It seems the idea of public transport, the way Australians want it, has been lost. But for environmental and social reasons we should be investing in public transport infrastructure, because it is obvious our romance with the internal combustion engine is unsustainable.
Is using fossil fuel still too cheap? I believe it is however politically unacceptable it may be to say so. One cogent reason for promoting public transport is to reduce pollution. Australia has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the world, and the third highest per capita emissions resulting from transport. A major way to achieve a reduction in greenhouse gases should be by educating the populace to conserve energy.
No amount of alternative energy will fill the void if we believe it will totally replace fossil fuels. The idea of renewable energy in private vehicles, if it occurs, presents its own problems. Dr Fisher, Professor of Environmental Science at Monash University, has said, "If we intend to use renewables to power the extraction of hydrogen from water to drive future fuel cell powered cars, the implications for atmospheric disturbance are truly catastrophic". Sir Isaac Newton’s law will be proved right once again. "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."
Another hypothetical question: Should we use agricultural land to harvest ethanol, so that one person in a machine roughly ten times their own weight can ferry themselves around for whatever fickle purpose? This fosters the notion that we will be able to continue along in the same old blasé manner with no thought given to energy conservation. We have been methodically conditioned not to use our legs. We become peeved if there is nowhere to park and we are forced to walk short distances. Children are driven to school. The end product is a reclusive, obese society tied to computers and cars.
The Warren Centre at Sydney University reports that 40 per cent of urban residents are below the physical activity levels recommended for good health. In its Sustainable Transport study it also supports public transport, and the concept of a very fast train. One encouraging trend emerged: The study showed people are willing to change their travel habits.
Fiscal parsimony contributes to future prosperity only when the savings are directed to productive investment, such as public transport. How can politicians maintain their fetish with bottom lines and being debt free when massive expenditure is going to be needed to resurrect essential infrastructure, for example the 19th century Menangle Bridge (a major rail link between Melbourne and Sydney) and the Casino railway line in northern NSW. We are on the cusp of an infrastructure disaster, with thousands more trucks plying roads that cannot cope with the load. Who will pay to repair those roads damaged by the trucks? Yes, you the local ratepayer or tenant. This is social theft, when just ten trains daily between Sydney and Melbourne could eliminate all articulated trucks.
In August, 2001 then NSW State Treasurer Michael Egan said the sale of NSW’s Freight Corp would assist funding a $6 billion rail upgrade. Where has the money gone? In the event, the government received only $365 million after transaction costs and the retiring of $245 million of debt had been taken into account.
We have been conditioned to believe the “car is king” and rail travel is only for the poor and desperate. But single commuter cars are socially isolating, highly inefficient and polluting - just think of Sydney. New land releases without public transport create major social problems. So does inadequate service in established areas.
A further major contributor to climate change is the aviation industry. Five million people fly around the globe each day. Within Australia some of that number could be substantially reduced by inter-city very fast trains.
Rail is still the most efficient and safe method of moving people. But how far are we now from Keynesianism, which advocated national investment to improve services for all Australians? I live in regional Goulburn and I detest coming to Sydney by car, but the trains are slow, often dirty, dilapidated and unreliable. I have sympathy for both the staff members - who have been subjected to a tedious campaign of demoralisation - as well as the ever suffering public.
As design failures in cities continue, so does smog density. Exhaust emissions cause respiratory problems. Unleaded fuel is full of carcinogens including benzene. It is an outright lie to suggest that more new roads are necessary for economic growth and job creation.
Who are the people using these encroaching strips of concrete? It is the wealthy, and those who have been displaced to exist in dormitory-like enclaves with no services or civic facilities. In the process prime farming land is often destroyed for which developers and the stamp duty office are highly grateful. The people left living adjacent to the traffic, and the stacks built to ensure that everyone in the inner-city gets their fair share of pollutants, are usually the urban poor, living in a degraded environment with poor public transport.
This article was first presented as a long term planning and future thinking paper to the Macquarie University Ecopolitics Conference VX on November 12, 2004.
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