Sunday, April 24, 2011

Owen McShane: Oil Prices and Public Transport


Since the oil spike in the early seventies enthusiasts for public transport have predicted that these high prices for petrol would trigger a public transport revolution as people finally broke their "addiction" to the motor car and changed their travel mode to buses and trains. And in the short term their predictions appeared to be true as public transport use increased and motor car mileage decreased.

However, it was not long before the trend towards increased motor use was re-established and the public transport share either stabilised or even fell.

The Government's position paper on Auckland transport shows that the number of private transport journeys to work has never declined since 1976, the year their time series begins.

Yes, standard pricing theory says that people respond to prices, and surely people will respond to an increase in the price of filling their tank by changing their transport mode. So why hasn't it happened and will it happen in future?

This is not a trivial question because councils – and the Auckland Council in particular – are demanding massive investments in central city public transport, and demanding that Government fund a large part of it. Their arguments are largely based on the current oil spike and the upward blip in public transport use, and of course peak oil.

One would think that the only means of having access to point to point private transport is an oil powered car. Prior to the car, for thousands of years our private transport was provided by the horse. The car is the iron horse – not the train.

There are a host of technologies out there that will more than compensate for any increase in the price per litre of oil based fuels. The peak oil pessimists complain that it will take far too long to replace the vehicle fleet. This is a curious charge because in the next breath they talk about reshaping the urban form and density of whole urban areas. Short of another convenient Luftwaffe arriving on the scene, such urban clearance is hardly likely to happen overnight.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Owen: how do you explain that wherever decent public transport is offered in the world, the mode share is much higher? I am not surprised that ours is stagnating, as you need to be very desperate to use this abysmal "service". If you only provided long drops - quite predictably the usage of public toilets would decline as well. Would this indicate they are not needed/wanted? The preference of the private car is not by choice, but lack thereof.