Car and transit use per capita in Australian cities (Peak Car)

[post updated in January 2016 with data from the 2015 BITRE Yearbook. For some more recent data see this post published in December 2018. First published January 2010]

Thanks to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics’ Australian Infrastructure Statistics Yearbook 2015, a great set of time series data is available on transport behaviour. This post looks at trends in private and public transport use in Australian cities up until 2013-14.

The first chart shows car passenger kms per capita peaked in 2004 for all cities and has been mostly in decline since then (with the possible exception of Adelaide in recent years).

car pass kms per capita 4

This is clear evidence of “peak car” use per capita in Australian cities.

Canberra has the highest car passenger kms per capita – perhaps due to the low density city, relatively sparse bus services, and general ease of using private transport.

The underlying figures show relatively little growth in total car passenger kms in most cities in the ten years since 2003-04:

index of car passenger kms 2

Perth has shown the greatest increase in total car passenger kms despite the reduced car use per capita, presumably mostly reflecting strong population growth. Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne show a flat-lining in car passenger kms between 2004 and 2009 (a period of time that is becoming very familiar on this blog). I’m not sure why Adelaide has seen declining car passenger kms (it’s population did grow over this period by 10%).

Does this mean we are travelling less? The following chart shows estimated motorised passenger kms per capita, and yes in all cities there was a peak in 2003-04 followed mostly by declines. This might be people taking shorter trips, people taker fewer trips, and/or people substituting motorised transport with non-motorised transport.

motorised pass kms per capita 4

There is another story in the data. Mass transit passenger kms per capita rose significantly in Melbourne and Perth between 2005 and 2011:

mass transit share of pass kms 4

However, more recently there have been slight declines in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, and Canberra.

Sydney shows up with many more mass transit kms per capita than any other city (68% of which is on rail). While I am not sure exactly how BITRE sourced their train patronage data for “Sydney”, my experience is that patronage data is only readily available for a very wide definition of Sydney’s railways including lines beyond the Sydney Statistical Division including Newcastle, Nowra, and the Hunter Valley.

You can also see a spike in mass transit use in Sydney in 2000/01 – the year containing the Olympic Games.

Previous strong growth in Brisbane might reflect considerable investment in bus services (BITRE have published three years of bus data showing Brisbane increasing from 53.0 million kms in 2005-06 to 61.2 million kms in 2007-08). More recent stagnation in mode share might reflect above-CPI fare rises and changes to patronage measurement methodology.

The data also allows a calculation of mass transit’s share of motorised passenger kms:

Melbourne and Perth are the stand outs for mass transit mode shift based on these figures, particularly in the years leading up to 2009. Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane also saw mode shift between around 2004 and 2009, but Adelaide and Brisbane have gone backwards since then.

Note there are other ways to more directly measure transport mode share – primarily household travel surveys, covered in another post.

Finally, here is a stark comparison of total car and mass transit passenger kilometre growth since 2003-04 (with population growth included for reference):

car v pt growth aus large cities 2

Car use has grown more than four times slower than population growth, and almost seven times slower than mass transit use.

Business as usual no longer

In the frequently cited BITRE 2007 report on congestion costs, they made a “business as usual” assumption that mode shares will not change (ref page 8) and that car use per capita would increase (ref page 47), and then forecast that avoidable congestion costs in Australia will more than double between 2005 and 2020. The latest BITRE evidence is that mode shares are not business as usual in most cities and that car use per capita is decreasing. See another post reviewing the forecasts of the costs of congestion.

An updated 2015 BITRE report on the costs of congestion looks at the issues of per capita vehicle user into the future in a bit more detail, including acknowledging researchers highlighting peak car.

Their new high case scenario assumes the recent downturn in per capita vehicle use is essentially all GFC related (and has persisted for 10 years), and that things will now bounce back to old patterns (and grow even faster than the 2007 forecast). Their medium case also assumes a reversal of trend, but that we’ll only return to the previous peak level by 2030, and a low case continues the current trend.

The following chart shows forecasts compared to estimated actual vehicle kilometres per capita.

BITRE vkms per capita estimates

The 2007 forecast was not only trending in the wrong direction, their starting assumption about vehicle km per capita for 2007 was well above the (revised) estimated actual.

The new estimates for the “avoidable social costs of congestion” in 2030 are $48.2b for the high case, $37.3b for the median case, and only $25.1b for the low case. BITRE suggest this median estimate is the upper range of what is plausible, but if current trends continue, the avoidable social costs of congestion would be a third lower.

See also a recent piece on this subject by Professor Peter Newman in The Conversation.

Some disclaimers:

  • I’ve called it “mass transit” as the data does not seem to differentiate public, school and private bus passengers. Passengers on chartered buses aren’t usually considered “public transport”, but they still are a very space efficient way to move people on roads.
  • km figures are reported on financial years, while population figures are for June at the end of that financial year. So the “real” per km figures are slightly less, but I’m really just looking at trends and relative numbers here.

One Response to Car and transit use per capita in Australian cities (Peak Car)

  1. chrisloader says:

    A mass transit v car passenger km growth chart for Melbourne


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