Australia has become one of the most car-dependent nations, and Sydney is probably its most car-dependent city. Cars are expensive, one of the least cost-efficient methods of moving people from one place to another. We use 12 to 15 per cent of our collective wealth to pay for it. By contrast, cities that have strong rail networks, as many European cities do, use 5 to 8 per cent of their wealth on transport.
With oil resources dwindling and climate change bearing down on us, we are not well positioned for the future.
But with the Christie report, the NSW state government has a golden opportunity to turn things around and secure a sustainable transport future for Sydney.
The report's primary aim was to show how we can have a workable transport system that will allow Sydneysiders to get around in a cost-efficient way, in less time than it does now and with fewer hidden costs - including social ones - than the system we have now.
The transport policies of successive state and federal governments have left us with massive hidden costs.
One big cost to our community results from congestion on our roads. Across Australia, this has been estimated by the federal government at $21 billion - and that was just for 2006.
Sydney has a quarter of Australia's urban population; the cost burden for the people of NSW is massive. It comes not only in wasted time and fuel but in productivity losses. Every time you get in a plumber or other tradesperson, you pay for that lost time in higher charges. The plumber can do fewer jobs in a day, meaning more people in that trade need to be trained and on the road every day.
Another cost is the road toll. Every year about 1600 Australians are killed in motor vehicle accidents and 30,000 more are seriously injured. Every year the government delays improving public transport, or establishing safe cycleways, means avoidable deaths are added to the toll.
The federal government's infrastructure department found that car passengers were 10 times more likely to have a serious injury than those in trains, based on distance travelled. It estimates that car accidents cost our community $18 billion a year.
A third cost is health. Encouraging walking and cycling for short journeys would be a cost-effective way of tackling the obesity epidemic which is fuelling diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
These ''externalities'' - air and noise pollution, road accidents, physical inactivity and the contribution to greenhouse gases and global warming - are costing us dearly. That's before we consider other social impacts such as social exclusion for those who don't drive and have inadequate access to public transport.
We need to update our thinking about transport so the costs are no longer hidden and so they reflect what fossil fuels are really costing us. The federal government's fuel excise, for instance, is the fourth-lowest in the world, according to a Treasury report on Australia's future tax system. It goes nowhere near paying for all the hidden costs of road transport.
To do so, we should be paying fuel excise of $1.33 a litre - 3½ times what we pay now. The politics of that mean it's unlikely to happen, but we need to go some way towards reflecting the real cost to society of using fossil fuel-dependent cars. The revenue from removing fossil fuel subsidies should be used to provide better, safer, more sustainable transport.
As a nation we urgently need to prioritise investment in the public transport, cycling and walking networks of our cities. We need governments to look ahead 10 and 20 years and help us make the transition away from oil dependency, with all its hidden costs, towards a sustainable transport future.
In NSW, the Christie report provides a chance for our new Premier to show us what she is made of, and give us a vision of which we can all be proud. She could start by investing in a program to maximise the opportunities for people to use public transport and get rid of the second car.
For when a family gets rid of its second car and puts the savings in superannuation, they can save more than $750,000 over a working life. Think of the benefit to people, communities and the economy of just that switch.
Gail Broadbent is the Australian Conservation Foundation's sustainable transport campaigner.