Back to the Past? Tram City, Motopia and Light Rail Commercialism in Canberra

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One of the long-term trajectories in urban development since the late 19th century has been determined by changing modes of movement. Following the city of the pedestrian plus bicycle and horse & carriage and that of trams and railway suburbs, the rise of the automobile city saw the decline and often total disappearance of streetcar systems. Then, the 1980s experienced a wide-spread renaissance of rail transport. Futuristic projections have accompanied these visions right through to current developments around driverless cars and trackless trams. Based on the case study of Canberra, this paper analyses these projections and their legacy in terms of success, failure and portent. The original plans of the Griffins (1911-1918) had proposed a model streetcar city financially supported through income from the leasehold system. These ideas were supplanted by a Motopia vision, which morphed into plans for a linear city shaped by land-use-transportation studies – an automobile-dependent suburbia, yet with the potential for a rapid transit public transport spine. Light rail was eventually introduced in 2019. Financed through the sale of public housing and creating high-rise development along the route, this is resulting in a profound transformation of Canberra’s urban form with real-estate values as the central shaping factor.
Streetcar cities, Motopia, urban form, Canberra