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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 10-Oct-2007

Edition: Web-Only

Section: News and Features


Page: 0

Wordcount: 847

Consider the Costa lack of buses

Elizabeth Farrelly

I was sitting comfortably on the homebound bus when a young woman got on with a baby in a stroller. Anyone who has done this knows it’s not easy, juggling stroller, child, bag, purse and ticket on a soon-to-be-rolling platform. Once, the driver might have offered a hand, or a kind word. Not this time. Our driver sat stolidly in his seat, watching her efforts from inside his stockade of bad-tempered body language. Finally the young woman sank with evident relief onto one of the sideways folding seats.

“Nah,” bellowed the driver into his rear-vision mirror. “Not there.” Like, duh. “The other side.” She looked bewildered. The seats on the other side were full. A middle-aged man stood up, saying, “Here, have my seat, love. You go here. Put the baby in that gap.” She did it, and sat again.

“Nah,” barked the driver again, holding up one finger to ensure offence. “The baby has to turn around.” As the other the passengers cringed, she turned the child around. “Nah,” came the snarl once again. “Facing the back.” The middle-aged man helped again: “Here, love, like this.” And off we went, lurching angrily through the midday traffic.

That the young mother was Asian may not have been a factor. Maybe her command of the vernacular wasn’t the full bottle. Maybe the driver was having a bad day. Maybe he should have taken a sickie, for all our sakes. Whatever the story, it made me ashamed to be Australian and as I left, I told him so. “G’donya love,” said the middle-aged man. Then, to his companion: “And they wonder why people don’t use public transport.”

Of course rudeness isn’t why most of us don’t use it. Many bus drivers are human; some positively heroic. The main reason we don’t use public transport is: there isn’t any. There are timetables and shelters, stations and train tracks. But the actual rolling stock, the money-where-your-mouth-is expensive bit so abhorred by the Costa Club, shows up on a strictly occasional basis.

This will change. The dearth will end. Public transport will come to Sydney, and in a big way.

How do I know? Not because the Government has promised me anything (other than concrete boots, and I’m happily assuming they’re on the same slow boat as the north-west rail link.) No, we’ll get public transport because we’ll have to. There will be no choice. Sydney, like every other major city, is in a pincer movement whose upper jaw is climate change and whose lower, crushing-and-grinding mandible is peak oil.

Peak oil is the idea not that oil will run out, but that its production will start to decline. Most of us, faced with this possibility, have two immediate but conflicting responses. One is, “I’d better stop driving, now. (And can I grow my own food?)” The other is, “Perhaps I’d better travel everywhere now since there may be no such thing in the future.”

Of course, there are oil sceptics, just as there are climate sceptics. But an increasing chorus of the respectable says oil will peak, and soon. Many experts think it may be happening right now – something that is verifiable only in retrospect. But according to the recent doco, A Crude Awakening , 58 oil-producing countries (including Iran and Kuwait) have already peaked, leaving Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Emirates carrying the half-empty can.

More scarily, because the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ habit of linking production quotas to stated reserves has led many countries wildly to overstate capacity, there is no reliable data on how much oil is left. We do know that, in the words of petro-geologist Dr Colin Campbell, consultant to Texaco, Exxon and BP, “there are only so many more drinks to closing time”.

The American century has been the oil century. Oil, in many ways, is America. Energy and empire have always been blood-brothers and all material wealth is now oil-based. It’s not just petrol. Plastics, pesticides, fertilisers, cosmetics, jet fuel, pharmaceuticals – you know the list. Everything from the modern hospital to the microchip depends on oil being cheaper per cup than coffee.

United States oil production peaked in 1970, and although the country still uses 25 per cent of the world’s oil it produces a mere 8 per cent. As the Republican congressman Roscoe Bartlett notes, “Current US energy use is equivalent to having 300 people working round the clock for each citizen.”

It’s ironic that oil is probably peaking just at the moment when, even if it weren’t, demand would start to outrun supply. The reason, in a word, is China. Almost 500 million Chinese now have driver’s licences, making China the biggest car market, bar none. But world oil production is already at capacity and new technologies generally hasten extraction without increasing overall supply – deferring the peak, but sharpening the fall.

The only answer, besides war and famine, is demand reduction. That is, working public transport. Trains are seven times more energy-efficient than cars. For Comrade Costa to go on denying this, or its significance, makes us that young Asian mother and him our short-necked bus driver.


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