Australians Aren’t Learning From America & Europe’s Car Ownership ‘Battle’

Australia should be doing more to support the development of public transport – unlike the US or Europe, we don't have an excuse.

Cars have always been political in Australia. Owning a car used to be the ultimate status symbol, but these days, more and more young people are turning their backs on cars – partly because public transport has improved across the country, partly because of the rising costs of car ownership, but also because it’s a political decision to reduce one’s carbon footprint.

The last twelve months have thrown that model into disarray, with many Australians jumping into cars and ditching public transport in order to avoid COVID, which is in of itself a political decision (everything is political, baby!) But there’s another political dimension to the car versus public transport debate which is playing out across the world – and it seems to be affecting Australia.

As The Economist elaborates, in both Europe and America, city and state governments are increasingly trying to reduce car ownership in order to combat congestion and pollution – encouraging citizens to use public transport or other forms of mobility instead. ⁠But national leaders want more people buying cars in order to help local auto makers.

The end result is mixed messaging where people are encouraged to buy more cars but find that they are increasingly unable to use them as they would like. It’s a battle where no-one’s a winner.

Cyclists in Copenhagen. Bikes now outnumber cars in the famously two-wheel-friendly Danish capital, which also benefits from a great public transport system. Image: The New York Times

The US is a worse offender than Europe on this count. America has always been a country where the car is king: one only has to think back to the General Motors streetcar conspiracy (as famously lampooned in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Decades of policy decisions – as well as the inescapable geography of the country – have helped pushed car ownership to the detriment of public transport, despite America’s huge population.

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But then you have Australia. Australia, like the US, is a country where car ownership is virtually mandatory. While Australian cities mostly have American cities beat when it comes to quality of public transport, our cities’ insane urban sprawls – plus the gargantuan distances between major population centres, as well as the vastness of the Australian interior – necessitates vehicle ownership.

We’ve also developed a very American attitude when it comes to supporting (or rather, not supporting) public transport, both at a state and federal level. Melbourne might have its trams and Sydney might be in the midst of major public transport developments (many of which have run behind schedule, over-budget, were long overdue and don’t go far enough – but we digress…) but the reality is that truly substantive public transport projects are few and far between these days. We lack vision; lack political will.

It’s hard to understand why Australian political leaders have been so complacent about public transport in recent years when unlike Europe or America, we have no local auto industry to support. It’s like we’ve imported the American politics without importing an American reality. A one-sided battle, if you will.

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Of course, another dimension of this situationworth considering is how leaders in the US and Europe also want to promote electric vehicle ownership in order to support the development of EV technology. More and more new cars are EVs and while EVs might not help with congestion, they can help with emissions and pollution, particularly in cities. With China quickly becoming the world’s EV powerhouse, there’s also a strong incentive for US/European governments to get EV sales going so that they can remain globally competitive.

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This is also another area in which this debate doesn’t neatly translate over to an Australian context. Again, we have no local auto industry that we might want to help make competitive when it comes to EVs. All EVs in this country are imported – so while Australian governments might tacitly support car ownership, they have no incentive to promote EV ownership.

It’s a justification the Morrison Government has offered for their lack of federal incentives towards EV ownership, arguing that “reducing the total cost of ownership through subsidies would not represent value for the taxpayer, particularly as industry is rapidly working through technological developments to make battery electric vehicles cheaper.”

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That does make some sense. Why give foreign auto makers free money when they’ve already got a strong incentive to bring prices down? Let America and Europe (and other countries) bust their asses developing EV technology, we can just ride their coattails. But it’s a myopic argument that also ignores other factors, like emissions and rising fuel prices.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison fuels up a Toyota Mirai hydrogen electric vehicle during a tour of the Toyota Hydrogen Centre in Altona, Melbourne. Image: AAP

At the end of the day, Australia’s public transport systems just aren’t up to a global standard – despite not having the ‘excuse’ of needing to support a local manufacturing sector. We should be trying to support our cities in reducing congestion and pollution.

Australia will likely always be a country where car ownership is a necessity for a sizeable chunk of the population. But while we’re starting to recover from COVID (our recent challenges with the Omicron variant notwithstanding), we should refocus our attention on improving public transport systems across the country.

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