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):


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.

Trends in transport greenhouse gas emissions

Fri 4 May, 2012

[Updated in June 2015 with 2013 inventory data. First published May 2012. For some more recent data see this post published in December 2019]

Are greenhouse gas emissions from transport still on the rise in Australia? Are vehicle fuel efficiency improvements making a difference?

This post takes a look at available emissions data.

Australian Transport Emissions

The Department of Environment’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory reports Australia’s emissions in great detail, and 1990 to 2013 data was available at the time of updating this post (there is usually more than a year’s lag before this data is released).

More recent but less detailed data is available in quarterly reports and here’s what the rolling 12 month trend looks like up to September 2014:

transport emissions quarterly 2

Emissions have grown by 50% since 1990, although a peak was experienced in the 12 months to December 2012 with a slight decline since then.

Transport was responsible for 17.2% of total Australian emissions in the year to September 2014 (excluding land use), an increase from around 15% in 2002.

Here’s the make up of those emissions to 2013:

Australia Transport Emissions 3

Road transport contributed 84% of transport emissions in 2013 (down slightly from a peak of 89% in 2004). Cars accounted for 48% of Australia’s transport emissions in 2013, down from 57% in 1990.

Note that the above chart does not include electric rail emissions (see below), indirect emissions, or emissions from international shipping and aviation. Estimates for these are included in the following chart lifted from an 2008 ATRF paper by BITRE’s David Cosgrove. It shows this components add a lot on top (and the future projections are frightfully unsustainable). International transport emissions seem to sneak under the radar in the published figures.

Per capita transport emissions

The following chart shows Australian transport emissions per capita have been fairly flat at around 4 tonnes per person since around 2004:

Australia transport emissions per capita 3

To put that in context, 4 tonnes per capita is just above Romania or Mexico’s total greenhouse gas emissions per capita (from all sectors, not just transport).

An aside on electric rail emissions

Electric rail emissions are included under stationary energy, rather than “transport” in the main inventory. Melbourne train and tram electricity emissions have been estimated at 505 Gg for 2007 (ref page 8). Apelbaum 2006 estimated that Australia electric rail emissions in 2004/05 were 2,082 Gg (ref page 68), which is very similar to the inventory figures. I’ve struggled to find any other figures on electric rail emissions in the public domain.

Sectoral growth trends

Transport is now Australia’s second largest emissions sector (after stationary energy), and transport has had the highest rate of emissions growth since 1990:

Australia emissions growth by sector 2

Within the transport sector, civil aviation has had by far the strongest growth since 1990 (but note this comes off a low 1990 base as airlines were recovering from the 1989 pilot’s strike). There’s been a lot of growth in light commercial vehicles, trucks and buses, and in more recent times, railways. Emissions from cars are continuing to grow, while domestic marine and motorcycle emissions have fallen (there appears to be a lot of fluctuation in the motorcycle estimates so I’m not sure I’d read too much into the movements).

Australia transport emissions growth by sector 2

Road transport emissions by state

The national inventory data allows us to see what is happening at a state level. Here is a chart of road emissions by state:

Australia Road Transport Emissions 2

The quantities largely reflect the sizes of each state, but here are the growth trends since 1990:

Australia Road Transport Emissions growth by state

Queensland and WA have grown the fastest by far, followed by New South Wales and Victoria.

The following charts remove the impact of population growth on trends by showing emissions per capita figures for each state. Some states appear to be declining while others appear relatively static.

Australia Road Transport Emissions per capita 2

Car emissions reductions – mode shift or fuel efficiency?

The following chart shows car emissions per capita (which essentially removes freight from the road transport figures).

Australia Car Emissions per capita 2

Again, all states show a decline in recent years.

So is the drop in road transport emissions related to behaviour change and/or fuel/emissions efficiency?

The following chart shows that the average emissions per km of Australia cars was trending downwards until around 2007 but has since increased (I’ve used BITRE 2014 Yearbook data on car kms travelled hence a little noise):

car emissions per km 2

Since 2007, car emissions per capita have been declining, but car emissions per kilometre have not – suggesting the reduction in emissions would be primarily due to changes in travel behaviour, not improvements in engine technology (or at least that improvements in engine technology are being cancelled out by us buying cars that are heavier and/or that have more energy intensive features).

What about transport emissions in cities?

As part of the Victorian Transport Plan, the Victorian Department of Transport commissioned the Nous Group to do a wedges exercise on Victorian transport emissions. This report included estimates of Melbourne’s 2007 transport emissions (12,270 Mt). In addition, Apelbaums’s Queensland Transport Facts 2006 was for a brief time on the internet and I was lucky enough to grab a copy. From that report, estimates of Brisbane’s 2003-04 transport emissions can be derived (7,312 Mt).

The breakdowns are remarkably similar:

What does this look like per capita? I’ve also added London and Auckland figures (though I am not aware of the make up of the Auckland data) to create the following chart:

Obviously these cities’ transport systems and energy sources are very different, but it shows what is possible even for a large city like London. Transport emissions will closely follow transport energy use per capita, which has been the focus of a lot of research, particularly by Prof Peter Newman (eg his Garnaut Review submission).

For 1995 measures of passenger transport emissions per capita for other cities, see this wikipedia chart created using UITP Millenium Cities Database for 1995. Note: these figures only include passenger transport and hence are different to the above.

Also, here is some data for US cities from the Brookings Institute, but it excludes industry and non-highway transportation so is not comparable to the above chart.

Where are transport emissions headed?

Numerous projections of Australia’s domestic transport emissions have been made over recent years, as summarised by the following chart:

Australian transport emissions reported and projected

We appear to be tracking fairly closely to the 2007 projections. The 2010 projections anticipated a reduction in emissions per kilometre travelled, which has not eventuated, as we saw above.

Note the 2015 projections do not include abatement measures – no prediction was made about the effect of abatement measures of which there are few in the transport space of which I am aware.

The only projection that included a decline in transport emissions was a 2012 scenario including a carbon price, which has since been abandoned by the Abbott Government.

Questioning assumptions about transport trends (presentation to Transport Economics Forum)

Wed 21 March, 2012

On Tuesday 20 March 2012 I gave this presentation to the Transport Economics Forum in Melbourne using material from this blog and some recently released data in BITRE’s Working Paper 127 on traffic growth in Australia. The presentation challenges some orthodox assumptions about transport trends in Australia and Melbourne.

When I get time, I hope to update existing posts to include the most recent data on (the lack of ) traffic growth.