A year in Canberra

Moving to Canberra for work is a rite of passage for many young professionals in Australia. And so it was that I moved to there in early 2015 to undertake 12 months of neurology advanced training. Putting aside my ingrained bias about the national capital – a product of growing up in Sydney – it’s actually a very nice place. There are many differences and quirks, though, and I thought I’d share my Sydneysider perspective…

The bush capital

Firstly, to understand Canberra in general, it’s helpful to think of it as a large country town that happens to be the national capital. This is a city where there actually are kangaroos on the streets. If you manage to get here (Canberra International Airport has no international flights), you’ll discover the population of only 380,000 is sprawled out across an area about 40km north-south and 15km east-west. The planned city is organised into districts, the urban ones being: North Canberra, South Canberra, Woden, Belconnen, Tuggeranong, Weston Creek, Gunghalin and Molonglo.

Canberra land axis, view from Mt Ainslie

Parliamentary Triangle land axis (Mt Ainslie, Capital Hill, Red Hill), view from Mt Ainslie

Being in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) means that there are many acronyms featuring ACT, some better than others, including:

  • ACTION – ACT Integrated Omnibus Network – public bus service
  • IntACT – Information technology ACT – ACT Government IST service
  • TransACT – internet service provider
  • GastrotrACT – private gastroenterology practice

Winter is coming

The first thing many Canberrans tell you about on arrival is the winter. By Australian standards, this city gets cold – a product of location (150km inland) and altitude (600m). Negative temperatures on winter mornings are the norm. Even in late September, during Floriade Nightfest, the effective temperature (with wind chill) was 0°C! Despite this, the dryness means that it rarely snows (less than 1 day this year).

Typical car thermometer reading whilst driving to work

Canberra state of mind

No-one working in the public sector here tells you what they actually do, only the ambiguous statement that “I’m a public servant”. It’s an almost meaningless statement in a city where the Australian Public Service is the largest employer. I’m a public servant too, but clearly what I do as a medical doctor is very different from my public servant neighbour does in the Australian Defence Force.

Speaking of my neighbours, there are very few people living in my inner-south neighbourhood who are actually from Canberra. The large proportion of people from interstate temporarily makes for a unique melting pot, with a very different vibe from any NSW town/city despite the geographical location.

The over-representation of young educated professionals also has other consequences. More people attend major events than one might expect for a city this size, such as Enlighten, Floriade Nightfest, Nara Candle Festival, etc.; and bumping into friends and colleagues is a near-certainty.

Enlighten festival 2015

Enlighten festival 2015

There also seem to be a lot of Volkswagen Golf GTIs…

Lots of GTIs in Canberra

Another reflection of the city’s demographics are the progressive tendencies of the ACT Government (at least in comparison to other Australian jurisdictions). Amongst other things:

  • Single-use plastic bags are banned, causing quite some confusion the first time I went to the supermarket (and some very contrived “reusable” plastic bags)
  • Major investment in wind and solar power, such that the ACT appears to be on-track to meet its 90% renewable energy target by 2020
  • A program to purchase all private homes contaminated by “Mr Fluffy” loose-fill asbestos (at huge expense)

The slow lane

Capital works in the ACT proceed much more slowly than equivalent work in Sydney or Melbourne. Construction on major projects such as Majura Parkway, Constitution Avenue, and Bowen Place; appear to stand still for extended periods and are subject to (repeated) delays. The Acton Tunnel was damaged a few months ago by an over-height truck and was closed for almost 3 days for temporary repairs.

Speaking of roads, everyone knows that Canberra has a lot of large roundabouts. What is less well-known is that the majority of Canberra’s roads have a chip seal surface (aka spray seal or coarse chip), a form of surfacing usually only found on rural roads, resulting in a harsh and noisy ride compared with asphalt. The ACT Government justifies the use of chip seal this by citing the much lower cost, which is probably a financial necessity considering the extensive road network for the small population. It is mystifying, however, when the ride/noise is worse after a road undergoes resurfacing; for example the recent works on Hindmarsh Drive and Tuggeranong Parkway.

Chip seal road surface

Normal for Canberra…

Overall, though, this place has grown on me over the year and I’m actually quite sad to be returning to Sydney in 2016. I’ll definitely miss the inner-south lifestyle, the lack of traffic, the politician-spotting (I live within 500m of PM Malcolm Turnbull), the national institutions, the cultural quirks, the many friends I’ve made, and yes even the weather.

Canberra parking meters

Whilst in Canberra recently, I came across the following parking meter on Lonsdale St – an American POM Model N housing with modernised internals. This style of parking meter is also common in parts of the Melbourne CBD, but is rarely seen in Sydney (if at all) having been superseded years ago.

Canberra parking meter

I quickly noted several issues with this traditional-style meter (not counting the fact that it doesn’t accept credit card payments nor 5c/50c coins).

1. Parking rate is not clearly marked

The rates are printed on a sticker within the “window” section at the same size and weight as the rest of the text in that section. Whilst I acknowledge that there is only limited space within that section, the text could be bold or colour could be used to draw attention to what is generally the most important piece of information to the user. (I presume a sticker affixed to the housing would not be viable due to vandalism).

2. Parking rate expressed in unusual increments

Most people have a time interval in mind when paying for parking and want to know how much it would cost to pay for that interval (e.g. $3/hour). The ACT government presumably thinks that people have a monetary amount in mind and want to know how much parking time can be purchased for a given amount – I can’t think of any other reason why the rate is expressed in the unusual manner above “10c = 2 mins” and “20c = 4 mins” (i.e. $3/hour). Also, Canberrans apparently can’t multiply by 2 and need it stated as above but then mysteriously seem to be able to multiply by 30 (to calculate the hourly rate).

I did see/use modern parking ticket machines in other parts of the city, so hopefully the city will eventually make the transition. Don’t get me started, however, on the inconsistent road signs, multiple models of traffic lights, etc. – that’s a rant for another day…

Sherlock: transforming the Tube

It was great to see the return of BBC’s Sherlock with series three’s opening episode The Empty Hearse (spoiler alert). Others have already commented that there were inconsistencies in scenes that took place in the Tube (London Underground), some of which are particularly obvious because of the division of the Tube network into sub-surface lines and deep-level lines with different rolling stock used on each line. A few of the more obvious things I noticed:

Not the District line

St James's Park security footage

The supposed security footage of a train running on the District line between Westminster and St James’s Park actually shows a deep-level tube station and train, either a 1996 Stock (Jubilee line) or 1995 Stock (Northern line). In real life, St James’s Park station is only served by sub-surface lines (District line and Circle line) running D Stock and S Stock trains.

Bigger on the inside

London Underground 1967 Stock

When Sherlock and Watson find the missing train car sitting in a disused tunnel, it’s now mysteriously transformed into a 1967 Stock train (formerly used on the Victoria line). When they enter the train, however, our protagonists find themselves inside a sub-surface D Stock train (District line). It’s bigger on the inside! (Is it a coincidence that co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss also work on Doctor Who?) But at last the train shown is consistent with the plot.

London Underground D Stock

I’m sure there were good logistical reasons for all the swaps – it’s likely that the producers used whatever footage and sets were available rather than incurring the expense of building new ones just for consistency.

Marking the border

There are some places in the world where you barely know that you’re crossing a border – even an international one – such as when driving on the M1/A1 between Dublin and Belfast in the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom respectively. The only indication that you’ve crossed into another country is a road sign stating that speed limits are now expressed in miles per hour or kilometres per hour, depending on which direction you’re travelling. There are historical and political reasons for this, of course.

Australian state borders, on the other hand, tend to be clearly marked. Within the twin towns of Tweed Heads NSW and Coolangatta QLD, apart from the usual signs, there is the following marker on Boundary Street.

NSW–Queensland border marker, Boundary Street

The majority of people crossing the border, however, bypass the towns and instead see this abstract sculpture on the M1 Pacific Motorway.

NSW–Queensland border, M1

I suppose it has to be obvious, in case the poorly designed Queensland road signs (one of which is visible above) don’t clue you in to the fact that you’ve crossed the border!

Environmental Mobility Check

When I booked an ICE3 train from Munich to Frankfurt earlier this year, I was impressed by German railway operator DB Bahn‘s website which shows the comparative travel time and environmental impact of travelling by train, car and aeroplane. All you have to do is click on “Environmental Mobility Check”, which I’m sure must be a direct translation from German.

DB Bahn environmental mobility checkDB Bahn Environmental Mobility Check sample (click to see full-size)

I tried a few different origins/destinations for curiosity and, needless to say, travelling by train was always the most environmentally-friendly option. Catching high-speed rail with direct connections was no slower than travelling by car (even with Autobahns) or aeroplane for journeys up to 3–4 hours. Now if only we had a high-speed rail connection between Sydney and Melbourne…

Amour fou

During my travels aboard RATP trains (Métro/RER) in Paris recently, I spotted the quaint notice below aboard a few of the trains. Somehow, I have a feeling that the poetry (and meaning) may be lost on the target audience… (And yes, the walls of the 1970s-designed MI 79 rolling stock are actually orange.)

RATP - Amour fou

Amour fou

Les chewing-gums sont de grands romantiques,
Ces coeurs d’artichauts s’attachment très vite.
Mais les pauvres, rarement aimés en retour,
Cherchent désespérément le grand amour
Alors que la promesse d’un amour fusionnel
Est là dans tous les couloirs: c’est la poubelle!

My translation:

Foolish love

Chewing gums are great romantics,
These fickle lovers attach themselves very quickly.
But the poor things, rarely loved in return,
They search desperately for true love
Yet the promise of a love that binds
Is there in all the passageways: it’s in the bin!