Update on Australian transport trends (December 2019)

Mon 30 December, 2019

Each year, just in time for Christmas, the good folks at the Australian Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Economics (BITRE) publish a mountain of data in their 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.

There are some interesting new patterns emerging – read on.

Vehicle kilometres travelled

According to the latest data, road transport volumes actually fell in 2018-19:

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).

Car kilometre growth has slowed significantly since 2004, and actually went down in 2018-19 according to BITRE estimates (enough to result in a reduction in total vehicle kilometres travelled).

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 to 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.

Passenger kilometres travelled

Overall, here are passenger kms per capital for various modes for Australia as a whole (note the log-scale on the Y axis):

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

It’s possible to look at car passenger kilometres per capita, which takes into account car occupancy – and also includes more recent estimates up until 2018/19.

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

The data shows that Melbourne has now overtaken Sydney as having the most car travel in total.

Another interesting observation is that total car travel declined in Perth, Adelaide, and Sydney in 2018-19. The Sydney result may reflect a mode shift to public transport (more on that shortly), while Perth might be impacted by economic downturn.

While car passenger kilometres per capita peaked in 2004, there were some increases until 2018 in some cities, but most cities declined in 2019. Darwin is looking like an outlier with an increase between 2015 and 2018.

BITRE also produce estimates of passenger kilometres for other modes (data available up to 2017-18 at the time of writing).

Back to cities, here is growth in rail passenger kms since 2010:

Sydney trains have seen rapid growth in the last few years, 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.

Here’s a longer-term series looking at per-capita train use:

Sydney has the highest train use of all cities. 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 recent growth in (public and private) bus use:

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

In more recent years Sydney, Canberra, and Hobart are showing rapid growth in bus patronage.

Here’s bus passenger kms per capita:

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

Bus passenger kms per capita have been declining in most cities in recent years.

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%.

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).

For completeness, here’s growth in light rail patronage:

Sydney light rail patronage increased following the Dulwich Hill extension that opened in 2014, while Adelaide patronage increased following an extension to the Adelaide Entertainment Centre in 2010.

We can sum all of the mass transit modes (I use the term “mass transit” to account for both public and private bus services):

Sydney is leading the country in mass transport use per capita and is growing strongly, while Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth have declined in recent years.

Mass transit mode share

We can also calculate mass transit mode share of motorised passenger kilometres (walking and cycling kilometres are unfortunately not estimated by BITRE):

Sydney has maintained the highest mass transit mode share, and in recent years has grown rapidly with a 3% mode shift in the three years 2016 to 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 made significant gains between 2005 and 2009, and Perth also grew strongly 2007 to 2013.

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 use 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.

Car ownership

The ABS regularly conduct a Motor Vehicle Census, and the following chart includes data up until January 2019.

Technical note: Motor Vehicle Census data (currently conducted in January each year, but previously conducted in March or October) has been interpolated to produce June estimates for each year, with the latest estimate being for June 2018.

In 2017-18 car ownership declined slightly in New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia, but there was a significant increase in the Northern Territory. Tasmania has just overtaken South Australia as the state with the highest car ownership at 63.1 cars per 100 residents.

Victorian car ownership has been in decline since 2011, which is consistent with a finding of declining motor vehicle ownership in Melbourne from census data (see also an older post on car ownership).

Driver’s licence ownership

Thanks to BITRE Information Sheet 84, the BITRE Yearbook 2019, 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 2018 or 2019 (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 seen slow decline since 2011, and the ACT peaked in 2014.

Here’s a breakdown by age bands for Australia as a whole (note each chart has a different Y-axis scale):

There was a notable uptick in licence ownership for 16-19 year-olds in 2018. Otherwise licencing rates have increased for those over 40, and declined for those aged 20-39.

Licencing rates for teenagers (refer next chart) had been trending down in South Australia and Victoria until 2017, but all states saw an increase in 2018 (particularly Western Australia). The most recent 2019 data from NSW and Queensland shows a decline. The differences between states partly reflects different minimum ages for licensing.

The trends are mixed for 20-24 year-olds: the largest states of Victoria and New South Wales have seen continuing declines in licence ownership, but all other states and territories are up (except Queensland in 2019).

New South Wales, Victoria, and – more recently – Queensland are seeing downward trends in the 25-29 age bracket:

Licencing rates for people in their 70s are rising in all states (I suspect a data error for South Australia in 2016):

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.

Transport greenhouse gas emissions

[this emissions section updated on 8 January 2020 with BITRE estimates for 1975-2019]

According to the latest adjusted quarterly figures, Australia’s domestic non-electric transport emissions peaked in 2018 and have been slightly declining in 2019, which reflects reduced consumption of petrol and diesel. However it is too early to know whether this is another temporary peak or long-term peak.

Non-electric transport emissions made up 18.8% of Australia’s total emissions as at September 2019.

Here’s a breakdown of transport emissions:

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

Here’s growth in transport sectors since 1975:

Road emissions have grown steadily, while aviation emissions took off around 1991. 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 run on diesel, but more recently has been transitioning to electric.

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

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 are increasing for most modes, except cars. Total road transport emissions per capita peaked in 2004 (along with vehicle kms per capita, as above).

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

Note: I suspect the kinks for buses and trucks in 2015, and motor cycles in 2011 are issues to do with assumptions made by BITRE, rather than actual changes.

The only mode showing significant change is cars – which have reduced from 281 g/km in 1990 to 243 g/km in 2019.

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:

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 2018-19 were 154.5g/pkm, while bus was 79.4g/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 60) – 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 78% in 2016-17.

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 trended down between 2008 and 2016. The real cost of motor vehicles has plummeted since 1996. 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.

Hopefully this post has provided some useful insights into transport trends in Australia.


Update on Australian transport trends (December 2018)

Fri 28 December, 2018

For more recent trend information – skip to the December 2019 update on Australian transport trends.

Each year, just in time for Christmas, the good folks at the Australian Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Economics (BITRE) publish a mountain of data in their 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.

Vehicle kilometres travelled

Road transport volumes are rising, and most of the traffic is of course cars:

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).

Car kilometre growth has slowed significantly since 2004.

In fact, on a per capita basis car use peaked in 2004 and then declined until 2014, with a little growth since. Here’s the Australian trend (in grey) as well as city level estimates to 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 2014 (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.

Passenger kilometres travelled

It’s also possible to look at car passenger kilometres per capita, which takes into account car occupancy – and also includes more recent estimates up until 2017:

While car passenger kilometres per capita also peaked in 2004, they have increased slightly in recent years in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Sydney.

BITRE also produce estimates of passenger kilometres for other modes (data available up to 2017 at the time of writing).

Rail use is highest in Sydney followed by Melbourne. You can see two big jumps in Perth following the opening of the Joondalup line in 1992 and the Mandurah line in 2007.

(note: this includes both public and private bus travel)

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%.

Darwin saw a massive increase in bus use in 2014 thanks to a new nearby LNG project running staff services, while investments in increased bus services in Melbourne and Brisbane in the first decade of this century led to significant patronage growth.

We can sum all of the mass transit modes (I use the term “mass transit” to account for both public and private bus services):

We can also calculate mass transit mode share of motorised passenger kilometres (walking and cycling kilometres are unfortunately not estimated):

Sydney has maintained the highest mass transit mode share, while Melbourne made significant gains between 2005 and 2009, and Brisbane also grew strongly 2007 to 2013.

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 also.

Mass transit has also outpaced car use 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 exceeded public transport growth between 2004 and 2017.

Car ownership

The ABS regularly conduct a Motor Vehicle Census, and the following chart includes data up until January 2018.

Technical note: Motor Vehicle Census data (currently conducted in January each year) has been interpolated to produce June estimates for each year.

Car ownership has continued to rise slowly in all states – except Victoria, which is consistent with a finding of declining motor vehicle ownership in Melbourne from census data (see also an older post on car ownership).

Driver’s licence ownership

Thanks to BITRE Information Sheet 84, here is motor vehicle licence ownership per 100 persons (of any age) going back to 1971:

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 a licence.

There’s been slowing growth over time, but Victoria has seen slow decline since 2011.

Here’s a breakdown by age bands (note each chart has a different Y-axis scale):

Motor vehicle licence ownership rates have increased for people over 70 (presumably due to a healthier ageing population), and declined for people under 30.

Licencing rates for teenagers have been trending down in South Australia and Victoria recently, but not in other states:

The trends are mixed for 20-24 year-olds:

New South Wales and Victoria are seeing downward trends in the 25-29 age bracket:

Licencing rates for people in their 70s are rising in all states (I suspect a data error for South Australia in 2016):

A similar trend is clear for people aged 80-89 (Victoria was an anomaly before 2015):

(see also an older post on driver’s licence ownership for more detailed analysis)

Transport greenhouse gas emissions

Australia’s domestic non-electric transport emissions have increased steadily since 1990 and show no signs of slowing down, let alone declining (latest data at the time of writing is up to June 2018):

Depending on how you disaggregate total emissions, transport is the second largest sector and the fastest growing.

Here’s breakdown of transport emissions (detailed data only available to 2016 at time of writing):

And the growth in each sector since 1990:

Domestic aviation has had the fastest growth, followed by buses. In more recent years rail emissions have grown strongly (note: most of this is rail freight as the vast majority of passenger train movements are electric). Car emissions have grown 27%, but make up the largest share of transport emissions.

Here are per capita transport emissions for each state:

The data is a bit noisy (largely due to fluctuations in aviation emissions). Here are road emissions per capita:

In 2016 there were sharp increases in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, while most other states appear to be on a downward trend.

Car emissions per capita have been generally trending downwards in most states, again except Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory:

Of course if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, total emissions need to reduce substantially, not just per capita emissions!

It’s possible to combine data sets to estimate average emissions per vehicle kilometre for different vehicle types:

It’s difficult to see any significant reductions in emissions intensity, while average bus emissions intensity has increased recently (not sure why). Average car emissions have fallen slightly from 281 g/km in 1990 to 244 g/km in 2016.

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 high person-capacity modes:

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 60) – 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 78% in 2016-17.

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 has been trending down since around 2008. The real cost of motor vehicles has plummeted since 1996. Urban transport fares have been increasing faster than CPI since the late 1970s.

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

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.

To illustrate the data visualisation problem of choosing a base year – here is the same data for every base year between 1973 and 2018:

Hopefully this post has provided some useful insights into transport trends in Australia. A future post might examine the relationships between the data sets further.


Update on trends in Australian transport

Sat 28 January, 2017

You might want to read a more recent post on this topic published in 2019.

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):

car-pass-kms-per-capita-5

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)

mass-transit-share-of-pass-kms-6

(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:

city-vkm-growth

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

car-v-pt-growth-aus-large-cities-3

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):

car-ownership-2000-onwards-by-state-3

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

australian-domestic-transport-emissions

Here is driver licence ownership by age group for Australia:

au-licence-ownership-by-age

(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:

au-licence-ownership-by-aged-16-19-trend

(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:

au-licence-ownership-by-aged-20-24-trend

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


Trends in driver’s licence ownership in Australia

Mon 9 March, 2015

You might also want to read a more recent post covering this topic published in 2019.

Recent research has talked about “millennials” being less likely to get their driver’s licence at younger ages, with data showing a decline over the 2000s. But is this trend continuing? This post checks out the latest data to see if the decline is still happening.

While I’m at it, I’ll look at licence ownership by age and gender (are young men more likely to have a licence than women?) and trends for older persons (are people holding onto licences longer into old age?). There’s also a strange quirk for people born in 1945/6.

This post analyses available state-based data on driver’s licence ownership in Australia in recent years. In this post some of the data sets I’ve used include learner’s permits, and some only count “independent” licences (watch for notes).

How does licence ownership vary with age?

I have access to licensing data for four Australian states that allows a quite detailed analysis (three publicly, and VicRoads kindly let me access theirs).

The following chart shows licence ownership for Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales by individual age for the most recent year available at the time of writing (combining licensing data with ABS state population estimates by single year of age to calculate ownership rates):

license ownership aus by age

Licence ownership peaks between ages in the mid-thirties to late sixties, then falls away with age thereafter. There is certainly a pattern of people in their 20s and early 30s being less likely to have their licence.

The main difference for the younger ages is that the Victoria data include independent licences only (ie excludes people with a learner’s permit). Also, from what I understand, the minimum age for an independent driver’s licence is 17 in most states, except in Victoria where it is 18, and the Northern Territory where it appears to be theoretically possible at age 16 and 6 months. The minimum age for a learner’s permit is 16 years, except in the ACT where it is 15 years and 9 months.

The Victoria data is generally higher than the other states from around age 32, with some results calculated as high as 99.8%. The Victoria data includes suspended licences, which may not be the case for other states, and there may be other minor differences in the way the data is counted. But it is interesting that Victorian ownership rates are up to 10% higher for older age groups. I’ll look at those trends and patterns in more detail shortly.

I’ve previously looked at driver’s licence ownership using VISTA data (Victorian household travel survey 2007-2009) which shows a similar pattern but with less detail:

car license by age

How does licence ownership vary with gender (and age)?

First up, New South Wales:

nsw license ownership by age and gender

Age 30 is the age under which females are more likely to have a licence (or learner’s permit), and after which males are have higher rates of licensing. The difference in licensing between the genders grows very large for older ages. This might be explained by women of older generations being less likely to have ever obtained their licence, and/or men stubbornly holding onto their licence for longer than they should.

Here’s the same data for South Australia:

sa license ownership by age and gender

The gender flip occurs around age 27 – with younger women more likely to have their driver’s licence.

Queensland data is available with slightly less age resolution:

qld license ownership by age and gender

The gender flip point occurs sometime between ages 21 and 24.

I really wasn’t expecting younger females to be more likely to have a licence than males. Is this just something to do with learner’s permits?

I can only answer that question with Queensland data:

qld learner and independent age gender

This shows women in Queensland are more likely to have their learner’s permit than men (at any age). However, men are actually more likely than women to have an independent licence from age 20 onwards, as women appear to spend more time with their learner’s permit. It would be interesting to look at this for other states, but alas the data isn’t readily available.

You may also have noticed the South Australia and Queensland data suggests around 101% of men in some age groups have their driver’s licence. This suggests imperfect data – perhaps double counting people with endorsements for higher classes of vehicle or people who have both car and motorbike licences, or imperfect ABS estimates of people at each individual age. So licensing data needs to be read with caution, with a focus on the trends and patterns rather than exact numbers.

Licence ownership trends of younger people

Here is independent licence ownership rates in Victoria for younger people:

license ownership Victoria younger age and year

There are clear and sizeable downward trends in licence ownership rates amongst most ages, with most dropping by around 12% over 13 the years. There was a slight rise in most age groups in 2009 but then a quite significant fall between 2009 and 2010, particularly 18 and 19 year olds. The graduated licensing system was introduced between January 2007 and July 2008, and I’m yet to find references to changes in rules around 2009 or 2010. so I’m not sure how to explain the changes in 2010. That said, when I look at the data for 2010, there are a few anomalies in patterns in other age groups, so there may be some small data errors.

The rate of licence ownership of 18 year olds was however relatively steady between 2001 and 2008, but then dropped significantly from 2010. The minimum time period to hold a learner’s permit became 12 months in July 2007, making it harder to obtain your probationary licence by age 18. There is a peak of licence ownership at age 18 in (June) 2009 – these people will have turned 16 in the financial year 2006-07 and so probably escaped the new licensing regime (I suspect this cohort made more effort to get their learner’s permit before 1 July 2007).

I also note that the declines appear to have largely levelled off for most ages since around 2011. I don’t have much data about learner’s permit holders in Victoria, but some data published shows that the average time spent on L plates in Victoria for people aged 17-20 increased from around 60-70 weeks in 2000 to around 100 weeks in 2010, following the graduated licensing scheme introduction.

Have we now stabilised at new lower levels? More on that shortly.

Readers of this blog will note that several transport trends changed direction in 2011. That was about the time that public transport patronage growth in Melbourne slowed down, and mode share stabilised. Here’s the Melbourne mass transit mode share and young persons licensing rates charted together:

vic young licensing and PT mode share

(mass transit mode share from other BITRE yearbook data)

Or if you look at this as a correlation:

vic young licensing and PT mode share correlation

That’s a strong correlation. Given that younger people dominate public transport patronage, this isn’t hugely surprising. The major deviation from the trend is 2009, which is perhaps explainable through changes to the licensing regime, although between 2001 and 2005 there was a reduction in licence ownership without mode shift to mass transit.

So why has the trend towards lower licence ownership of younger people stopped in Victoria? Other researchers might have to answer that question.

Here is data for young people in New South Wales (note: data includes learner’s permits):

license ownership NSW younger age and year

Very different trends! Most age groups trended down between 2007 and 2010 but then many bounced up again thereafter.

So is this completely different trend because it includes learner’s permits? Unfortunately I don’t have single-age based data for people with independent licences, but I do have it for age groups:

independent license ownership NSW younger age group and year

The trends are similar. Independent licence ownership rates have dropped by around 3-5% in the younger age brackets over the nine years. There was a larger dip around 2009, followed by small rises in some age brackets since. Otherwise things look pretty stable, and very different to Victoria (and note that Sydney has had much less public transport patronage growth than Melbourne over the same time).

If I put learner’s and independent licences together and look at 20-24 year olds, there is a slightly higher proportion with their learner’s permit in more recent years (8% to 11%). So this suggests people are probably staying on their Ls for slightly longer.

NSW learner v independent young people

Do the trends in NSW licence ownership correlate with Sydney mass transit mode share?

NSW young licensing and PT mode share correlation

Not nearly as much as for Victoria and Melbourne.

What is interesting in the NSW data is that there appears to be a pattern that varies by birth year. I’ve adjusted the layout of the data tables such that each row represents people in a single birth year (well, birth financial year, if you will). This data includes learner’s permits.

nsw license ownership by birth year and age

Licence ownership rates were relatively higher for people born 1992 onwards (although curiously they appeared to have declined after age 21, which perhaps might be a result of immigration – not sure). In NSW, the birth years of approximately 1982 to 1991 appear to have had relatively lower rates of licence ownership.

Only six years of data is available for South Australia, but there is a pattern of higher licence ownership for people born from around 1993 onwards (data includes learner’s permits), but it might be trending downwards again from birth years 1996 onwards:

sa license ownership by birth year and age

(note: the only available South Australia data for 2010 is for January – I have interpolated to estimate June 2010 numbers. The most recent data is for March 2014 – I have interpolated the population estimate accordingly but in the figure above the bottom numbers in each column are for people born in the 12 months to March 1998, not 12 months to June 1998).

Queensland data only reports single year licence ownership to age 20, but a much longer time series is available:

qld license ownership by birth year and age

Again, there is a range of birth years from around 1984 to 1990 with relatively lower licence ownership. In July 2007 the minimum age for a learner’s permit dropped to 16, which would explain the massive increase in learner’s permit ownership for 16 year olds. This seems to correspond to increased licensing rates for birth years 1993 onwards.

Although Victoria hasn’t had a bounce in licence ownership rates for young people, the birth year trends do show the downward trend finishing with births around 1990. In fact, from that birth year the rate of licence ownership at age 21 went up slightly, which might reflect that it is easier to obtain a probationary licence from that age (as a learner logbook is no longer required). The decline in licensing rates seemed to begin around birth year 1980.

vic license ownership by birth year and age

The following table summaries the birth years of lower licence ownership in each state, and compares these birth years with the first birth year impacted by graduated by graduated licensing (assuming people obtain their learner’s permit at age 16):

Lower licence
ownership birth years
Graduated licensing started
Start End Start First birth year
New South Wales 1982 1991 2000 1984
Victoria 1980 1990 2007 1991
South Australia ? 1993 2005 1989
Queensland 1985 1990 2007 1991

There appears to be a fairly consistent cohort of people born between around 1980-5 and 1990-3 who have been less likely to get their licence at a younger age. In Victoria and Queensland they weren’t faced with the new graduated licensing system if they got their learner’s permit at age 16. In fact, licensing rates stopping declining in the birth years first fully subjected to graduated licensing in Queensland and Victoria – the opposite of what you might expect!

Dr Alexa Delbosc at Monash University has led much interesting research into reasons for the downwards trend of licence ownership in Australia (amongst others). Perhaps this new evidence of a reversal/stabilisation of the trend might explain some things further, or need a new explanation in itself.

What about licence ownership of older people?

First up, Victoria:

vic older license ownership rates

Licence ownership rates increased in Victoria until 2011 in most age groups, probably reflecting people living healthier for longer.  However licence ownership rates fell from 2011 onwards for those over 80 (despite Victoria not having mandatory testing for older drivers). It might be explained by a change to a 3 year licence renewal period for those over 75, but I cannot confirm when that change was implemented. I’m also at a loss to explain the blips in the 2009 data for those 90+.

Here’s the same for New South Wales, where car drivers need to have an annual medical review from age 75, and have to pass a practical test to keep an unrestricted licence from age 85. For those 75+, licensing rates are considerably lower than in Victoria.

nsw older license ownership rates

While the Queensland data provides less resolution of age groups, it shows the trend of increasing licence ownership over a longer period of time, although with a levelling out for those 60-74 from around 2013.

qld older license ownership rates

And for completeness, here is five year’s worth of data available for South Australia, not showing any dramatic trends:

sa older license ownership rates

Finally, you might have spotted a blip in the first chart of this post around age 68 (you were looking at it carefully, right?). Zooming in and changing the X axis to birth year we see an interesting anomaly:

license ownership rates people born in 1960s

Years on the X axis are actually financial years (ending June). People born in 1946/7 are 10% more likely to have their driver’s licence than people born in 1945/6, and this is consistent across three states!

This year of relatively lower licence ownership is for people born immediately after World War II, and who around 19 years of age when Australia sent troops to the Vietnam War (although many men in the next birth year would also have gone to Vietnam). I wondered if it might be related to the Vietnam War, but then the trend applies more so to women than men, as shown in this NSW data:

NSW 1940s brith years by gender

I then thought it might be to do with being born whilst Australia was recovering from the war and healthy food and good medical care might have been less available, resulting in a mini-generation of people less likely to be able to get their driver’s licences later in life.

The census provides one indicator of disability in terms of people recorder as “need assistance with core activities”. While people born between 1945 and 1949 seem to be slightly more likely to have a disability (compared to the general pattern across ages, supporting the post-war lower health hypothesis), the 1946 age year doesn’t stand out as much different to neighbouring years.

aus disability by birth year

Another explanation might be that ABS have inaccurately estimated the population born in that year.

Can anyone else shed more light on this anomaly?