Eco-activist spotlight: Far-north Qld campaigns for public transport

Cairns Action for Sustainable Transport formed at the start of last year. CAST advocates a sustainable transport system — urban mass transit, regional rail and bus services and rail freight, all powered by renewable energy, and bikeway and pedestrian access networks. Green Left Weekly's Jonathan Strauss spoke to CAST activists Renee Lees, Svargo Freitag and Stacey O'Brien about CAST's aims.

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In far-north Queensland — incorporating Cairns, surrounding coastal areas, and the Atherton Tablelands — transport is the sector that contributes the most to greenhouse gas emissions.

Commuter travel and freight transport is overwhelmingly by car and truck. Urban public transport is so poor the few buses running are hardly used. Rail freight has been run down.

CAST activist Renee Lees told GLW: "Cairns is, rather depressingly, a car city. I ride bikes everywhere, but that's not an option for everyone, so what's being cried out for is decent public transport."

The people who started CAST had a range of concerns. One was to try to set up a climate action group in Cairns. Another issue was the region's vulnerability to fuel price rises. They also thought public transport could contribute to social equity and making cities more liveable, and were angry about the badly run bus system.

Lees said, "the sustainable transport issue raises one part of a much bigger question: how do we live differently in cities, relate differently to each other and the natural environment, and live more communally?"

Stacey O'Brien said one reason she joined CAST is its "aim to make the community aware we have a choice … A lot of people in the community don't know you can challenge the government. The greatest achievement we've had is getting the word out there, and giving the issue a collective voice. Community participation is becoming a bigger part of how planning is happening."

Public transport usage in Cairns amounts to less than 4% of trips. The government target is for "at least 10%" of trips to be by public transport by 2036. The government is only considering an upgraded bus network to meet this target.

Svargo Freitag told GLW: "We want to see the Cairns region develop into a national model for sustainability, showcasing solutions to peak oil and global warming. Cairns stands to lose its tropical rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef and is subject to rising sea-levels, so we have a huge incentive to do the right thing."

CAST proposes the public transport usage target for 2025 should be at least 40% of trips.

A comprehensive system involving light rail "spines" running the length of the city, incorporating existing rail lines and stations and combined with electrified shuttle bus services will be the key to achieving this.

Beyond the city, CAST argues for regional rail services (integrated with the city services using "dual-mode rail") and bus services. An inter-regional very-fast-train network could replace most domestic air travel. Rail should predominate in freight transport.

CAST plans to organise rallies in response to the Rudd government's inadequate greenhouse gas emission targets, including a protest for World Environment Day. Other activities include public meetings, film showings, information stalls and a Cairns-based car-pooling network.

O'Brien noted how "some of our group really worked hard on an Infrastructure Australia submission", which put CAST's proposals "in really serious terms. We're not just marching down the street. I didn't realise there was so much in it."

As well, CAST has sought cooperation with the Cairns Bicycle Users Group and works with other environmentalists and progressive unionists in the region.

[For more information about CAST and to get involved, visit http://www.takesteps.org/cast .]

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