ASPO’s Bruce Robinson rants against BZE

I recently forwarded the Beyond Zero Energy (BZE) poster for zero carbon transport in Victoria to the ASPO Australia email list. (See all BZE’s Zero Carbon Plans here). BZE are asking for expert input into their Zero Carbon plans, and GOOD ON THEM for giving it a go and having such ambitious brainstorming sessions!

Anyway, this emailed poster caused Bruce Robinson of ASPO Australia to call me just to have a good rant against the poster as “silver bullet thinking” and being “amateurish”. Now, there may indeed be some very important points that BZE need to consider in modifying the details of their plan, as town planning expert Garry Glazebrook points out below. But right now I wish to reply to some of the “wishful thinking” charges Bruce Robinson levelled against the poster (and myself), and his willingness to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Bruce basically wrote-off increasing rail transport as a techno-utopian silver bullet thinking, and kept referring to public transport enthusiasts as “steel on steel” proponents.

I was horrified enough by the phone call to think about it overnight and the next day sent the following email back to the ASPO list just before Easter. My main concern is that the ASPO team need to get their own coherent solutions plan together and be bold enough to sell it in short sound-bytes or brief A4 posters, or they are going to be irrelevant in coming years as peak oil becomes self-evident. Bruce’s incoherent rambling about everyone getting a bike does not address some of the very serious infrastructure challenges we will face in the coming years… such as being able to eat? I think Bruce’s cycling hobby is starting to affect his judgement.

My email sent to the ASPO list before Easter.

Hi Bruce,
I had another look at the BZE poster, and I’m not sure that I’d call it “amateurish” (apart maybe from the design). There are some very ambitious plans for a more sustainable Australia.

1. Moving interstate trucking onto rail has got to be a good thing. Even if we don’t meet today’s enormous volumes of freight, much of which is superfluous anyway, building a network that can move “more” of our goods either interstate or around our own States has got to be a good thing? We’ll still need our grain trained into town. The volumes of food we need are NOT going to be cycled into Sydney!

2. Recommending that we move 80% of car transport onto trams is also far more ambitious than most of the other so called “sustainability” plans out there, and as you admitted probably fits in with Peter Newman’s and Gary Glazebrook’s solutions paradigms as well.

3. Criticising these “steel on steel” plans because they rely on “brown coal” ignores the fact that the poster recommends baseload renewables (like solar thermal) and the other interesting fact that you seem very open to scepticism of global warming anyway, so why bother even raising it?

4. The poster also spelt out the economic savings of the plan to fund the renewables if they require some extra funding. They have a few think tanks exploring the energy use, cost, and infrastructure requirements so I’m pretty sure they could back up these claims with detailed studies if we bothered investigating their site.

5. Rather than “silver bullet” thinking this requires people to give up 80% of their car trips! They have to adjust to light rail (probably with some travel smart guides involved), build a massive renewables sector and live with only 20% of their car km’s? (Which could probably be replaced by cycling with all the extra tram infrastructure required by their plan).

Once the petrol rationing starts, won’t society be screaming for many of the infrastructure improvements above, many of which will generate jobs just as the Hoover Dam did during the Great Depression? These plans might be “too little too late” to prevent serious societal pain, but that does not mean these plans will never come to fruition. The next few decades will see society ration fuel as builders cycle off to work on the local tram lines and New Urbanist centres springing up all over the place. As each project is finished, their will be incremental and permanent ‘negabarrels’ to oil consumption, and increasing economic returns on the investments made in rail and renewables.

I think you can only call it “amateurish” if you can demonstrate a fundamental economic or technical problem with their poster.

So “too little too late” does not mean “impossible ever”.

Unless some kid invents “Mr Fusion” overnight, this is just the way society will most probably go. As long as the ERoEI of renewables is as high as claimed, then I don’t see a problem with my kids generation heading towards a “clean green” electron economy… even if my own generation ends up car-pooling and cycling for the next decade or so.

The BZE team are sincere peak oil and global warming activists that recently arranged dozens of MP’s offices to be picketed in protest against the shonky carbon trading scheme. ASPO Australia plan seems to be trying to get the “top end of town” to recognise the reality of peak oil, and that’s all well and good. But in a very few years society will KNOW that peak oil is here. What then? There will be frantic search for solutions to very pressing problems, such as how the grain is going to come into Sydney, etc.

IF ASPO’s whole mission statement is “awareness of peak oil” but has no consensus on the “solutions”, then surely ASPO will become irrelevant as peak oil becomes self evident in a few very short years? That’s when more positive groups like BZE will dominate the public discourse on these matters.

This is where BZE’s 6 task-forces on solutions are important to engage before ASPO is marginalised by the self-evident fact of peak oil in 4 or 5 years. Remember, Victorian transport was only 1 part of their Zero Carbon Plan which they are honestly seeking more expert input into.

On the other hand, to be fair to some of Bruce’s objections, town planning expert Garry Glazebrook (see contact details and biography) emailed me this morning, also commenting on the Beyond Zero Emissions transport plan. Garry is the author of the 30 year plan for Sydney’s transport. (See Executive Summary PDF). He stated:

Great to have good ambitions…
But please have some realism.

See my 30 year plan involving lots of light rail, metros and heavy rail and buses – $40 billion worth – to double total pass-kms on public transport in this city.

Together with a reduction of 10% in total pass-kms per capita, and allowing for population growth, this will just hold total car-kms constan (hence we need very few new roads, only a few in W Sydney, and can actually take back lanes in eastern Sydney for bicycles, trams and buses). This, by the way, would be revolutionary!

I believe that over that time the car fleet as a whole will move to more sustainable, energy efficient models, so I am assuming a halving of oil use per car-km over the next thirty years (a lot of cars will be fully electric by then, and most of the rest probably hybrids).

Consequently the 30 year plan achieves a 50% reduction in oil use and more than 50% reduction in GHG emissions from urban passenger transport by 2036.

This may not be enough for some people, but I think is actually achievable and believable.

To shift 80% of current trips to light rail is a complete fantasy.

No city in the world – even Hong Kong or Tokyo – gets anywhere near that. Tokyo has 50% of total pass-kms on rail and look at the massive (and I do mean massive) rail system they have – see map attached of central Tokyo.

To get some perspective, the TOTAL pass kms on ALL OF USA’S LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS (across over 20 cities) in 2004 was approx 2.5 billion – half the amount carried on Cityrail in Sydney!

I wish people actually understood how significant our rail system in Sydney actually is!

We need to expand the systems we already have (heavy rail, bus) as well as add light rail , metros etc.

As you know I am all for expanding public transport, including light rail! My 30 year plan has a lot of new light rail (see map). But I think ASPO people need to be across the actual data if we want to be taken seriously. Talking of shifting 80% of car trips (currently 78% of pass-kms on a weekday) to light rail (currently well under 1% in Sydney) is nonsense. 8% would be an extremely ambitious target. We can also shift a significant slice to heavy rail, some to metros and some to buses. All up we can reduce the 78% to something like 50%. People need to understand how radical this is!


I think we need to be aware of the basic differences in geography and density in our cities compared to Europe – our cities are MUCH bigger and MUCH less dense, which means to achieve the same PT mode share is very very difficult. To give you an idea, if Sydney had the same density as Paris, it would need virtually everyone in Australia to live here.

Garry seems to be the master of translating transport statistics into easy “compare and contrast” snapshots. His command of transport statistics is impressive. He also appears quite optimistic about the role of hybrids and EV’s in our future transport mix. Yet depending on the severity of the “Export Land Model” Garry’s timing might be significantly out. We might not have 30 years. Bruce might be right in that regard. However, rather than just write-off the whole railway “steel on steel” enterprise as Bruce Robinson did in our telephone conversation, isn’t it better that we have a plan like Garry’s and at least head towards that as fast as we can, just in case?

I will forward this post on to the BZE team. I love their podcast, and hope to donate them some graphic design on their posters soon. (When some of the details above have been ironed out).

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