If the state of Melbourne’s inner city streets and bike paths this January is anything to go by, it looks like a lot of Melbournians made a New Year’s resolution to ride to work. A wide demographic of commuters were choosing pedal power last week: men in suits, women in high heels, students with 1970s vintage bikes, as well as people riding flat bar commuting bikes that were rolling around town long before cycling became fashionable.
These observations are backed up by Australian Bureau of Statistics and Vicroads data which shows that Melbourne is experiencing one of the biggest bicycle booms in living memory. According to the last census, trips to work by bicycle grew by 42 per cent between 2001 and 2006 and counters installed by Vicroads show that bicycle paths, previously considered recreational infrastructure, are busiest during weekdays at peak hour.
As any public transport commuter can tell you, Melbournians have started to leave the car at home and opt for the train, tram or bus. This has been confirmed by Department of Transport figures showing a recent strong shift towards public transport.
These changes in transport behaviour are occurring across Australia and indeed across the globe. In December, figures published by Reuters showed that Americans bought 10 million vehicles in 2009 — but scrapped 14 million. This decline in vehicle ownership coincides with a plateau in car travel, a trend replicated in many developed-world cities including Melbourne in spite of strong population growth.
This shift toward use of public transport and bicycles was sparked, at least in part, by the rapid rises in world oil prices since 2004. Oil hit US$147 a barrel, which some commentators, including Infrastructure Australia board member Professor Peter Newman, argue triggered the global financial crisis. In fact, peaks in the price of oil have historically preceeded recessions, with the 1973/4 OPEC oil embargo, the 1979 Iranian revolution and the first Gulf War all causing spikes in oil prices and consequent global economic downturns.
Unlike these past instances of oil price rises, which share a political origin, today’s high oil price (around US$80 a barrel, compared to US$35 in 2004) has a geological origin. Put simply, we have been using more oil than we have been finding for a long time — since around 1982, in fact. We now use four barrels of oil for every one we discover.
The magnitude of the oil supply/demand imbalance has the International Energy Agency (IEA) worried. In their 2009 World Energy Outlook, the IEA revised and downgraded their estimates for world oil production in 2030. In 2004 they forecast 121 million barrels production per day for 2030 but in 2006 lowered their estimate to 116 million barrels and have now dropped it to 105 million barrels. This is a dramatic reduction in estimated production.
More worrying for Australia is the IEA finding that OECD oil consumption is set to fall by 0.3 per cent per year while Treasury estimates that our population will reach 35 million by 2049. According to the CSIRO, this could mean that each Australian will halve their petrol consumption — a reduction that will be all the more pressing given a litre is predicted to cost as much as $8 by 2018. As 95 per cent of our transport is currently fuelled by black gold, we clearly have considerable challenges ahead.
The implication is clear. Our current transport infrastructure reflects a pattern of investment founded on the assumption of limitless oil supplies. Not only has this assumption been proved false, we have discovered the urgent need to cut soaring transport emissions: our infrastructure priorities need to be turned on their head.
Spending billions on urban freeway duplications while many middle and outer ring suburbs go without quality public transport or bicycle infrastructure is inequitable and threatens not just household budgets, but Australia’s trade deficit. In fact, government estimates suggest the trade deficit in oil products will hit $25 billion by 2015. Research released late last year revealed residents in Cardinia, in Melbourne’s outer south-east, use a car for over 90 per cent of all trips and drive around 204 kilometres per week — over four times the distance of residents in the City of Melbourne. Such transport inequities don’t only bear on the economic health of our cities, but on their social health and liveability.
Government investment in transport and land-use planning needs to reflect the new reality of oil depletion and climate change. Outer suburbs without rail lines and streets without bicycle lanes need to become a thing of the past. Without a change in mindset and investment, by 2030 we might just be left with empty freeways, perhaps better described as gigantic bike lanes, several bankrupt toll road operators and a number of energy analysts saying "I told you so". Let’s make 2010 the year in which we confront the reality of peak oil and climate change.
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