Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Shocking the Suburbs

with 2 comments

Jago Dodson & Neil Sipe of Griffith University in Brisbane actually entitled their presentation “Oil Vulnerability & Cities” but that is the subtitle of their book – and that has the much snappier title I used. Room 1700 at SFU had 30 people in it at 7pm last night. Is that because Urban Studies talks do not give anyone professional credits? Or was there a hockey game on tv? After ten minutes a few more stragglers arrived and  Anthony Perl did the introductions. Griffith University and SFU have some kind of “twinning” arrangement  which apparently paid for their trip.

Price of NYMEX Light Sweet Crude Oil, 1997-2006

The have been looking at the impact of higher oil prices on Australian cities. In 1990 oil was AU$20 a barrel but by 2004 reached a $140 peak. Since they are  partly transport planners and saw this as a policy and planning problem they thought that this was a useful topic to research since there would have to be a response.  They did not want to engage in a debate on the future sustainability of oil supplies, but showed an IEA chart dated 2008 which showed a steep decline in conventional oil supplies expected from that year forward.  At present Queensland is experiencing an energy boom due to its exploitation of natural gas and coal which as (in his words) “put a floor under energy prices”.

Newman & Kenworthy – produced the first study of  energy use and density of cities in 1989 (the image below was not the one they showed but comes from the same data set)

Unsuprisingly that showed that the US has the most use of energy for private transportation. Australia and Canada are not far behind. They forecast there would have to be an abandonment of car dependent suburbs, which had been the theme of the iconic Australian movie series “Mad Max“. At the time of writing oil prices are $103.80 US per barrel (12 April 2012). The energy returned on energy invested in producing motor fuel which was 50:1 in the 1950s is now 5:1 and for some fuels such as ethanol  1:1  [or worse according to some sources].

They began mapping oil vulnerability using data from the Australian 2005 census. Dependence on motor vehicles was shown by using the variables travel to work by car and number of cars owned and for socio economic status the Socio-Economic Index for Area (SEIFA). These were combined into  the vulnerability index for petroleum expense rises (VIPER) index. They showed maps of Brisbane, where the most vulnerable lived in the outer suburbs with similar results for Sidney and Melbourne. On of the reasons they ascribed was that “public transport is not so good out there”

Mortgage and oil vulnerability in Brisbane


The 2ndgeneration of the index the ‘vulnerability assessment for mortgage, petrol and inflation risks and expenditure’ (VAMPIRE) included  median household income and mortgages. The maps also now had data a from 2001 and 2006  which produces a map of growth in vulnerability. Last year they added six US cities and, more recently, Vancouver. In the US cities they used Census 2000 data, and for Vancouver the  2006 census data but without car ownership (as that data is not in our census) and just based it on the mode used for journeys to work. (see also Center for Neighborhood Technology which was covered here recently)

The maps showed that Atlanta is nearly all vulnerable with a few odd spots of low vulnerability near the centre. On both Boston and Chicago the effect of  mass transit shows up. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix were “not as bad as you might think” but conceded that new areas were few people lived distort the picture. Even Portland looks poor as does Vancouver  outside of downtown core but better than Boston & Chiacgo at the highest value index areas. In Sydney they have added motor vehicle data vehicle age and size which shows that older cars (more than 10 years) with larger engines dominate in the lower income outer areas. A regression of the data showed an r2 of 0.85 which is significant.

Their work shows that electric vehicles are not the answer as the owners of old large cars have low incomes. The capability of households to afford electric vehicles poses a policy problem of since market effects will almost certainly lead to the price of older gasoline cars falling as new electric vehicles start to become popular.

Greater urban density is also often suggested as the cure for oil vulnerability.  He questioned the “palatability” of high density using an illustration of high rises in Hong Kong, and pointed out that development  by the private sector is market driven and based on the  distance decay function of land prices (land prices fall as distance from the centre increases). The viability of density in outer suburbs is questionable  due to low land values. A network of public transport with high density development at nodes (stations) was proposed by Newman & Kenworthy in 1999 but  Lenzen et al in 2004 showed that when automotive energy use is compared to total energy use the embodied energy in high rise buildings is taken into account, high total energy use is associated with high density. Is high density development more energy efficient overall? High wealth’s  key to energy use since the wealthy consume more goods and services including international travel. Myors et al 2005 showed that co2 emissions  per person are highest in high rises! The rate of change of land use density is in any event driven by private sector development is is relatively slow compared to the depletion of conventional oil reserves.

There has been some policy response to their work. The South East Queensland Regional Plan 2009 includes a commitment to “actively reduce oil dependancy” which looks good on paper but has not been put into practice. On the Gold Coast, there has been less highway expansion and the building of an LRT.

Paul Mees “Transport for Suburbia” (also available as a preview) recommends a high frequency integrated network. At this point he spoke about “no rush” at Broadway and Commercial at peak periods “You can’t really miss the bus” due to high frequency. See also Zurich’s cross town integrated network.

Their work can be read on google books “Shocking the suburbs


Questions were raised on mortgage data – which may have been related to the CNT work.

Australian cities are highly centralized with respect to employment “No one wants to be in suburban office parks”

Their objective was to produce a simple model with a few variables for ease of use and comparability which has proved robust at the coarse level

It seems likely that saving energy on transport, then gets used on other equally energy intensive activities

Australia now has a carbon tax BUT it is NOT applied to transport fuel. This was ascribed to the political concern that marginal seats in the suburbs tend to decide elections. Queesland had seen a dramatic change in power after a subsidy to petrol was removed.

The forecast is not rapid change in urban areas due to building life.

My question – or rather observation – was that climate change is happening much faster than peak oil. The response was that they were mainly concerned about socio-economic distributional impacts, not passing the 350ppm threshold.

In Queensland a “balanced” transportation policy looks advanced – but is equivalent to ISTEA 1991

Social exclusion was mentioned but has been mainly a concern in the UK as an impact of bus privatization.

In Australia federal gas tax is not hypothecated to highways but the federal politicians area still “fixated on building things, pouring concrete – not better planning”. The rate of incremental policy change is not fast enough and there will be a shock


I do not know if this talk will be on the SFU web page as podcast – there was no evidence of video, and the use of the visual aids a was hampered by some basic fault in the compatibility of video files. It is indeed fortunate that it is easy to to find their work on line. However, I came away convinced that Australia is, like us, sleepwalking where this issue is concerned. I was charmed – but also alarmed – at the perception that we had a Zurich like transit system. Of course we don’t, and our spend rate on transportation is still heavily skewed towards roads and low density sprawl. As I pointed out they are actually fortunate to have retained employment in their city centres where they are served by electric trains (and trams).

But the current rush to exploit shale gas by fracking and the increasing rate of use of tar sands (they are not confined to Alberta) is creating an illusion that the oil shock can be deferred. That is not the case with climate change, and given recent experience with extreme weather events in Australia, their tenacity on holding on to their research focus seems …. perverse? Or maybe just endearing. After all, we all seem to prefer not to contemplate what is now inevitable, most tipping points having whizzed by like publication deadlines.

Australians, just like us, have not seen their personal incomes keep pace with inflation. They did drive until they were qualified to own a home, and are just as much auto dependent in Moonee Ponds as we are in Langley  (…or Richmond, come to that.) We are slowly struggling to produce better urban development patterns and trying to find a way to fund transit (which should not be nearly so difficult as we have made it).But both of us – the whole world in fact – now face a future where the climate is going to be increasingly inhospitable. I think that impact is likely to be as sharp and probably faster than the economic impact of higher gas prices. But then I did notice this morning a pump sticker at $1.51 a litre. Is that enough to produce a revolution? I doubt it. Shame about the polar bears.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2012 at 11:05 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I wish I’d known about this talk, I don’t need credits or watch hockey, (and I’m Australian). Nice summary of the talk though, thanks.


    April 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 968 other followers

%d bloggers like this: