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Monday, March 2, 2009

A Revolution in the Transport Economy







If you ask most Australians today what worries them most, chances are they will respond that the ever-spiralling cost-of-living is of prime concern. The rising cost of petrol, in particular, is one factor which flows on through the transport sector to impact upon the broader economy.

This tendency - felt worldwide - is worsened by tension in the Persian Gulf, and looming confrontation with Iran. In addition, there is the impact of rapidly developing economies like China and their insatiable thirst for oil.

Many commentators believe if we have not already reached “Peak Oil” we will do so soon. And as demand increasingly outstrips supply the crisis is set to worsen.

The aim of this paper is to consider the transport sector crisis: from the need for green and efficient alternatives, to the imperative of providing transitional transport supply infrastructure - as part of a “transport revolution”.

Transport economy in crisis

Considering the skyrocketing price of oil, it might reasonably be supposed that there is already sufficient incentive for governments worldwide to take decisive action and restructure their transport economies in favour of cost-effective and renewable solutions.

The Emissions Trading Scheme proposed by the Rudd Government - as applied to petrol - looked set to increase prices by as much as 10c a litre.

In response to criticism, the government signalled that it would be cutting petrol excise for three years so as to make the overall effect revenue neutral.

There is still, though, a strong case to transition beyond the kind of oil dependence we now have. Both for the environment and for sheer efficiency there is a case to be put for the public transport alternative - and for investment in electric and hybrid car technology.

Debate is now crucial: to spur Australian governments on to embrace reform and to restructure transport economies in favour of cost-effective, sustainable and renewable solutions.

The case for public transport

Public transport is a far more energy-efficient and is a less carbon-intensive alternative to petrol-driven vehicles. The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has surveyed the energy efficiency of public versus private transport. To break the figures down: an average petrol-run car will cost about 3.7 mega-joules (MJ) per passenger-kilometre (pkm). An electric train, however, operates at a rate of between 0.04 and 0.18 MJ pkm, making train transport as much as 92 times more energy efficient.

From an energy-conscious and environmental perspective the imperative of prioritising increased public transport patronage and improving infrastructure and services is undeniable.

But how affordable is public transport - considering the example of Melbourne - in the face of the current fare system?

Drawing on RACV figures, meanwhile, the PTUA compares the cost of running a used car to that of everyday public transport use: "… even used cars, already fully paid for and ‘running on the smell of an oily rag’ can cost over a thousand dollars more in annual registration and fuel than the most expensive Yearly Metcard." Here "annual running costs" are "$2,918".

In comparison, the PTUA has noted that (in regards to the Victorian example): "Metlink yearly tickets are $1,117 for zone 1, $748 for zone 2, or $1,722 for zones 1+2."

Despite the competitive cost of public transport, though, many still choose to use their cars as a matter of convenience. And also the above figures may appear deceptive if one considers that car transport can be relatively cost-efficient in comparison to public transport in the case of short trips. It is critical that such disincentives to the use of public transport are addressed.

As Royce Millar and Simon Mann have argued:

“Just one in 20 outer Melbournians take public transport to work. In the relatively transport-rich inner city, the figure is one in five. Citywide, just 9% of all trips are taken by bus, train or tram.”

Public transport infrastructure and rolling stock in Australia need to be upgraded to accommodate greater patronage, and to provide excellent and convenient service (including greater frequency) at competitive prices to all citizens.

The PTUA is launching a campaign on improving the regularity of public transport services to provide convenience for consumers. The campaign has been named Every 10 Minutes to Everywhere.

There is a particularly urgent need to expand transport networks into the urban fringe of major cities where services are often especially poor.

Indeed, compared internationally, there is much scope to improve the affordability of public transport in Australia’s cities. The PTUA notes, for instance, that the Canadian city of Vancouver enjoys fares of around half the cost of Melbourne's.

To conclude: the need to revolutionise the transport economy - to invest in public transport and rail freight - is undeniable. So also is the need for root and branch reform of Australian public transport fee structures.

Such are the environmental, equity and fiscal imperatives we face.

Transport from a different perspective: hybrid and electric car technology

Alongside the imperative to revolutionise the provision of public transport, there is the question of hybrid and electric car technology. Environmental and cost of living pressures are bringing to a head the need for such innovation.

Wikipedia notes that Plug-in Hybrid Electrical Vehicles (PHEV) are currently capable of about 100km a day on battery power alone - after which the car reverts to a petroleum motor. The working of the petroleum motor thereafter assists in recharging the vehicle battery. Notably 100km a day is more than most people require in their daily usage. But the hybrid system provides flexibility on long trips - when it is needed.

Research is ongoing, and Wikipedia also notes that:

“Advanced battery technology is under development, promising greater energy densities by both mass and volume, and battery life expectancy is expected to increase.”

Some researchers, however, feel that more work should be put into developing more efficient and “green” alternatives like “fuel-cell cars that can use sustainable sourced fuels, such as hydrogen”. Unfortunately, though, many suppose that hydrogen fuel cells will not provide a marketable alternative before 2025.

If PHEV vehicles are the best option available over the next 20 or so years, then the challenge is to make the technology affordable. Indeed, it is a basic “cost of living” issue essential to the transport framework of the entire economy.

One significant challenge here might be subsidisation and even socialisation of petrol supply during the transition period. The aim, in this instance, is to make private transport affordable for those on lower-incomes - who may not have the immediate means to “upgrade” to the new technology.

As part of this process, there is a key role for Australian government: to partner with other governments and automobile companies in furthering PHEV and hydrogen fuel cell research and development to make it affordable for all.

Other roles for government may also include driving the adoption of micro-renewable energy solutions - to complement the shift to a “green private transport economy”.

A revolution in transport infrastructure, including improved public transport, and the adoption of hybrid and electric vehicle technology - can provide better value and efficiency even while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We need to speak out and ensure our voices are heard so that decisive action is taken - now.

by Tristan Ewins


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