How did Perth’s CBD end up with 19% more private transport commuters in 2021?

Sat 3 June, 2023

ABS census data tells us that Perth’s CBD experienced a massive 19% jump in the number of private transport commuter trips between 2016 and 2021. That’s over 5000 more journeys – mostly as car drivers – and is quite likely to have made traffic congestion worse.

So how did that happen? Where were these extra commuters travelling to? Were there particular changes in the modal mix in different parts of the CBD? Was this growth enabled by a big increase in car parking capacity? And what has been happening to car park pricing?

This post digs a little deeper following my last post that explored the impact of COVID on journey to mode shares in Australian cities in 2021.

A quick recap of overall changes in journey to work in the Perth CBD

Here’s the volume of Perth CBD commuters by main mode, including working at home in 2011, 2016, and 2021:

See my last post for my definition of the Perth CBD. A trip involving any public transport is classed as public, a trip that involves only walking or cycling is classed as active, and any other form of travel is classed as private.

At the 2021 census, Perth was COVID-free with relatively few restrictions on intra-state movement or activity.

Total employment in the CBD grew by a massive 26% from 82,214 in 2016 to 103,944 in 2021. Private transport trips increased by 19%, but because this was less growth than overall employment growth there was actually a commuter mode shift away from private transport of 1.6% (from 36.5% to 34.9%).

The biggest increase in CBD worker volumes was in those who worked at home.

Public transport commuting to the CBD increased by only 85 trips between 2016 and 2021, but still accounted for more trips than private transport.

LATE EDIT: It’s just come to my attention that the Fremantle train line was closed on the day of the 2021 census (10 August), which will have suppressed public transport mode share in the western suburbs.

My last post concluded there was likely a significant mode shift from public transport to remote working. There was some mode shift away from public transport and towards remote working and private transport for some middle age groups, although some of this shift is likely to be a normal trend seen as people age (and become parents). I was unable to identify occupations that saw a substantial mode shift from public transport to private transport, although some occupations saw a lot more private transport growth than public transport growth.

This post now takes that analysis a bit further by looking at spatial variations in the modal mix by workplace location.

Where were the extra private transport commuters working?

Here’s the change in private commuter trips for each destination zone around the Perth CBD:

Note: the circles aren’t always drawn in the middle of each destination zone, aren’t intended to highlight any particular location within each zone, and may not be representative of major car park locations.

There were both increases and decreases around the CBD. I’m going to focus in more detail on the following high-growth destination zones that I’ve arbitrarily named by a dominant building, precinct, or bordering streets:

Most of the zones that saw a big increase in private transport commuter trips also saw a big increase in public transport trips.

Capital Square saw jobs more than triple between 2016 and 2021 as a major new development was completed (including the new Woodside headquarters). It had the largest increase in private transport trips, but even more new trips were by public transport. The development includes five levels of car parking on a fairly large site (at least 659 car parks according to some planning documents). It also saw the largest growth in active transport commuter trips of any destination zone in the Perth CBD.

The zone I have labelled Kings Square (which includes Perth Arena and the new Shell and HBF buildings) saw only slightly more new public transport trips than new private transport trips, despite Perth train station being inside the zone.

The Royal Perth Hospital zone had almost all of its net job growth accounted for by private transport, some of which would have been shift workers. This is consistent with my last post that found a large increase in private transport commuters under the “carers and aids” and “health and welfare support” occupation groups. The hospital is directly adjacent to McIver train station, served by multiple train lines.

One mixed-use block between Terrace Road, Victoria Avenue, Adelaide Terrace, and Hill Street had an increase in private trips and a decrease in public trips. It’s difficult to speculate why this occurred due to the diverse mix of land uses.

The Elizabeth Quay zone saw more growth in private trips than public trips, despite being immediately adjacent to Elizabeth Quay train station. I’ve not been able to identify any large new car parks in the area. Car parks immediately north of the development site were offering $25 all-day car parking at the time of writing which I suspect the average employee might not consider particularly affordable.

The Brookfield Place and Central Park zones mostly saw a big increase in the number of remote workers.

Outside the CBD, the biggest decline in private trips was -1863 in a zone near West Leederville station where the Princess Margaret Hospital for Children closed in 2018 (replaced by the Perth Children’s Hospital in Nedlands).

Where was there a shift from public to private transport?

The following map shows destination zones where there was a decline in public transport trips and an increase in private transport trips (no zones showed the opposite flow):

Just under than half of the destination zones around the Perth CBD saw some sort of net shift to private transport, and most of these were very small numbers. In total these zones account for 492 trips within for my definition of the Perth CBD, about 0.5% of all workers. A net shift from public transport explains less than 10% of the total increase in private transport commuter trips.

This is consistent with analysis in my last post (which disaggregated by birth cohorts and occupations) and again suggests the growth in private trips was broadly in line with the overall growth in CBD employment. It also fits with the hypothesis that the biggest mode shift was from public transport to remote working.

Another way of analysing mode shift is to look the percentage change in private transport mode share by zone:

In the western part of the main CBD area there were many zones with a large mode shift away from private transport, and many of these zones had high employment density.

In fact, the next chart shows how employment density and private transport mode share changed between 2016 and 2021 in the Perth CBD, with the thin end of each ‘comet’ being 2016 and the thick end being 2021 (I’ve arbitrarily named several more destination zones based on major landmarks or surrounding streets).

Note: some destination zones include significant land that is not built up (eg parkland, water bodies, and/or freeway interchanges) and these will have understated employment density. This incudes Convention/Exhibition and Elizabeth Quay.

The dominant pattern is that the zones with high and increasing employment density mostly saw declining private transport mode share, although the “Terrace / Hill / Victoria” block was a standout exception having increasing employment density and increasing private mode share.

How did the CBD absorb so many more car commuters?

It’s hard to know for sure but some possible explanations include:

  • New car parking supply: I’ve already mentioned the Capital Square development that included five levels of parking. Locals might know of other new large CBD car parks, but I’ve struggled to identify any large car parks on Parkopedia or Google Maps that didn’t already exist in 2016. Many new office buildings don’t appear to include large car parks.
  • Perth was in a “mining downturn” in 2016: The Perth CBD only added 1.7k jobs between 2011 and 2016, and there was no significant increase in private commuter trips. According to a Property Council report in August 2016, Perth was experiencing very high office vacancy rates (21.8%) and had been experiencing a decline in office space demand that started around 2013. So it seems quite plausible that car parking supply grew between 2011 and 2016, but commuter parking demand only grew strongly after 2016.
  • Reduced short-term parking demand? Perhaps there has been a decline in demand for short-term parking (through the normalisation of online business meetings) enabling more all-day parking. But I’m just speculating.

Someone reading this from the parking industry might be able to share some insights (please add comments).

What’s been happening to Perth CBD car parking prices?

Like Sydney and Melbourne, Perth has a CBD parking levy – an annual fee collected by government per space. Here’s what’s been happening to the levy prices in real terms:

The parking levy increased substantially in real terms in 2010 and again between 2014-2016, but in recent years has not been keeping up with inflation. Between 2016 and 2021 there was almost no real change in the levy.

So what’s been happening to car park prices?

The City of Perth itself operates a large number of CBD car parks and in 2021/22 parking revenue accounted for 36% of its total income (source: budget 2022-23).

Thanks to the incredible resource that is the Wayback Machine, I’ve been able to dig out prices at their CBD car parks right back to 2001-02. For the sake of manageable analysis I’ve focussed on four relatively large central CBD car parks – Concert Hall (399 spaces), Convention Centre (1428 spaces), Elder Street (1052 spaces) and Pier Street (680 spaces). Here’s how those prices have changed over time, in nominal and real terms:

The 2010 and 2015 jumps in the pricing levy were clearly reflected in retail parking prices.

In real terms, parking prices peaked around 2015-2017 and have been in decline since then. Prices for several car parks were cut substantially in 2017/18 – perhaps as a belated response to a reduction in office commuter demand during the mining downturn. Then parking prices were frozen from 2019 to 2022 – presumably due to the pandemic.

So despite the massive increase in CBD parking demand, the City of Perth reduced – rather than increased – all-day parking prices, and so has probably also missed out on significant additional revenue. This has arguably helped facilitate the big increase in commuter traffic volumes, along with the likely associated urban amenity impacts of more traffic in the CBD.

The City of Perth is a democratic local government so it’s probably not going to behave in an entirely economically rational way when it comes to price setting. Prices are also locked in for each financial year so are much less dynamic. So what have commercial parking operators been doing?

Unfortunately I’ve not been able to use the Internet Archive to find historical commercial car parking prices in the Perth CBD back to 2016. What I can tell you is that “flexi” online parking at the Wilson Parking run Central Park car park has risen from $19 in October 2021 to $26 in May 2023 – suggesting commercial operators are not afraid to change their pricing. That said, the Kings Complex car park (517 Hay Street, near Pier Street) has had no increase in its online daily rate between October 2021 and May 2023 ($18).

So what is Perth’s parking policy?

The current Perth parking policy (2014) states:

“This policy recognises that vehicular access to, from and within central Perth is a critical element in ensuring its continued economic and social viability. It also continues to recognise the need to preserve and enhance the city’s environment. The policy aims to address these needs by supporting the provision of a balanced transport network in order to manage congestion and provide for the efficient operation of the transport network to, from and within the city centre.”

I suspect the term “balanced transport” is indicative of not trying to shift travel towards more sustainable, non-car modes. And I guess it would also be hard for the City of Perth to start discouraging something that generates more than one third of its annual revenue. Although an increase in prices might increase revenue, even if it reduces demand.

Furthermore, the Western Australian government is also continuing to widen Perth’s freeways, in the hope this might reduce traffic congestion. I’m not sure many cities have succeeded with such strategies, but good luck Perth!


Wasn’t Perth public transport patronage below pre-pandemic levels in 2021?

I noted above that there were just 85 additional public transport commuters to Perth’s CBD in 2021 compared to 2016. But Perth’s overall public transport patronage in August 2021 was around 22%* below that in August 2016. If the number of CBD public transport commuters didn’t decline, the overall patronage decline must represent a mode shift away from public transport for trips to other destinations and/or for purposes other than travelling to work (and/or a decline in the number of such trips made by any mode).

*August 2016 had one more school weekday and one fewer Sunday than August 2021 which means we cannot directly compare total monthly patronage of the two months but they will be fairly close. It would be much cleaner to compare average school weekday patronage figures between months and years, but unfortunately few agencies publish such numbers (Victoria does now).

What can the 2021 census tell us about commuting to work in Australia’s big CBDs during the COVID19 pandemic?

Sun 2 April, 2023

Note: Since publishing this post, it has come to my attention that Perth’s Fremantle train line was closed on census day in 2021, which may have impacted mode shares in Perth.

The bustling Central Business Districts (CBDs) of Australia’s biggest cities were the powerhouses of the Australian economy, underpinned by public transport networks that delivered hundreds of thousands of commuters each weekday. But the COVID19 pandemic significantly disrupted CBD commuting. Working remotely from home became not just acceptable, but temporarily mandatory, and public transport patronage crashed during lockdowns.

So what might be the new normal in a post-pandemic work for commuting to our CBDs? Will people shift from public to private transport, driving up traffic congestion? How many – and what sorts of people – might work from home?

This post will try to shed some light on those questions by examining what the 2021 Australian census can tell us about how travel to our CBDs altered during the COVID19 pandemic, particularly the differences between locked-down and COVID-free cities. I’ll look at patterns and trends by age, occupation, and commuting distance. I’ll finish with a look at recent transport indications in Melbourne.

As a transport planner, I’m particularly interested in CBDs as there is a significant contest for market share between public and private transport. Before the pandemic, public transport dominated commuter mode share in the biggest CBDs, and CBDs make up a significant share of all public transport commuter trips.

Reminder: what was happening on Census day 2021

Melbourne and Sydney were in “lockdown” with workers required to work from home if possible. Brisbane was just out of lockdown, and the other cities were pretty much COVID-free, although Adelaide had experienced a short lockdown in July 2021. Here’s a summary of some key metrics (CBD office occupancy data sourced from the Property Council):

*The Property Council reported a figure of 60% for August 2021, but this would have been illegal on 10 August as there was a 50% capacity limit just after lockdown. We don’t know the exact dates when the office occupancy survey was conducted, I can only assume later in that month when restrictions were eased. 47% of CBD employees reported working remotely on census day.

What is a Central Business District?

I think of Central Business Districts as the civic, commercial, and business centre of a city, generally characterised by an area dense employment. Unfortunately the ABS’s SA2 boundaries don’t really align with these areas – especially Perth (pre 2021) and Adelaide where the SA2s covering the CBD also included areas of single-storey semi-detached housing.

So for this analysis I’ve created my own CBD boundaries for Australia’s five largest cities. I’ve selected a set of destination zones that were relatively dense in 2021. I’ve tried for reasonably smooth boundaries, and have tried to avoid under-developed areas that might have cheaper car parking. I’ve then created equivalent sets of 2011 and 2016 destination zones – as similar as possible to the 2021 boundary – with the one exception of the Melbourne CBD from which I have excluded south-western parts of Docklands in 2011 due to low employment densities in that year (much of the land was yet to be developed and instead occupied by surface car parking).

Here are maps of these CBD areas. I’ve transparently shaded the CBD for each census year in a different colour which mostly overlap to show dark green. Purple areas are where boundaries are not identical for all years.

Here are the mode splits for those CBD areas, including those who worked at home:

As you would expect, working at home dominated in locked-down Sydney and Melbourne in 2021, but was also quite common in Brisbane and Adelaide. In COVID-free Perth, working at home only accounted for 15.5% of CBD employees with the other 84.5% attending their workplaces on census day.

Public transport mode shares increased between 2011 and 2016 in all CBDs except Brisbane, but then in 2021 there was a significant shift away from all travelling modes to working at home in all cities.

The working at home share may include people who routinely work from their home in a CBD area. To get some idea about these numbers, I’ve split the worked at home share for 2021 into those who lived inside and outside the CBD:

Only a tiny share of CBD workers worked at home and also lived within the CBD. Some of these will have been working remote from their regular workplace and others will have been routinely working at home (I could try to split these apart with deeper analysis but it doesn’t seem worthwhile with such small numbers).

How did working at home vary by age of CBD workers?

A really interesting finding here is that working at home peaked for those in their early 40s in almost all cities – an age with plenty of parents with child caring responsibilities. Teenagers and those in their early 20s were the least likely to work from home, probably because they were more likely to be in jobs not amenable to working at home (eg retail and hospitality). But perhaps also some younger white collar workers may have preferred to build professional networks by being present in the CBD.

In Adelaide and Perth there was a definite trend that younger commuters were more likely to use public transport, and older commuters more likely to use private transport. This was consistent with all cities in earlier censuses (although this was not the case in Brisbane in 2021).

This got me thinking. The COVID19 pandemic and ~18 month border closure surely had some impact on the age distribution of the CBD workforce.

Indeed, here’s a look at the age composition of CBD workers over time:

Between 2011 and 2016 all cities showed a shift in the age composition towards older employees, perhaps as the cohorts of more highly educated Australians got older, people stay in the workforce until later in life, and/or other changing demographics of our cities.

But in most cities (perhaps not Adelaide) there seemed to be a larger shift towards older workers between 2016 and 2021. I suspect this will reflect fewer recent skilled migrants and international students in 2021.

We know from other analysis (see: Why are younger adults more likely to use public transport? (an exploration of mode shares by age – part 1)) that younger adults generally have higher rates of public transport use, so the shift in demographics might be favouring a mode shift away from public transport – all other things being equal (which of course they are not). There was mostly a shift towards public transport for CBD workers between 2011 and 2016, so other factors must have had an overriding impact.

How did working at home vary by CBD worker occupation?

I’ve sorted the occupations by overall worked at home share, which was similar across the cities. This list roughly sorts from blue collar to white collar and I haven’t seen any surprises in this chart. I’ll come back to occupations shortly.

How did working at home vary by distance from work?

The following chart shows working at home rates by approximate distance from home to work, for central area workers.

Technical note: For this analysis I’ve used journey to work data disaggregated by home SA2, work SA2, and whether or not workers worked at home. I’ve defined central city areas as collections of SA2s (so different boundaries to my CBD areas). Distances between home and work SA2s are calculated on SA2 centroids then aggregated to ranges.

In all cities there was a general trend to higher rates of working at home for people living further from the central city, although Sydney rates of remote working were high at all distances (the strictness of lockdown probably overriding the impact of commuting distance). This pattern in other cities likely reflects the increased incentive to work from home when you have a longer commute to avoid.

Did COVID lead to a mode shift from public to private transport?

Some transport planners have been concerned that COVID19 might lead to a permanent mode shift from public transport to private transport, probably for two reasons:

  1. A reduction in total commuter demand might make private transport slightly more competitive (eg if parking costs reduce), resulting in a different mode split equilibrium. We can only really test this aspect in Perth and Adelaide as they were COVID-free but with a small but significant share of workers working remotely.
  2. People have a fear of becoming infected by COVID19 on public transport and therefore switch to private transport (although COVID can also spread in workplaces of course). It’s a bit harder to test this as Sydney and Melbourne were in lockdown (movement restrictions no doubt had much more impact than infection fear). Perth, Canberra, and Adelaide were COVID-free, although there might have been a some fear of undetected COVID circulating – and indeed that was probably happening in Canberra which went into lockdown a few days after the census. Brisbane was just out of lockdown with some restrictions remaining so infection fear may have been higher than in Perth and Adelaide. However the level of infection fear in these “COVID-free” cities in 2021 would certainly be less than that in 2022 and 2023 where COVID is known to be circulating in the community (although there’s since been plenty of opportunity to get vaccinated).

The hypothesis I want to test for COVID-free cities is that there was a mode shift from public transport to private transport, alongside the overall mode shift to working at home.

Okay, so what can census data tell us?

Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to know the behaviour change of individuals who had the same home and work locations in 2016 and 2021 without another data source. I don’t have access to the census longitudinal dataset and that might not even have a sufficient sample of CBD workers who didn’t change home or work location between the two censuses.

But I can explore this question by looking at the changes in overall volumes and mode shares, and then drilling down into different age and occupation cohorts.

How much mode shift was there between travelling modes?

Let’s first look at the overall change in mode split of people who did commute to CBDs in the last three-four censuses (I have 2006 data for Melbourne and Sydney, but only for those who travelled):

On this split, all cities saw a significant mode shift to private transport travel in 2021. The smallest was 4% in COVID-free Perth, while the largest was 18% in locked-down Sydney.

To explore further, here are the total volumes of commuters to CBDs for each mode, across the last three-four censuses:

In the locked-down cities there was a substantial drop in both public and private transport commuters in 2021, although a larger proportional drop for public transport (in line with mode shifts seen above).

But I’m particularly interested in the then COVID-free cities of Adelaide and Perth, that exhibited COVID-free travel behaviour. Let’s start with a deep dive for Perth.

How did commuting behaviour change for Perth CBD commuters between 2016 and 2021?

The overall CBD workforce increased substantially from 83.0k to 105.7k, and this increase saw 5,164 more private transport trips, and about 85 more public transport trips. But the biggest net increase was for working at home.

If we include remote working, the overall mode share of private transport declined by 1.6% from 36.5% to 34.9%. Any mode shift from public transport to private transport was swamped by the overall shift to working remotely.

But does the overall pattern mask some mode shifts within age or occupation groups?

Did some age groups shift modes more than others? Initially for this analysis I started to look at the change in modal mix by five year age group, but of course the people within these 5 year age bands entirely change between censuses (that are held five years apart), so that wouldn’t be measuring behaviour change of a similar group of people.

Instead I’ve looked at the change in modal mix by approximate birth year cohorts (we only know people’s age in August, so the birth year groups are approximate – for example someone aged 25 at the 2021 census could have been born anytime between 11 August 1995 and 10 August 1996, but I’ve allocated them to the 1996 to 2000 cohort).

Here is the net change in volume of Perth CBD workers by birth year cohort and commuter mode (I’ve included the age of this cohort in 2021 at the bottom of the chart for reference).

As you would expect, people aged in their 20s in 2021 made up a significant share of new CBD employees, and workers aged 60+ in 2021 (55+ in 2016) had a net reduction as many went into retirement.

Public transport had the largest share of net new trips for those aged 20-24 in 2021, although a substantial share also travelled by private transport. There was a more even split of net new trips for those aged 25-29 in 2021.

There was also substantial employee growth for people aged 30+ in 2021 (unlike in 2016), and for those aged 30-54 in 2021 the biggest change was a net increase in working at home.

There were increases in private transport use and decreases in public transport use for those aged 30 to 54 in 2021. This was a net 2270* commuters – about 2.1% of the overall CBD workforce (*summing the absolute values of the smaller of the public or private transport shift). But the overall private transport mode shift was -1.6% so changes in other age groups (particularly young adults) washed out all of this shift of middle-aged workers.

Was this mode shift for middle aged workers something to do with COVID, or was it something that was destined to happen anyway? On this blog I’ve explored the relationship between age and public transport mode share in great detail, and there’s certainly a pattern of decline with age, particularly as people become parents. See: Why are younger adults more likely to use public transport? (an exploration of mode shares by age) – part 1, part 2, and part 3.

What about mode changes for different occupations? Here’s a look at commuter volume changes by mode and occupation for Perth’s CBD:

The Perth CBD put on a lot more professionals and specialist managers between 2016 and 2021, and working at home accounted for most of this net growth. The number of new public and private trips varied considerably by category but private transport growth outnumbered public transport growth for most professions.

In particular, almost all the growth in health professionals, protective service workers, and carers and aides was accounted for by private transport. These are occupations where working remotely from home is often difficult, and the high rates of private transport growth might also reflect significant rates of shift work where off-peak public transport service levels are often less competitive with private transport.

There are not many occupations that saw a net shift from public to private transport – these included office managers, program administrators, and clerical and office support workers. But again these numbers were tiny compared to the size of the Perth CBD workforce – suggesting there was very little net shift from public to private transport.

Overall there was a 1.6% shift away from private transport commuting to the Perth CBD, with most of the other mode shift being from public transport to remote working. The evidence from Perth does not support the hypothesis.

How did commuting behaviour change for Adelaide CBD commuters?

Adelaide saw only a tiny increase in the number of private transport commuters, but a significant decrease in the number of people who travelled on public transport. Overall there was a 5.3% shift away from private transport mode share (when you include remote working).

As per the analysis for Perth, here’s the change in volume of trips by mode and birth year:

For Adelaide most of the net mode shift also appears to be from public transport to working remotely. There was a net increase in private transport commuting for people aged 15 to 34 in 2021, and a small decline in private transport trips for older age groups.

There was only a tiny net shift from public to private transport of 526 people within those aged 30-39 in 2021.

Like Perth, working at home accounted for a smaller share of the employment growth for younger adults.

Here’s a look at occupations for Adelaide:

Again, the biggest mode shift here appears to have been from public transport to working at home, with the notable exception again of carers and aides, and health professionals (although small numbers). In most occupations there was also a mode shift away from private transport. Very few occupations show a net shift from public transport to private transport in Adelaide.

The evidence of Adelaide does not support the hypothesis of mode shift from public to private transport. The biggest change was a mode shift from public transport to remote working (plus some mode shift from private transport to remote working).

How did the mix of CBD car commuters change?

Yet another way of looking at potential mode shifts is whether the people driving to work in the CBD in 2021 were any different to previous censuses. For this analysis I’ve filtered for commuters to CBDs who did not use any public transport, but did travel as a vehicle driver or on motorbike/scooter (you might argue “Truck” should be included as well, but we don’t know whether there people were drivers or passengers and the numbers are tiny so I don’t think it is material).

Firstly here is the occupation split of vehicle drivers to work in the five CBDs over the last three censuses:

In most cities, there was a noticeable change in occupation share between 2016 and 2021 towards technicians and trade, labourers, machinery operators and drivers, and community and personal service workers, and away from professionals and managers. Basically a shift from white collar to blue/fluoro collar jobs, as many white collar workers shifted to working remotely. This shift was largest in the locked down cities of Melbourne and Sydney, but was also visible in Adelaide and Brisbane to a lesser extent.

It is also interesting to look at the change in volumes. Note the Y-axis on the following chart has an independent scale for each occupation group, with the biggest occupation groups at the top:

In locked-down Sydney and Melbourne, there was a massive decrease in white collar workers and an increase in machinery operators and drivers. Melbourne also saw an increase in labourers and community and personal service workers. This might reflect a reduction in car parking prices, although I cannot find evidence that prices were actually lower on census day (the City of Melbourne waived parking fees and restrictions from just after the census).

Diving deeper, there was a big increase in protective service workers in the Melbourne CBD, and about 2166 of them drove to work in 2021 (up from 1660 in 2016). This may reflect the opening of the new Victorian Police Centre in Spencer Street in 2020, complete with 600 car parks. Indeed the destination zone that includes this building (and Southern Cross Station) saw an increase of 769 private transport commuters between 2016 and 2021, the biggest increase of any CBD destination zone.

In COVID-free Perth there was an increase in professionals, clerical and administrative workers, managers, community and personal service workers, and machinery operators and drivers who drove to work, and there was only a decline in sales workers.

So what have I learnt from the latest census data?

I’ve covered a bit of ground, so here’s a summary of key findings and some discussion:

  • Locked-down Sydney and Melbourne saw a significant shift to remote working of CBD employees in 2021. COVID-free CBDs saw much less shift to remote working (Adelaide 24% and Perth 15%).
  • Remote working was most common for middle-aged CBD employees (peaking at 40-44 age bracket), and much lower for younger adults and a little less common for older employees.
  • All CBDs saw a step change in the workforce age composition between 2016 and 2021, shifting to an older workforce, probably related to the halt to immigration during the pandemic.
  • In most cities, remote working in 2021 was slightly more common for CBD employees who lived further from their CBD.
  • In all cities, the main mode shift between 2016 and 2021 seems to be from public transport to remote working.
  • No city saw a net mode shift from public transport to private transport (when you include remote working in the modal mix). The main mode shift in COVID-free cities appears to be from public transport to remote working. However it is entirely possible that some public transport commuters switched to private transport, but this was more than offset by other commuters who shifted from private transport to remote working. Few age or occupation cohorts saw a net shift from public to private transport.
  • The only CBD to see a significant increase in private transport commuter trips was Perth (with +5164). However this was still a net mode shift away from private transport mode share due to massive growth in overall CBD employment between 2016 and 2021. I’m curious about how this happened, and I will explore it further in an upcoming post.
  • Occupations likely to include many shift workers saw the biggest net private transport commuter growth in Adelaide and Perth – including health professionals, protective service workers (including police), carers, and aids.

So what can we expect in a “post-pandemic” world?

At the 2021 census all Australian cities were either in lockdown or were perceived to be COVID-free. No Australian cities were “living with COVID”, and in the cities with COVID circulating, few workers faced a choice between workplace attendance and remote working.

At the time of writing (March 2023), COVID is circulating across Australia and there are very few restrictions to restrict spread. There is an ongoing risk of COVID infection when using public transport and attending an indoor workplace (although you can choose to wear a mask of course).

Is this leading to a mode shift from public to private transport in this “post-pandemic” world? Have we even reached a new steady state? The best data to answer this will come from the 2026 census.

In the meantime I have had a quick look at some transport indicators for Melbourne.

Vehicle traffic through CBD intersections in 2022 (excluding Q1) was consistently below 2019 levels in the AM peak in most parts of the CBD. However it’s only a rough indication as much of this traffic will be for purposes other than private transport commuting to the CBD (eg deliveries, through-traffic, buses, etc) (I’ve excluded signals on Wurundjeri Way which is likely to have much through-traffic).

The next chart shows average daily patronage for metropolitan trains, trams, and buses in Melbourne based on published total monthly patronage data but not taking into account the different day type compositions of months between years (I’d much prefer to use average school weekday patronage data to avoid calendar effects, but that data series only ran as far as June 2022 at the time of writing).

This data suggests CBD private transport commuter volumes in 2022 might be a bit below 2019 levels, while there has been a substantial reduction in public transport commuting. This is consistent with what was seen in Adelaide in the 2021 census – mostly a mode shift from public transport to remote working. Furthermore, if there has been a significant increase in Melbourne CBD employment, private transport mode share (when you include remote working) is more likely to have declined below 2019 levels.

Is infection fear still influencing mode choice?

The largest COVID wave in Victoria (so far at the time of writing) occurred in January 2022 peaking at 1229 people in hospital and there was significant public transport patronage suppression (well beyond the usual summer holiday lull) as many people choose to stay home (or were sick and had to stay home). Infection fear was probably having a big impact, as I recall there were few restrictions regarding workplace attendance.

There was also a fairly large COVID wave in winter 2022 peaking at 906 hospitalisations in July, but the above chart shows no significant associated reduction in public transport patronage. This suggests infection fear was probably having a very small impact on transport behaviour in mid-2022.

Certainly in my experience few people are wearing masks on Melbourne’s public transport at the time of writing, but maybe a cautious minority have still not returned to the network.

Emerging indications are that public transport patronage is returning even more strongly in February and March 2023, which might reflect even lower levels of infection fear (hospitalisation numbers have also reached the lowest numbers since September 2021), and/or it might reflect a surge in population growth and CBD employment/student numbers. Things to keep an eye on over time!

What can the 2021 census tell us about working at home during the COVID19 pandemic?

Wed 1 February, 2023

10 August 2021 was an Australian census like no other. Sydney and Melbourne were under fairly strict “lockdown” restrictions due to the COVID19 pandemic, Brisbane was two days out of a lockdown, while Adelaide, Perth, and Canberra had temporarily eliminated COVID and were living a life of few restrictions.

So how did the way people go to work change? There’s lots to unpack on this question and I’ll do that over a few blog posts.

This post will focus on how many people worked from home in 2021, how many of these people were working remotely, how this compared across locked-down and COVID-free cities, which occupations were more likely to work from home in different cities, and what this might mean for future public transport patronage. I’ll also have a quick look at what proportion of employees were not working on census day.

What was happening on Census day 2021?

Melbourne and Sydney were in “lockdown” with workers required to work from home if possible, Brisbane was just out of lockdown, while the other cities were pretty much COVID-free, although Adelaide had experienced a short lockdown in July 2021. Here’s a summary of some key metrics (CBD office occupancy sourced from the Property Council):

*The Property Council reported a figure of 60% for August 2021, but this would have been illegal on 10 August as there was a 50% capacity limit. We don’t know the exact dates when the survey was conducted, I can only assume later in that month when restrictions were eased. 47% of Brisbane CBD employees reported working at home on census day.

How have mode shares changed between censuses?

Given working at home now represents a much more significant share of all workers, I’ve calculated public transport mode shares both including and excluding people who travelled to a workplace:

It will be no surprise that public transport mode shares dropped dramatically in most cities. The biggest mode share drops were in the locked down cities of Melbourne and Sydney, but there were large falls also in Brisbane and Adelaide (which was also impacted by closure of the Gawler train line during 2021). Relatively COVID-free Canberra and Perth saw more modest reductions in line with the trend from 2011 to 2016, and for Canberra there was little change in the public transport mode share of people who did travel to work.

Here’s a look at the total mode split (including people who worked at home as a “mode”):

The largest rates of working at home in 2021 were unsurprisingly in the most COVID-impacted cities at the time.

The biggest mode shift in 2021 was from public transport to working-at-home, but there were also mode shifts away from active transport and private transport, even in the COVID-free cities.

How many people were working remotely?

All of Australia had experienced COVID lockdowns in March 2020, and for that period a significant portion of the workforce suddenly transitioned to working at home. What was a fringe activity in 2016 suddenly became the new normal for many employees and employers. This was most acutely noticed in the central business districts of our cities where office workers went almost entirely remote.

As discussed in my previous post on this topic, historically most people who worked at home on census day reported their work SA2 as the same as their home SA2, and I am assuming the vast majority of these people have their home as their regular workplace.

To better understand working at home, I’ve extracted worked at home counts from the 2011, 2016 and 2021 censuses, and then split the “worked at home” workers by whether or not their workplace SA2 was the same as their home SA2.

This allows an estimation of the number and share of people who worked remotely and those who regularly worked at home. I say estimation because the ABS aims to protect privacy by “randomly” adjusting small numbers in downloadable data and never reports values of 1 or 2. When I add up the number of people remote working within Greater Melbourne in 2021, 22% of that total comes from counts of 3 people between specific home SA2 – work SA2 pairs (Sydney was 21%, Brisbane 24%, Perth 29%). The true count for many of these pairs will not be exactly 3 people, so summing lots of small volumes that are “randomly adjusted” may result in a biased accumulation of small number errors. For 2011 and 2016 the summation of remote workers includes an even larger share of 3s so I’m not going to give the summation value here, but I’m confident the true summation is still tiny (much less than 1%).

These imperfect estimates of “home in work SA2” share and “remote working” shares don’t perfectly add up to the known total working at home share for the city (eg Sydney the sum was 2% over the actual for 2021 but other cities were pretty close). For want of a better method, I’ve scaled these estimated volumes such that their sum equals the known total worked at home volume, and I’m not going to quote any decimal places.

Here are my estimated shares of workers who classify as “remote working” and “home in workplace SA2” by census year:

The pre-COVID regularly working at home rates were mostly around 4-5%, but this was estimated to have increased significantly in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane in 2021. I suspect this is a mix of people who gave up their regular workplace and permanently shifted to working at home and some people who filled in the census inaccurately and indicated that their workplace at the time was their home, even though that might have been a temporary arrangement during COVID restrictions.

The COVID-free cities experienced remote working rates of only 4-6%, whereas the heavily restricted cities of Sydney and Melbourne had remote working rates of 36% and 26% respectively.

Where was remote working most common?

What follows are maps showing estimated rates of remote working for workplace SA2s across the five big cities. There’s definitely an issue of aggregating many small numbers that are ‘randomly adjusted’, so I’m not going to report exact numbers, but rather classify SA2s into bands.

Here are the remote working hotspots for Sydney:

The highest rates of remote working were seen for workplaces in the dense employment areas of central Sydney, North Sydney, Macquarie Park / Ryde, Parramatta, Rhodes, and Kensington (which is dominated by a university campus). All white collar hotspots.

Here’s Melbourne:

Melbourne had a lot fewer remote working hotspots, in line with it having a lot fewer suburban employment clusters (see: Suburban employment clusters and the journey to work in Australian cities). Apart from the central city and inner suburbs, remote working hotpots included SA2s with large university campuses such as Kingsbury, Burwood, and Hawthorn.

Remote working was less prevalent in Brisbane so I’ve used a different colour scale:

And for the COVID-free cities I’ve used an even smaller colour scale and focussed on SA2s that had rates above 5%.


I’m not sure why there was a relatively high rate of remote working in Lockleys in the inner-west. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?



Remote working was unsurprisingly more common in CBDs, some inner-city SA2s that contain concentrations of white collar employment, and some suburban SA2s that contain universities.

Central business districts are obvious areas to see high levels of remote working. My next post in this series will focus in more detail on changing commuter patterns for CBD workers in Australia’s five biggest cities.

Which occupation types transitioned to working at home?

The following chart shows the rates of working at home by occupation for locked down Sydney and Melbourne in 2021:

As you read down the occupations listed there are no great surprises, with white collar jobs showing much higher rates of working at home. I’ve classified the occupations into four different bands of working at home rates based on conditions in locked-down Sydney and Melbourne. I’ll re-use these groupings for other cities shortly.

Many of these occupations had high public transport mode shares in 2016 (at least for Greater Melbourne), which is consistent with the dramatic drops in public transport volumes and mode share:

Many of the occupations with high public transport mode share in 2016 had high rates of working at home in 2021 (top right quadrant of the chart).

How do locked down cities compare to COVID-free Perth in 2021? The following chart includes Sydney and Perth for comparison purposes:

The occupations with relatively higher rates of working at home in Perth 2021 were fairly similar to those in Sydney, just at a much smaller scale (about four times). Occupations with much lower working at home rates in Perth than Sydney include education workers (schools and universities were not running remotely in Perth). Arts and media professionals topped working from home in Perth – but this occupation group also had relatively high rates of working at home in 2016. Other occupations with high levels of working from home in Perth were famers and farm managers (for obvious reasons) and ICT professionals (likely very adaptable to working remotely).

The following chart again compares 2021 working from home mode shares with 2016 public transport mode shares, but this time for Perth:

The same white-collar jobs appear in the top-right of the chart, suggesting a significant mode shift from public transport to working at home.

Here’s a look at public transport and worked-at-home mode shifts by occupation across the six big cities:

You can clearly see the relationship between public transport and home-working mode shifts, particularly for Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. The relationships is very roughly that the working at home mode shift was around double the public transport mode shift. However the relationship is a little less clear in Adelaide, Perth, and Canberra.

I think this tells us that occupations that had high rates of public transport use in pre-pandemic times are mostly the same occupations that are highly amenable to working remotely. And of course these occupations have concentrations of workers in CBDs (hence the high use of public transport). To the extent that employers facilitate ongoing working from home, there will likely be a reduction in public transport commuter volumes. From a congestion and emissions point of view, that’s undoubtedly a good thing. There are of course also arguments about the agglomeration benefits of workers being physically in the same place.

Are occupations more amenable to working from home on the rise?

Thinking to the future, are these occupations with higher rates of working at home in 2021 on the rise or decline? The following chart attempts to answer this question:

Unfortunately I’m not sure the chart provides a clear answer. Many people were simply unable to work due to lockdowns on census day in Sydney and Melbourne. They aren’t on the chart. This appears to skews the overall share of jobs by category in those cities to the “High” end.

In the COVID-free cities, there doesn’t appear to be a clear trend over time. In 2016 the “High” occupations reduce share in all cities but then bounced back up in 2021.

However one important insight from this chart is that Canberra has the largest share of “High” occupations – followed by the bigger cities of Sydney and Melbourne. These cities are likely to have more specialist white collar professionals, and therefore they may have higher overall rates of ongoing remote working in the post-pandemic world. Public transport patronage will likely take longer to return to pre-pandemic levels these cities.

One final thing…

How many people were not working on census day in 2021?

Not every employed person works on census day, perhaps because they work part-time, casual, shift-work, or were unable to work that day. And of course in August 2021 a lot more people than usual were unable to work in Sydney and Melbourne. Here’s a look at the share of employed people who did not work on census day, by occupation category and census year:

After a downwards trend between 2006 and 2016, most occupation categories in most cities had a big uptick in not working on census day in 2021, most notably in Sydney where there were very strict lockdown rules. Curiously these upticks were present even in COVID-free cities like Adelaide, Perth, and Canberra, possibly reflecting an overall economic downturn, a lack of interstate and international travel, supply chain breakdowns, and/or maybe some other factors.

I hope you’ve found this post interesting. I’ll be unpacking more census data in some upcoming posts, including a more detailed look at CBD workers and a look at changes in demographics – particularly from the impact of suspending immigration during the pandemic. Stay tuned.

Update on Australian transport trends (December 2022)

Sat 31 December, 2022

It’s that time of year again when BITRE release their annual yearbook chock full of numbers, and this post aims to turn them into useful information. It’s also a prompter for me to update my feeds of other transport metrics and pull together this post covering the latest trends in licence ownership, motor vehicle ownership, transport emissions, vehicle kilometres, passenger kilometres, freight volumes, and transport pricing.

I’ve been putting out similar posts in past years, and commentary in this post will mostly be around recent year trends. See other similar posts for a little more discussion around historical trends (January 2022, December 2020, December 2019, December 2018).

Driver’s licence ownership

Here is motor vehicle licence ownership for people aged 15+ back to 1971 (I’d use 16+ but age by single-year data is only available at a state level back to 1982). Note this includes any form of driver’s licence including learner’s permits.

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.

Overall the trend has been a flattening of licence ownership rates, and indeed Victoria was showing declining licence ownership before the pandemic. The ACT and Northern Territory had much higher rates of licence ownership in the 1970s compared to other states. But then the Northern Territory has maintained lower rates of licence ownership than most other states since the 1990s. The ACT showed very high rates of licence ownership around 2009 to 2017 – not sure if this is real or an artefact of the imperfect data (eg counting people with multiple licences).

Most states saw an uptick in 2021 with the notable exception of Western Australia – a state that was largely COVID-free until early 2022 so any COVID-avoidance incentive to get a driver’s licence might not have been very strong. Licence ownership rates in Queensland and Victoria have somewhat levelled out between 2021 and 2022, perhaps reflecting a return of international arrivals and the end of COVID lockdowns.

Here’s licence ownership by age band for Australia as a whole (to June 2021):

In 2020 and 2021 there was an uptick in ownership for people aged 16 to 29 in particular. Let’s look at the various age bands across the states:

There are some interesting recent trends for people aged 16-19. Victoria saw a big drop in 2020 but then some big increases in 2021 and 2022. South Australia and New South Wales have also seen big increases in recent years.

There were even bigger increases for 20-24 year olds following the start of the pandemic, except Western Australia and the Northern Territory (states that largely avoided COVID in 2021).

Ages 25-29 were similar:

So why have licence ownership rates increased for younger adults? Is it mode shift away from public transport to avoid the risk of COVID infection on public transport? Or is it because non-licence holders left the country?

South Australia and New South Wales publish quarterly licencing data by age band which allows us to see the impact of the pandemic more closely. I’ve combined this with ABS quarterly population data to calculate quarterly licence ownership rates:

South Australia has less historical data published:

The population aged 20-24 declined after March 2019 in both New South Wales and South Australia – a year before the pandemic hit. Then both states saw a more rapid decline after March 2020 – the onset of the pandemic.

However the number of people in this age band with a licence only increased slightly – in line with pre-pandemic trends. That is, the licence ownership rate increased sharply primarily because there was a net loss of non-licence holders.

Here’s a look at Australia’s population by age band:

There are some fairly smooth trends over time in all age bands, but then from 2020 there were some sudden shifts, particularly for age bands 16-19, 20-24, 25-59 and to lesser extent 30-39.

A plausible explanation is that international students and other non-permanent residents left Australia – many could not attend classes and were encouraged to leave Australia by the government of the day. These departures were not replaced by new arrivals as the international borders were essentially closed. Indeed once the borders reopened in early 2022, there was a sharp increase in non-licence holders in New South Wales that sent the motor vehicle licence ownership rate down sharply in March 2022 (June 2022 data has not been published at the time of writing).

Other data shows a sharp fall in the number of international students in Australia between 2019 and 2020, particularly in NSW, Victoria and Queensland (more recent student numbers unfortunately not available at the time of writing):

And there was a dramatic shift to net outbound overseas migration from the June quarter of 2020:

In previous posts (see Why are young adults more likely to use public transport? (an exploration of mode shares by age – part 3) I’ve established that recent immigrants skew to the younger adult ages as Australia generally attracts international students and skilled migrants, which also fits with the hypothesis that there was a great exodus of young adults who didn’t have a driver’s licence.

[Side note: the first quarter of 2022 represented a new record for international migration into Australia as the borders re-opened – almost 98k people.]

It’s entirely plausible that long-time residents also increased their rate of licence ownership during the pandemic, but I think the most likely major explanation is the departure of international students and temporary residents. And so I expect the return of international migration will result in lower licence ownership, car ownership, and increased public transport mode share in 2023.

For completeness, here are licence ownership rate charts for other age groups:

There appear to be a few suspicious outlier data points for the Northern Territory (2019) and South Australia (2016).

To get a better understanding of recent trends, here are quarterly licence ownership rates by age band for New South Wales since mid 2018:

You can see the rise – and more recent fall – in licence ownership rates for the age bands 20-24 and 25-29. There was also a sharp fall for those aged 16-19 in September 2021, possibly due to Sydney entering a long COVID lockdown in the winter of 2021 (perhaps learners permits were not renewed or people didn’t bother applying for them if they could not take lessons). 30-34 year olds showed a small rise in licence ownership from the start of the pandemic and this seems to have been sustained, which might reflect some mode shift to avoid infection risk.

Here’s the same quarterly data for South Australia:

Licence ownership rates rose strongly for those aged 16-34, although there was an initial dip for those aged 16-19 in June-September 2020 around the start of the pandemic. Perhaps it has remained high because international students have not yet returned in great numbers to Adelaide, and/or because of a permanent mode shift towards private transport?

For completeness, here are motor cycle licence ownership rates:

Motorcycle licence ownership has been trending up slightly in New South Wales and Victoria, and slightly down in Queensland, South Australia, Norther Territory and Western Australia.

Car ownership

Thankfully BITRE has picked up after the ABS terminated it’s Motor Vehicle Census, and are now producing a new annual report Motor Vehicle Australia. They’ve tried to replicate the ABS methodology, but inevitably have come up with slightly different numbers in different states for different vehicle types for 2021. So the following charts will show two values for January 2021 – both the ABS and BITRE figures so you can see the reset more clearly. I suggest focus on the gradient of the lines between surveys and try to ignore the step change in 2021.

Between January 2020 and January 2022 most states show an upwards trend in motor vehicles per population aged 18-84 (an imperfect approximation of the driving age population).

However when you look at the stock of cars per state, there was not a significant uptick in the total number of cars – indeed Victoria saw an almost flattening of total motor vehicles between January 2020 and January 2021:

Again, a highly plausible explanation is that non-driving (and non-licence holding) residents departed Australia while long-term residents largely continued their background trends in motor vehicle ownership. We might therefore see a decline in motor vehicle ownership rates in the January 2023 survey with the return of overseas immigration.

Transport Emissions

Australia’s transport emissions have been reduced by COVID lockdowns over the last couple of years but have more recently bounded back:

The above chart showing rolling 12 months emissions which washed out the lockdown period. The next chart shows seasonally-adjusted quarterly data to get around the rolling 12 month averaging – with the September 2022 quarter close to 2019 levels:

Here are Australian transport emissions since 1975:

And in more detail since 1990:

The next chart shows the more recent growth trends by sector:

Aviation emissions saw the biggest decline from the pandemic but were bouncing back in 2021-22. Car and bus emissions have declined in line with pandemic lockdowns whilst most other modes have continued to see growth in emissions.

Here are per-capita emissions by transport sector (note: log scale used on Y-axis):

Truck and light commercial vehicle emissions per capita have continued to grow while many other modes have been declining, including a continued reduction in car emissions per capita since around 2004.

Next up, emissions intensity (per vehicle kilometre):

Curiously the figures suggest a sudden drop in bus emissions per km in 2022, but I am not sure this is plausible as electric buses are still only being rolled out in small numbers. There was also an unexpected dip in emissions per km in 2015 which jumped back up in 2016. The 2015 dip in bus emissions per km is primarily a product of a dip in BITRE’s estimated bus emissions and not bus vehicle kilometres travelled, which is a hard to explain (this bus emissions dip is not seen in AGEIS estimates). I suspect this may be an artefact of BITRE methodological issues.

Emissions per passenger-km can also be estimated:

Car emissions have continued a slow decline, but bus and aviation emissions per passenger km increased in 2021, presumably as the pandemic reduced average occupancy of these modes.

Vehicle kilometres travelled

Vehicle and passenger kilometre figures have been significantly impacted by COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and so the financial year figures are a mix of restricted and unrestricted travel periods. Accordingly we cannot readily infer new trends from this data, and it should be interpreted with caution.

Total vehicle kms for 2021-22 were lower than 2019-20 and 2020-21:

As per emissions, the biggest declines were in cars, motorcycles, and buses:

Light commercial vehicles and trucks have shown the biggest increase since 1990.

Here’s the view on a per-capita basis:

Vehicle kilometres per capita peaked around 2004-05 and were starting to flatline in some states before the pandemic hit with obvious impacts.

Here is the same data for capital cities (capital city population data comes out only once a year with some delay, so most city data points are only up to financial year 2020-21).

Canberra has dramatically reduced vehicle kilometres per capita since around 2014 leaving Brisbane as the top city.

Once again BITRE have kindly supplied me data on estimated car vehicle kilometres for capital cities that is not included in the yearbook:

Canberra is still on top for car kilometres per person but this rate has been reducing strongly over recently years.

Passenger kilometres travelled

Here are passenger kilometres travelled overall (log scale):

The pandemic had the biggest impact on rail, bus, and aviation passenger kilometres.

Here is the same on a per-capita basis which shows very similar patterns (also a log scale):

Curiously aviation passenger kilometres per capita peaked in 2014, well before the pandemic. Rail passenger kilometres per capita in 2019 were at the highest level since 1975 before the pandemic hit. Only air travel has rebounded on a financial year basis.

Here’s total car passenger kilometres for capital cities:

Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra were impacted by extensive lockdowns in 2021-22, while the other cities were mostly lockdown free. However the then-unprecedented large wave of COVID cases in the summer of 2021-22 may have led to voluntarily suppressed travel behaviour across many cities.

Here’s car passenger kilometres per capita (again only to 2020-21 for most cities):

It’s hard to estimate any post-COVID trends based on this annual data. However, I have been processing VicRoads traffic signal count data which gives some indication about more recent traffic volumes in Melbourne. The following chart shows the change from 2019 median signalised intersection traffic count volumes per week. I’ve deliberately locked the scale as -20% to +10% as I want to focus on the difference between 2019 and 2022 traffic, and so the 2020 and 2021 lines go off the scale during lockdowns.

It’s very interesting that volumes in late 2022 were about 5% lower than 2019 levels on weekdays (a bit higher on weekends although there’s no such thing as a normal weekend).

And if you look at the time of day profile for Melbourne (below), the biggest reductions have been in the early AM peak, and evenings, while there have been increases during the AM and PM school peaks (which might be a response to COVID infection fear and/or because parents working from home can more easily drive their children to and from school):

Rail Passenger travel

The pandemic has put a large dent in rail passenger kilometres travelled, and these are likely to remain below 2019 for some time as new working-from-home behaviours stick following the pandemic:

Melbourne saw a slight increase in 2021-22, but this was probably more a product of the how long the city was in lockdown during financial years 2020-21 and 2021-22. Sydney saw a reduction in 2021-22 probably because there was little in the way of lockdowns in 2020-21.

Here’s rail passenger kms per capita (again, only up to 2020-21):

Bus passenger kilometres have reduced significantly with the pandemic:

Including on a per-capita basis:

I would expect to see these figure bounce back up as there are unlikely to be any lockdowns during 2022-23.

It would appear that the surge in Darwin bus use due to a major LNG project may have ended.

Mode split

It’s possible to calculate “mass transit” mode share using the passenger kilometres estimates from BITRE (note: it’s not possible to readily differentiate public and private bus travel):

Mass transit mode shares have taken a large dive during the pandemic, and I expect this to be strongly associated with COVID lockdowns where many people – especially central city workers – worked from home. It’s still difficult to know to what extent this is people switching travel modes for ongoing trips, to and what extent it is public transport trips being replaced by staying home. I hope to have more to offer on this subject in an upcoming blog post.

Transport for New South Wales conducts a rolling household travel survey, although it was suspended during COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Estimated total person trips and kilometres by mode are reported, and from this we can get an idea around mode split (including non-motorised modes):

On this data, the public transport mode share of person kilometres travelled is much higher than that derived from the BITRE data, with a peaking of around 20% before the pandemic.

Unlike Victoria, New South Wales unfortunately does not provide any detailed household travel survey data, which means it is not possible to perfectly calculate public transport mode share (ferry and light rail were bundled with “Other” pre 2020), and it’s also not possible to calculate mode share by trip purpose. All this and more is possible with Victorian published data, but unfortunately post-COVID data will not be published until late 2024.


This data shows a dramatic inflection point in freight volume growth in 2019, with a lack of growth in rail volumes and a decline in coastal shipping. Much of this volume is bulk commodities, and so the trends will likely be explained by changes in commodity markets, which I won’t try to unpack.

Non-bulk freight volumes are around a quarter of total freight volume, and are arguably more contestable between modes:

2022 saw a sudden flatlining in non-bulk freight volumes, with road increased market share to 80%, seemingly mostly at the expense of coastal shipping:

Air freight tonnages are tiny in the whole scheme of things so you cannot easily see them on the charts.

Transport Costs

The final category for this post is the real cost of transport from a individual perspective. Here are headline real costs (relative to CPI) for Australia, using Q2 ABS Consumer Price Index data up to June 2022:

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 (which possibly move quite independently, which is a little frustrating).

The cost of private motoring mostly declined in real terms from around 2008 to 2020, followed by sharp increases in 2021 and 2022 in line with the rapidly rising cost of automotive fuel. The real cost of motor vehicles has plummeted since 1996, although it bottomed out in 2018.

Urban transport fares (a category which unfortunately blends public transport and taxis/rideshare) have increased faster than CPI since the late 1970s, although they were flat in real terms between 2015 and 2020, then dropped in 2021 and 2022 in real terms – possibly as they had not yet been adjusted to reflect the recent surge in inflation.

The above chart shows a weighted average of capital cities, which washes out patterns in individual cities. Here’s a breakdown of the change in real cost of private motoring and urban transport fares since 1973 by city (note different Y-axis scales):

Technical 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 all cities have shown a drop in the real cost of urban transport fares in June 2022 – as discussed above.

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.

Melbourne recorded a sharp drop in urban transport fares in 2015, which coincided with the capping of zone 1+2 fares at zone 1 prices.

What does all this mean for post-pandemic transport trends?

I also tackled this question a year ago and my thoughts haven’t changed significantly.

One thing that has become clearer is that the increase in motor vehicle licence ownership and car ownership is very likely related to the lack of recent international immigrants during the pandemic. Therefore the reopening of international borders is likely to push these rates down once more across 2022 and 2023, although they may or may not return to pre-pandemic levels. In turn, this will probably increase public transport patronage and mode share, although it is still likely to remain subdued following the wide scale acceptance and adoption of working from home, particularly for central city workers.

A key question for me is the extent to which commuter trips have shifted from public to private transport, as opposed to simply disappearing as many more people work from home. I’ll have more to say on this soon in an upcoming post about 2021 census journey to work data.