Can’t remember when you last caught a train, at least one in Sydney? Stone the crows! Don’t you know you are part of the last gasp of the baby boomer addiction to oil?

A few years back when Australians were richer than they are now people liked to build big houses in the burbs. This drove taste makers nuts, what with the way it implied home-focused family life was a popular alternate to inner-city apartment living – as if any right-thinking Australian would ever prefer netball and barbeques to fair-trade coffee cafes and contemporary dance cabarets. As one academic opined:[i]

McMansions are a physical manifestation of Australia’s transition from a fair and equitable society to a less equitable and more status-conscious ones. They are a conspicuous display of affluence, even if those who are purchasing them are not actually affluent, as they are designed to impress and send a signal of aspirationalism.

But new houses are smaller now.[ii] So critics have returned to an old favourite, cavilling at cars and advocating rail as a form of social as well as transport engineering. “Many areas of society are set up for people with cars, and exclude those without one (the aged, people under 18, those on low incomes or with mobility impairment),” Catherine Simpson complains.[iii]

That car-dependence in suburbia is a bad thing is a long-standing article of faith among urban planners. There was a renewed warning last week, “that Australia risks a catastrophic drop in productivity if it presses ahead with road projects”, specifically major new motorways like the proposed connection between the M4 and Kingsford Smith Airport/Port Botany. Apparently, plans like this are “the last gasp of the dying baby boomer world’s addiction to oil”. [iv]

Um, except that the oil isn’t running out. Much as it pains enemies of the automobile to admit, new extraction technology means the energy crisis is over. As George Monbiot reluctantly admits, greens have to find something else to berate us about.[v]

And, while light rail is the green solution to everything solar panels can’t accomplish, it’s a bit tricky to freight containers on trams. And there will be a few more, in fact 50 per cent more, of them coming out of the port by 2036.[vi]

Manifestly, consumers love trains that take them where they want to go – consider the huge success of the Mandurah line in Perth, which increased network patronage by 57 per cent in three years. [vii]

And, sure, inner city Sydney can switch from cars to trams, thanks to the O’Farrell Government extending the light rail route to Dulwich Hill.[viii] But, and you might want to sit down to hear this surprising news – the vast majority of people don’t live within a couple of klicks of work or a stroll from their fair-trade coffee coop. Rather, they are like the lady in Saturday’s SMH who can get in her car at Penrith at 5.30am to reach work at Alexandria by 8am.[ix]

And the Crows can’t imagine the cost of a light rail network to cover the enormous number of trips across the Sydney basin that do not start and end at transport hubs. On 2006 figures, these account for just 25 per cent of journey.[x]

A transport system that reflects the needs of the inner city discriminates against everybody else who drives to work because there is no other way of commuting from where they aspire, or can afford, to live.

As the Infrastructure NSW report at the beginning of the month put it: “Sydney’s road network serves 93 per cent of passenger journeys and most growth in transport demand over the next 20 years will be met by roads under any plausible scenario. New road capacity is urgently required to meet the challenge of population growth and substantial increases in freight volumes.” [xi]

That the report rejected major heavy rail expansion, and called for not much more light rail, excited the ire of public transport advocates.[xii] But as Michaela Whitbourn puts it, “When an infrastructure plan calls for better use of existing assets and shies away from big-ticket projects in marginal seats, it’s clear that it hasn’t been smeared by the sticky fingers of politicians.” [xiii]

Support for public transport often has more to do with ideology than economics – even at the ABS:

Public transport can positively influence the social outcomes in a city for people most at risk of social isolation — low-income earners, the unemployed, the elderly and people with a disability by providing easier access to employment, education, and health and community services In terms of environmental outcomes, the public transport network can help mitigate against carbon emissions to the atmosphere by allowing people to make use of more sustainable forms of transport.[xiv]