Pedestal To The Metal

The car is doomed announced two Melbourne academics in The Age last week. According to them, carbon emissions targets compel us to reduce automobile travel by 80%. And the State Government should probably stop building new roads. We won’t need them anyway.

Sure, it’s easy to criticise research that is little more than media bait. But after years of abuse, the humble car still can’t catch a break. And the reasons the car still has a long, healthy life ahead of it highlight the biggest problem in the debate over public transport. When people choose to drive, they do so because it is more comfortable and more convenient than the alternatives. No public transport policy is going to change that.

A lot of factors stack up in favour of the car. As Roads Minister Tim Pallas pointed out on Wednesday, public transport may be convenient for those living in the inner suburbs, where the average distance to a train station is less than a kilometre, but in the outer suburbs that distance expands to 10 kilometres.

A more critical issue is that only a small, declining percentage of journeys are from the suburbs into the city, as workplaces move out of the CBD. And it is these journeys that are the most suitable for public transport – when everybody is travelling the same direction it is easy to map out a new train line.

The remaining suburb-to-suburb journeys are exponentially harder to service, not least because the origins and destinations are dispersed. It is impossible for transport planners to account for the huge variety of journeys taken every day in modern Melbourne.

To put it simply, people like having a car. For most Australians, owning a car means having the freedom to travel wherever you want, whenever you want – just ask any giddy teenager with their newly acquired driver’s licence.

The urban historian Graeme Davidson describes how the automobile was a major impetus behind postwar gender equality in Australia, as women recognised that the freedom to drive also meant the freedom to do a lot more things. And, for a young person, owning a car – or even just being able to borrow their parents’ car – has long represented a degree of personal autonomy.

No matter how many billions the Victorian Government spends on public transport, it will never be able to challenge the independence provided by an automobile.

You don’t have to wait for your car to arrive, unlike public transport. There is ample room to put your bags of shopping or new flat-packed furniture. Your children can’t run wild in your car like they can in public transport – after all, they’re strapped down. And, unlike a tram, there is no chance that your car will be so full of fellow commuters that you have to hang halfway out the door with someone’s armpit in your face while the driver yells indiscriminately over a damaged loudspeaker.

These objections may seem trivial in comparison to the grave importance of saving the planet. Public transport fantasists – like all radicals who want to change our behaviour – dismiss such considerations as minor. But it is these sorts of minor considerations that inform our everyday transport choices.

In the trade-off between environmental concerns and the importance of the automobile, the Federal Government is trying to have it both ways.

Eager to placate its traditional union support base, but also wanting to be seen as concerned about the environment, Labor is happy to pay $500 million for more cars to be produced in Australia. But it only wants hybrid cars. Industry assistance is getting awfully picky.

A similar mixed message greeted the announcement of the Indian Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car. The chance that personal motorised transport was suddenly within the reach of some of the poorest people in the world was described by one prominent environmental scientist as a nightmare.

In the developed world, the automobile has been one of the most important sources of social freedom in the 20th century.

How can we think of denying such freedom to the developing world?

For some journeys, public transport is indispensable. Melbourne’s experience since privatisation has shown how trains and trams can be better used – patronage has gone sharply up with the new management.

Similarly, when building new roads, the Government has been aware of the increasing popularity of bicycles. For nearly a decade now, more bikes have been sold each year than cars. New dedicated bicycle lanes may have had some influence on this.

But cars continue to sell in increasing numbers.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries reported last week that monthly sales have been up nearly 10% over last year’s figures. Sales of the much-hated SUVs have gone up even more.

Cars have been getting cheaper and cleaner almost since they were first invented. But the hard reality is that no matter how many train lines or bicycle paths the Government builds, people will continue to use the transport method that they believe best suits their needs. And for most trips in Melbourne, that will continue to be the car.

A responsible government will therefore continue to spend money building roads and relieving traffic congestion – just as taxpayers seem to want it to.