City Living versus The Great Australian Dream

For a few years now I’ve harboured a dream to be able to live life without a car. I have this imaginary lifestyle in my mind where I live in the centre of a city. Everything I need is within walking or cycling distance. On the rare occasion that I need to do a long road trip I’ll just hire a car.

A series of articles that appeared recently in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Lithgow Mercury (here, here and here) got me thinking about it again. You see, Sydney planners are wanting to build an underground rail line from Central Station to Parramatta. Along that line they want to build high rise (up to 15 storeys) apartment blocks with the aim of encouraging their increasing population to live withing walking distance of the new mass transit system. From a sustainable mobility perspective the Sydney plan sounds great. The problem is the planners are fighting The Great Australian Dream. The big house with the big backyard.

Aussies want at least four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a double garage and room for the kids to run around out the back. The Great Australian Dream is the main driver behind urban sprawl in all our capital cities. To get the big block you have to live in the outer suburbs. Living in the outer suburbs means you will most likely need to drive a car to work, if not all the way then at least to the nearest decent public transport. As a result The Great Australian Dream clogs our roads in peak hour and causes us to curse everyone else following the same dream we are.

The sad news is that the Great Australian Dream is a lifestyle that is unsustainable in a peak oil world. The Sydney planners know it and so do a lot of other people, particularly Europeans who are practiced at living the width of a wall away from their neighbours. The rising cost of oil as supplies diminish will increase demand for public transport but Governments will be unable to build and maintain the infrastructure required to service the urban sprawl. We are going to have to adjust our definition of living and part of that adjustment will be living closer together, closer to public transport and closer to work.

Right now I’m almost living The Dream. I’ve got a big yard in a very quiet neighbourhood. The house is small but I’ve got a big shed. The problem is that I’m 35km from work and about 15km from the city where my better half works. There is no nearby public transport so getting to work would involve a drive followed by multiple bus and train journeys. Cycling and working from home are my best options for reducing car use but neither can be achieved every day due to distance and the need to see clients or work at clients’ sites.

So, what would it take to get me living closer to my neighbours, closer to public transport and closer to work? I’ve been mulling this over for the last few days and it all comes down to two words – lifestyle and happiness. To achieve the lifestyle and happiness I desire when living in a city centre I’d need the living environment to meet five criteria.

1. I am not prepared to live in a shoe box. I’m a country boy and I like my space. That doesn’t mean I need a big house, it just means I need room to move and an uncluttered environment in which to live. Good views would help.

2. If I’m going to move from being surrounded by not much to living shoulder to shoulder then I want to do so in a truly environmentally friendly building. It will need to be well insulated, take advantage of winter sun and summer breeze and have lots of natural light and ventilation. The building or development will have its own power supply, preferably cogeneration or trigeneration powered by natural gas.

3. Silence. I don’t want to hear the neighbours and I don’t want them to hear me. I don’t want to hear traffic even with the windows open.

4. There will be secure storage for bicycles and general living stuff underneath the building. There should be no need to clutter the place up by bringing bicycles upstairs or locking them to anything you can find. Each tenant should have their own private storage space.

5. The building or development will need to have shared facilities that provide safe and secure space for kids and adults to be active and get outdoors. Ideally it would be in a precinct that restricts the entry of cars thereby freeing up as much space as possible for parks, barbecues, swimming pool, gyms, etc. To my mind the design has failed if it encourages or necessitates car use.

That’s it. If I could find a place like that I’d seriously consider moving to the city centre or a public transport hub. I’m not sure about you but I haven”t seen or heard of any developments that meet, or even come close to, the above criteria in my city or others.

This brings us back to Sydney. If the designers and developers of the urban living environments along the Central to Parramatta mass transit system are going to tempt those chasing The Dream to live in their developments they are going to have to focus on lifestyle, not just stylish buildings. They are going to have to provide outdoor living space while building high quality, high density housing. And they are going to have to make the developments environmentally friendly otherwise they’ve lost before they’ve begun.

Two words for motorcycle manufacturers – fuel economy

While riding my bicycle through the hills today I started thinking about the poor fuel economy achieved by most motorcycles and what attributes would make up my ideal motorcycle. I think well when I’m turning the pedals so after a bit more thought I came up with the following list for what I think is the ideal motorcycle for daily commuting, a bit of weekend riding and the occasional tour.

Fuel economy: Real fuel economy not just “good for a motorcycle”. If a VW Polo diesel can do 5L/100km I want a bike that does better than 4L/100km. Use the latest direct injection technology if you have to. I’m happy to pay for it, particularly if the resulting emissions meet or exceed Euro V standards.

Range: >400km  Australia is a big country and sometimes there is a loooong way between petrol stations.

Power: Enough. Nobody needs 165hp in a motorbike. They might want it but they don’t need it. Few can use that much power and they shouldn’t be using it on public roads anyway. Somewhere in the order of 60 to 80hp would be fine as long as good power and torque are available throughout the rev range. It has to easily accelerate away from cars at traffic lights. Ideally the power of this imaginary machine would be able to be electronically limited to make it accessible to learner riders. Just re-map the engine control unit when the owner has a full license.

Top speed: Enough. 140 – 150kph is enough in Australia where the maximum speed limit is 110kph in most States. The one stipulation is that the bike needs to be able to cruise comfortably at 120kph with two people and luggage. Overtaking road trains in a safe time frame requires good acceleration and a decent speed advantage.

Engine capacity: Under 600cc to reduce registration costs.

Size: I’m 190cm tall. I just don’t fit on small bikes. So, a medium tall bike that is not bulky is ideal. Something that is comfortable for long legs and gets you head up above the traffic.

Comfort: Good seating position and reach to the handlebars for commuting . A comfortable seat. It doesn’t have to be plush but it does have to be comfortable over touring distances. An effective fairing and screen to minimise fatigue and keep the weather at bay. This is a bike that will be ridden in all weather over a variety of distances. To the corner shop or to the other side of the country.

Handling: On the relaxed side of sporty. Good low speed manners but capable of satisfying on a weekend ride through the hills.

Suspension: Good but it doesn’t have to be fantastic. It does however, need to last more than 30,000km (unlike most motorcycle suspension built to a price) and smooth out Australia’s average roads.

Styling: Classic, rounded and aerodynamic. If someone can prove to me that today’s modern styles are more aerodynamic then I’ll accept modern styling.

Practicality: Belt drive because it is quiet and very low maintenance. A centre stand to facilitate easy home maintenance. Factory fitted panniers and top box.

Quality: Made to last 200,000km when maintained correctly and looked after. A dry clutch and separate gearbox oil are a must. It makes no sense to have the clutch in the engine oil and who wants engine oil in the gearbox, particularly when the clutch is in it as well.

Is that too much to ask?

If anyone already makes a bike that matches these criteria I’d be really happy to hear about it. Off the top of my head I can think of two manufactures that could build a bike like this. BMW and Aprilia. Both have suitable engine configurations and both have extensive experience in motorcycle fuel injection systems. Aprilia have an excellent engine and gearbox in their SXV 550 and BMW are using belt drive on their F800 series road bikes.

Car manufacturers are starting to reduce engine power to increase fuel economy. Audi have done it in their S4 and Holden have done it in their V6 and V8 Commodores. Many more will follow and motorcylce manufacturers will need to do the same if they want people to continue buying mid-sized and large bikes for commuting and general transport purposes. If they don’t they may find their market contracts considerably when oil prices go up again.

Will digital trees on your dash make you a more economical driver?

Honda has announced the development of the Ecological Drive Assist System for their 2009 Insight hybrid, which combines three functions to enhance fuel economy.

The ECON Mode optimises control of the continuously variable transmission and engine for more fuel-efficient driving at the push of a button.

The guidance function uses speedometer color to provide real-time guidance on fuel-efficient driving. Green means you are driving economically but if your foot gets a little heavy it turns blue. Why blue? Why not orange or red?

2009 Honda Insight guidance function

Honda: 2009 Honda Insight guidance function

The scoring function provides feedback about current driving practices, as well as feedback on cumulative, long-term fuel-efficient driving.

2009 Honda Insight dash

Honda: 2009 Honda Insight dash

The number of ‘leaves’ displayed indicates the level of fuel-efficient driving performance. When the ignition switch is on, the display scores current driving performance. When the ignition switch is turned off, the ‘leaves’ in the top row display the score for the latest driving cycle (startup to shutdown), while a horizontal bar in the bottom row displays the cumulative lifetime performance.The Multi-Information Display also allows drivers to view fuel economy figures for the past three trips, as well as instantaneous and average fuel economy statistics.

I like my gadgets but I’m not sure I need to see trees growing on my dash to know I’ve been driving economically. I reckon the instant feedback of the guidance function, the ability to see instantaneous fuel consumption, average fuel consumption, average fuel consumption for the past three trips and the cost of filling the tank at the petrol station would cover it!

The dash would be easier to read if it was less cluttered. Ditch the trees I say. What do you think?

Missed opportunity for better public transport

Tomorrow the Australian Government begins handing out cash to families in an effort to stimulate the economy. Does it strike anyone as odd that the Government is giving our taxes back to us just before Christmas and is urging us to spend “to help make ends meet”?

If ever there was a short term solution this is it and we’ll have to wait and see whether it is actually a solution or whether the Government has just blown a $4.8 billion hole in our budget surplus and all the kids got awesome Christmas presents.

Whatever happened to planning for the future? Hasn’t the increase in oil prices over the last few years provided any clarity on the need for long term solutions for sustainable transport? Oil prices are down for now but how long with it be before they surpass their 2008 peak. One year? Two years?

Admittedly, the press release mentioned above lists the following under Nation Building:

The Rudd Government will fast track its nation-building agenda to help shield Australians from the global financial crisis.

The Government will accelerate the implementation of the Government’s three nation building funds.  Government Ministers will bring forward their interim Infrastructure Report so that work can commence in 2009 on projects in the key areas of:

  • Education and Research;
  • Health and Hospitals;
  • Transport and Communications.

To fast-track these projects, the Government will be seeking referral of the legislation for the Nation Building Funds into a Senate Committee this week.

I agree that we need better transport infrastructure almost everywhere in Australia but if we took a long term view wouldn’t it be better to improve public transport systems to the point where they took pressure off the roads? The last thing we need now is more roads with more traffic lights to cope with an ever increasing number of cars. We need trains, trams, buses and bike lanes.

It is too late now but spending that $4.8 billion on public transport upgrades would have at least been a step towards preparing our country for high oil prices. It would have also created long term jobs which is something these cash handouts won’t do.

The Daily Reckoning has some excellent tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the US attempts to recover from the financial crisis:

Curing the Problem of Over-Consumption by Spending

“Going for Broke” to Avoid a “Financial Collapse”

Is Australia going down the same path? Tighten your seatbelts Australia, we could be in for a long and bumpy drive when we should be taking the train, tram or riding our bikes.

Can Holden really bring second generation E85 to Australia?

Holden (General Motors) has gained a lot of press coverage from the fact that they are going to introduce locally-built cars that are capable of running on E85 by 2010. The press release was picked up by most major news providers so it was virtually impossible to miss. Just in case you did miss it, here is what the Sydney Morning Herald has to say.

Unfortunately none of the news providers appear to have examined where the ethanol to fuel these vehicles is going to come from and how beneficial it will really be for the environment.  Holden says they are in talks with Coskata in a bid to establish cellulosic ethanol production in Australia. That’s great. The sooner we can move to second generation biofuels the better but a quick read of the Coskata web site suggests their technology isn’t proven on a commercial scale and it also highlights the fact that General Motors made an unspecified investement in Coskata in or before January 2008.

There is no doubt Holden have the technology to produce vehicles that run on E85. General Motors already have the Saab BioPower on sale in Australia and Holden will have access to a raft of flex-fuel technologies from their parent company in the US. The concern here is Holden’s ability, through Coskata, to bring second generation ethanol to Australia at the scale required to fill the fuel tanks of their E85 vehicles. If Holden can’t do this by 2010 they will be expanding the market for first generation ethanol and we’ll be going through the fuel-for-food and first generation ethanol lifecycle emissions debate all over again.

Palm oil prices plummet due to decreasing demand for biodiesel

Demand for biodiesel in the US and Europe pushed palm oil prices up drastically last year. Prices went so high that palm oil was no longer a viable biodiesel feedstock and a lot of biodiesel refineries in Asia and Australia ceased production. Now the global slow down in consumption has sent palm oil prices plummeting back down to levels not seen since 2006. Will pam based biodiesel production begin again? Or has the market contracted to the point where even if it was produced nobody would buy it?

Malaysia Palm Oil Futures (first contract forward) 4-5 percent FFA, US$ per metric tonne

Malaysia Palm Oil Futures (first contract forward) 4-5 percent FFA, US$ per metric tonne

Graph: Index Mundi

The sad part of all this is the deforestation that has occurred in Asia to make way for palm plantations and the number of people who now depend on palm oil for their income. Palm plantations have been established on the back of high prices and now that the price is diving some of those plantations will no longer be viable. What a waste.  If only biodiesel producers had stayed away from palm oil in the first place.

Oil plantations no substitute for tropical rainforests (Biopact)

Palm oil prices to plunge due to oversupply, lower demand (AFP)

MTECH Fuelsaver removed from sale in Western Australia

Imagine my surprise when I found this gem in amongst all the spam a few minutes ago!

Western Australians who have bought the Moletech Mtech Fuel Saver have been advised by Consumer Protection in Western Australia to return to the place of purchase to get a full refund for both the cost of the product and installation of the device. This follows the removal of the device from retail and online sale in Western Australia after tests showed no statistically significant difference in the fuel consumption from a vehicle using the fuel saver and an ordinary vehicle. http://www.docep.wa.gov.au/corporate/Media/statements/2008/October/Questionable_Fuel_Saving_devic.html

This is the catalyst I needed to make a decision on whether the Fuelsaver in the GS (previous posts) stays in the fuel tank. The WA assessment agrees with my less than scientific trial so the Fuelsaver will be removed at the next service.

If you know of any similar actions by consumer protection organisations in other States of Australia, or in any other country, please leave a comment with the details.