Update on Australian transport trends (December 2020)

Each year, just before Christmas, the good folks at the Australian Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Economics (BITRE) publish a mountain of data in their Australian Infrastructure Statistics Yearbook. This post aims to turn those numbers (and some other data sources) into useful knowledge – with a focus on vehicle kilometres travelled, passenger kilometres travelled, mode shares, car ownership, driver’s licence ownership, greenhouse gas emissions, and transport costs.

Of course the world of transport changed significantly in 2020, with suppressed movement from around mid March, as the COVID19 pandemic led to movement restrictions across Australia. Most of the following data is for financial years, so you will see some impacts where data is available for financial year 2019-20.

Vehicle kilometres travelled

Total vehicle kilometres travelled has been increasing most years, until 2019-20, when it fell from 264 to 247 billion kilometres.

Here’s the growth by vehicle type since 1971:

Light commercial vehicle kilometres have grown the fastest, curiously followed by buses (although much of that growth was in the 1980s). In 2019-2020, there were noticeable reductions for most vehicle types, except trucks.

Car kilometre growth has slowed significantly since 2004, and actually peaked in 2016-17 according to BITRE estimates.

On a per capita basis car use peaked in 2004, with a general decline since then. Here’s the Australian trend (in grey) as well as city level estimates until 2015 (from BITRE Information Sheet 74):

Technical note: “Australia” lines in these charts represent data points for the entire country (including areas outside capital cities).

Darwin has the lowest average which might reflect the small size of the city. The blip in 1975 is related to a significant population exodus after Cyclone Tracey caused significant destruction in late 1974 (the vehicle km estimate might be on the high side).

Canberra, the most car dependent capital city, has had the highest average car kilometres per person (but it might also reflect kilometres driven by people from across the NSW border in Queanbeyan).

The Australia-wide average is higher than most cities, with areas outside capital cities probably involving longer average car journeys and certainly a higher car mode share. There was a sharp drop in vehicle kms per capita in 2019-20, almost certainly due to COVID-19.

Passenger kilometres travelled

While BITRE’s passenger km estimates were available up to 2019-20 at the time of writing, city population estimates were only available up until June 2019. So in this section, per capita data stops at 2018-19 (before COVID-19), while total km charts go to 2019-20.

Here are passenger kilometres per capita for various modes for Australia as a whole (note the log-scale on the Y axis). Unfortunately BITRE have not published national estimates beyond 2017-18 in their 2020 Yearbook.

Air travel took off (pardon the pun) in the late 1980s (although with a lull in 1990 due to the pilot’s strike), car travel peaked in 2004, bus travel peaked in 1990 and has been relatively flat since, while rail has been increasing in recent years.

Car passengers

Here’s a chart showing total car passenger kms in each city:

The data shows that Melbourne overtook Sydney in 2016-17 as having the most car passenger travel, but then cities were even again in 2019-20 with COVID19 impacts.

Another interesting observation is that total car passenger travel declined in Adelaide in 2018-19 (pre-COVID) according to (revised) BITRE estimates.

However there are large differences in population growth rates between cities. So here is the data per capita:

While car passenger kilometres per capita peaked in 2004 in all cities, there were some increases from around 2013 to 2018 in some cities, but most cities declined in 2019 and 2020 (the latter being no doubt partly related to COVID-19). Darwin is an outlier with an increase in car passenger kms per capita between 2015 and 2020.

Rail passengers

Here are rail passenger kms per capita to 2018-19:

Sydney had the highest train use of all cities and this has been taking off in recent years, likely due to service level upgrades. Other cities have been flat or were in decline (such as Melbourne).

You can see two big jumps in Perth following the opening of the Joondalup line in 1992 and the Mandurah line in 2007. Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth have shown declines over recent years.

Here is growth in total rail passenger kms since 2010 (NOT per capita):

Sydney trains saw rapid growth in the years up until 2019, again probably reflecting significant service level upgrades to provide more stations with “turn up and go” frequencies at more times of the week.

Adelaide’s rail patronage dipped in 2012, but then rebounded following completion of the first round of electrification in 2014.

All cities saw significant declines in 2019-20 with COVID-19 impacts, although BITRE caveats that the 2019-20 estimates for public transport modes were “rough” at the time of publication.

Bus passengers

Here’s bus passenger kms per capita up to 2018/19:

Bus passenger kms per capita have been declining in most cities in recent years, with the exception of Sydney.

Significant investments in bus services in Melbourne and Brisbane between around 2005 and 2012 led to significant patronage growth.

Melbourne has the lowest bus use of all the cities, but this likely reflects the extensive train and tram networks carrying the bulk of the public transport passenger task. Melbourne is different to every other Australian city in that trams provide most of the on-road public transport access to the CBD (with buses performing most of this function in other cities).

Darwin saw a massive increase in bus use in 2014 thanks to a new nearby LNG project running staff services.

Australia-wide bus usage is surprisingly high. While public transport bus service levels and patronage would certainly be on average low outside capital cities, buses do play a large role in carrying children to school – particularly over longer distances in rural areas. The peak for bus usage in 1990 may be related to deregulation of domestic aviation, which reduced air fares by around 20%.

Here is growth relative to 2010:

All cities saw a substantial reduction in 2019-20 due to COVID-19, with Hobart having the smallest reduction. Perhaps there is less discretionary and office-commuter travel on Hobart’s buses?

Light rail passengers

Light rail passenger kms per capita is not really meaningful as Melbourne has a large network, while Sydney and Adelaide have very small (although growing) networks. Here is estimated passenger km growth since 2010:

Sydney light rail patronage increased following the Dulwich Hill extension that opened in 2014, and again with the new lines joining the CBD with Randwick and Kingsford opening in 2019-20. The passenger km growth would have been higher if not for COVID-19.

Adelaide patronage increased following an extension to the Adelaide Entertainment Centre in 2010, and then flatlined for several years. In October 2018, new extensions to Festival Plaza and Botanic Gardens opened but passenger kms actually declined in FY 2018-19.

Mass transport

We can sum all of the mass transport modes (I use the term “mass transport” as the numbers include both public and private bus services). Firstly. here is mass transit share of estimated total motorised passenger kilometres in each city (unfortunately there are no estimates of walking and cycling kilometres):

All cities saw a mode shift away from mass transit in 2019-20 due to COVID-19, which likely reflects the shift to working from home for CBD workers (with such commuter trips making up a substantial share of PT patronage). During the recovery after lockdowns, road traffic has returned to almost normal in most cities, whilst public transport patronage is still well down on pre-COVID19 levels. I should mention again that BITRE describe their 2019-20 estimates of non-private passenger kilometres as “rough”.

But looking at trends prior to 2019-20, Sydney was leading the country in mass transport use per capita which was also rising fast to 2019, with a 2% mode shift between 2016 and 2019 (mostly attributable to trains). The Sydney north west Metro line opened in May 2019, so would only have a small impact on these figures.

Melbourne mass transit had been losing mode share between 2012 and 2019, while other cities have been largely flat or trending down (although Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth has a small increase in 2018-19).

Melbourne made significant gains between 2005 and 2009, and Perth grew strongly 2007 to 2013, but has since shifted away from public transport (which may be related to a decentralisation of employment).

Here is growth in mass transport passenger kms since 2010:

Darwin saw substantial growth associated with staff bus services to a new LNG plant, while Sydney otherwise was leading in mass transit passenger kilometre growth.

Here’s how car and mass transit passenger kilometres have grown since car used peaked in 2004:

Mass transit use has grown much faster than car use in Australia’s three largest cities. In Sydney and Melbourne it has exceeded population growth, while in Brisbane it is more recently tracking with population growth.

Mass transit has also outpaced car growth in Perth, Adelaide, and Hobart:

In Canberra, both car and mass transit use has grown much slower than population, and it is the only city where car growth has exceeded public transport growth.


Here are motorcycle passenger kms per capita:

Motorcycle travel was declining per capita until 2000, had a resurgence between 2004 and 2009 (perhaps as fuel prices rose?) and has since reduced somewhat in most cities. I’m not quite sure what might have happened in Melbourne in 2006 to suddenly stop the growth in use. I also wonder about the precision of estimates of motorcycle passenger kilometres, given it is such a small mode.

Car ownership

The ABS conduct a Motor Vehicle Census generally once per year (although less often historically), and the following chart includes that data up until January 2020, combined with population estimates released in December 2020.

Car ownership has risen significantly over time, although this growth has slowed considerably more recently in some states.

However the above measure doesn’t take into account people not of driving age. So the following chart looks at passenger cars per persons aged 18-84 (for want of a better definition of driving aged persons):

It’s still a bit hard to see the more recent trends, so here is a chart that looks at 2000-2020, excludes the Northern Territory (zooming on the top-right section):

This data shows that car ownership peaked in Victoria in 2013, Western Australia in 2017, New South Wales in 2017, Queensland in 2018, South Australian in 2018, and Australia overall in 2018. The Australian Capital Territory may have peaked in 2019 but perhaps it is a little too early to call, while Tasmanian now has the highest car ownership in the country and is still growing strongly.

My previous analysis of census data found that Melbourne was the only large city to see a decline in car ownership between 2011 and 2016 (see also an older post on car ownership).

Motorcycle ownership

Here is a chart showing motorcycles per persons aged 18-84:

This chart shows a slightly different pattern to that of motorcycle passenger kilometres per capita in cities (above). Ownership and usage bottomed out around the 1990s or 2000s (depending on the state/city). However ownership has risen in most states since then, but usage apparently peaked around 2009 in most cities. This perhaps suggests motorcycles are now more a recreational – rather than everyday – vehicle (I really don’t follow the motorcycle industry very closely so others might better explain this).

Driver’s licence ownership

Thanks to BITRE Information Sheet 84, the BITRE Yearbook 2020, and some useful state government websites (NSW, SA, Qld), here is motor vehicle licence ownership per 100 persons (of any age) from June 1971 to June 2019 or 2020 (depending on data availability):

Technical note: the ownership rate is calculated as the sum of car, motorbike and truck licenses – including learner and probationary licences, divided by population. Some people have more than one driver’s licence so it’s likely to be an over-estimate of the proportion of the population with any licence.

There’s been slowing growth over time, but Victoria has actually seen slow decline since 2011, and the ACT peaked in 2014.

Here’s a breakdown by age bands for Australia as a whole:

Licencing rates have been increasing over time for those aged over 40 (most strongly for those aged over 70), and have been declining for those aged under 40, although there was a notable uptick in licence ownership for 16-19 year-olds in 2018.

The next chart shows licencing rates for teenagers:

Licence ownership rates for teenagers had been trending down in South Australia and Victoria until 2017, while most other states have been trending upwards in recent years. The differences between states partly reflects different minimum ages for licensing.

Here are 20-24 year olds:

The largest states of Victoria and New South Wales had seen downwards trends until 2019, while all other states and territories are trending up. The big upticks in 2020 for Queensland and NSW might be a new trend, might also be impacted by the preliminary nature of June 2020 population estimates from the ABS, and/or might be impacted be an exodus of international students.

25-29 year olds are a mixed bag – Victoria has been trending downwards sharply, New South Wales has (probably) just ended a downwards trend, while most other states have been increasing or relatively steady.

Licencing rates for people in their 70s have been rising in all states, although it may be slowing in Western Australia and NSW more recently (I have excluded 2016 for South Australia as I suspect a data error):

A similar trend is clear for people aged 80+ (Victoria was an anomaly before 2015):

See also an older post on driver’s licence ownership for more detailed analysis.

For completeness, here is a chart showing motorcycle full licence ownership rates:

Queensland has two types of motorcycle licence and I suspect many people hold both, which might explain a licence ownership rate being so much higher than other states.

Transport greenhouse gas emissions

According to the latest adjusted quarterly figures, Australia’s domestic non-electric transport emissions peaked in 2018, had been slightly declining (which reflects reduced consumption of petrol and diesel) before COVID impacted the year-ending June 2020 figure.

The seasonally-adjusted estimate for the June quarter of 2020 is 19.2 Mt, which is down 24% on the June quarter of 2019:

Non-electric transport emissions made up 19.1% of Australia’s total emissions as at December 2019 (before the COVID-19 impact).

Here’s a breakdown of transport emissions by financial year:

A more detailed breakdown of road transport emissions is available, but only back to 1990:

Here’s growth in transport sector emissions since 1975:

The 2019-2020 estimates are heavily impacted by COVID-19, most evidently in aviation, but also for road transport.

Road emissions had grown steadily to 2019, while aviation emissions took off around 1991 (pardon the pun). You can see that 1990 was a lull in aviation emissions, probably due to the pilots strike around that time.

In more recent years non-electric rail emissions have grown strongly. This will include a mix of freight transport and diesel passenger rail services – the most significant of which will be V/Line in Victoria, which have grown strongly in recent years (140% scheduled service kms growth between 2005 and 2019). Adelaide’s metropolitan passenger train network has historically run on diesel, but has more recently been transitioning to electric.

Here is the growth in each sector since 1990 (including a breakdown of road emissions):

Within road transport, COVID-19 has had the biggest impact on cars, buses, motor cycles and light commercials. However, emissions from (larger) articulated trucks continued to grow.

Here are average emissions per capita for various transport modes in Australia, noting that I have used a log-scale on the Y-axis:

Per capita emissions have been decreasing for cars, and – until 2019 – were relatively stable for most other modes. Total road transport emissions per capita peaked in 2004 (along with vehicle kms per capita, as above).

Transport greenhouse gas emissions intensity

It’s possible to combine data sets to estimate average emissions per vehicle kilometre for different vehicle types, but only until 2018 with published data (note I have again used a log-scale on the Y-axis):

Note: I suspect the kinks for buses and trucks in 2015 are issues to do with estimation assumptions made by BITRE, rather than actual changes.

Most modes have shown slight declines in emissions per vehicle km, except trucks. On these estimates, car have dropped from 281 g/km in 1990 to 243 g/km in 2018.

However, the above figures don’t take into account the average passenger occupancy of vehicles. To get around that we can calculate average emissions per passenger kilometre for the passenger-orientated modes (data only available until 2018 unfortunately):

Domestic aviation estimates go back to 1975, and you can see a dramatic decline between then and around 2004 – followed little change (even a rise in recent years). However I should mention that some of the domestic aviation emissions will be freight related, so the per passenger estimates might be a little high.

Car emissions per passenger km in 2017-18 were 154.5g/pkm, while bus was 79.0g/pkm and aviation 127.2g/pkm.

Of course the emissions per passenger kilometres of a bus or plane will depend on occupancy – a full aeroplane or bus will have likely have significantly lower emissions per passenger km. Indeed, the BITRE figures imply an average bus occupancy of around 9 people (typical bus capacity is around 70) – so a well loaded bus should have much lower emissions per passenger km. The operating environment (city v country) might also impact car and bus emissions. On the aviation side, BITRE report a domestic aviation average load factor of 79.3% in 2019-20.

Cost of transport

The final topic for this post is the real cost of transport. Here are headline real costs (relative to CPI) for Australia:

Technical note: Private motoring is a combination of factors, including motor vehicle retail prices and automotive fuel. Urban transport fares include public transport as well as taxi/ride-share.

The cost of private motoring has tracked relatively close to CPI, although it seems to be trending down since 2008, probably largely related to reductions in the price of automotive fuel (which peaked in 2008). The real cost of motor vehicles has plummeted since 1996, although that trend may have stopped in 2018. Urban transport fares have been increasing faster than CPI since the late 1970s, although they have grown slower than CPI (on aggregate) since 2013.

Here’s a breakdown of the real cost of private motoring and urban transport fares by city (note different Y-axis scales):

Note: I suspect there is some issue with the urban transport fares figure for Canberra in June 2019. The index values for March, June, and September 2019 were 116.3, 102.0, and 118.4 respectively.

Urban transport fares have grown the most in Brisbane, Perth and Canberra – relative to 1973.

However if you choose a different base year you get a different chart:

What’s most relevant is the relative change between years – eg. you can see Brisbane’s experiment with high urban transport fare growth between 2009 and 2017 in both charts.

I hope you have found this interesting.

2 Responses to Update on Australian transport trends (December 2020)

  1. Matthew Cook says:

    Thanks Chris for the nice set of graphs (and associated insights) as always 🙂

    I suspect the high per-capita car km figures for Canberra are less to do with Queanbeyan being nearby, and more to do with Canberrans driving relatively frequently to Sydney and Melbourne.


  2. meltdblog says:

    Canberra is an interesting case, perhaps skew from its income/education/employment demographic? Rather than car dependent there is highly subsidised public transport and extensive active transport permeability/infrastructure which should make it less car dependent than comparable cities. The biggest factor perhaps, well maintained and laid out hierarchical roads that invite driving.


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