Public transport: Bartlett’s plan to keep those wheels turning

With global warming and peak oil looming ever-larger, it’s as well to plan ahead for radically different ways of getting about. [19 May 2009 | Peter Boyer]

For all but a century or so of the 160,000-odd years since modern humans appeared on the planet, when most of us wanted to get from one place to another we walked. Remember that? It’s when you put one foot in front of another, over and over again.

A few of us lucky enough to own a beast of burden hitched a ride on its back, or sat in a horse-drawn carriage. Those same lucky few were among the first to acquire a horseless carriage (a filthy beast, but damn clever) when it arrived on the scene.

Most of us couldn’t afford one, so we caught the train, and when it was invented, the motor bus. But then, good old American ingenuity gave us mass production, making it possible for anyone above the poverty line to own a car. And the transport revolution truly began.

The car changed our societies beyond recognition. It made it possible to live many miles from shops and services, workplaces, railways and bus stops — way out there in places which used to be forest or field, which we came to call suburbs.

And that transformed our cities. You can stroll across the old cities of Europe in a couple of hours. If you want to cross on foot any of the bigger cities shaped by the motor car — vast residential and industrial sprawls around commercial hubs — you’ll need days.

With the option of cheap cars running on cheap fuel we lost interest in alternative transport, but living so distant from workplaces and essential services, how will we manage when energy scarcity and greenhouse pollution measures make our cars too expensive to run?

It’s possible that with fewer cars we could continue to live in cities if we had a comprehensive, affordable urban and inter-urban public transport system, supplemented by networks of designated routes for foot and cycle traffic. That, at least, seems to be the vision of the Premier.

“Modern, efficient, innovative transport solutions are the way of the future for Tasmania”, important as a tool for making Tasmania “more socially inclusive”, said David Bartlett in this year’s State of the State address to Parliament.

The government’s 10-year vision signals a shift away from cars, focusing on public road transport (and possibly rail later), developing routes and facilities for cycling and walking, and local community transport. There are three main parts.

• Making Metro more effective and more sustainable, obtaining new low-emission buses for general and school use, converting existing buses to bio-diesel, implementing a “smart” ticketing system with options for buying tickets online, and extending bus priority lanes on major routes.

• Supporting human-powered transport by improving cycleway infrastructures including the Hobart Arterial Bike Network, the Tasman Bridge, and regional developments around Launceston, Burnie and Devonport; and by developing better walking routes.

• Establishing a “Community Transport Trust” through which communities will be able to apply for vehicles to serve local community networks, transporting medical patients and others with no alternative means of getting about.

Political leaders, focused on growth, jobs and other high-impact activities, have a bad track record on environmental challenges, and we should expect no miracles here. These schemes may come to little in the wake of the colossal hole in the State’s GST revenue, and David Bartlett has yet to break  from outmoded political mindsets which keep rail in limbo while supporting the standby of new and faster car routes.

But this is a start. We can only hope that the plans come to fruition – and keep working on that crucial mindset shift.

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