What does the census tell us about motor vehicle ownership in Australian cities? (2006-2016)

Sun 30 July, 2017

With the latest release of census data it’s possible to take a detailed look at motor vehicle ownership in Australian cities.  This post will look at ownership rates across time and space, and compare trends between car ownership, population growth, and population density. And this time I will cover 16 large Australian cities (but with a more detailed look at Melbourne).

I’ve measured motor vehicle ownership as motor vehicles per 100 persons in private occupied dwellings. If you want the boring but important details about how I’ve analysed the data, see the appendix at the end of this post.

I’ve used Tableau Public for this post, so all the charts and maps can be explored, and they cover all sixteen cities.

Is motor vehicle ownership increasing in all cities?

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve shown that motor vehicle ownership is increasing in all Australian states, but what about the cities? Here are the overall results for Australia’s larger cities, on motor vehicles per 100 persons basis. Note that the Y-axis only goes from 54 to 70, so the rate of change looks steeper than it really is.

(you can explore this data in Tableau)

Sydney unsurprisingly has the lowest average motor vehicle ownership, followed by Melbourne, Brisbane (Australia’s third biggest city), and then Cairns and Darwin. Perth was well on top, with Sunshine Coach rapidly increasing to claim second place. Most of the rest were around 66-68 motor vehicles per 100 persons in 2016.

But Melbourne is showing a very different trend to most other cities, with hardly any increase in ownership rate across the ten years (also, Canberra-Queanbeyan saw very little growth between 2011 and 2016).

At first I wondered whether Melbourne was a data error. However, I did the one data extract for all cities for both population and motor vehicle responses, and I’ve also checked for any potential duplicate SA1s. So I’m confident something very different is happening in Melbourne.

So let’s have a look at Melbourne in more spatial detail, starting with maximum detail over time:

(you can zoom in and explore this data in Tableau).

You can see lower ownership in the inner city, inner north, inner west, and the more socio-economically disadvantaged suburbs in the north and south-east. You can also see lower motor vehicle ownership around train lines in many middle suburbs. Other pockets of low motor vehicle ownership are in Clayton (presumably associated with university students) and Box Hill, and curiously some of the growth areas in the west and north. Very high motor vehicle ownership can be seen in wealthier areas and the outer east.

It’s a bit hard to see the trends with such a detailed map, so here’s a view aggregated at SA2 level (SA2s are roughly suburb-sized).

No doubt you are probably distracted by the changes in the legend. That’s because in 2006 there were no SA2s in the <20 and 30-40 ranges at all, and the 30-40 range is only present in 2016. That is, the legend has to expand over time to take into account SA2s with lower motor vehicle ownership rates.

You’ll notice a lot more light blue and green SA2s around the city centre, plus Clayton in the middle south-east switches to green in 2016.

Looking at it spatially, more areas appear to have increasing rather than decreasing motor vehicle ownership. But not all SA2s have the same population – or more particularly – the same population growth. So we need to look at the data in a non-spatial way.

Here’s a plot of population and motor vehicle ownership for all Melbourne SA2s, with the thin end of each “worm” being 2006 and the thick end being 2016.

Okay yes that does looks like a lot of scribbles (and you can explore the data in Tableau to find out what is what), but take a look at the patterns. There are lots of short worms heading to the right – these have very little population growth but some growth in motor vehicle ownership. Then there are lots of long worms that are heading up and to the left – which means large population growth and mostly declining motor vehicle ownership.

Here’s a similar view, but with a Y-axis of change in population since 2006:

(explore in Tableau)

The worms heading up and to the left include both inner city areas and outer growth areas. These areas seem to balance out the rest of Melbourne resulting in a stable ownership rate overall.

Some SA2s that are moving up and to the right more than others include Sunbury – South, Langwarrin, and Mount Martha. And there are a few in population decline like Endeavour Hills – South, Mill Park – South, and Keilor Downs.

The inner city results are not surprising, but declining ownership in outer growth areas is a little more surprising.

Is this to do with growth areas being popular with young families, and therefore containing proportionately more children?

Here’s a map of the percent of the population in each CD/SA1 that is aged 18-84 (ie approximately of “driving age”):

(view in Tableau)

The rates are highest in the central city and lowest in urban growth areas. And if you watch the animation closely, you’ll see areas that were “fringe growth” in 2006 have since had increasing portions of population aged 18-84, presumably as the children of the first residents have reached driving age (and/or moved out).

So what is happening with motor vehicles per 100 persons aged 18-84? Is there high motor vehicle ownership amongst driving aged people in growth areas?

Yes, a lot of growth areas are in the 80-85 range, similar to many middle suburban areas (view in Tableau)

Here’s the same thing but aggregated to SA2 level (explore in Tableau):

Motor vehicle ownership rates in most growth areas are similar to many established middle suburbs, but lower than non-growth fringe areas which show “saturated” levels of ownership (where there is roughly a one motor vehicle per person aged 18-84), particularly the outer east.

However in the outer growth areas of Sunbury (north-west) and Doreen (north-north-east), ownership rates are close to saturation in 2016.

But is the rate of motor vehicle ownership still declining amongst persons aged 18-84 in the outer growth areas? Here’s a similar chart to the previous one, but with ownership by persons aged 18-84 (explore in Tableau):

You can see most of the outer growth areas still have declining ownership rates. You can also see some established suburbs with strong population growth and increased ownership, including Dandenong and Braybrook (which includes the rapidly densifying suburbs of Maidstone and Maribyrnong).

Here’s a spatial view of the changes in ownership rates (area shading), as well as total changes in the household motor vehicle fleet (dots ). (I’ve assumed non-reporting private dwellings have the same average motor vehicle ownership as reporting dwellings in each area).

(explore in Tableau)

You can see outer growth areas shaded green (declining ownership), but also with large dots (large fleet growth).

But also you can see some declines in ownership in the middle eastern and north-eastern suburbs, and some non-growth outer suburbs, which is quite surprising. I’m not quite sure what might explain that.

You’ll also notice the scale for the dots starts at -830, which accommodates Wheelers Hill (in the middle south-east) where there has been a 2% decline in population, and 6% decline in motor vehicle fleet.

Okay, so that’s Melbourne, what about ownership rates amongst “driving aged” people in other cities?

Trends in motor vehicles per persons aged 18-84

(explore in Tableau)

The trends are similar, but Melbourne is even more interesting on this measure. It has declined from 81.3 to 80.7, bucking the trend of all other cities (although Canberra only grew from 88.4 in 2011 to 88.5 in 2016).

How does motor vehicle ownership relate to density?

Here’s a chart showing population weighted density and motor vehicle ownership for persons aged 18-84 for SA2s across all the big cities in 2016 (explore in Tableau):

Some dots (central Melbourne and Sydney) are off the chart so you can see patterns in the rest. I’ve labelled some of the outliers. The general pattern shows higher density areas generally having lower motor vehicle ownership.

Is densification related to lower motor vehicle ownership?

Here’s a chart showing how each city has moved in terms of population-weighted density (measured at CD or SA1 level) and ownership for persons aged 18-84, with the thick end of each worm 2016, and the thin end 2006.

(Note that the 2006 population weighted density figures are not perfectly comparable with 2011 and 2016 because they are measured at CD level rather than SA1 level, and CDs are slightly larger on average than SA1s)

(explore in Tableau)

You can see Sydney is a completely different city on these measures, and also that Melbourne is the only city heading to the left of the chart. Canberra is also bucking the trend between 2011 and 2016.

We can look at this within cities too. Here’s all the Local Government Areas (LGAs) for all the cities (note: City of Sydney and City of Melbourne are off the top-left of the chart)

(explore in Tableau)

Many Melbourne and Sydney LGAs are rising sharply with mostly declining motor vehicle ownership. But then there are Sydney LGAs like Woollahra, Mosman and Northern Beaches in Sydney that are showing increasing motor vehicle ownership while they densify (probably not great for traffic congestion!).

And we can then look inside cities. Here is Melbourne (again, several inner city SA2s are off the chart):

Some interesting outliers include:

  • The relatively dense Port Melbourne, Albert Park, Elwood with relatively high motor vehicle ownership.
  • The land-locked suburb of Gowanbrae with medium density but rapidly increasing car ownership (which has a limited Monday to Saturday bus service).
  • The growth area of Cranbourne South with reasonable density but more than saturated car ownership.
  • Relatively medium dense but low motor vehicle ownership of Clayton and Footscray.

Explore your own city in Tableau. You know you want to.

What are the spatial patterns of motor vehicle ownership in other cities?

The detail above has focussed on Melbourne, so here are some maps for others cities. You can explore any of the cities by zooming in from this Tableau map (be warned: it may take some time to load as I’ve ignored Tableau’s recommendations about how many showing more than 10,000 data points!). In fact for any of the maps you’ve seen on this blog, you can pan and zoom to see other cities.

To help see the changes in motor vehicle ownership between censuses more easily, I’ve prepared the following detailed animations.







(Find Mandurah in Tableau)






Sunshine Coast


Central Coast (NSW)

Newcastle – Maitland

This post has only looked at spatial trends and the relationship with population density. There’s plenty more to explore about car ownership with census data, which I aim to cover in future posts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and found the interactive data at least half as fascinating as I have.

Oh, and sorry about some of the maps showing defunct train lines. I’m using what I can get from the WMS feed from Geoscience Australia.

Appendix – About the data

The Australian census includes the following question about how many registered motor vehicles were present at each occupied private dwelling on census night. This excludes motorcycles but includes some vehicles other than cars (probably mostly light vehicles).

96% of people counted in the 2016 census were in a private dwelling on census night, and 93.6% of occupied dwellings filled in the census and gave an answer to the motor vehicle question. So the data can give a very detailed – and hopefully quite accurate – picture.

I’ve used two measures of motor vehicle ownership:

  • Motor vehicles per 100 population (often referred to as “motorisation” in Europe), and
  • Motor vehicles per 100 persons aged 18-84

The first is easy to measure and easily comparable with other jurisdictions, but the second gives a better feel for what proportion of the “driving aged” population own a car. In an area with good alternatives to private transport, you might expect lower ownership rates.

Setting the lower age threshold at 18 works well for Victoria (imperfectly for other states with a lower licensing age), and 84 is an arbitrary threshold during the general decline in drivers license ownership by older people. So it’s not perfect, but is indicative, and certainly takes most children out of the equation.

As the motor vehicle question is based on what was parked at the dwelling on census night, I’ve used population present on census night (place of enumeration). That works well if someone was absent on census night and took their car with them, but not so well if they were absent and left their car behind (e.g. they took a taxi to the airport). You cannot win with that, but the census is timed in August during school and university term to try to minimise absences.

When calculating ownership rates, I’ve excluded people in dwellings that did not answer the motor vehicle question, and people in non-private dwellings. This is more robust than assumptions I made in previous posts on this topic so results will vary a little.

For 2011 and 2016, the census data provides counts of the number of dwellings with 0, 1, 2, 3, .. , 29 motor vehicles, and then bundles the rest as “30 of more”. For want of a better assumption, I’ve assumed dwellings with 30 or more motor vehicles have an average of 31 motor vehicles, which is probably conservative. But these are so rare they shouldn’t make any noticeable difference on the overall results.

As shorthand, I’ve referred to “motor vehicle ownership” rates, but you’ll note the census question includes company vehicles kept at home, so it’s not a perfect term to use, but then company vehicles are often available for general use.

I’ve used the 2011 boundaries of Significant Urban Areas (SUA) for each city, which are made up of SA2s and leave a good amount of room for urban fringe growth in 2016. However they do exclude some satellite towns (such as Melton, west of Melbourne).

I’ve extracted data at SA1 level geography for 2011 and 2016, and Collector District (CD) geography for 2006. In urban areas, SA1s average around 400 people while the older Collector Districts of 2006 averaged around 550 people. These are the smallest geographies for which motor vehicle and age data is available in each census. ABS do introduce some small data randomisation to protect privacy so there will be a little error well summing up lots of parcels.

I’ve generally excluded parcels with less than 5 people per hectare as an (arbitrary) threshold for “urban” residential areas. I’ve mapped all parcels to the 2016 boundaries of Local Government Areas and SA2s, and the 2011 boundaries of SUAs (2016 boundaries have not yet been released). Where boundaries do not line up perfectly, I’ve included a parcel in an SAU, LGA, or SA2 if more than 51% of the parcel’s area is within that boundary. The mapping isn’t perfect in all cases, particularly for growth area SA2s and 2006 CDs. See the alignments for SA2s, LGAs in Tableau.

Update on trends in Australian transport

Sat 28 January, 2017

This post charts some key Australian transport trends based on the latest available official data estimates as at January 2017 (including the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Economics 2016 Yearbook).

Car use per capita has continued to decline in most Australian cities (the exceptions being Adelaide and Brisbane, but still well down on the peak of 2004):


Mass transit’s share of motorised passenger kms was very slightly in decline in most cities in 2014-15 (the exceptions being Sydney and Adelaide)


(note: “mass transit” includes trains, trams, ferries, and both public and private buses)

At the same time, estimated total vehicle kilometres in Australian cities has been increasing:


However, mass transit use has outpaced growth in car usage since 2003-04 across the five big cities:


In terms of percentage annual growth, car use growth only exceeded mass transit in 2009-10, and 2012-13.

Car ownership has still been slowly increasing (note the Y axis scale):


Australia’s domestic transport greenhouse gas emissions actually ever-so-slightly declined in 2015-16:


Here is driver licence ownership by age group for Australia:


(note: the 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 not a perfect measure)

From June 2014 to June 2015, license ownership rates increased in all age groups except 30-39, 60-69 and 80+.

2015 saw a change in the trend on licence ownership rates for teenagers, with a slight increase after four years of decline. However the trends are quite different in each state:


(note: in most states 16 is the age where people are able to obtain a learner’s permit)

I’m really not sure why Western Australia has such a low licence ownership rate compared to the other states (maybe the data doesn’t actually include learner permits).

And finally, here are licence ownership rates for people aged 20-24, showing quite different trends in different states:


I’ll aim to elaborate more on these trends in updates to subject-specific posts when I get time.

Which Australian city is sprawling the most?

Sat 3 December, 2016

[Updated April 2017 with 2015-16 population estimates]

For a while now, I’ve been tracking urban sprawl and consolidation in Melbourne, but some interesting recent research prompted me to compare Melbourne to the other large Australian cities.

My question for this post: How do Australian cities compare for growing out versus up? (and by growth I’m talking about population)

Firstly, I need to define “outer” growth.

To do this, I’ve mapped the 2001, 2006, and 2011 ABS urban centre boundaries of each city. I’ve then looked at Statistical Area 3 regions within each Greater Capital City area that either saw substantial urban growth between 2001 and 2011, or were located on the fringe of the main urban area.

Here’s a map of Melbourne, with my designated “outer” areas shaded in a transparent blue:

The area in the middle is mostly shaded green – land considered by the ABS to be urban since at least 2001. There are a few yellow and orange areas (developed 2001-06 and 2006-11 respectively) that are not part the blue shaded “outer” area. The larger orange section visible in the south is mostly green wedge or industrial land, so does not represent growth of residential areas (maps for other cities below). The other yellow and orange areas are relatively small, and many have non-residential land uses.

I’ve done a similar process for Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, and the conurbation of South East Queensland (ie Brisbane, Gold Coast, and Sunshine Coast combined). See the end of this post for equivalent maps of these cities.

With an outer area defined for each city, I have calculated the annual population growth of these outer areas (based on 30 June estimates for each year), and compared it to growth of the city as a whole:

As you can see Perth is shifting to almost all population growth happening in the outer suburbs, while it’s about half in Melbourne and South East Queensland, and around a third in Sydney and Adelaide.

For reference, here are annual population growth rates for the five cities:

Perth saw dramatic growth between 2007 and 2013, but much less growth in the last few years, but most of that happening in outer areas.

The SA3 population data goes back to 1991, which creates some interesting results in the early nineties (even though my defined “outer” areas are trying to measure growth from 2000 onwards). In Adelaide in 1993 the outer areas had “156%” of the city’s population growth – which actually means that the outer areas grew (by 4509 people) while the inner areas had population decline (by 1617 people). At the same time in Melbourne, “103%” of population growth occurred in the outer areas as there was a net reduction of 393 people in the inner areas of Melbourne.

This reflects a previous trend for cities to grow mostly outwards until the mid 1990s, when urban densification took off. Indeed in another post, we saw the population-weighted density of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane bottom out in the mid 1990s:

So is Perth the most sprawling large city in Australia? Well, yes in terms of percentage of population growth, but not in terms of absolute population growth in outer areas:

On my definitions of outer areas, Melbourne is charging ahead, with over 55,000 residents moving into growth areas in 2015-16. Perth almost matched Melbourne’s growth in 2012, but has fallen back since and in 2015 is closer to Sydney and SEQ. Adelaide just hasn’t seen a lot of population growth in recent decades.

Population growth in outer Sydney slowed dramatically between 2002 and 2006. The chart below shows there was also a slow down in non-outer areas, although it was a little less dramatic. Around this time Sydney also transitioned from around 50% of growth being in outer areas, down to around 30%.

Here is the annual population growth in the non-outer areas of each city:

Around 2007 there was an acceleration of population growth in non-outer areas in most cities (although there was a subsequent lull around 2010-2012). In 2015-16 in Perth, the population of the non-outer areas only increased by an estimated 2076 people).

A couple of things to note:

  • The outer areas will have some combination of urban growth and urban densification. My guess is that most population growth will be from urban sprawl, as urban consolidation is more likely to happen in the inner and middle suburbs. But my method doesn’t attempt to remove urban consolidation in outer areas.
  • You might be wondering about the inclusion of outer areas that are not experiencing urban growth. These areas are unlikely to have much population growth at all, so will have little impact on the calculations of percentage of growth in outer areas.

Finally, here are maps showing my defined “outer” areas of the other cities:



I’ve used the full Greater Capital City area, which includes the Central Coast (Gosford / Wyong). This is arguably part of a conurbation with Newcastle but I’ve kept to the Greater Sydney boundary.  The large orange and yellow non-outer area to the west is mostly parkland or industrial, while the orange area to the south is mostly the Holsworth Military area which was defined as urban from 2011.

South East Queensland


I’ve included all of Greater Brisbane, as well as the Gold Coast (as far as the border with NSW) and the Sunshine Coast. The conurbation population includes the established areas of the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast as non-outer areas. The orange areas on the Sunshine Coast mostly contain National Parks and the airport, although it also includes the relatively new suburb of Peregian Springs, so not a perfect definition.



The non-outer area is fairly well-defined as almost entirely urban in 2001. The entire of the City of Joondalup (on the northern coast, mostly surrounded by Wanneroo) counts as urban in 2001, although the suburb of Iluka in the north-western corner has developed more recently, so the calculation won’t be perfect.



The two large orange areas in the non-outer area are non-residential, so there will be little fringe growth outside the blue area.

How do Australian and European cities compare for population and area?

Sun 6 December, 2015

Following on from my previous post comparing the density of Australian and European cities, there has been some interest in the relative size of Australian and European cities. This post takes a quick look.

To make comparisons, I’ve taken the square kilometre population grid data for Europe and Australia, and summed the population and number of cells within the urban area/centre boundaries (as discussed in last post) that have at least 100 residents (ie 1 person per hectare or more) for each city. I’ve included this (arbitrary) threshold as some urban area boundaries seem to include some non-urban land. It means that I’m approximately measuring the populated areas of cities, and large parks, industrial areas, airports, etc may therefore be excluded in this analysis.

Here’s a chart of population versus populated area (click to enlarge):


So Melbourne is about the same size as London and Paris but has less than half the population. Brisbane is a similar size to Milan, with half the population. Perth is larger than Berlin, but has around half the population. Adelaide has a similar population to Seville and Sofia, which are about a third the size. Sydney has a similar population as Barcelona but is almost four times larger.

Because I couldn’t label all the cities in the chart above, here is a data table (smaller values in red, larger values in blue):

AU EU city data table
I’m hoping to add Canadian and US cities to my analysis soon.

Comparing the densities of Australian, European, Canadian, and New Zealand cities

Thu 26 November, 2015

[updated March 2016 to add Canadian and New Zealand cities]

Just how much denser are European cities compared to Australian cities? What about Canadian and New Zealand cities? And does Australian style suburbia exist in European cities?

This post calculates the population-weighted density of 53 Australian, European, and Canadian cities with a population over 1 million, plus the three largest New Zealand cities (only Auckland is over 1 million population). It also shows a breakdown of the densities at which these cities’ residents live, and includes a set of density maps with identical scale and density shading.

Why Population Weighted Density?

As discussed in previous posts, population-weighted density attempts to measure the density at which the average city resident lives. Rather than divide the total population of a city by the entire city area (which usually includes large amounts of sparsely populated land), population weighted density is a weighted average of population density of all the parcels that make up the city. As I’ve shown previously, the size of the parcels used makes a big difference in the calculation of population-weighted density, which makes comparing cities difficult internationally.

To overcome the issue of different parcel sizes, I’ve used kilometre grid population data that is now available for both Europe and Australia. I’ve also generated my own kilometre population grids for Canadian and New Zealand cities by proportionally summing populations of the smallest census parcels available.

Some measures of density exclude all non-residential land, but the square kilometre grid approach means that partially populated grid parcels are counted, and many of these parcels will include non-residential land, and possibly even large amounts of water. It’s not perfect, particularly for cities with small footprints. For example, here is a density map around Sydney harbour (where light green is lower density, dark green is medium density and red is higher density):

Sydney harbour

You can see that many of the grid cells that include significant amounts of water show a lower density, when it fact the population of those cells are contained within the non-water parts of the grid cell. The more watery cells, the lower the calculated density. This is could count against a city like Sydney with a large harbour.

Defining cities

The second challenge with these calculations is a definition of the city limits. For Australia I’ve used Urban Centre boundaries, which attempt to include contiguous urbanised areas (read the full definition). For Europe I’ve used 2011 Morphological Urban Areas, which have fairly similar rules for boundaries. For Canada I’ve used Population Centre, and for New Zealand I’ve used Urban Areas.

These methodologies tend to exclude satellite towns of cities (less so in New Zealand and Canada). While these boundaries are not determined in the exactly the same way, one good thing about population-weighted density is that parcels of land that have very little population don’t have much impact on the overall result (because their low population has little weighting).

For each city, I’ve included every grid cell where the centroid of that cell is within the defined boundaries of the city. Yes that’s slightly arbitrary and not ideal for cities with dense cores on coastlines, but at least I’ve been consistent. It also means some of the cells around the boundary are excluded from the calculation, which to some extent offsets the coastline issues. It also means the values for Australian cities are slightly different to a previous post.

All source data is dated 2011, except for France which is 2010, and New Zealand which is 2013.

Comparing population-weighted density of Australian, European, Canadian and New Zealand cities

AU EU CA NZ Population Weighted Density

You can see the five Australian cities are all at the bottom, most UK cities are in the bottom third, and the four large Spanish cities are within the top seven.

Sydney is not far below Glasgow and Helsinki. Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane are nothing like the European cities when it comes to (average) population-weighted density.

Three Canadian cities (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal) are mid-range, while the other three are more comparable with Australia. Of the New Zealand cities, Auckland is surprisingly more dense than Melbourne. Wellington is more dense that Vancouver (both topographically constrained cities).

But these figures are only averages, which makes we wonder…

How much diversity is there in urban density?

The following chart shows the proportion of each city’s population that lives at various urban density ranges:

AU EU CA NZ urban density distribution

Because of the massive variations in density, I had to break the scale interval sizes at 100 persons per hectare, and even then, the low density Australian cities are almost entirely composed of the bottom two intervals. You can see a lot of density diversity across European cities, and very little in Australian cities, except perhaps for Sydney.

You can also see that only 10% of Barcelona has an urban density similar to Perth or Adelaide. Which makes me wonder…

Do many people in European cities live at typical Australian suburban densities?

Do many Europeans living in cities live in detached dwellings with backyards, as is so common in Australian cities?

To try to answer this question, I’ve calculated the percentage of the population of each city that lives at between 10 and 30 people per hectare, which is a generous interpretation of typical Australian “suburbia”.

AU EU CA NZ cities percent at 10 to 30 per hectare

It’s a minority of the population in all European cities (and even for Sydney). But it does exist. Here are examples of Australian-style suburbia in outer Hamburg, Berlin, LondonMilan, and even Barcelona (though I hate to think what some of the property prices might be!)

How different is population-weighted density from regular density?

Now that I’ve got a large sample of cities, I can compare regular density with population weighted densities (PWD):

PWD v regular density 2

The correlation is relatively high, but there are plenty of outliers, and rankings are very different. Rome has a regular density of 18, but a PWD of 89, while London has a regular density of 41 and PWD of 80. Dublin’s regular density of 31 is relatively close to its PWD of 47.

Wellington’s regular density is 17, but its PWD is 49 (though the New Zealand cities regular density values are impacted by larger inclusions of non-urbanised land within definitions of Urban Areas).

So what does the density of these cities look like on a map?

The following maps are all at the same scale both geographically and for density shading. The blue outlines are urban area boundaries, and the black lines represent rail lines (passenger or otherwise, and including some tramways). The density values are in persons per square kilometre (1000 persons per square kilometre = 10 persons per hectare). (Apologies for not having coastlines and for some of the blue labels being difficult to read).

Here’s Barcelona (and several neighbouring towns), Europe’s densest large city, hemmed in by hills and a coastline:


At the other extreme, here is Perth, a sea of low density and the only city that doesn’t fit on one tile at the same scale as the other cities (Mandurah is cut off in the south):



Here is Paris, where you can see the small high density inner core matches the high density Metro railway area:


Similarly the dense inner core of London correlates with the inner area covered by a mesh of radial and orbital railways, with relatively lower density outer London more dominated by radial railways:


There are many more interesting patterns in other cities.

What does this mean for transport?

Few people would disagree that higher population densities increase the viability of high frequency public transport services, and enable higher non-car mode shares – all other things being equal. But many (notably including the late Paul Mees) would argue that “density is not destiny” – and that careful design of public and active transport systems is critical to transport outcomes.

Zurich is a city often lauded for the high quality of its public transport system, and its population weighted density is 51 persons/ha (calculated on the kilometre grid data for a population of 768,000 people) – which is quite low relative to larger European cities.

In a future post I’ll look at the relationship between population-weighted density and transport mode shares in European cities.

All the density maps

Finally, here is a gallery of grid density maps of all the cities for your perusing pleasure (plus Zurich, plus many smaller neighbouring cities that fit onto the maps). All maps have the same scale and density shading colours.

Please note that the New Zealand and Canada maps do not include all nearby urbanised areas. Apologies that the formats are not all identical.

What does the census tell us about cycling to work?

Mon 27 January, 2014

Who is cycling to work? Where do they live? Where do they work? How old are they? What work do they do? Do men commute by bicycle more than women? How far are cyclists commuting? What other modes are cyclists using?

The census provides some answer to these questions for the entire Australian working population, albeit for one winter’s day every five years.

This post builds on material I presented at the Bike Futures 2013 conference, using census data from across Australian with a little more detail on capital cities and my home city Melbourne.

It’s not a short post, so settle in for 13 charts and 17 maps of data analysis.

How has cycling mode share changed over time?

The first chart shows the proportion of journeys to work by bicycle (only) in Australia’s capital cities.

Cyclcing only mode share for cities time series

Darwin appears to the capital of cycling to work, although it is quickly losing ground to Canberra (unfortunately I don’t have figures for Darwin pre-1996).  The census is conducted in Darwin’s dry season, but other data suggests there is little difference in bicycle activity between the wet and dry seasons.

Melbourne has shown very strong growth since 2001 and Sydney showed strong growth between 2006 and 2011. Cycling mode share has grown in all cities since 1996.

Mode shares collapsed in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne between 1991 and 1996, which many people have attributed to the introduction of mandatory helmet laws (Alan Davies has a good discussion about this issue on his blog).

But as I pointed out at the start, census data is only good for one winter’s day every five years. Does the weather on these days impact the results?

Here is a chart roughly summarising the weather in (most of) the capital cities for 2001, 2006 and 2011 in terms of minimum temperature, maximum temperature and rainfall. It doesn’t cover wind, nor what time of day it rained (although perhaps some fair-weather cyclists might avoid riding on any forecast rain). It also fails to show the sub-zero minimums in Canberra (involves asking too much from Excel).

Census day weather

You can see that 2011 was wetter in Adelaide and Hobart than previous years, and this coincides with lower cycling mode shares in these cities in 2011. So census data is quite problematic from a weather point of view. That said, most cities had very little or no rain on the last three census days.

Where were the commuter cyclists living and working?

Other posts on this blog have also covered some of these maps, but not for all cities.

Some of the following maps are animated to show both 2006 and 2011 results, and note that the colour scales are not the same for all maps. I’ve sometimes zoomed into inner city areas when these are the only places with significant cycling mode share. White sections on maps represent areas with low density, or where the number of overall commuters was very small (sorry I haven’t gone to the effort of making every map 100% consistent, but rest assured the areas in white are less interesting). Click on the maps to see more detail.


Firstly home locations:

ACT 2011 bicycle

The cycling commuters mostly appear to be coming from the inner northern suburbs. I don’t know Canberra intimately, but Google maps doesn’t show a higher concentration of cycling infrastructure in this area compared to the rest of Canberra.

Secondly, bicycle mode share by work destination (at the larger SA2 geography):

Canberra 2011 SA2 dest bicycle any

The highest mode share was 12% in the SA2 of Acton, which is dominated by the Australian National University. Perhaps a lot of the university staff live in the inner northern suburbs of Canberra?


By home location:

Melb bicycle any zoom

Cycling mode share is highest for origins in the inner northern suburbs and has grown strongly since 2006. There’s also been some growth in the Maribyrnong  and Port Phillip council areas off a lower base.

By work location (note: this data is at the smaller destination zone geography):

bicycle mode share DZ Melbourne inner

Cycling to work boomed in inner Melbourne between 2006 and 2011, particularly to workplaces in the inner north. Princess Hill had the highest bike share of 14% in 2011 (possibly dominated by Princess Hill Secondary College employees), followed by a pocket of south-west Carlton that jumped from around 5% to 13%. Apart from the inner north, there were notable increases in Richmond, Balaclava, Yarraville and Southbank. Cycling rates within the CBD are relatively low, perhaps reflecting limited cycling infrastructure on CBD most streets in 2006 and 2011.


Firstly, by home:

Adl bicycle any zoom

Adelaide appears to lack any major concentrations of cycling, although slightly higher levels are found just outside the parkland surrounding the CBD.

Secondly, bicycle mode share by work destination at the (larger) SA2 geography:

Adl 2011 SA2 dest bicycle

The numbers are all small, with 3% in the (large) Adelaide CBD. I imagine a map based on destination zones might show some pockets with higher mode share, but that data isn’t freely available unfortunately.


By home location:

Perth cycling inner

The inner northern and western suburbs, and south of Fremantle seem to be the main areas of cycling growth.

For workplaces at the larger SA2 geography:

Perth 2011 dest SA2 bicycle

The highest mode share was in ‘Swanbourne – Mount Claremont’, only slightly ahead of ‘Nedlands – Dalkeith – Crawley’ – which contains the University of Western Australia. The Fremantle SA2 (with 3% bicycle mode share by destination) includes of Rottnest Island where around 20% of the 73 resident commuters cycled to work, but the result will be easily dominated by the mainland Fremantle section.

Again, I suspect some smaller pockets would have had higher mode shares if I had access to destination zone data.


By home location:

Bris cycling

There was significant growth in cycling from the West End, and around the University of Queensland/St Lucia – which may be related to the opening of the Eleanor Schonell Bridge (after the 2006 census) which only carries pedestrians, cyclists and buses.

By work location (at larger SA2 geography):

Bris 2011 dest bicycle

The highest share was in St Lucia – which is probably dominated by the University of Queensland. Neighbouring Fairfield – Dutton Park came in second. These two areas are directly joined by the Eleanor Schonell Bridge which provides cycling a major advantage over private transport. It seems to have been quite successful at promoting cycling in these areas.


First by home location:

Sydney cycling zoom

There were quite noticeable shifts to cycling in the inner south and around Manly.

By work location (by smaller destination zone geography):

Syd dest bicycle

There was strong growth, again in the inner southern suburbs. In 2011 bicycle mode share was highest in Everleigh (11.5%) following by the University of NSW (Paddington) at 7.9% (excluding travel zones with less than 200 employees who travelled).

Rural Australia

Here’s a map showing bicycle share by SA2 workplace location for all of Australia, which gives a sense of bicycle mode shares in rural areas.

Australia 2011 dest bicycle mode share

Higher regional/rural bicycle mode shares are evident in southern Northern Territory (Petermann – Simpson), Katherine (NT), the Exmouth region, the Otway SA2 on the Great Ocean Road in western Victoria, and Longford – Loch Sport in eastern Victoria. I’ll let other people explain those.

The SA2s in Australia with the highest cycling mode shares in 2011 (by home location) were:

  • Lord Howe Island, NSW: 21%
  • Acton, ACT (covering Australian National University): 12%
  • Port Douglas, Queensland: 10%
  • Parkville, Victoria (covering the University of Melbourne main campus): 8%
  • East Side, Northern Territory (Alice Springs): 8%
  • St Lucia, Queensland (covering the University of Queensland): 8%

How far did people cycle to work? (in Melbourne)

It is difficult to get precise distances for journeys to work, but approximations are possible. I’ve calculated the approximate distance for each journey to work by measuring the straight line distance between the centroid of the home and work SA2s and then rounded to the nearest whole km. To give a feel for how this looks, here is a map showing inner Melbourne SA2s and the approximate distances between selected SA2s:

SA2 distances sample map

This distance measure generally works well in inner city areas. However in the outer suburbs SA2s are often much larger in size, and sometimes only partially urbanised. However as we’ve seen above the volumes of cycling journeys to work are very low in these places, so that hopefully won’t skew the results signficantly.

2011 Melb JTW cycling distances

Two-thirds of cycling journeys to work in Melbourne were approximately 5km or less, with 80% less than 7 km, and 30% were 2 km or less.

The longest commute recorded within Greater Melbourne was approximately 44km.

Was cycling combined with other modes?

The following chart shows that bicycles were seldom combined with other modes:

cycling - presence of other modes 2006 2011

Around 16-17% of cycling commuters in the four largest cities in 2011 involved another mode. Use of other modes with cycling grew in all cities between 2006 and 2011

The next chart shows what these other modes were:

Other modes with cycling 2011

Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth had high rates of bicycle use with trains, while combining car and bicycle was more common in the smaller cities.

The next chart shows the number of trips involving bicycle and trains in 2006 and 2011:

JTW bicycle + train raw numbers

The chart shows the relative success of Melbourne Parkiteer program of introducing high quality bicycle cages at train stations, which has helped boost the number of people access the train network by bicycle by around 600 between 2006 and 2011. I understand a similar project has been undertaken in Perth which saw growth of around 250.

In Melbourne, the home locations for people using bicycle and train are extremely scattered – the following map shows a seemingly random smattering:

Melb bicycle + train

How does commuter cycling vary by age and sex?

bicycle mode share by age sex

This chart shows remarkably clear patterns. Males were much more likely to cycle to work. Teenage boys (particularly those under driving age) had the highest cycling mode shares (with teenage girls much less likely to cycle). The next peak for men was around the mid thirties, and women’s mode share peaked around ages 28-32.

Where are women more likely to cycle to work?

Women are sometimes talked about as the “indicator species” for cycling – ie if you have large numbers of women cycling compared to men then maybe you have good cycling infrastructure that attracts a broader range of people.

The census data can shed some light on this. For each SA2 in Melbourne, I have calculated the male and female cycling mode shares both as a home origin, and as a work destination (this analysis looks at people who only used bicycle (and walking) in their journey to work). I’ve then calculated the ratio of male mode share to female mode for each area (SA2).

I’ve used the ratio of mode shares in preference to the straight gender split of cycling commuters – as female workforce participation is generally lower and there can be spatial variations in the gender split of the workforce. 46% of all journeys within Greater Melbourne in the 2011 census were by females, but only 28% of cycling journeys to work were by females.

The following map shows the ratio of male to female cycling mode shares by home location for SA2s (with more than 50 commuter cyclists, and where the bicycle mode share is above 1%):

Melb 2011 cycling gender ratio home

Areas attracting comparable female and male bicycle shares include the inner northern suburbs and – curiously – Toorak (probably many using the off-road Gardiners Creek and Yarra Trails to access the city centre).

Here’s a similar map, but by workplace areas:

Melb 2011 cycling share gender ratio WP

The patterns are much more pronounced. Six SA2s had higher female mode shares than male: Yarraville, Fitzroy North, Brunswick East, Ascot Vale, Carlton North – Princes Hill, and Elsternwick.

The areas with near-1 ratios of male to female mode shares were similar to the areas with higher total cycling mode shares. The following chart confirms this relationship (note areas with cycling mode shares below 1% not shown):

gender ratio and overal mode share

What this also shows is that home-area mode shares reach much higher values than workplace-area mode shares. Perhaps the secret is in the home-area cycling infrastructure? Or perhaps it’s more to do with the residential demographics?

See the Bicycle Network Victoria website for more data about female cycling rates in Melbourne.

Do women cycle the same distances as men?

Again using the approximate straight line commuting distances (as explained above) the following chart shows that women’s cycling commutes are a little shorter than men’s, but not by much:

commute distance and gender

The median female cycling commute was approximately 1.8 km shorter than for males.

What types of workers are more likely to cycle to work?

Firstly, I’ve looked at the differences between public and private sector employees.

Before I dive into the data, it’s important to recognise that different types of workers are not evenly spread across Australia. Some types of jobs concentrate in city centres while others might be more likely to be found in the suburbs or the country. Therefore many of the following charts show results for Australia as a whole, but also for people working in central Melbourne (the SA2s of Melbourne, Carlton, Docklands, East Melbourne, North Melbourne and Southbank), which has a relatively high rate of cycling to work.

The data suggests public servants were much more likely to cycle to work:

cycling by employer type

The local government result has prompted me to calculate the cycling mode shares for local government workers across Australia (assuming workers work within the council for which they work). Here are bicycle mode shares for the top 20 councils for employee cycling mode share in the census:

Council State Bicycle mode share
Tumby Bay (DC) SA 23.5%
Kent (S) WA 18.8%
Carnamah (S) WA 16.0%
Central Highlands (M) Qld 14.3%
Uralla (A) NSW 13.8%
Wakefield (DC) SA 13.5%
Nannup (S) WA 12.5%
Broome (S) WA 12.1%
Alice Springs (T) NT 11.8%
Narembeen (S) WA 11.5%
Blackall Tambo (R) Qld 11.3%
Kowanyama (S) Qld 11.2%
Exmouth (S) WA 11.1%
Yarra (C) Vic 10.4%
Glamorgan/Spring Bay (M) Tas 8.7%
Torres (S) Tas 8.6%
Yarriambiack (S) Qld 8.3%
Mallala (DC) Vic 8.0%
Richmond Valley (A) NSW 7.2%
McKinlay (S) Qld 6.7%

Most of the top 20 are non-metropolitan councils. Melbourne’s City of Yarra is the top metropolitan city council (within Greater Melbourne the next highest councils are Moreland 6.1%, Port Phillip 5.6%, Melbourne 5.6% and then Stonnington 4.9%).

National government employees had the highest bicycle mode share of all of Australia. I suspect this relates to university staff, as many of the earlier maps showed university campuses often had relatively high rates of employees cycling (85% of “higher education” employees count as “national government” employees).

The census data can also be disaggregated by income:

cycling mode share by income

Cycling mode shares were highest for people on high incomes. Initially I thought this might reflect the fact that high income jobs are often in city centres were cycling is relatively competitive with private and public transport. However, even within central Melbourne workers, cycling rates are higher for those on high incomes (curiously with a second peak for those on incomes between $300 and $399 per week).

Does cycling to work make you healthier and therefore more likely to get promoted and earn a higher income? Or are employers offering workplace cycling facilities to attract highly paid staff? I haven’t got data that answer those questions.

Consistent with higher rates of cycling for higher income earners, those in more highly skilled occupations were more likely to cycle to work:

cycling mode share by profession

I suspect this might reflect the presence/absence of workplace cycling facilities (perhaps office workplaces are more likely to provide cycling facilities than retailers for example) and/or the ability to afford to live close to work (which makes cycling easier).

Are recent immigrants more likely to ride to work?

This one really surprised me and I only investigated it because it was possible to do. The census asks what year people migrated to Australia (if not born here), and it turns out that recent immigrants were much more likely to cycle to work:

cycling mode share by migration year

This might be explained by the demographics of recent immigrants (eg car ownership, home location, income levels, occupation and age).

I’d welcome comments on any other trends people might spot in the data.

Are Australian cities becoming denser?

Tue 5 November, 2013

[Updated April 2017 with 2015-16 population estimates. First published November 2013]

While Australian cities have been growing outwards with new suburbia, they have also been getting denser in established areas, and the new areas on the fringe are often more dense than growth areas used to be (see last post). So what’s the net effect – are Australian cities getting more or less dense?

This post also explores measures of population-weighted density for Australian cities large and small over time. It also tries to resolve some of the issues in the calculation methodology by using square kilometre geometry, looks at longer term trends for Australian cities, and then compares multiple density measures for Melbourne over time.

Measuring density

Under the traditional measure of density, you’d simply divide the population of a city by the metropolitan area’s area (in hectares). As the boundary of the metropolitan areas seldom change, the average density would simply increase in line with population with this measure. But that density value would also be way below the density at which the average resident lives because of the inclusion of vast swaths of unpopulated land within “metropolitan areas”, and so be not very meaningful.

Enter population-weighted density (which I’ve looked at previously here and here). Population-weighted density takes a weighted average of the density of all parcels of land that make up a city, with each parcel weighted by its population. One way to think about it is the residential density in which the “average resident” lives.

So the large low-density parcels of rural land outside the urbanised area but inside the “metropolitan area” count very little in the weighted average because of their small population relative to the urbanised areas. This means population-weighted density goes a long way to overcoming having to worry about the boundaries of the “urban area” of a city. Indeed, in a previous post I found that removing low density parcels of land had very little impact on calculations of population-weighted density for Australian cities. However, the size of the parcels of land used in a population-weighted density calculation will have an impact, as we will see shortly.

Calculations of population-weighted density can answer the question about whether the “average density” of a city has been increasing or decreasing. But as we will see below, using geographic regions put together by statisticians based on historical boundaries is not always a fair way to compare different cities.

Population-weighted density of Australian cities over time

Firstly, here is a look at population-weighted density of the five largest Australian cities (as defined by ABS Significant Urban Areas), measured at SA2 level (the smallest geography for which there exists a good consistent set of time-series estimates). SA2s roughly equate to suburbs.

According to this data, most cities bottomed out in density in the mid 1990s. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have shown the fastest rates of densification in the last three years.

What about smaller Australian cities? (120,000+ residents in 2014):

Darwin comes out as the third most dense city in Australia on this measure, with Brisbane rising quickly in recent years into fourth place. Most cities have shown densification in recent times, with the main exception being Townsville. On an SA2 level, population weighted density in Perth hardly rose at all in 2015-16 (a year when 92% of population growth was in the outer suburbs)

However, we need to sanity test these values. Old-school suburban areas of Australian cities typically have a density of around 15 persons per hectare, so the values for Geelong, Newcastle, Darwin, Townsville, and Hobart all seem a bit too low for anyone who has visited them. I’d suggest the results may well be an artefact of the arbitrary geographic boundaries used – and this effect would be greater for smaller cities because they would have more SA2s on the interface between urban and rural areas (indeed all of those cities are less than 210,000 in population).

For reference, here are the June 2014 populations of all the above cities:

Australian cities population 2014

The following map shows Hobart, with meshblock boundaries in black (very small blocks indicate urban areas), SA2s in pink, and the Significant Urban Area (SUA) boundary in green.  You can see that many of the SA2s within the Hobart SUA have pockets of dense urban settlement, together with large areas that are non-urban – ie SA2s on the urban/rural interface. The density of these pockets will be washed out because of the size of the SA2s.

Hobart SUA image



Reducing the impact of arbitrary geographic boundaries

As we saw above, the population-weighted density results for smaller cities were very low, and probably not reflective of the actual typical densities, which might be caused by arbitrary geographic boundaries.

Thankfully ABS have followed Europe and released of a square kilometre grid density for Australia which ensures that geographic zones are all the same size. While it is still somewhat arbitrary where exactly this grid falls on any given city, it is arguably less arbitrary than geographic zones that follow traditional notions of area boundaries.

Using that data, I’ve been able to calculate population weighted density for the larger cities of Australia. The following chart shows those values compared to values calculated on SA2 geography:

pop weighted density 2011 grid and SA2 australian cities

You’ll see that the five smaller cities (Newcastle, Hobart, Geelong, Townsville and Cairns) that had very low results at SA2 level get more realistic values on the kilometre grid.

You’ll notice that most cities (except big Melbourne and Sydney) are in the 15 to 18 persons per hectare range, which is around typical Australian suburban density.

While the Hobart figure is higher using the grid geography, it’s still quite low (indeed the lowest of all the cities). You’ll notice on the map above that urban Hobart hugs the quite wide and windy Derwent River, and as such a larger portion of Hobart’s grid squares are likely to contain both urban and water portions – with the water portions washing out the density (pardon the pun!). While most other cities also have some coastline, much more of Hobart’s urban settlement is near to a coastline.

But stepping back, every city has urban/rural and/or urban/water boundaries and the boundary has to be drawn somewhere. So smaller cities are always going to have a higher proportion of their land parcels being on the interface – and this is even more the case if you are using larger parcel sizes. There is also the issue of what “satellite” urban settlements to include within a city which ultimately becomes arbitrary at some point. Perhaps there is some way of adjusting for this interface effect depending on the size of the city, but I’m not going to attempt to resolve it in this post.

International comparisons of population-weighted density

See another post for some international comparisons using square km grids.

Changes in density of larger Australian cities since 1981

We can also calculate population-weighted density back to 1981 using the larger SA3 geography. An SA3 is roughly similar to a local government area (in Melbourne at least), so getting quite large and including more non-urban land. Also, as Significant Urban Areas are defined only at the SA2 level, I need to resort to Greater Capital City Statistical Areas for the next chart:

This shows that most cities were getting less dense in the 1980s (Melbourne quite dramatically), with the notable exception of Perth. I expect these trends could be related to changes in housing/planning policy over time. This calculation has Adelaide ahead of the other smaller cities – which is different ordering to the SA2 calculations above.

On the SA3 level, Perth declined in population-weighted density in 2015-16.

When measured at SA2 level, the four smaller cities had almost the same density in 2011, but at SA3 level, there is more separating them. My guess is that the arbitrary nature of geographic boundaries is having an impact here. Also, the share of SA3s in a city that are on the urban/rural interface is likely to be higher, which again will have more impact for smaller cities. Indeed the trend for the ACT at SA3 level is very different to Canberra at SA2 level.

Melbourne’s population-weighted density over time

I’ve taken a more detailed look at my home city Melbourne, using all available ABS population figures for the geographic units ranging from mesh blocks to SA3s inside “Greater Melbourne” (as defined in 2011) or inside the Melbourne Significant Urban Area (SUA, where marked), to produce the following chart:

Note: I’ve calculated population-weighted density at the SA2 level for both the Greater Capital City Statistical Area (ie “Greater Melbourne”, which includes Bacchus Marsh, Gisborne and Wallan) and the Melbourne Significant Urban Area (slightly smaller), which yield slightly different values.

All of the time series data suggests 1994 was the turning point in Melbourne where the population-weighted density started increasing (not that 1994 was a particularly momentous year – the population-weighted density increased by a whopping 0.0559 persons per hectare in the year to June 1995 (measured at SA2 level for Greater Melbourne)).

You’ll also note that the density values are very different when measured on different geographic units. That’s because larger units include more of a mix of residential and non-residential land. The highest density values are calculated using mesh blocks (MB), which often separate out even small pockets of non-residential land (eg local parks). Indeed 25% of mesh blocks in Australia had zero population, while only 2% of SA1s had zero population (at the 2011 census). At the other end of the scale, SA3s are roughly the size of local councils and include parklands, employment land, rural land, airports, freeways, etc which dilutes their average density.

In the case of SA2 and SA3 units, the same geographic areas have been used in the data for all years. On the other hand, Census Collector Districts (CD) often changed between each five-yearly census, but I am assuming the guidelines for their creation would not have changed significantly.

Now why is a transport blog so interested in density again? There is a suggested relationship between (potential) public transport efficiency and urban density – ie there will be more potential customers per route kilometre in a denser area. In reality longer distance public transport services are going to be mostly serving the larger urban blob that is a city – and these vehicles need to pass large parklands, industrial areas, water bodies, etc to connect urban origins and destinations. The relevant density measure to consider for such services might best be based on larger geographic areas – eg SA3. Buses are more likely to be serving only urbanised areas, and so are perhaps more dependent on residential density – best calculated on a smaller geographic scale, probably km grid (somewhere between SA1 and SA2).

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