Canberra Transport Nightmare: Trapped in Palmerston!


Yesterday I thought I was trapped in a Freddy Kruger nightmare from which there was no escape. All roads led me back to Palmerston despite my best efforts to leave.

I had to be in the city and left Palmerston at 9:40am. When I arrived at 10am there was nowhere to park. Nothing. 20 minutes walk away there was a pay parking car park - I have no problem paying for parking - but it was for a 3 hour limit. I did not want to have to walk back to my car in the middle of the day just to feed the parking metre. If it had cost $20 I would have simply paid and got on with my day. But no, not in Canberra.

After driving around for 40 minutes I found that transport in Canberra is just like broadband. In many cases, it simply does not matter how much money you have, you just cannot get what you want. Here was a demand for something I desperately needed: a car park close enough to carry a few things to where I needed to be. In Jordan, I can find valet parking almost anywhere, yet in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world, nothing.

So, in the spirit of a mini-ethnography, I decided to test the alternatives to driving my car. I drove back to Palmerston, parked my car, and then checked the bus timetable. It was 11am and I had missed the No. 56 bus to Civic by about three minutes and the bus to Gungahlin by about ten minutes. The next bus out of Palmerston was in about another hour.

I quickly called a taxi. Because my hearing is not the best I asked for the "agent" and joined the cue. Then I heard the engaged signal - I had been cut off. This was not the customer service I was hoping for so I decided to exercise my freedom of choice. I would walk to Gungahlin and bus it to civic. I had to reconfigure what I was carrying, but my research fieldwork was now in full flow.

On the way to Gungahlin, I passed the Gungahlin High School. A woman leaving the car park was stopped across the footpath. I walked in front of the car to continue my journey while the woman looked at me and sped up to beat me across the footpath. But, knowing that "when leaving a private driveway or an off-street parking area [motorists must] give way to all traffic on the road and pedestrians and cyclists on the footpath" (see ACT Road Rules Handbook, page 73), I continued on my way.
When leaving a private driveway or an off-street parking area give way to all traffic on the road and pedestrians and cyclists on the footpath.
As a matter of course, the woman gave me a string of lip about getting in her way and impeding her journey across the footpath.

I arrived at Gungahlin at 11:40am. I know that Route 200 to Civic runs every 15 minutes. This excellent bus service follows the same route that the Capital Metro light rail project will duplicate at a cost of some $783 million (or more). But I was shocked to find that the next bus to Civic was actually the No. 56 which goes via - you guessed it - Palmerston. 

But as the 56 goes through Mitchell and Palmerston, it is quite a trip compared to the No. 200, so I resolutely waited for the 200.

Several bus numbers (the No. 250 and the No. 52) stopped at the Gungahlin Interchange that were not on the timetable. I had no idea where these buses came and went.

One minute after the No. 56 departed, the 200 arrived and off I set to Civic at 11:50am. By 12:15pm I was there and I went to the No. 5 platform to transfer to the No. 7. It was five minutes late but by 12:38pm I had arrived at my destination. To travel 17.4km took me 1 hour and 38 minutes.

There is no moral to this story but it is clear that unless you live on a major bus route, travelling in Canberra is a nightmare. The bus routes are good in some places, but not in Palmerston, the most densely-populated suburb with some 3,200 people per square km. This is 200 more people per square km than Braddon. Indeed, the bus service in Palmerston does not operate for a period of up to 80 minutes at one point in the day.

Unless the Capital Metro means more bus services will operate in Palmerston, it is difficult to see how increasing property returns for developers alone justifies the public investment. Duplicating the No. 200 bus service will certainly change the Northbourne corridor, most likely for the better, but let's not pretend that its purpose is to improve transport. Private investment in Capital Metro will end this problem but it is still not clear how the funding model will work.

Why does it take so long to travel in Canberra? Sure, the distances are vast, but there is not that much traffic outside of what I call 'peak moment'. But the combination of no parking and no bus services does not make sense. Surely there is a market for one or both of these services? Nevertheless, there are so many barriers to leaving the car at home. Today, I had thoughts of taking my bicycle and using the bike rack on the bus. This is a fine service but instead I car-pooled with a friend as I had scored a car park.

What of the attitude towards pedestrians? I suspect this indicates that there are many more institutional barriers to effective transport infrastructure in the ACT, if not Australia more generally. These barriers have long-term implications. According to the OECD, 'there is a shortfall of infrastructure, harming investment, and a lack of policies to ensure its efficient use'.
There is a shortfall of infrastructure, harming investment, and a lack of policies to ensure its efficient use.
Regrettably, Canberra is a case in point. While it may not be 'extreme commuting', if one is forced to use the bus from Palmerston to the outer areas of Civic, it would seem that the average commute time of 1.5 hours to travel 17.4km by public transport is rather disappointing. Nevertheless, I fail to see how Capital Metro will improve this situation any time soon.

Post script: The trip back to Palmerston
  • 2:44pm - Arrive at bus stop as per timetable
  • 2:51pm - Board No. 7 bus
  • 2:58pm - Arrive at Civic Interchange
  • 3:02pm - Board No. 200 bus
  • 3:27pm - Arrive at Gungahlin Interchange
  • 3:49pm - Board No. 56 for Palmerston
  • 4:04pm - Arrive my stop in Palmerston
Total commute time to travel 17.2km: 1 hour 20 minutes

(I won't add the time it takes to catch a bus to work from Fyshwick when I have to put my car in for a service. It is just too depressing).