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Going carless is still a privilege in Australia



A year ago, I made the decision to call a wrecker and get my car crushed into a cube. It had been a long time coming. At the time of its demise, my 19 year old car had been sitting in the driveway haemorrhaging money for three years while I caught public transport, walked and caught cabs nearly everywhere. Between registration and insurance, it was approximately $2000 per year that was better spent elsewhere.

A tram in motion in Melbourne. (Credit: Onfokus / Getty)Yet while realising how much money I was wasting was the tipping point, it was not the sole factor that made my mind up. Firstly, there was the car accident. Nine years ago, I was driving back from the country one night and had my car written off by another driver who had veered on to the wrong side of the road. My injuries were thankfully minor though recurrent. Mentally however, I found it hard driving at night again, particularly when headlights would come towards me. I still do.

The next straw was going to Europe and seeing what public transport could be. My first encounter with London's Tube and how convenient, inexpensive, regular and well-planned it is was beaten only by my experiences catching public transport in Berlin. I was astounded that a city just slightly smaller than Melbourne could have such excellent and cost-effective public transport. Berlin also has reliable trams and buses. In both these cities, I found myself amused that people would run to catch a train when the next one was due in a mere three minutes.

I generally found good services in regional and rural areas too — particularly in Germany. In Copenhagen, the trains had entire sections devoted to pushbikes so their cycle-mad citizens were easily ferried around. I had a bigger language barrier in both Bangkok and Prague yet again found their public transport inexpensive and efficient.

Following each trip overseas, I'd find myself driving less when I got home. Suddenly, I had an interest in seeing exactly how many places I could get to without driving. My mindset had shifted. When I was 21 and bought my first car, it felt like freedom and the possibilities of where I could go seemed endless. At nearly 41, however, it seemed wasteful, stressful and a bit of a financial trap.

I have rarely regretted making the decision to go carless. It takes longer for me to get anywhere and I am at the whims of the many faults that befall the public transport system in Melbourne. Yet I arrive everywhere less stressed because I haven't been stuck in traffic for hours, unable to move from my seat, surrounded by fellow stressed drivers. What's more, I rarely have to plan ahead for a night out. If I want to go for a drink after work, I can. I won't be worrying about being over the limit, nor am I concerned I will have a massive parking ticket waiting for me if I leave my car overnight somewhere.

On the rare moments I do wish I still had a car, it has nothing to do with actually needing a car and everything to do with poor public transport infrastructure. Getting around on public transport is nowhere near as efficient, convenient and cost-effective in Melbourne as it is any of those other large cities I've mentioned. Indeed, not a single Australian city's public transport services can compare.


"Faster, regular regional services or services going around, rather than to, a CBD shouldn't even require debating for forward-thinking governments."


When you look just at the rail networks elsewhere it becomes apparent why. Not only is every Australian city planned around a CBD with all lines going into and out of it and almost nothing going around it, but the sheer size of our cities shows that they were built purely for cars. Not having a car, rather than being a sign of poverty, is actually a sign of privilege in Melbourne. I live near enough to the CBD to have multiple modes of public transport at my doorstep and the existing routes suit where I mostly need to go.

Many in the Melbourne mortgage belt simply do not have that option. There are suburbs with no trains, inadequate station parking and irregular bus services. With the sheer size of our Australian urban sprawls, it is unlikely the situation will change for these people any time soon. The situation is even worse in the country.

Many state governments are looking to solve this issue. Canberra has a light rail now, Sydney and Adelaide are reinstalling tram tracks ripped out decades ago by short-sighted governments, and Perth is looking into 'trackless trams'. Melbourne is building a new rail tunnel and a 'rail loop'. Unfortunately, the loop is actually just an unjoined curve which fails to plug the connection shortfalls in this city. With buses and trams sharing the road with cars, and a train system which has branches rather than links, our system falls well short of what is needed.

Recent School Strikes show that now more than ever, future generations want options to help create a kinder, more sustainable future. In addition to this, our growing population requires better options than more cars clogging our roads. I like to think that by choosing alternatives I am not only doing my bit where I can but I am also trying to encourage the people who make these decisions to really think about what better public transport infrastructure needs to look like for Australian cities, towns and rural areas. People need to have choices. Faster, regular regional services or services going around, rather than to, a CBD shouldn't even require debating for forward-thinking governments.

So for now, in the privileged inner suburban position I am in, I will continue to enjoy being car-free. I only worry that should my circumstances change, my sustainable choice would become unsustainable. That shouldn't be the case.



Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Main image: A tram in motion in Melbourne. (Credit: Onfokus / Getty)

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, public transport, cycling, Berlin



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Existing comments

Great write up Celeste. I totally agree with you on every point, and am a big inner city slow but happy daily cross-town cyclist. For a few reasons I am keeping my car needing to get out of town from time to time, but I've just put it up on a car sharing app (CND) so at least someone can use it instead of it sitting on the street all week. I still know that it's fuel economy is rubbish and it eats way too much petrol as an almost twenty year old 4wd, but I am not feeling dumb and guilty for having it around all the time anymore. I hope the platform gets bigger so folks like yourself are never tempted to buy a car again and can use a local one when you need, eventually I hope to get rid of mine and just use the app when I need.

Massimo | 28 October 2019  

Your home is a fixed zone of privacy, your car a mobile one. Both are blessings to possess and both require blessings in order to possess. Or perhaps it is privacy that is a blessing to possess and requires blessings in order to possess.

roy chen yee | 28 October 2019  

Well said. Agree 100%. Although I’m not living in an inner city suburb I still use public transport in Melbourne for the same reasons Celeste mentioned. However, I don’t see any improvements coming during my lifetime.

Anushan | 29 October 2019  

Public transport is not at all easy for getting around in rural/regional areas. Recent transfers of public transport systems to private enterprise have made the problems worse, as corporations pursue profit rather than social well-being. The types of rosters these corporations have introduced are not considerate of drivers either. I long for the days of a decade or more ago when local drivers knew passengers by name and drivers were allowed to help people on and off buses. Occupational health and safety rules have put an end to that.

Janet | 01 November 2019  

Your article highlights the inadequacy of a transport system in any major Australian city. This challenge should be a high priority for any government as it is one of the many ripples linked to climate change. On another tack,, transport systems are heavily unionised which can impede progress. If the Australia Labour Party wants a genuine party platform then transport should be it.

Sue Swift | 01 November 2019  

Thanks Celeste. You are right.

Rosanna Burston | 01 November 2019  

Great article, Celeste. Now in our eighties, we recently moved to an apartment in a suburb chosen because we can walk easily to everything we need, including a train station. After a few months, we found ourselves walking where we needed to go and also walking much more for the pleasure of it.

Maureen Helen | 01 November 2019  

One could add that both energy and transport policy seems more about catering to fossil fuel companies future income streams, for past two or three generations?

Andrew J Smith | 02 November 2019  

Japan is a great example of where we could be if we hadn't followed the policies of pro-car lobbiests in the post-war era. Inner Tokyo has little traffic, a great subway system, and the traffic so tame that 14% of journeys are by bicycle. Below are links to a couple of articles I wrote from a recent holiday. You can probably do better it your Editor can send you there for some other stories. https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2019/11/12/getting-the-little-things-right-some-insights-from-japan/ https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2019/10/11/planning-and-transport-postcard-from-japan/

Malcolm McCaskill | 15 November 2019  

I agree with the conclusion that public transport across the board needs to be improved (and more accessible...), but this argument does not hinge on privilege. Ironically, Sydney and Melbourne have a greater bias towards high income users, precisely because they have higher quality public transport than other cities like Adelaide, at least for the inner suburbs. Those who are wealthy enough to live in inner areas who use public transport to commute to the CBD aren't necessarily carless, rather they use public transport when it is convenient (commuting to the CBD) and driving otherwise. Driving a car is very much a privilege, namely ablebodied privilege. Likewise, evidence shows that the poorest in our society are the least likely to own cars. We simply have to make do with the terrible public transport in the outer suburbs if that is where we live. You see, I don't have much choice where I live because I live in public housing, due to consequences of a severe illness in my teens. For many of my neighbours in the run-down block of flats I used to live in, going car-free was not a choice.

Angie | 21 November 2019  

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