Australia may or may not be at the bottom of the world, but it does seem to be close to the cutting edge when it comes to thinking about sustainability. Back in January, I ran a piece about the big island’s zero carbon plan showing how they could convert 100% of their economy to renewables by 2020. And in a recent Sustainability & Innovation Survey published in the MIT Sloan Management Review the role of government in influencing sustainable decisions is seen by executives as stronger in Australia and New Zealand than anywhere else in the world (North American was at the bottom of that list).
Now, a study released by the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) late last year, which found that “Australia will be forced to rely on huge quantities of imported oil unless it radically overhauls its transport and urban policies,” is calling for some big, some might even say heretical changes.
For example, Peter Newman, one of the authors said that, ”urban sprawl is finished. If we continue to roll out new land releases and suburbs that are car-dependent, they will become the slums of the future.” Newman went on to say that all future urban planning must be tested against the potential for an oil shortage.
Co-author Dr Jago Dodson said that if oil imports are not curbed, their trade deficit would soar. Australia, with its abundant reserves of coal and natural gas could easily become complacent, but instead they are wisely looking ahead, since they can clearly see that business-as-usual is not going to work for them. Australia holds only about 0.3% of the world oil reserves.
Newman said the cost of building public transport to remote suburbs on the urban fringe would soon become prohibitive. Australian policymakers were ”about 30 years behind the times” in solving the problem.
The vast majority (over 70%) of Australia’s petroleum consumption is used for transportation. It seems that the Planning Institute focused most of its attention redesigning its communities, rather than hoping for a renewable silver bullet that would power the access to and from the current sprawl using otherwise traditional means (i.e. cars).
Solutions focused on public transport networks, recalling the days of WWII era gas rationing. Though some planners have historically felt that higher suburban densities would be required before increased public transport became economical, studies that compared Australian cities with other cities in the world, such as Sydney vs. NYC, found that the population densities were similar, but ridership was far better in NY because more service was available and more places were connected.
As for other, more human powered modes of transport, the study had this to say, “It is now understood that the mere presence of greater numbers of cyclists and pedestrians, by and of itself, leads to an increase in safety for these modes. … as levels of cycling increase, the rate of cyclist fatalities declines.”
Australian planners are beating up on themselves for not having thought about these issues sooner, though I’m still waiting to hear any serious discussion about them here.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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