Peak oil & transport

by Philip Cocker

It’s not possible to respond to oil depletion in Tasmania without tackling the transport issue head on.

As an Alderman I see business-as-usual played out in policy and infrastructure decisions on a regular basis. Millions are spent on developing more car parks to attract cars in to the city. Roadways are expanded to allow faster traffic movements. Then there is the political jostling to waste billions on the Midlands Highway, and on costly projects like the Kingston bypass.

The great tragedy behind these icon projects is not so much the waste but the loss of possibility. Imagine for a moment spending $60 million on public transport instead of the same amount on the Kingston bypass. Or tens of millions on free electric bus transport around the city instead of new car parking constructions.

Long-range plans to spend billions more on roads highlights a deplorable lack of foresight and strategic thought in our administrations – and a lack of political courage to move from the models of the past.

Spiraling petrol prices resulting from peak oil will be devastating for us all unless the necessary action is taken by all levels of government to prepare Tasmania’s transport system. This means judicious and timely investment in sustainable transport alternatives that will allow us to adjust our transport choices away from reliance on private car travel.

Instead of taking these steps we are doing the precise opposite – locking ourselves into urban and industrial transport patterns that can’t be sustained.

Sometimes when I see the lack of connection that humanity and their elected representatives have with these overbearing issues, I experience a desire to see peak oil come into play quickly, in order to force the necessary policy change that are needed. Those feelings don’t last long as I think about many of the potential impacts that carbon fuel shortages will bring and the pain and misery that would eventuate.

To cut to the chase, our transportation systems are over 90% dependent on oil and have been built on an over-reliance on cheap oil, as if it will always be cheap.

While there is some dispute about when oil production will peak, there is no disagreement that oil will soon be much scarcer and more expensive than it is today. This points to a future where oil prices reach $200 or even $300 a barrel. In this situation, the disruption to our way of life will be enormous.

Our ability to transition to a world “beyond oil” will hinge critically on the importance that our decision makers place on public transport, walking and cycling and the ability of technology to deliver sustainable alternatives to the petrol-powered car.

For the average citizen wondering how to respond, here are some useful tips to reduce one’s transport impact.

(Philip Cocker is an elected alderman at Hobart City Council. He is a member of the board of EcoTasmania Inc.)