Source: BITRE (2011) Australian Infrastructure Year Book 2011, Canberra; and, ABS (2010) Gross State Product from Catalogue 52200 – 2009-10

By Gail Broadbent

3 May 2011 – Right now the only thing protecting us from higher petrol prices is the strong Australian dollar. Should the value of our dollar fall below its US counterpart we could be paying $2 a litre for fuel.

The NRMA recently estimated that this could add as much as $2000 a year to the fuel costs of people living on the edges of our major cities, depending on the type of car they drive.

This would be a massive drain on people who, because of inadequate public transport, need to have more than one car to transport the family around.

As a country we are already paying $16 billion to import oil every year – it is one of our major import items.  Australia imports more than 50 per cent of its oil needs and by 2015 we will be importing some 70 per cent; but at what cost?

Ever increasing demand for oil from China and India, trouble in the Middle East and northern Africa and a persistently high dollar means more and more of us will need to find alternatives to petrol driven cars.

Australia’s capital cities are home for some 75 per cent of the population and generate 80 per cent of its income. Congestion is increasingly becoming a problem and traffic delays mean that commuters are increasingly turning to public transport. As petrol prices have started to rise in the last five years there has been a sustained mode shift away from cars but for too long public transport has been treated as the poor second cousin to roads. It is time that governments started to follow this trend and build the infrastructure we need.

The Australian Conservation Foundation has released a new report that shows despite some investment in public transport the lion’s share of transport budgets around the country still goes on roads.  Governments at all levels have been spending 4.3 times more on construction of roads compared to rail over the last 10 years.

At the time of World War II, many of our capitals had world class public transport systems. But as petrol and cars became cheaper and cheaper public transport was neglected and the focus for decades has been road building.

No one saw the day coming when the cost of getting around by car might be beyond the reach of working people – until now.

And this is where the actions of premiers, transport ministers and their colleagues in parliaments will be critical.

Many governments have in the last year or two started to commit to improving public transport which is a good thing. It will help give more people more choice in how they can get around and help them be able to get rid of the second car. It will help reduce carbon pollution from cars, reduce motor vehicle accidents, improve people’s health due to incidental exercise when they catch public transport and help reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive oil.

But it is going to take more than a couple of rail lines and bus routes to reduce congestion across the board and help move us from a pollution dependent economy to a cleaner economy.

People can be happier and healthier and we can improve the resilience of the environment and our communities. We can do all these things by spending more on public and active transport and at the same time reducing our dependence on imported oil.

We need to rebalance the transport budget.  That means spending two thirds of it on public and active transport and one third on roads. But it doesn’t all have to be spent on heavy rail.

Bus rapid transit and light rail in the right places are cost effective ways to help more people get around quickly and easily and help people save money. And to maximise the public transport we already have, we need more frequent services, integrated timetabling, integrated fares across all modes and easy access between modes at transport hubs.

Australia can buy a lot of public transport for less money than it costs to expand the road network.

Gail Broadbent is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s sustainable transport campaigner