believe it is time to remind the wise policy makers that the growing population in the capital and frequent visitors to it will only increase over the years. We don’t make policies looking only of today, but they are for tomorrow, for the years to come. The strategy paper of the ACT government targeting this project to bring its full benefits by 2031 is indeed impressive in that sense.

If someone thinks that going to work, school drop-offs, after-work sports will steer people into cars instead of using public transport, it’s time for them to see how  people in London to Washington DC to New Delhi do the same. Having said that it is also imperative to get the fundamentals right. The public transport system all in all must be easy and convenient to use, fast, safe, clean and affordable. World Bank[2] shows that public transport systems are not only excellent in cities like London, Singapore and Hong Kong, but they are also excellent in smaller cities like Lyon in France, Curitiba in Brazil, Leon in Mexico, Pereira in Columbia, Lagos in Nigeria and Ahmedabad in India. I really don’t think Canberra wants to be behind all of them.

A key feature in these transport systems is that they integrate multiple technologies such as metros, light rail and bus services. A common ticket like the Oyster Card in London makes it easy for passengers to transfer from one mode to the other. Comprehensive passenger information systems will enable us to know when the next service is due and to understand the routes easily. This also reduces the hassle of long wait for the next bus or the train.

It is further argued that from an urban mobility perspective, public transport is far more efficient and environment friendly than personal motor vehicles in terms of the road space it uses up and the energy it consumes. If I am to take the advice given by most of my friends who have been living in Canberra, I need to target to buy the second vehicle (one for me and another for my husband) as soon as we start working, as normalcy is almost impossible without such an arrangement, specially with a kid around. The only exception is that both husband and wife start working either for the same company or nearby offices. If that logic is to be applied as a reality in the case of majority of 358,222 people living in Canberra, can one say that in reality there are about 600,000 vehicles on the road? Going a step beyond that, if the number of people in Canberra is believed to almost double its population during parliamentary sittings, will this reach more than 1,000,000? Although these numbers and assumptions are based on what I have heard as a brand new migrant, it’s worth researching on them further.

Looking back at the space and sustainability of the above argument, for example a bus carrying 40 passengers uses only 2.5 times more road space than a car carrying 1 or 2 people[3]. The same bus is estimated to consume only about 3 times as much fuel as a car. This will only reaffirm us that improving public transport system in Canberra undoubtedly is important and timely for improving sustainable mobility and it is the right approach to encourage low-carbon growth in the city as well.



[3] Ibid

2 thoughts on “Canberra’s public transport system: First impressions of a migrant

  1. Excellent post, Supipi. I really appreciate reading your views as someone completely new to Canberra and Australia. Have you shared this with relevant authorities? I would love to talk to you in person about this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *