Sunday, May 8, 2011

After the earthquake the oilquake?


When cheap oil leaves town...       Photo Wikimedia Commons

What is going on? The International Monetary Fund -- a body that states its mission is to "foster global growth and economic stability" has produced a major report which concludes the world has entered an era of oil scarcity, and openly discusses a peak oil scenario in which global GDP doesn't grow, but declines steeply !

So starts a recent posting in Denis Tegg's blog Oil Shock Horror Probe titled IMF Warns of Oil Scarcity And End of "Growth

I'll leave this blog's readers to follow these links up for themselves, but the most interesting, awesome and fearsome thing I find (apart from the fact that bodies like the IMF are starting to squeak on this issue) is the relatively low thresh-hold in oil supply shortfall perceived as needed to trigger world-wide recession and more or less permanent decline in living standards.

The IMF economists give serious consideration to a scenario where oil production declines at 3.8% annually and which is enough to start bringing down the house in the world economy and particularly countries like the USA and NZ which are net importers of oil. This type of oil decline scenario is similar to projected by those who have tried to alert the world to peak oil challenges for many years. In New Zealand's case Denis Tegg estimates there would be a 4 to 5% reduction in GDP within five years and a 14% reduction in 20 years.

The size of the "oilquake" - hitting as it does every aspect of every one's lives - fertiliser, perfume, plastics, medecins, transport, tourism are all heavily cheap oil based - will be far more reaching even than the sudden shock to our prosperity delivered by the huge costs of the Christchurch earthquakes. And far more enduring, yet another and ultimately probably a much larger groundshift in many people's lives.

New Zealand is already a much less wealthy country than Australia, I imagine mostly because it does not have the huge mineral wealth,  the large internal population market or intense concentrations of population on the scale of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. According to Wikipedia Australia's GDP per capita is $39,699 is 50% bigger than New Zealand's current GDP per capita, at $26,966.

An economist in a recent "Mainlander" (weekend supplement) to The Press recently calculated it would take 14 companies the size of Fonterra to lift New Zealand's economy to the prosperity of Australia. Anyone who knows the size of Fonterra knows that aint gonna happen! But we do have a beautiful country and brains, let us use them to create a different sort of prosperity, life-style rich, including amazing transport systems that do not merely try to ape the motorway madness of much wealthier countries. 

Having BRILLIANT public transport systems in our city, across the nation, has always (well since 1970 anyway) seemed to me the simplest and most attractive way of enhancing living standards in New Zealand, whilst maintaining prosperity and making the country resilient to climate change and peak oil impacts. This doesn't do away with cars, privately owned vehicles as an option, but recocognises that the world has the technology today to create very sophisticated alternate systems that could drastically cut car use in general and render ownership of a car an unnecesary. Boy racers could still love their cars but for many car owning would become a ridiculously expensive option in comparison to more attractive alternatives. This would be especially so for certain sectors of the population and/or at certain times in the life cycle, including before and after raising children.

In my experience most people are addicted to cars (I don't say this lightly or to be amusing!) and suffer panic, anxiety, rage and mood swings if they are asked to walk or bus anywhere, except long distances from a car park when they have are forced do so. The late director of Oakleigh Mental Hospital Frazer MacDonald way back in the 1970s described cars as metal boxes which allowed people to get in and out of their property with out having to relate to their neighbours! I find too much convenience and comfort is a sort of drug like prozaic, softening and blurring the actual quality of life (the sensate, active involvement, natural world and living community involvement quality of life) and suspect it requires large doses of real world experiences - such as overseas trips**  - to try to compensate for the spiritual depletion of travelling in metal boxes away from life. 

In my experience it is not possible for many car users hooked on this, spiritual deprivation -"fix" cycle to realise life doesn't need to be set at a "car-needed" pace. Nothing is lost by taking longer to travel, relax, read, people watch, chat, smell the flowers or feel the rain. If one chooses to stop owning a car in my experience it takes about 2-3 weeks to adjust one's time scale and find the longer traveling time normal (and of course to enjoy the reduced working hours needed to fund transport).

This said, along with car share, car pool, car hire, set fare taxis, taxis, and many other "car-less" options and superior off road (for miles) bike tracks, it is important we lift mass transit bus and busway systems - city, regional, national - way beyond their present half-assed 1950s style systems and anchor them in the modern age. Running all bus services as a set of separate routes ignores the computer age possibility of running as an integrated circuit in which pulses (each bus) move in relationship to each other, and dozens of travel options unfold at each major intersecting node point. This also recognises the central city is the most important but certainly not the only destination of service intensificartion needed. By comparison the higgledy piggledy systems run by Metro currently seem to me incredibly wasteful of resources (not least passengers' time) and the conceptually belong in a bygone era. Metro (and its partner Christchurch City Council) has embraced lots of new techno toys but have not put them to work together in the way necessary to create a fast, effective, reliable, frequent and predictable network system

Faced with the potential of 3.8% oil scarcity tippng point for prosperity, we can cling to cars and hurt or build a parallel highly effective mass transit network. Stress is inevitable if we cling to ideas and attitudes no longer relevant to the new situation. For mass transit we need to give buses the same status, but probably less than half the funding we give commuter rail (in Auckland and Wellington) including some permanent bus lanes, queue jumper lanes at congested intersections, completely segregated off-road busway sections including bus-only under-passes and over-passes, heated platformed major transfer stations and multiple transfer node points. As reliability and certainty of maintaining schedules grows we need to shift to a fully integrated core system in which the furtherest outer parts of Christchurch and longest cross-town trips would be accessible under 25 minutes, and most trips under 15 minutes even in peak hour congestion. With an integrated pattern the would be minimal waiting times at most stops and multiple options of access to various locations easily learnt and retained by any regular passenger.

You could say it would take an earthquake to bring such a shift in attitudes in Christchurch but we tried that and alas the opposite seems to be happening! I personally can not understand, now that most roads are open, why the WHOLE system should be run (or is it run down?) in the current clumsy manner - not least why a proper multi-stop temporary bus exchange pattern can not be created at Parkside using both sides of the road and traffic management devices. Nor why, when drivers and buses are standing idle, key services are not being operated at half steam. And the John Key government - more retro than a Mark 1 Zephyr - seem bent on cutting public transport funding in favour of more motorways, even though car use is already starting to decline on NZ State Highways and more recently the Auckland Harbour Bridge and yet oil has barely begun to rise.

The future does not bode well for quality public transport at the very time it should be getting the tools to support and maintain prosperity in new more effective ways!!

** I wonder if it ever strikes some people the freshness and stimulation they get on overseas holidays is in part, in many cases because they are not travelling by car but fully immersed street-level,  in the people and places world - a lively world that also exists in their hometown?

*** for instance drop in Harbour Bridge traffic, noted at bottom of NZ Herald article on oil price rises 

1 comment:

  1. It's pretty scary stuff. To the best of my knowledge, no political party has answered the question of what happens to our economy when mass tourism becomes unaffordable.

    Even more so is that the government has decided that the best way it can reduce oil addiction is to get more addicted, and that at worst we can be cushioned from oil shocks by driving smoother (on nice new roads), and if not, then the market will just sort it out.