Gold Coast light rail is driving force behind shift to public transport
An accelerated expansion of public transport on Queensland’s Gold Coast could set the model for other parts of regional Australia where the population is increasing rapidly.
While taking a train or tram to work has long been the norm for big-city commuters, it is often still not possible or practical for people living in regional Australia.
Until recently the Gold Coast, like many area areas outside of capital cities, was a city where just about everyone jumped into a car to get around.
But things are changing quickly.
Under an ambitious plan, Mayor Tom Tate said the Gold Coast was undergoing a transport revolution, with a jump in commuters taking public transport from 3 per cent in 2011 to 9 per cent today.
Cr Tate said the city was aiming for 12 per cent.
“Normally it only moves 1 per cent after two or three years. The uplift has been incredible,” he said.
Cr Tate said the city’s shift was being noticed around regional Australia.
“We are being copied the most throughout regional Australia, people are looking to the Gold Coast — what are they doing next?” he said.
What has changed?
The second stage of the light rail connects to Helensvale train station. (Supplied: Gold Coast City Council )
The big ticket item for the Gold Coast hub has been the start of a light rail route along the coast.
In the past year, the second stage of the city’s light rail was opened, connecting the tram line to trains that head north to Brisbane.
The Federal Government on Monday committed $112m to extend the same tram line south to the popular Burleigh Heads beach.
While significant State funding is still needed for that project, the federal commitment takes the rail extension a step closer to being built.
Many hope the light rail will eventually make it all the way south to the Gold Coast airport at Coolangatta.
If that did happen, it would give tourists and residents the ability to travel from Brisbane to any of the popular Gold Coast beaches via train and tram.
Outside of the tram line, the State Government has also committed to building three new train stations in the city’s north and Cr Tate is pushing plans for a commuter ferry to link up to the light rail.
But it is not just new infrastructure changing transport on the coast.
Cr Tate said about 60,000 seniors had signed up for free off-peak bus travel, and the city was pushing younger citizens to walk or cycle to work or places of study.
What’s driving the change?
One big factor driving the change has been population growth.
Cr Tate said council put a transport plan together in 2013, when it knew the city was growing by 12,000 to 16,000 residents a year.
“We know that growth comes from Sydney and Melbourne, in catering for that, there are different ways of planning your city,” he said.
“So we planned to go up instead of going out, so people could stay closer to the shoreline instead of going out and spreading out like they did in places like Blacktown, Liverpool, Campbelltown,” he said.
Griffith University planning expert Paul Burton said the Gold Coast’s growing population would lead to increased congestion without the investment in public transport.
He said the light rail had been a good starting point.
“I think what we are doing, what we have done, is built the beginnings of a good spine,” he said.
Professor Burton said the city next needed to link buses to the light rail.
“It is the equivalent of the ribs that come off the spine, so that is the next stage is to look at those east, west connections.”
The Gold Coast City Council is proposing a commuter ferry service for the Gold Coast. (Supplied: Gold Coast City Council)
Professor Tate is also supportive of the Cr Tate’s push for a ferry service.
He said it would need to be fast enough to be a sensible commuting option, and technical and legal challenges may need to be resolved, but believes the project could work.
“Cities around the world that are successful at managing growth capitalise on their waterways to move people and goods,” he said.
Not everyone is happy
On the southern end of the Gold Coast in particular, some community groups have raised concerns about the light rail, because larger housing developments are allowed close to the tram line.
Professor Burton said there needed to be higher density close to the city’s best public transport to justify the public investment in the infrastructure.
“The trick is to persuade people that the higher density you will see, does not mean the end of civilisation as we know it, does not mean high-rise.
“You can significantly increase density without going very high and changing the inherent character in an area.”
Lois Levy from the environmental group Gecko put together a petition to the Queensland Government asking it to tighten state’s planning laws.
She said the investment in public transport on the Gold Coast had been essential, but she had concerns about the housing developments the light rail allows.
A Queensland Government video showing the proposed third stage of the Gold Coast light rail
“What has been happening, particularly at the southern end in the Palm Beach region, is a lot of high-rise developments are being approved, with what we consider to be excessive relaxations of density, height, lack of parking, setbacks, in anticipation of the light rail coming through,” she said.
Ms Levy said her group was concerned a canyon effect could be produced if there is high-rise down both sides of the city’s coastal highway and future tram line.
“If you could imagine driving down the Gold Coast Highway through Palm Beach there would be high-rise on either side, blocking out all of the sea views, any views to the hinterland, causing huge parking problems.”
Ms Levy said she was meeting with council this month to discuss the issue.