Thursday, April 15, 2010

Public transport: the weakest link?

Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains - and a world to win!

If a chain can be said to break at it's weakest link, then those of us in the business of breaking the chains ought to think about what that link might be.

The chains of consumerism may be gold plated, but they are chains nevertheless. The alienation of depressing work is ameliorated by spending the weekly pay cheque on gadgets and distractions.

The biggest consumer item can be said to be the home, but this is not so clear because a home is also a genuine necessity. Transport is also a necessity, but cars on the other hand are simply a consumer item. After housing (if you count it), cars are about the biggest single consumer item there is.

Convincing people to quit using their cars is pretty difficult. Rising petrol prices has done the job to an extent, but an absolute limit is hit as the trains become too full to fit more people, and all the people who can reasonably use public transport for commuting get onto it. The rest, who don't have public transport access, are stuck with higher transport costs.

Expanding public transport access is an obvious measure of social justice. Everyone living in a city ought to have access to what Melbourne commuters call "PT".

Traditionally, PT has filled a niche in getting people to work where using cars would simply be unrealistic. If everyone in the CBD tried to drive to work in the morning all on the same day, they would probably still be stuck in traffic jams trying to get there at midnight. A basic level of PT is therefore a necessity for the economic system.

Trying to expand PT beyond that, however, is a political struggle. Many urban planners will advise that a reliable, frequent public transport system that is accessible to large numbers of people will generate increasing patronage for its services. A minimal, let alone unreliable, CBD-commuter system is unlikely to inspire most people to use it other than when they have to.

So the evidence from comparing different cities' approaches to public transport (Toronto vs LA, for example) bears this analysis out. It is possible to get a growing percentage of the public using PT.

If we made public transport truly reliable it could significantly displace car use. The question is, are we just trying to get people to work on time, or to make their lives better all round? PT can do both.

A visionary approach to PT would have everyone able to use it (or cycling/walking) for all their regular commuting - work/school, shopping, regular leisure activities. This would require something like the Melbourne Public Transport Users' Association policy of "every ten minutes to everywhere".The Socialist Alliance also campaigns for "free, frequent and expanded" public transport as seen in this short video.

So far we're talking sensible urban planning policy that probably wouldn't raise too many eyebrows in a room of progressive urban planners.

Let's consider what this would mean more broadly. If people no longer need to drive a car for most of their commuting, why own one? We could expect that, over time, less and less people would buy cars. Bad news for the car companies and the oil industry, but good news for the environment!

Of course, this would also spell big difficulties for an economy that is so centred on the car - production, fuel, service, road provision, insurance - cars are an enormous part of our economy. How would the economy survive a decline in such a central industry?

We can leave that one to the economists, for now. Let's just think about all the hours people currently spend on their cars. How many hours a week do you have to work to pay off your car loan? How many hours a week do you work to pay for petrol, for registration and insurance, for mechanical services? What fraction of your mortgage is going to pay for the driveway and garage? How much of your taxes go to pay for road building and repair?

Add all this to the amount of time you spend actually gripping the steering wheel (which can easily reach 10 hours a week for many commuters in a big city) and think about what it would mean not to own a car!

The pressure to work all that overtime to pay for the car could dissipate. The road rage and traffic jams - a hazy memory. The garage could be a greenhouse, or a workshop, or a granny flat, or whatever. The driveway could be a cricket pitch for the kids' practice. Let your imagination run riot.

If large numbers of people stopped buying and driving cars - perhaps also with the impetus of rising petrol prices once more - it could have an effect rippling through the whole consumer economy. It could reduce the overall amount of work, giving people more leisure time.

A progressive government would introduce legislation to shorten the working week, ensuring that reduced work could be shared around equally as liesure time, not concentrated in unemployment misery for a few. The scale of spending on cars, and their centrality to the modern industrial economy, is belied by their vulnerability to rational urban planning and oil price rises.

Campaigning for better public transport is a key priority for all progressives. It attacks greenhouse emissions, it attacks consumerism, and it challenges the foundations of the current economy. Is it the "weakest link"? Let's try it and find out!

1 comment:

  1. The associated challenge is to concentrate city populations more . This logic is nonetheless being pursued as all capitals are trying to 'fit' more people into their inner city and hub precincts -- but usually without plans to improve PT.

    I know that if I live in Footsgray or Clifton Hill in Melbourne, or here in Northgate in Brisbane I'm going to get more trains more often as well as -- in the Vic examples -- good access to tram transport. These places need to be access benchmarks.

    But PT on the periphery -- or along Sydney's Western corridor for instance -- is something else and require massive infrastructure outlays. Here in Qld the train line has not as yet joined the Gold Coast after years of 'process' & building . It only currently reaches Omeau. To reach Surfers you need to switch to a bus.

    But what does the billions of dollars get spent on? Tunnels under the Brisbane CBD -- toll: $5.00 per journey.each morning the city teeters on gridlock.


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