Canberra: Good Planning Can Lead to More Service

A decade ago, I was part of a team developing a Strategic Public Transport[1] Network Plan for Australia’s national capital, Canberra.  It gave rise to this thinkpiece about long term public transport planning in general.

A key idea was to have a citywide network of Rapid buses, with widely spaced stops.  Our most ambitious map (below, click to enlarge) imagined four of them, shown in red, though only the two longest ones were to be implemented anytime in the near future.  We also proposed a local frequent network (orange) covering most of the city.

Canberra 2031 network envisioned in 2007

We stopped there because we wanted the plan to seem financially reasonable.  Still, we were clear at the time that we were creating a structure for growth.  We were not predicting what would happen in what year, but rather defining a network of services that would phase in as development and political support warranted.

So it’s in the nature of such a plan that you’re creating a guide without knowing exactly how it will come out.  As it turns out, the plan has moved faster than I expected.  One Rapid line is now becoming light rail, but just as important, the government has announced a far larger Rapid network than we ever imagined, nine lines in total:

Canberra Rapid Network 2018

When a transit idea catches on locally, everyone wants it, so the next stage is often to deploy it beyond the range of where it can really succeed.[2]  So I wouldn’t be surprised to see this network pruned as ridership numbers come in, especially if times get leaner.  But meanwhile, the lesson is that great planning can lead to more money, if it starts to build a vision that people care about.  I don’t regret the fact that our plan’s vision, prepared 10 years ago, was more limited.  At that time, a more abundant plan would have seemed delusional.  You walk before you run, as they say.  We were walking 10 years ago.  Now Canberra is running.




[1] Public transport is the global term for what North Americans call transit.  I tend to use the word appropriate to the place I’m talking about, but I hope everyone understands it on both sides of North America’s moat.

[2] One of my concerns in strategic planning is to propose only a few corridors of high-level transit in the early years, so that there’s a motive for development to concentrate on them.  This effect is lost if that network goes too many places, relative to the demand for development.  The result is likely to be a more sprawling city.

14 Responses to Canberra: Good Planning Can Lead to More Service

  1. Tom October 22, 2017 at 10:37 am #

    The [2] was interesting. Remember, concentration of development to high-density corridors is YOUR urbanist ideology. Not necessary what the people in Canberra want to.

    • Jarrett Walker October 22, 2017 at 6:28 pm #

      Tom. Nobody’s attacking the quarter acre block. Point is for people to have choices.

      • MB October 24, 2017 at 2:43 pm #

        But it is an attack to a degree, because you advocate poor transit to less dense areas. You continue to do this, even though there are many examples of lower density areas that support frequent, efficient bus services.
        Under your planning style, most of suburban Toronto, for example, would have a bus every 60 minutes, instead of every 5 minutes, because most of the area is single family homes.

        Look at your presentation in Edmonton where you basically said all the outer neighborhoods should have their service downgraded from 30 minute service to 60 minute service.
        You say you are not advocating such things, but your maps and plans say otherwise, even if you don’t think they do.

        • Sam October 27, 2017 at 2:48 pm #

          That’s a fantasy. If you were paying attention, the improvements to buses in the outskirts of Sydney delivered more frequent and faster services because of Mr. walker’s expertise and recommendations. How is that advocating 60 minute frequencies in less built up areas?
          In fact, in outlying areas of Sydney we are now experiencing densification like never before and this is helping limit the sprawl of the city, albeit only marginally. Go figure.

        • Ernie October 30, 2017 at 7:57 am #

          But you have to understand that Mr. Walker is constrained by a budget. Toronto City Council subsidizes the TTC to 500 million a year despite it being one of the transit agencies with the highest farebox recovery ratio (45% in Edmonton vs. 67% in Toronto). What Mr. Walker does is say how much do you want to spend covering the city with transit vs spending such that you make more money from fares? With that in mind Mr. Walker creates a transit network plan. If there is more money in the transit pot Mr. Walker can increase coverage while keeping the same frequent network.

          • MB November 3, 2017 at 5:40 am #


            Everyone is constrained by budgets. That does not mean you cut whole areas of your city off from transit access. Many cities like Edmonton have not done that before, so why start now?

            Or you tell the leaders the truth, that you can make changes to the system. But that the changes are a one time stop gap measure, and that more funding will be required.
            Or, you work on a plan, that while maybe increasing walking distances somewhat, still maintains basic transit to everyone. Cutting whole areas out as advocated by Jarrett is not the answer.

            Look at Winnipeg, another city that provides transit service to all areas of the city. Jarrett did a presentation there, and many people in the audience got upset, because, yet again, he advocated that they will have to decide whether to cut areas off or fund a high frequency network.
            Well, it is not an either or. You can do both.

          • Sailor Boy November 6, 2017 at 6:18 pm #

            Mr Walker simpler states the geometric fact that with x number of dollars you can achieve more ridership by focusing on frequent services in high density areas, or you can achieve more coverage by focusing on low frequency buses in low density areas.

            This isn’t advocating for anything, it is accepting the reality that budgets exist and cities have areas with different densities.

    • Sam October 27, 2017 at 2:44 pm #

      Do you speak for the people of Canberra, or for those in Australian cities in general, for that matter?

    • Julian November 13, 2017 at 3:23 am #

      Not quite sure what you mean by ‘the people of Canberra’ as though they’re all identical.**

      Promoting denser development along key transit corridors is an obvious thing to do get the most from the transit corridors and increase the diversity of housing choice. It won’t change the fact that the vast majority of Canberra’s housing is and will continue to be detached houses on ‘quarter acre’ [actually mostly 500-800 square metre] lots. There’ll be no shortage of them for those who still want them.

      ** Just to show that people aren’t all identical: 25 years ago I settled in a house on a 800m2 block because that was the only type of housing in the area where we wanted to live. I’ve always regarded the ‘garden’ as mostly a burden. I’d be perfectly happy with half as much land providing the whole subdvision was better designed in a coordinated way for things like aspect, privacy, sunlight and traffic management. With better whole-of-subdivision design the typical Australian ‘quarter-acre’ suburb could probably be twice as densely populated without any detriment to the separate house and garden lifestyle that most people want.

  2. JHBW October 22, 2017 at 8:04 pm #

    Unrelated: I got into an argument the other day on the topic of fare tiering between rapid transit and slower, or local, bus transit. They argued that it made sense because rapid transit passengers enjoy better-quality service that should be priced accordingly; I responded that that wasn’t a useful way of thinking about transit networks from an urban mobility perspective. What are your thoughts on the matter? I’m sure it would make a great blog post, that would be handy to cite.

    • asdf2 October 22, 2017 at 8:19 pm #

      Jarrett address something like this in an older post.

      • JHBW October 22, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

        That does mostly address it. I’m also interested in how fare structure impacts transfers between modes, not just on one line, and real-life examples of such, that would be interesting.

    • Jarrett Walker October 23, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

      JHBW. Different fares for different service “quality” is a very bad idea if the services are meant to fit together into a single network. Austin had a great example recently where they had rapid and local-stop buses on the same busy street but charged more for the rapid ones. This encouraged people to take the locals instead. That was self-defeating because it’s in the transit agency’s interest that people move more rapidly through the system, as they consume less capacity when they do.

      • Sam October 27, 2017 at 3:06 pm #

        I agree. PT users shouldn’t have to pay more for services that are only slightly faster or can be integrated into a timetable to utlilise more of a network’s capacity and make it more efficient. A premium service would have to be “worth it” for the extra cost, such as an express shuttle service to an airport from a CBD that out-competes all other services in terms of journey time, frequency and comfort (which appeals to business travellers on a per diem), e.g. Heathrow Express. Unfortunately, many of these services are PPPs or wholly operated by private consortiums and they want return on their investment, answering to shareholders rather than voters. Thankfully, when the 30km+ Sydney North West Metro line opens it will be integrated with Opal ticketing…even though it’s gunna be kinda The Metro to Nowhere in the interim with an interchange at already congested Chatswood.