Why transit-oriented development is important for Canberra

An artist's impression of light rail in Canberra.An artist's impression of light rail in Canberra. Photo: Supplied

Michael Jollon is a transport planner and president of the ACT division of the Planning Institute of Australia.

TT: First of all, what is transit-oriented development?

MJ: Transit-oriented development (or TOD) is built infrastructure like buildings and public places, planned and designed to capitalise on its relationship to public transport. Transit-oriented development is usually within 800 metres of public transport stations or major stops, although closer is better. It includes high-quality outdoor public areas, higher density development, and mixed uses such as units, offices and retail. Usually it includes less car parking than conventional development.

Passengers catching a bus in Canberra.Passengers catching a bus in Canberra. Photo: Graham Tidy

Where business-as-usual development is near public transport but fails to meet the criteria above, it is not likely to deliver the synergistic benefits afforded by TOD. Development that is near, but does not effectively relate to public transport, is known derisively as TAD – short for transit adjacent development.

TT: So why is TOD important to Canberra?

MJ: Cities all over Australia and around the world have found it is the best way to provide vibrant urban environments, protect the natural environment, and save money on infrastructure. TOD developments have been shown to reduce car ownership, kilometres driven and increase public transport usage and walking and cycling. Reducing reliance on driving not only reduces pollution including greenhouse gases, but also frees up space in the city for more vibrant, interesting and social uses.

TT: But what happens if light rail is stopped after the upcoming election?

MJ: TOD isn’t just for rail systems, it can complement any public transport that operates along fixed routes. Of course, public transport systems with less passenger capacity tend to support smaller developments.

TT: So it works with buses as well?

MJ: TOD has been successfully used to complement bus rapid transport systems in cities like Brisbane, Pittsburgh and Ottawa. In Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, over 5000 residential units and 70,000 square metres of commercial development was built within walking distance of 29 bus rapid transport stations in the four years ending in 2002. Interestingly, however, Ottawa is now looking at replacing some of its busways with rail lines because they have become congested.

TT: What do we need to make sure we have transit-oriented, not transit-adjacent development?

MJ: TOD needs a few things to be successful. First of all, it needs good public transport with trunk lines featuring frequent, rapid services between popular origins and destinations. It also needs good planning and design, including planning controls that encourage high-quality, dense, mixed-use development around public transport stations; political leadership to ensure the approval system delivers quality development; and land owners, designers, and builders who are willing to step up to the challenge. Once properly engaged, the public has an important role in appreciating the important role good transit-oriented development can play in the life of the city.

Tony Trobe is director of the local practice TT Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you’d like to discuss? Email