What should be done about cars?Posted: July 21, 2010
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%