Tackling the empty car syndrome

We won’t make headway in reducing our carbon emissions from transport unless we can change the way we use our cars. CoolPool Tasmania is a 21st century solution to an intractable problem. [19 August 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Looking for an icon to represent contemporary Australian life? Forget those tired old clichés of the past – the sheep, the boomerang, the bronzed surfer. Our 21st century icon is a gleaming projectile on four discs, usually depicted in bright technicolour hurtling along a wide asphalt ribbon.

Cars were once strictly for a well-off minority, with most people finding other ways of getting around. Now it seems they’re life-support for an entire nation.

The spectre of ever-rising petrol prices recently gave members of our national parliament a serious attack of jitters. Last year’s election campaign underlined the high priority we give to the car, with almost daily announcements by parties trying to outbid each other on road spending.

But there was barely a whisper about alternative car engines, and nothing on public transport, cycling or walking facilities. With cars estimated to contribute around eight per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, the growing climate emergency calls for bold, imaginative thinking.

Tasmanian cities and towns aren’t big by world standards, yet traffic congestion is the main reason cited for spending big on roads. Why is this so? The average European or Asian car is powered by an engine two litres or less in size, so could our relatively large cars be part of the problem?

Maybe, but I think the biggest culprit is the way we use our cars, emphasised by an informal car occupancy survey in July and August by two enterprising young Tasmanians.

Over two weeks, travelling to school with their parents, 13-year-old Josh Rowland and his sister Jess (12) undertook a count of people occupying the cars that overtook them on the road from Woodbridge into Hobart via the Southern Outlet.

Most cars are capable of carrying four or five people in comfort. Out of 560 cars checked by Josh and Jess, not a single one contained four people or more, and only eight were occupied by three people. Cars carrying two people totalled 105, or about 19 per cent.

Fully 80 per cent of all cars in Josh’s and Jess’s survey – 447 cars – carried only the driver. It seems the new roads we’re spending millions on are mainly going to serve single-occupant cars. From where I see it, that’s a colossal waste of public money.

Georgi Marshall observed a similar pattern in car travel over many years in Tasmania and abroad. Her answer to the empty car syndrome is CoolPool Tasmania (www.coolpooltas.com.au).

In this online car-pooling scheme, people book shared rides, much as they might obtain train, bus or air tickets. The scheme provides people with a means of checking who they’re giving a lift to or getting a lift from, and for sharing costs of a journey.

In only two months of operation, CoolPool Tasmania has over 150 members –Tasmanian motorists from all parts of the state who see the benefits, both to the environment and their wallets, of sharing their cars with others.

We have a long way to go. We need to shift our focus, and our money, from roads into bold, imaginative programs for public transport, rail freight, cycling and walking facilities to transform these neglected infrastructures into a truly climate-friendly, energy-efficient transport system.

Georgi Marshall’s car-pooling scheme shows what a determined individual can achieve. The rest is up to us.

This entry was posted in cars, transport and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.