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Australia: Petrol, polls and politicians

Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald
THE Federal Government is rushing to be seen doing something as the weeks of high oil prices stretch into months and start to take their toll on its popularity. Having failed to contain public anger with the line that the oil price is not its department, the Government is now offering subsidies to help motorists convert their cars to liquid petroleum gas, or buy new LPG-powered cars. Service station owners will be helped to sell petrol blended with 10 per cent ethanol. Those are the big-ticket items in its energy package, which also covers oil exploration and some alternative energy initiatives. If the Government looks as if it was caught napping on the issue – and it does – the flurry of activity is intended to give the impression that it is now wide awake and very, very concerned. Though, like someone newly awoken from a long doze, it does not give the appearance of being entirely on top of things, we should at least be grateful that its initial, hurried response has done no harm.

…It is to the Government’s credit that the excise [tax on gas] has been retained, and to the Opposition’s that no serious pressure has been placed on it to do otherwise. Lowering the excise would be too expensive; it would skew even further Australia’s costly and polluting transport bias towards roads; it would lull motorists, who already pay relatively little for petrol by world standards, into complacency about fuel costs. While the Government may have been tardy in responding to the oil price crisis, it has at least responded. Motorists who demand an end to the excise have not: they are acting as if no crisis exists, and they have the right to cheap petrol regardless of the worldwide shortage. Without clear price signals, they will never adjust their behaviour to the reality of expensive petrol.

… The petrol price squeeze has caught this country, like much of the world, unprepared. Right now, it hurts. To ease the pain, Australians must adapt fast.
(15 Aug 2006)

Two-wheeled remedy for urban headaches

Sherrill Nixon and Julie Robotham, Sidney Morning Herald
NORMAN JEW had not ridden a bike for about 45 years, but when he took a fancy to a woman who was an avid cyclist he took to the saddle as well.

The romance with the woman did not blossom, but Mr Jew’s love of cycling was so strongly rekindled that he is now a crusader for off-road bike and pedestrian pathways in suburbs across Australia.

“I was 62 and feeling it,” Mr Jew said of the time he got back on his bike. “I bought a $250 second-hand bike [and] the freedom and the enjoyment of it all came back … I really felt 10 to 15 years younger.”

The Picton resident was elected to Wollondilly Shire Council in 2004, largely on his shared-pathway platform. His zeal has convinced two fellow councillors to buy bikes, and construction will begin this month on a pathway through Appin.

Mr Jew has also taken motions to local government conferences calling for off-road pathways – at least two metres wide with safety zones in the middle of road crossings for cyclists – to be mandatory in all new developments.

“I have probably taken on more than I should have but I’m now 68,” he said. “It’s a matter of how much longer have I got to do all these things?”

Australians’ over-reliance on the car and the subsequent lack of “active transport” – walking and cycling – is a large factor in the obesity epidemic.

John Pucher, an American professor of planning who has spent the past year with the University of Sydney’s institute of transport and logistics studies, is working with Australian and Canadian academics on a three-country comparison of transport systems and their impact on people’s travel behaviour and health.

What he has observed here comes as no comfort: he thinks Australia is as bad as the US when it comes to urban design and lack of physical activity.

“Australians are so sports crazy; they are just nuts about sports,” Professor Pucher said. “But there’s something we have in common: there seems to be a lot of armchair sports fans … they are not getting any physical activity while they do it.”

He advocates solutions that encourage cycling and walking, including a huge expansion of bike lanes, priority signals for bikes at intersections, improved pedestrian crossings, more car-free zones and reduced speed limits in busy pedestrian areas.
(15 Aug 2006)

American vehicles are piling on the pounds

Roland Jones, MSNBC
Ballet dancers and professional jockeys are not the only ones who worry about weight. U.S. carmakers worry about it too, and with good reason: Even as the price of gasoline has crept higher in recent years, their cars are piling on the pounds.

The average weight of a U.S.-made vehicle has increased by 500 pounds over the last 10 years to 4,142 pounds, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency. The average weight of current vehicles is now the heaviest since the EPA began measuring weight in 1975.
(14 Aug 2006)