Opinion: Daniel Bennett, Indaily, May 20, 2013
WE’RE closer to Bordeaux than you think, figuratively speaking.
We have some of the most beautiful wine and food regions in Australia, if not the world. We have a kind, semi-arid, semi-Mediterranean climate. We also have trams, like Bordeaux. The cities are similar in population (Adelaide’s population is 1.2 million, Bordeaux’s is 1.1 million) and size (Adelaide covers 1700sqkm, Bordeaux’s urban area is 1100sqkm).
But more importantly – and here we reach the focus of this column – Bordeaux has one of the most well-designed tram systems in the world. This is an obvious system to benchmark against Adelaide, due to its successful integration within the city.
The Bordeaux network is also a very successful reintroduction of light rail into an older, established city centre, and was one of the first systems to use a subterranean, electricity-conducting “third rail” as a power supply, negating the need for an overhead wire system. Now, think of King William Street. Currently our premier civic street is a sea of (albeit well-designed) poles and wires. Now imagine that street with the trams but not the wires…
It is worth explaining why light rail, in particular, could offer not only better public transport for Adelaide, but also significant city shaping and defining benefits far beyond the provision of tracks and trams. This is where the overseas experience in places like Bordeaux is relevant.
Firstly, consider the hip-pocket benefits. If you could walk less than five minutes to a tram stop, wait no longer than five minutes for a tram at a pleasant, shaded stop, and arrive at your city destination within 20 minutes, would you take this option? This
This benefits your hip pocket through not using your car, as well as creating at least 20 minutes of walking which is, on average, only 10 minutes less than you need each day for a healthy life, according to current health guidelines.
According to the Royal Automobile Association, a Suzuki Alto is the cheapest car to own and run, at $121 per week, and costs around $12,000 to buy. With our rush towards medium-sized 4WDs such as a Holden Captiva or Ford Territory, the average weekly costs increase to around $250 per week, excluding the cost of the car. Even Australia’s best-selling private car, the Mazda3, has running costs of around $170 per week and costs on average $25,000 to buy. In comparison, an Adelaide Metro ticket currently costs around $30 per week, with no running or capital costs.
So – $30 on average a week for tram travel, with the added health benefits, versus upwards of $250 per week for an average car, including running costs (petrol, maintenance, parking, etc). Light rail: good for your health, good for your wallet.
Secondly, to ensure more of us can leave the car comfortably at home, we need more people to live within five minutes’ walk, or a comfortable distance up or down hill, of a transport corridor. This is a real humdinger in Adelaide now, and the key differentiator missing in the discussion is effective public transport. This means not waiting 20 minutes or more for a bus, but instead creating a networked, integrated and beautiful light rail solution which creates reliability through fixed and dedicated infrastructure.
We live in an extremely liveable city – this is not in doubt. However, it is arguable that not all of us desire a quarter of a hectare on the fringe or even in the middle ring. Some of us might be attracted to higher-density living options, with good transport and access to good-quality parks and shops.
Understanding the benefits of a light rail system starts with the right transport questions. Who will use it? Where does it need to go? Where is the evidence to support it in the long term? Does it have bipartisan political support? Will it outlast the political cycle? Will it provide urban renewal opportunities?
Light rail has a large initial capital cost. It requires track, stops, power, poles and wires, tram vehicles and people to maintain it. On its own, it is a huge investment. However, the metrics used to assess the cost need to go far beyond basic and narrow capital costs, operations and maintenance.
There are many worthwhile opportunities beyond the transport benefits light rail can provide. Light rail is best suited to using existing streets or dedicated corridors or a combination of both. Some of the world’s best systems are integrated within existing streets, with dedicated light rail lanes, which exclude private vehicles. This approach provides reliability of service without mixed uses, including buses. The light rail stops are also key components – they’re typically between 250-500 metres apart, depending on surrounding uses and intensity. The stops provide one of the best opportunities for intensification and beacons for activity – street life, commerce, daily life….a real focus for each locale along the routes. There are real benefits to cities from light rail.
Think about the comparison with Bordeaux. I am not suggesting the usual hyperbole of “we can be like…” Instead, I’m suggesting that we need to be thinking in a different way about how our city can become a better, more sustainable and beautiful city; how it can become a model for the larger Australian cities to copy. Let’s reverse the current urban planning paradigm in which Adelaide tries to become more like Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. Pah to that. What about the “Bordeaux of the south”?