by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in the Canberra Times, 05 October 2019]
Every spring I fall in love with Canberra all over again. After the biting cold of a perfect Canberra winter – which I enjoy until the last month or so – it’s uplifting to see the naked trees become leafy and green again, and to watch the cherry blossoms bloom and the days become lighter and longer. When daylight saving begins, I start making promises to myself to ride my bike to work every day.
On Friday nights, I’d sometimes stop for a cheeky glass of wine by the lake.Picture: Jamila Toderas
Last summer I rode to work most days, gliding past the calm waters of Lake Burley Griffin en route to the Australia Institute’s office in Manuka.
I still had a car (I still love my car), but I used it less. It improved my days enormously. Riding home was a nice way to unwind. On hot days, I stopped at Manuka or Civic pool for a swim. On Friday night I’d sometimes stop for a cheeky glass of wine at the Pop Inn by the lake.
Once I was in the habit of riding, the benefits accumulated quickly. I started riding to places without even thinking about it. I rode my bike to meet friends for brunch, to meet them at the pub, to go to the movies and to the shops. My fellow cyclists ranged from full on lycra-clad people whizzing past on road bikes, to public servants in suits on upright bicycles, to mums and dads cycling their kids to school. I was fitter and healthier, I never had to worry about parking or traffic, I bought petrol once a month instead of once a week.
ACT Climate Change Minister Shane Rattenbury says we need to “Copenhagenise Canberra” by modelling the city’s transport policy on that of the Danish capital, as part of the ACT’s climate strategy. You can’t fault him on his pick.
I have never been to Copenhagen, but if you wanted to make Canberra a more liveable city, it seems like a pretty smart pick to emulate. Copenhagen is regularly ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. Better still, it regularly ranks among the happiest. Canberra could certainly pick worse aims than to be the happiest, most liveable city.
Just seven years ago, only 36 per cent of Copenhagen residents cycled to work or school, now more than 60 per cent of Copenhagen residents commute to work or school by bike. But it didn’t magically happen, it happened because the city council launched a 14-year plan to improve the quality, safety and comfort of cycling. And it worked.
The Australia Institute established the Nordic Policy Centre in partnership with Deakin University to help spread exactly this kind of great policy inspiration from the Nordic nations, some of the happiest and healthiest countries on Earth, and adapt them for Australian circumstances.
Judging by the ACT Liberals’ over-the-top response to the announcement that Canberra might have a car free day – that’s one day, once a year, in parts of the city, possibly held to coincide with events like markets and festivals – it appears the Liberals prefer a city where people are dependent on their cars and chained to the petrol pump.
Not to mention, we already close off the city to cars for events like the National Multicultural Festival and I don’t recall Alistair Coe complaining about that.
Certain parts of Paris are car-free on the first Sunday of every month. If Paris can do it once a month, surely Canberra can do it once a year.
But it’s a genuinely interesting question. If not Copenhagen, where else should we model ourselves on? Canberra could “Los Angelise” our transport system. Los Angeles – admittedly a much bigger, sprawling city of 12-lane freeways than modest Canberra – doesn’t top the list of most liveable cities, but it was number one for traffic congestion six years in a row in the United States. It hardly seems a contest to compare the frustration of Sydney’s traffic congestion to the ease of catching public transport in Melbourne.
If not Copenhagen, Melbourne or Sydney, which city do the Liberals think Canberra should be aim to be more like? It’d be nice to have a sense of where they think Canberra should be heading.
For those who still do not think climate change is good enough reason to decarbonise our transport sector, consider the economic benefits. Residents who cycle in Copenhagen request 1.1 million fewer sick days. Every kilometre travelled by bike instead of by car means US$1.16 gained in terms of public health benefits. How’s that for productivity?
The ACT Liberals are also up in arms about the plan to “encourage a shift from gas to electricity by removing the mandated requirement for gas connection in new suburbs, supporting gas to electric appliance upgrades and transitioning to all-electric new builds”.
Shifting from gas would be a no-brainer for many households. Wholesale gas prices have more than doubled in the six years the Liberal/Nationals Coalition has been in office federally.
In contrast, the ACT’s electricity prices are shielded from surges in wholesale electricity prices by its innovative “contracts for difference” policy. The ACT is the first jurisdiction outside of Europe to join the 100 per cent renewables club, through reverse auctions that ensure the cheapest price for consumers – it’s a policy innovation Victoria and Queensland are set to copy.
But Canberra can learn from Queensland too. More than 100,000 Queensland households with smart appliances are signed up to a successful demand response program that has helped deliver half a coal-fired power station’s worth of energy capacity, reducing peak demand on the National Electricity Market.
Put simply, demand response provides the opportunity for households to receive payments for reducing their power usage during periods of peak demand-creating “negawatts”. Demand response increases grid reliability, reduces emissions and puts downward pressure on electricity prices: it’s a win-win-win solution that could work perfectly in Canberra as it slowly upgrades from gas to electric appliances.
Canberra feels more confident about who it is and where it’s going than when I moved here in 2001. It is certainly more liveable. Walking through Haig Park, I used to hold my keys in my hand like a weapon, but this time last week I was in Haig Park eating a delicious doughnut from a local bakery, listening to a free talk encouraging women to hike solo. The place was packed with women and families, who now flock to the park with all its improved amenity.
Since the light rail went in, I’ve been to Gungahlin more times in six months than in the previous six years. Woden, my favourite place to watch a movie thanks to its reclining chairs, now has about 10 nice dinner places for a post-movie debrief, instead of just one.
Living in a city that has a clear vision for its future feels good. You might not agree with all of it, but at least you know where Canberra is headed and why. In the meantime, I’m feeling the pedal power of Canberra. Join me and get on your bike, you won’t regret it.
Ebony Bennett is the deputy director at independent think-tank the Australia Institute. @ebony_bennett