Friday, October 5, 2007

Greener transport - a conundrum for people living in country Australia

Traveling by bicycle and public transport used to be my preferred choice of getting around when I was living overseas. I did not even own a car until I moved to Australia!

Unfortunately, the rural village we live in now has totally inadequate public transport, making traveling without a car very difficult. This is a shame, as the majority of people living here make the daily trip to work in Canberra, which is about 30 km from here.

There is a very limited train service with no option for a return trip on most days.
The few buses that do run are expensive and do not run often enough, making it difficult to do things in town and get back to our village by solely relying on public transport.

When the bus company initially surveyed people about using a bus service, many responded and there was great interest. I even rang them to find out when they would finally start running their service! The bus company then installed a number of buses services, including an early morning service designed to take people to work. Unfortunately, the uptake has not been as vigorous as the company had hoped. There are a number of reasons for this:

1) The service is unexpectedly expensive with a $10.00 price tag for a single trip.
2) There are too few buses, making it difficult to get into town, do some shopping or go about other tasks and catch a bus back, especially when travelling with young kids.
3) The bus for people returning from work left the city far too early, making it not a viable option for most workers.
4) While it is possible to get into town by bus, it takes around three times as long as by car.

The bus company says that the $20.00 round trip fare was already heavily subsidised and that it would work out cheaper than taking the car and paying inner-city parking. This may be so, but our family, for example, never uses inner-city parking as we do our shopping in one of the other centres where parking is free. Apart from shopping, we may travel into town together as a family, for example to visit friends. Quite apart from the fact that it would be close to impossible to organise such an outing around the limited bus time table, using the car with the whole family also works out much cheaper. Petrol cost for a round trip by car costs about $15.00, or $7.50 per adult (if assuming that children would travel for free on the bus which will not be the case once the kids get a bit older).

This has created a vicious circle.
Only few people use the bus because it is not convenient enough.
The bus company finds that it is running its service at a loss and has already cut their early morning service, with more services under review.
This again results in fewer people taking the bus as it is now even more inconvenient.

We are now facing the prospect of losing our bus service altogether.

The way I see it, there is a government responsibility here to take a whole-of-society approach to public transport. At the moment, the economic equation for the individual traveller is clearly against public transport and for car travel.

This has multiple negative side effects for society as a whole, such as higher greenhouse gas emissions, higher air pollution, higher wear and tear on roads, a higher incident of traffic accidents and more traffic congestion requiring more roads.

When looking at the cost from all these factors, it seems to me that it would end up being much cheaper for governments, society and the environment to strongly support public transport by making it as affordable and useful as possible. To pay for the immediate cost, I would propose a carbon tax on car sales and on petrol. In the long term, public transport pays for itself through the savings for society.

One city in Australia, Melbourne, is leading the way with free inner-city tram services. I am sure with some creative thinking we could find a similar a solution for places in and around capital cities across the country.

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