How to move about the city without wrecking it

We cannot have a liveable city if we fail to address the car problem.

Traffic in Argyle Street blocking exit from ajacent council carpark for five hours, April 2018. PHOTO Matt Thomson/Mercury

Traffic in Argyle Street blocking exit from adjacent council carpark for five hours, April 2018. PHOTO Matt Thomson/Mercury

What distinguishes ordinary cities from extraordinary ones, “liveable” cities from urban wastelands? What things, added together, make a fully-functioning city?

These questions are as relevant now as they were in 1961, when a passionate young New Yorker named Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, about how bad road planning was destroying local neighbourhoods and sucking the life out of metropolitan America.

The same questions are informing the City of Hobart’s new transport strategy, which asks, among other things, how do we shape our city to make it a better place to be – not just easier to get about but also more stimulating, more attractive, more peaceful, more secure?

Thinking about transport, most people will home in on ease of movement, and in particular on motor traffic – cars on roads and how we keep them moving. But as the strategy makes clear, it simply isn’t feasible to consider any sort of transport in isolation

For most of the 10,000-year story of cities nearly everyone walked, with a few sitting on beasts of burden and then in carts and carriages. It was a natural part of interpersonal contact, which was what city life was all about.

It still is, as the Hobart transport strategy recognises. Private car use encourages separation and territorial rights. Interpersonal contact between car users is rare, except in cases of road rage.

The kinds of cities we yearn for – about people meeting for business, pleasure and stimulation – do not need private cars. If we want Hobart to be a “liveable” city, we have to keep cars at bay.

Cars are the least space-efficient form of transport, as Elliot Fishman of Melbourne’s Institute for Sensible Transport told a Climate Tasmania seminar in Hobart this month. In growing cities, more roads mean more cars. Far from being the answer to traffic congestion, they just make it worse.

Motor transport is an issue for another important reason: it is Tasmania’s biggest source of greenhouse emissions. Per person-kilometre, based on average occupancy, a car releases over 13 times as much carbon dioxide as a bus, and infinitely more than walking or cycling.

The strategy informs us that Hobart city is Tasmania’s biggest work destination, containing more than half Greater Hobart jobs and over 40 per cent of southern Tasmania’s. Most commuters are heading for the city, so a new bypass road would make little difference to peak hour traffic.

In 2011 a state government survey of people working in the city found that 79 per cent travelled to and from work in cars (68 per cent as driver, 11 per cent as passenger). Of people living within the boundary of the city proper, 61 per cent travelled in cars.

Countering that, 25 per cent of commuters living within the city boundary walked to work – the highest proportion of walking commuters in all Australian capitals including Canberra.

Less welcome is the data on cycling (just two per cent of commuters from Greater Hobart) and users of buses, a measly eight per cent. Electric bikes may have helped lift the cycling figure, but as a bus user I’m not confident that Metro usage would be much higher today.

That’s a concern, because as the draft strategy makes clear, buses and bicycles are the main alternatives to cars in a metropolitan area as stretched out as Hobart – and on an island where cutting transport emissions should be the top climate policy priority.

Work and school-related journeys, tailor-made for public transport, are responsible for most travel into or through the city. So fully-functioning, well-utilised public transport – mainly bus but also potentially light rail and ferries – is key to keeping Hobart on the move.

Reducing car usage in Hobart is no simple proposition. I enjoy the company of people I don’t know when I use buses, but I accept that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And regardless of the health benefits of walking to a bus stop, most people would opt for the car a few steps from the front door.

Making non-car city transit more appealing is well beyond local government’s means. Advertisers spend billions equating freedom and happiness with shiny new cars on shiny new roads. Little wonder that MPs continue to see road-building as the path to electoral success.

But imagine if higher levels of government gave funding priority for city transit infrastructure not to new bypass roads, but to public transport priority lanes and pedestrian and cycle paths.

Imagine well-appointed, federally-funded public transport hubs at key points in Hobart suburbs, where people using bus, light rail or ferry could drive their car to a free all-day parking station integrated into a transit depot, allowing them to transfer rapidly in comfort and shelter.

A city flourishes not because of property booms, but because its citizens find it easy to live there and get about. A federal government that stops ignoring public transport and funds this generational transition won’t just transform our cities. It will have earned a place in history.

The Hobart transport strategy is up for public discussion at various city venues this week. For information about a forum in your area, google City of Hobart transport strategy 2018-30.

Posted in Adaptation, advertising/marketing, built environment, cars, economic activity, land use, local economy, planning, road - cycle, road - public transport, transport, Uncategorized, walking | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Politics is not the only game in town

While policymakers seem paralysed, money is starting to shape our energy future.

Hobart artist Selena De Carvalho with artwork produced by students at Lansdowne Crescent Primary School. PHOTO Hobart City

Hobart artist Selena De Carvalho with artwork produced by students at Lansdowne Crescent Primary School. PHOTO Hobart City

Earlier this year as part of its climate strategy review, Hobart City reached out to young and old residents to try to get a handle on climate change and how they envisaged it might affect those coming after them.

The response included a striking circular painting about community action, ecosystem loss and resilience, produced by schoolchildren with the help of local artist Selena De Carvalho.

The other part of the residents’ response was a collection of letters to generations yet to come. They were a mixture of the lofty and the commonplace, bits of hope, bits of trivia, wishful thinking, sentiments about trees and animals, and a good deal of anxiety, apology and regret.

The underlying sense was of people uncertain about what to say, as we find sometimes around serious illness and death. They see we need a united effort to meet a deadly threat to our future, but they also see politicians responsible for leading that effort doing all they can to avoid it.

As we have seen in Australia, climate change carries a lot of political risk. Its impact is not readily apparent and despite all the positive feelings about technology, resilience and community action, the main emerging message is a negative one.

But politics is not the only game in town, and smart leaders know when to step aside. When the alarm was raised over the Wild Boars soccer boys in a cave near Chiang Rai, the Thai government and its military might have been tempted to keep the rescue in-house and refuse outside help.

But aware of its limitations, the government opened up to foreign assistance and allowed complete freedom, even down to indemnity from future prosecution, to the cave-diving, logistical and medical experts who flew in to help. That’s what happens when people are in dire need.

Right now, all of humanity is in dire need. Experts – scientists who understand the workings of global climate – say climate change is a global emergency – as clear and present a danger as the Chiang Rai event, except that the scale is infinitely larger.

This year’s Northern Hemisphere summer has shown some ominous signs. On June 28 at Quriyat, Oman, the coolest night-time temperature was 42.6C – the highest daily minimum ever recorded anywhere, and a degree higher than Hobart’s highest-ever maximum under a blazing sun.

The World Meteorological Organization reported exceptional heat events in the western US, eastern Canada, northern Europe and northern Siberia, accompanied by wildfires in California and Siberia, heat-related deaths in Canada and drought in Europe.

Most people agree with the signs, say opinion polls. In the United States, flying in the face of Donald Trump’s disdain for the science of climate change, are poll findings that over 70 per cent of Americans think there is “solid evidence of global warming”.

Though the evidence is in place to justify a global rescue mission for our climate, it’s being met with policy paralysis. With most of the world’s people agreeing, there may yet be a way around this to achieve the massive emission reductions needed to avoid dangerous warming.

Although the global economy is facilitated by governments, it is driven by what the world’s people want to do with their money, and private spending priorities are causing whole economies to move in the direction of clean energy.

Big business is coming on board, spurred by repeated warnings to banks and insurers from international and Australian regulators, including the Bank of England and the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, that failure to prepare for climate change puts their future at risk.

Last week’s power pricing report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission proposed that that for new generation projects the Turnbull government seek long-term agreements at a low fixed price, which it suggested should be around $45 to $50 a megawatt-hour.

This would effectively bring down the curtain on coal power. Treasurer Scott Morrison has said that new high-efficiency, low-emission coal power stations would have to charge twice the price paid for power from existing coal generators. Currently that’s somewhere around $80 a megawatt-hour.

Meanwhile, contract prices for electricity from new solar and wind plants have slipped below those for coal power. Wind is currently cheapest but solar, including household solar, is closing that gap. Even abolishing renewable energy targets wouldn’t change this decisive long-term trend.

People are voting with their money, and it is left for the legislators to catch up. Perhaps resources minister and long-standing coal advocate Matt Canavan is starting to understand this; he told the ABC’s Insiders at the weekend that he is not wedded to the idea of building new coal power plants.

That’s a sensible attitude, because the smart money says that the only new plants, now and looking ahead, will be gas or renewable ones. Those worried Hobart citizens should not not let leadership failure discourage them, because other forces are at work.

Posted in Australian politics, bureaucracy, business interests, business, investment, employment, changes to climate, coal-fired, electricity networks, extreme events, fossil fuels, gas-fired, international politics, investment, renewable energy, solar, wind | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pumped hydro: schemes, rhetoric and confusion

There’s plenty of talk around pumped hydro, but so far it’s only adding to the confusion.

GRAPHIC: Australian Renewable Energy Agency

GRAPHIC: Australian Renewable Energy Agency

Politics and commerce are all about negotiation, but man-made climate change is essentially non-negotiable. When they come together, a mess is all but inevitable.

Science has determined a “safe” warming limit and the world’s nations including our own have committed to actions to help that to happen. But our leaders are locked in furious argument about what that commitment looks like. If they’re confused, imagine how the rest of us feel.

The Turnbull government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee scheme is designed to be all things to all people, which means it pleases nobody. It will probably pass Parliament because the major party leaders understand the need for a price signal and this is all that’s on offer.

That’s a whole other story, for another time. But the Coalition’s chronic division over this scheme reflects confusion across government – in states and territories as well as Canberra – about how to deal with the climate-energy conundrum. For confusion, read absence of leadership.

Take Tasmania, for example. Fifteen months ago a study by energy bureaucrat John Tamblyn, jointly funded by the federal and Tasmanian governments, questioned the economic viability of a second Bass Strait interconnector.

Tamblyn concluded that a second interconnector should only go ahead when certain conditions were in place, such as the Australian Energy Market Operator identifying a long-term market or South Australia becoming more integrated into the National Electricity Market.

In February, the Hodgman government announced it intends to leave the NEM by mid-2021 to help keep retail prices down. So it does not want prices determined by the marketplace, but still wants Tasmania to take advantage of that market by exporting power into the national grid.

Similar mixed messages are coming from Canberra. Does the Turnbull government support more coal power or more renewables? No-one knows. Poorly articulated, constantly shifting positions around electricity generation further destabilise an already-uncertain market.

Investors in renewable power crave a firm government position on Australian carbon emissions, which are now at their highest level since records began in 2002. The nearest Malcolm Turnbull has come to a firm position was his enthusiastic backing of pumped hydro schemes last year.

Pumped hydro is a way of enhancing hydro’s energy storage value by getting water to produce electricity not just once, as in conventional hydro-electricity, but many times using two impoundments at different levels.

Water released from the upper storage generates power at times of high demand. It is then held in the lower reservoir until it can be pumped back to the higher reservoir during times of low power demand when prices are lower. Excess wind or solar power can serve this purpose.

The idea of pumped hydro is old, dating from the 19th century. It has never been implemented here, but at both federal and state levels it has now become the go-to policy position for conservative MPs wanting to display renewable credentials.

Soon after spruiking pumped hydro for the Snowy Mountains early last year, Malcolm Turnbull did the same for Tasmania. The Hodgman government heartily endorses the idea and the slogan that comes with it, “the Battery of the Nation”.

Last month we got the first glimpse of what the nation’s battery might look like when Hydro Tasmania released an analysis, funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, of how Tasmania could generate pumped hydro power and export it into the National Electricity Market.

The report listed 14 possible pumped hydro sites at eight locations, mostly in the West and North-West. But the big surprise was that getting maximum benefit from exporting pumped hydro power would require as many as four more of those expensive Bass Strait interconnectors.

Hydro Tasmania asserts that even with the new interconnectors its pumped hydro option would still be far cheaper than the multi-billion dollar Snowy proposal. If so, and if the scheme can deliver as promised, it could only be good for Tasmania’s economy and we should all get behind it.

It’s gratifying to see pumped hydro, which I first reported on in 2012, now getting such attention from politicians. But these same politicians have pointedly ignored less spectacular, much cheaper and eminently sensible responses to the challenge of getting emissions down.

For instance, while enthusiastically promoting pumped hydro, energy minister Guy Barnett has shown no interest in encouraging household solar by improving the meagre 8.5c per kilowatt-hour feed-in tariff, despite a promise it would be reviewed immediately after the March election.

Nor has the government yet done anything of substance in over four years about the major source of Tasmanian emissions, road transport, apart from taking a belated interest in electric vehicles.

Climate change calls for real actions with verifiable outcomes. Instead we get little more than grand schemes, grand rhetoric and grand confusion.

Posted in Australian politics, Beyond Zero Emissions, bureaucracy, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, climate politics, electricity networks, energy, future climate, hydro, investment, leadership, solar, Tasmanian politics, wind | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment