Petrol populism and public transport

Issue 

Petrol prices have sky-rocketed in the last six months. The cost per litre now pushes $1.60, with predictions in some quarters of a $2 per litre price by the end of the year.

The Iraq war and the "rise" of China and India are blamed for the massive increase. The reality, however, is that while these factors all play a part, increases in the demand for oil are outstripping the potential of the industry to increase supply. As we approach "peak oil", the price of oil on world markets will only increase.

Australian politicians have tied themselves in knots over the last few weeks trying to offer a solution. The Coalition opposition promised to cut the fuel excise (a federal tax levied in petrol) by five cents a litre. The federal government has in turn promised to investigate the removal of the Goods and Services Tax charged on the excise component of the fuel price — likely to reduce costs by a few cents a litre.

The fact, however, is that any such small cut would have a marginal impact on prices. It would be likely to be wiped out by steadily increasing world oil prices anyway. So what's the solution?

Oil companies

As early as 1971, US ecologist Barry Commoner, in The Closing Circle, blamed Los Angeles' persistent smog on the decision of the city to sell its rail infrastructure to oil companies in the 1940s. The oil companies ripped up the tracks and laid the basis for a private car-dominated development of the city, which grew to rely almost exclusively on road transport — most of it private.

In Australia, Griffith University researchers Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe published Oil Vulnerability in the Australian City in December 2005. The study attempted to determine the potential social impact of increasing petrol price rises on residents of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, based on their dependence on cars and their socio-economic status. The results were revealing, while not surprising.

"Clearly, outer-suburban areas, locations that contain low socio-economic status populations, and suburbs which have high levels of car dependence will be most affected by [petrol price] increases", Dodson and Sipe argue. Their study found that because of the relatively poor provision of public transport in outer-urban areas of Australia's major cities, particularly "circumferential" public transport (i.e. public transport that links suburbs with each other, rather than the city centre), residents were forced to rely more heavily on private cars than more affluent, inner-city residents.

Part of the problem is that provision of public transport does not meet greatest need, Dodson and Sipe found. "The major capital cities each have extensive metropolitan rail networks but the numbers of services running on them are far below system capacities. There is typically little integration between modes particularly between the rail and bus networks and the use of local buses as feeders to the higher capacity rail systems is underdeveloped", they argue.

What public transport is available in cities does not generally help the most economically disadvantaged. For instance, "In Sydney the high socio-economic status households of north Sydney have been able to capture among the best quality public transport services in the city, while lower socio-economic status groups in fringe areas receive much poorer services".

The report's authors argue for the greater provision and integration of public transport, and against continuing investment in roads. Governments, however, appear to be moving in the opposite direction. "Urban planners have for many years advocated greater use of public transport in Australia's cities, but the bulk of infrastructure provision has been dedicated to facilitating increased automobile dependence."

Over the last five years, petrol prices have almost doubled. This has placed increased pressure on largely inadequate public transport, leading to massive overcrowding in many cases. In March 2007, the Sydney Daily Telegraph reported that "Up to five commuters a week are collapsing in sweltering conditions on overcrowded trains, where temperature regularly soar above 35C." This follows a NSW government decision to cut 416 daily train services when it introduced a new timetable in late 2005 — designed to help trains run more to time.

Over the last year overcrowding has become even worse. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on May 30 that trips increased on Sydney trains by 4.7% overall in the year to February. On the Bankstown line the increase was 8.4%, 7.4% on the inner west line and 6.3% on the western line. Sydney commuters are increasingly jammed into infrequent peak-hour trains like bananas in a box.

The NSW government is planning to build some more rail infrastructure, but not necessarily where it is most needed. The Epping to Chatswood rail link will provide greater access, but only for those in the relatively affluent northern and north-west suburbs of Sydney.

Underfunding

The south west rail link, planned to run from Glenfield to Leppington, is aimed at providing for projected growth in those suburbs but does nothing to increase access to public transport in poorly serviced areas a little to the north. The proposed north west metro line runs into an area relatively well-serviced by public transport, according to Dodson and Sipe's report.

Meanwhile, the lion's share of infrastructure spending remains directed to toll-roads funded by public-private partnerships.

The announcement by the NSW government that it will spend an extra $112 million to buy 150 new environmentally friendly bendy buses, according to the May 26 SMH, is a small and inadequate step. NSW Premier Morris Iemma acknowledged that 1 million extra trips had been taken on buses this year compared to the same time in 2007. How much will this grow as petrol prices increase even further?

The situation is worse in the outer suburbs, where public transport is dominated by private-profit operators. What is needed is a massive investment in public transport infrastructure and a scaling-back on the investment in new roads.

"Switching the balance of new infrastructure provision towards public transport, walking and cycling would not only assist to achieve currently relevant planning objectives but would hedge our urban systems against potential impacts of rising fuel costs", Dodson and Sipe argue. "Continuing the present model of road-driven urban transport policy may only make any eventual adjustment to accommodate higher fuel prices more painful, complex and fractious. The pain of such adjustment would invariably fall most heavily on the more disadvantaged members of our communities."