What costs society more – cars or public transport?

Cost per passenger km by mode in Sydney

This simple but extraordinary chart (see first graphic) is from a paper written last year by one of the country’s leading transport researchers, Dr Garry Glazebrook, of Sydney’s University of Technology.

In the paper, the author estimates the total cost of different transport modes, taking account of both private and social (i.e. external) costs. The costs are based on Sydney.

A number of interesting things about travel are evident from the chart, some of which are familiar and some which may surprise.

First, both private and public transport modes generate significant social costs. These costs are borne generally by society, “either in the form of subsidies (e.g. rail and bus subsidies from government, or hidden parking subsidies for car users) or in the form of externalities (including pollution, congestion, accidents, etc)”.

Second, although their composition is quite different, the social costs of private and public transport are essentially the same, at around 38c per passenger kilometre. One big difference of course is that subsidies for public transport are paid in actual dollars by government whereas the social costs of cars are largely an unpaid burden on others (primarily other road users). Read the rest of this entry »

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Minister for Sustainable Population: What’s in a name?

The new Prime Minister’s minor renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of thinking about “big Australia”. The terms sustainability and population have been conflated so the Government can walk a new path through the “big Australia” and “boat people” minefields.

But what it’s also saying is that you can’t have one without the other – population growth and environmental sustainability have to be traded off. The two concepts are necessarily in conflict, always and forever.

Population distribution, Australia (www.worldmapper.org)

While that’s perhaps true in a narrow sense, it doesn’t follow that Geelong is necessarily more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne (according to the ACF it isn’t!) or that both have a lower environmental “footprint” than New York.

In fact despite its considerably larger size, New York is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne. Large concentrations of people provide economies of scale in, for example, the consumption of energy by favouring travel by public transport and smaller, attached dwellings. Bigger is often more environmentally sustainable.

Of course bigger cities also tend to produce larger negative externalities. But the main reason that size is often accompanied by problems like traffic congestion and unaffordable housing is the failure of political and policy systems. Read the rest of this entry »