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Speech on Reducing Car Emissions and Road Congestion

On Thursday 1 June 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on the key role of improved public transport infrastructure in addressing growing levels or car emissions and road congestion. You can watch the speech here or read the full transcript below.

E WATSON-BROWN: There's an incredible blind spot at the heart of city planning and infrastructure, and the blind spot is the car. The blind spot is the belief that if we just replace every car with an electric vehicle we'll fix the transport problem. The blind spot is developing huge tracts of suburban sprawl, totally remote and disconnected from workplaces, from public transport, from local services, from shops and from parks so that we all have to drive and get stuck in traffic to simply access the essentials. The blind spot is believing that adding just one more lane will stop congestion, when really it's just going to mean that more drivers access that road and the same congestion shortly reappears.

This is an enormous waste of human life potential. We're a wealthy country that has the ability to ensure everyone can live a good life. Is a good life, though, being stuck in traffic for two hours each day when you could be at home with your kids, reading a good book or playing sport? This is not a diatribe against drivers. There's something great—a freedom—about the independence of driving around in your own vehicle, but how much freedom do we feel when we're stuck in traffic? Think about it like this: if your commute is an hour each way every day, that's 10 hours a week wasted in traffic. If you multiply that by, say, the 48 weeks in a year that you might make that commute and by the 45 years of your working life, do you know what you get? You get 21,600 waking hours lost to commuting. That's nearly four years of life spent in your car just getting to work. At least half of that could be avoided if we had a transport system that was about giving people time. We need to give people back the freedom to get around the city however they like. We need a real plan to give people back those thousands of wasted hours so they can spend time doing the things that make life worth living.

Last week, the Climate Council's report showed that if we are to reduce our emissions in line with what is required to keep global warming at anything like a safe level, noting that transport is the fastest growing source of emissions in Australia, we need to cut our car trips by more than half by 2030 and we need to more than triple our trips on public transport. This is a wake-up call for all levels of government. The media and many politicians have been obsessed with this idea of electric vehicles as the solution to transport. This report clearly showed that electric vehicles will not be nearly enough, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they take an enormous amount of resources to produce, and if every household in the world wanted to have two electric vehicles, we just simply cannot sustain that degree of usage of resources. Secondly, the uptake of EVs will simply be too slow. Even under the best-case scenario of the government's EV strategy, by 2040 over 60 per cent of cars on the road will still be petrol cars. Finally, and importantly, EVs will not solve the problem of horrendous traffic congestion and the enormous waste of time that it represents.

For all these reasons, it's clear that we need a rapid shift from car usage as the dominant mode of transport to public and active transport. Despite all this, the government has set targets for EVs but none for share of trips by public or active transport. The government needs to urgently set that target, as the states are actually failing miserably. For example, the Queensland government expects only nine per cent of trips to be on public transport by 2050. The Climate Council says that target should be 49 per cent by 2035. So, instead of wasting billions on stadiums and road widenings, the government needs to urgently consider mandating 50 per cent of all transport spending to go to public transport and 20 per cent to active transport. In addition to that, the government can and should introduce a trial of free public transport across the country.

Finally, the federal government needs to develop a national plan for all new development to include standards for local access to services, to shops and to public and active transport connections so people can get to where they need to go quickly and without having to get in the car. Without this, transport emissions will continue to rise and more and more hours of people's lives will be wasted in traffic rather than spent on the things that make life meaningful.

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