What should be done about cars?

I’d like to see one of our political leaders steal a march in this election campaign by promising to do something about the environmental and ‘quality of life’ issues associated with car use.

Almost everyone recognises the weakness of our current car fleet in the face of climate change and peak oil, but no one seems to want to do much about it. Most of the focus is on expanding public transport and increasing urban density – at first glance this sounds good, but even on the most optimistic view cars are going to be the dominant mode in Melbourne for a long time yet.

For example, the Victorian Government set a target in Melbourne 2030 to increase public transport’s share of motorised trips to 20% by 2020 (it’s currently around 11%). The report of the Independent Public Inquiry into a Long-Term Public Transport Plan for Sydney, which was released earlier this year, aims to increase public transport’s share of all travel in Sydney to 25% over the next 30 years (currently around 16%) and walking and cycling’s to 10% (page 152)*.

Even if petrol prices suddenly went stratospheric, it would take decades to expand public transport ‘s capacity to a level where it could handle the majority of trips. And it would still have to compete for funding with other areas of serious need like health, education and social housing. This would be more complicated if dramatically higher petrol prices were accompanied by a severe contraction in economic activity.

Yet despite their obvious vulnerability, there is remarkably little pressure to make Australia’s cars more environmentally friendly even though such action would likely yield larger and faster environmental benefits in the short to medium term than the favoured policies. (Note that this isn’t a case of one or the other – improvements to both cars and public transport should be pursued).

At the Federal level, there’re subsidies for developing electric vehicles but we’re still running on John Howard’s voluntary industry scheme to reduce the average fuel consumption and emissions of the national car fleet. A key problem with this approach is that while consumers have been buying cars and four wheel drives with more efficient engines, the savings have been offset by their taste for larger, faster and more luxurious vehicles.

There’s a number of actions that the two leaders might propose.

First, they could foreshadow policies to encourage consumers to buy much more environmentally efficient vehicles. On average such vehicles would be some combination of smaller, lighter, slower and more technologically advanced than the current average car. There’s any number of possible tax or regulatory instruments that could be used to achieve this objective, given that the market isn’t delivering.

Worthwhile gains could even be made without the political risk of increasing the total tax burden on motorists. For example, existing registration and third party insurance revenue could be collected via a distance-related instrument such as a levy on petrol rather than continue to be charged as an annual lump sum that has no relationship with actual distance travelled. It would even be possible with available technology for companies to charge comprehensive insurance according to distance travelled.

There is a clear need for the national Government to take the lead here so that differences between States and possible constitutional constraints on their powers don’t undermine the intent of such policies.

Second, our leaders could undertake to make cars, vans, trucks and motor cycles less objectionable. Some are excessively noisy and even green cars can reduce the amenity of activities adjacent to roads. All vehicles potentially endanger the health of occupants and pedestrians. A key problem to address is the common presumption that the speed limit, rather than the well-being of other users and prevailing conditions, is the determinant of the appropriate speed.

Both peak and average speeds need to be reduced and delinquent drivers controlled. The instruments available include traffic calming works, tougher regulation and much stronger enforcement. Much also needs to be done to change attitudes. Fortunately, the evident decline of driving among Gen Y suggests the exalted status of cars may be starting to wither.

Third, although they are unlikely to be embraced openly by our leaders, policies are needed to manage the amount of car travel because even the greenest cars will still cause problems like traffic congestion. One way of addressing that problem is charging motorists for the right to drive during congested periods. This would facilitate high value trips during the peak as well as encourage “travel conservation” – shifting some trips to off-peak periods, combining some, replacing some with walking, cycling or public transport, and even (Heaven forbid!) suppressing some low value trips entirely.

Policies like congestion pricing introduce a higher level of political difficulty but this could be offset to some extent by using the revenue to fund other services such as improvements to public transport.

If it costs more to run a car, especially if the bulk of that increase is incurred in out-of-pocket outlays such as congestion charges, then its advantage over public transport will be reduced. If the speed and convenience premium attaching to cars is also lowered then the advantages of driving will be reduced even further.

The net effect would be an increase in the demand for public transport (assuming public transport costs relative to cars do not change significantly). I’ll look at what I think we need to do about public transport shortly.

Our cities can be eminently liveable in the future, even with a much larger population, if our leaders have the ticker to make the sensible decisions.

*The Report is ambiguous about the target for public transport’s share of travel. At page 152 it says it’s 25% but then elsewhere it says its “double the existing share”. The target for commuting (i.e. the journey to work) appears to be 33%


12 Comments on “What should be done about cars?”

  1. Michael says:

    Interesting article. The generational shift in attitudes would probably be the most likely cause of future change. I can’t see a lot of existing drivers easily changing their behaviour. I do think higher oil prices would cause more change than is popularly believed because it would force up other costs as well so the effect wouldn’t be just having to pay more for petrol, it would be paying more for all kinds of goods and services that have transport cost component. I would personally like to see a change in the registration costs but this would seem as politically palatable as congestion charging. Cycling really should get a bigger slice of the subsidy pie since cyclists are at the receiving end of a lot of negative externalities produced by cars.

  2. lock says:

    Yeah, I’d like to see a political leader put such issues on the table too. But I think we all know that at this point in time it would political suicide.

    To get someone to shift from one mode of transport to another it has to be worth something to them; convenience, cost,time, enjoyment, etc. Currently it’s hard to beat a privately owned car in any of these aspects (excluding general car ownership costs, car travel is cheap). I keep hearing that people want PT to improve, but that’s only one side of the equation. How about disincentives being placed on private car use (as you have detailed).

    In the next few years I can really only see an oil price shock bringing about a significant change.

  3. Joseph says:

    The widespread adoption of electric vehicles may potentially change this debate entirely. No longer would it be possible to leverage the climate change argument in favour of public transport. I admire the intent to try and bring about a shift to more environmentally friendly vehicles through government policy but given the scale of the Australian market it is futile. The battle will be waged abroad. Europe, Japan, USA and perhaps China have markets of sufficient size to drive down the manufacturing cost of the vehicles. As the initial purchase price becomes more competitive and innovations extend the range the far cheaper running costs should be enough to see demand switch from oil fueled vehicles.

  4. […] Julia Gillard read my post last Thursday arguing that she should take action in the election campaign to improve the fuel […]

  5. […] is the sort of initiative I’ve argued for before (here and here) as it recognises the reality that cars will be around for a long time yet and something therefore […]

  6. […] Julia Gillard read my post last Thursday arguing that she should take action in the election campaign to improve the fuel […]

  7. […] While I bagged the Prime Minister last week for the design of her Cleaner Car Rebate and Mandatory Car Emission Standards initiatives, I think she has got the direction right. Too little attention is given at both Federal and State levels to improving the environmental efficiency of cars and vans (as I’ve discussed before). […]

  8. […] report. Cars have largely been ignored by policy-makers in Australia, as I’ve pointed out before (here and […]

  9. […] no issue with the need to think about road transport well into the future. As I’ve pointed out before, even the most optimistic long term public transport plans envisage that the majority of travel […]

  10. […] concluded before that the most plausible scenario in the forseeable future is that cars will continue to be used for […]

  11. brisurban says:

    Where is that traffic light? Is that an art installation or a real functioning one at an intersection.


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