Can Airbnb explain falls in dwelling occupancy in Melbourne and Sydney?

Thu 10 May, 2018

According to census data, private dwelling occupancy has been declining in most Australian cities (refer my earlier post on the topic). Could an increase in private dwellings dedicated to Airbnb rental – but vacant on census night (a Tuesday in winter) – explain much of this decline? Let’s look at the data.

Firstly here’s a reminder of private dwelling occupancy trends in Australia’s 16 largest cities.

Dwelling occupancy rates declined in all large cities (but rose in some smaller urban areas, particularly on Central (NSW), Sunshine, and Gold Coasts).

The ABS have advised me that their field officers would have no way of telling whether a dwelling is on Airbnb, and would therefore count them as private dwellings. So vacant Airbnb dwellings could account for unoccupied private dwellings.

How many of the additional unoccupied dwellings might be dedicated to Airbnb?

The fantastic site Inside Airbnb provides data scraped from the Airbnb website about listings in various cities. I’ve used available data extracted on 4 September 2016 for Melbourne and 4 December 2016 for Sydney (the closest data sets available to the August 2016 census). I’ve then filtered for entire home/apartment listings that had more than 90 days availability in the 12 months ahead and had been reviewed at least once in the last six months, to estimate the number of “active and dedicated” Airbnb dwellings. Definitely just an estimate.

For the area for which Melbourne Airbnb data is available (I’ve approximated Inside Airbnb’s unpublished boundary as SA3s with any listings in 2016) these Airbnb dwellings account for 0.19% of total private dwellings. For that same area, dwelling occupancy dropped 0.71% from 92.61% to 91.90% between 2011 and 2016.

According to a Melbourne University study using data from commercial Airbnb data site AIRDNA, around 62% of entire home/apartment Melbourne listings (that were not blocked out by owners) were unoccupied on Saturday 27 August 2016.

I’m guessing the Airbnb vacancy rate might have been higher on census night (a Tuesday). If say 70% of the Airbnb dwellings were empty on census night (just a guess), then they would account for 0.09% out of the 0.71% decrease in dwelling occupancy in Melbourne between 2011 and 2016, which is about 19%.  Note: Airbnb barely existed in Melbourne in 2011 – there were only 161 Airbnb listings.

If somewhere between 60% to 80% of active/dedicated Airbnb properties were vacant, then they might explain between 16% and 21% the decline in dwelling occupancy in Melbourne.

For the equivalent area of Sydney, these Airbnb dwellings account for 0.22% of private dwellings, and there was a drop in private dwelling occupancy of 0.58% between 2011 and 2016. If somewhere between 60% to 80% of active/dedicated Airbnb properties were vacant, then they would explain between 23% and 30% of the decline in overall dwelling occupancy.

However I must stress these are rough estimates and might be over or under the actuals for several reasons:

  • It’s possible that some of these “entire home/apartment” listings are not counted by the ABS as dwellings (eg granny flats or segmented buildings that don’t have separate addresses) which would lead to over-estimates.
  • Some Airbnb listings that have less than 90 days availability in the 12 months ahead might just be very popular – leading to underestimates (my guess is that is unlikely).
  • The Sydney figure might be an overestimate because the Airbnb data was extracted three months after the census, and the total number of Airbnb listings almost doubled in 2016.
  • The actual Airbnb vacancy rate on census night might not have been in the 60-80% range.
  • I don’t know exactly where the city boundary was drawn for the Inside Airbnb data, but my approximation is more likely to be larger – which would lead to slight underestimates (probably very slight as the differences would be in peri-urban areas with few dwellings).
  • There may be other reasons – please comment.

That said, it looks like Airbnb might explain somewhere in the order of a fifth of the drop in private dwelling occupancy in Melbourne and Sydney between 2011 and 2016. Certainly not all of it, but probably not none of it either.

What proportion of dwellings are dedicated to Airbnb in different parts of Melbourne and Sydney?

Here’s a map of active/dedicated Airbnb dwellings (as per filter above) as a percentage of total dwellings in Melbourne at SA2 level:

It maxes out at 2.5% in the Melbourne CBD (that’s 1 in 40 dwellings), followed by Southbank and Fitzroy at around 1.9%. Mount Dandenong – Olinda is the orange patch to the east which measures 1.3%. View the data in Tableau.

As you would expect, Airbnb properties appear to be more prevalent around the inner city and tourist areas (eg St Kilda and the Dandenongs). These are also the areas with generally lower dwelling occupancy, and certainly some of the unoccupied dwellings in the census will be Airbnb dwellings.

Here is Sydney:

The highest rates are 2.6% around Bondi Beach, and 2.5% at Avalon – Palm Beach. Manly comes in at 1.5%, Surry Hills is 1.5%, Potts Point – Woolloomooloo is 1.4%, while the CBD area is 1.3%. Again, you can explore this Airbnb data in Tableau.

Could Airbnb properties explain the spatial differences in dwelling occupancy?

Here’s a plot of dwelling occupancy and Airbnb percentages for SA2s in Melbourne and Sydney.

I’ve done a linear regression on each city, and while the relationships are significant, they are not strong, and the correlation coefficients are -4.9 in Sydney and -1.5 in Melbourne. The signs are as expected (ie more Airbnb, lower occupancy), but the magnitudes are much higher than would be the case if Airbnb was the main explanation for lower dwelling occupancy (otherwise they would be around -1 or smaller). Which essentially means Airbnb presence is correlating with other drivers that would explain lower dwelling occupancy.

Indeed inner city and tourist areas had lower dwelling occupancy in both 2006 (when Airbnb didn’t exist) and 2011 (when Airbnb only had a tiny presence in Australia).

Therefore I think we can conclude Airbnb properties are more prevalent in areas where dwelling occupancy is lower for other reasons – one of which is likely to be popular places for visitors. Unoccupied Airbnb properties are almost certainly part of the pattern, but cannot explain the majority of the decrease in dwelling occupancy.

Can you do those Airbnb maps at higher resolution?

It’s getting a bit beyond the topic of transport, but yes I can go down to SA1 level. It’s not particularly important, but certainly interesting.

A disclaimer: Airbnb introduce randomised errors on property locations of up to 150 metres, so there will be some mis-attribution of properties to SA1s, but hopefully not too much. Also, I’m still only counting properties that match the above criteria.

Here’s inner Melbourne (note: different colour scale to last map):

Airbnb maxes out at 11% for three city blocks around Swanston Street and Collins Street, plus a large SA1 in East Melbourne that actually only contains a small residential area close to the CBD (including an apartment tower at 279 Wellington Parade). There’s also an SA1 in Southbank behind Crown Casino that is 10% Airbnb.

Curiously, there were only about 6 Airbnb listings in the New Quay apartments in Docklands that had 65-70% occupancy (refer earlier post), so Airbnb is definitely not to blame of the low occupancy of those towers.

Outside the central city, other hot spots are St Kilda around Acland Street (6%), just east of South Yarra Station (6%), and a patch of Olinda (5%). Explore in Tableau.

Here’s Sydney:

It tops out at 11% in the southern part of the CBD, with 10% in part of Pyrmont and 7% in pockets near Manly and Bondi Beach. Other hotspots include Coogee (6%) and Whale Beach further north (5%). Explore in Tableau.


How did the journey to work change in Brisbane between 2011 and 2016?

Wed 25 April, 2018

Between 2011 and 2016, Greater Brisbane saw a 2% mode shift towards private motorised transport for journeys to work, the largest such shift of all large Australian cities. Was it to do with where jobs growth happened, or because public transport became less attractive over that time?

This post takes a more detailed look at the spatial changes in private transport mode shares, and then examines the relative impact on spatial variations in jobs growth compared to other factors.

Greater Brisbane main mode shares

Firstly for reference, here are the Brisbane Greater Capital City Statistical Area main mode shares and shifts for 2011 and 2016, measured by place of enumeration and place of work:

2011 2016 Change
Private Place of enumeration 80.0% 81.9% +1.9%
Place of work 79.1% 81.1% +2.0%
Public Place of enumeration 15.1% 13.5% -1.6%
Place of work 15.9% 14.2% -1.7%
Active Place of enumeration 4.9% 4.6% -0.3%
Place of work 5.0% 4.7% -0.3%

More information about main mode definitions and data in general is available at the appendix at the end of this post.

Mode shares and shifts by home location

Here are private transport mode shares by home location for 2006, 2011, and 2016:

(you might need to click on these charts to see them larger and more clearly)

You can see lower private mode shares around the central city and to some extent along the rail lines. In case you are wondering, the Redcliffe Peninsula railway opened in October 2016 – after the August 2016 census.

The changes between years are a little difficult to make out on the map above, so here are the mode shifts to private transport by home location at SA2 level:

Mode shifts to private transport can be seen over most parts of Brisbane, with the biggest being Auchenflower (+6%), Lawnton (+6%), Toowong (+5%), Norman Park (+5%), Strathpine – Brendale (+5%), Keperra (+5%), and Sandgate – Shorncliffe (+5%). Many of the large mode shifts to private transport were actually seen around the train network.

The Redland Islands area had a larger shift to public transport – but keep in mind this will include use of car ferries.

Here’s a map showing the mode split of net new trips by home SA2:

There were a lot of new trips from outer growth areas in the north, west and south, and the vast majority of these trips were by private transport (although the southern growth area of Springfield Lakes, where a rail line opened in 2010, had a relatively high 15% of new trips by public transport). Private transport mode shares of new new trips were also high in middle and most inner suburbs (unlike inner Melbourne).

To sum all that up, here are the changes in trip volumes by main mode and home distance from the CBD:

Private transport dominated most new trips, and there were net declines in public transport trips beyond 2 km from the CBD.

Here’s a look at the main mode split over time, by distance from the CBD:

Brisbane achieved significant mode shift away from private transport between 2006 and 2011, but that was pretty much reversed between 2011 and 2016.

Private transport mode shares dropped in 2011 but pretty much returned to 2006 values in 2016. On average, only the city centre saw a mode shift away from private transport between 2011 and 2016, and that’s only a tiny fraction of the Brisbane’s population.

Mode shares and shifts by work location

Here are workplace private transport mode shares for 2011 and 2016:

(more areas are coloured in 2016 because they reached my minimum density threshold of 4 jobs per hectare at destination zone level for inclusion on the map)

Low private mode share is only really seen around the city centre. Some lower mode share areas further out include St Lucia (UQ campus, 52% in 2016) and Nundah (74%), but most of the suburban jobs are dominated by private transport.

Here are the mode shifts by workplace location:

The biggest mode shifts to private transport were to workplaces in Wooloowin – Lutwyche (+7%), Spring Hill (just north of the CBD, +5%) and Jindalee – Mount Ommaney (+5%). The biggest shifts away from private transport were in Newstead – Bowen Hills (-6%), St Lucia (-4%, which includes the University of Queensland main campus), and West End (-3%).

Notably, the job rich Brisbane CBD had a 2% shift to private transport (with 3,135 more private transport trips in 2016).

Here’s a map of the net new jobs and their main mode splits:

And a zoom in on the inner city to separate the overlapping pie charts:

The SA2 with the biggest jobs growth was “Brisbane City” (covering the CBD) with 4584 new jobs – with 68% of this net increase attributable to private transport. North Lanes – Mango Hill in the northern suburbs was not far behind (4472 new jobs at 96% by private transport), followed by Newstead – Bowen Hills (4266 new jobs at 49% private transport) and Brisbane Airport (4197 new jobs at 95% private transport).

The distribution of jobs growth was not heavily concentrated in central Brisbane – in stark contrast to Melbourne where the central city jobs growth was much more signficant.

Here’s a clearer view of new jobs by workplace distance from the city centre and main mode:

At all distances from the CBD, private transport new trips outnumbered active and public transport new trips (and there was a decline in public transport trips to the very city centre). The vast majority of net new trips were to workplaces more than 4 km from the city centre, and by private transport.

So why was there an overall 2% mode shift to private transport?

The relative lack of jobs growth in the public transport rich city centre is very likely to have contributed to the mode shift to private transport. The vast majority of new jobs were in the suburbs where public transport is significantly less competitive (relative to the CBD).

Others will point to factors that have made public transport less attractive relative to private transport, including problems on the train network, extensive new motorway infrastructure, and public transport fares growing around twice the rate of inflation after 2010.

There was very rapid growth in fares between 2010 and 2015, but then fares were frozen in 2016 and substantially reduced in 2017:

Looking at people working in Greater Brisbane (Greater Capital City Statistical Area), there were 94,055 new private transport commutes, just 246 new public transport commutes, and 2,506 new active transport commutes. So around 97% of net new trips in 2016 were by private transport, much higher than the 2011 baseline private transport mode share of 79% of trips (measured for workplaces in Greater Brisbane), hence the overall 2% mode shift.

Looking at people living in Greater Brisbane, there were 61,557 new private transport commutes, a net reduction of 6,069 public transport commutes, and a net reduction of 54 active transport commutes. Thus every new commute was accounted for by private transport, and further to this there was mode shift away from active and public transport.

So how much of the mode shift can be explained by spatial changes in jobs distribution? If mode shares in each workplace SA2 had not changed between 2011 and 2016 then city level mode shares would be influenced only by spatial variations in jobs growth.

I’ve done the calculations at SA2 geography: if place of work mode shares in Brisbane had not changed between 2011 and 2016 (but volumes had), then the overall private transport mode share would have increased only 1.0% in 2016 (essentially because of higher jobs growth in the suburbs compared to the centre).

Actual private mode share increased by 2.0% (measured by place of work).

So this suggests only half of the mode shift can be explained the spatial variations in jobs growth. The other half will be explained by other factors, particularly changes in the relative attractiveness of modes.

Changes in the relative attractiveness of modes will include public transport service quality, public transport fares, fuel prices, toll prices, and infrastructure provision for private and active transport. Car ownership will undoubtedly be a factor, but I suspect many ownership decisions will be influenced by workplace locations and relative modal attractiveness. Other factors might include changes in real incomes, demographic changes, changes in employment density, and the locations of population growth. I’ll explore the last two in more detail.

What about the relationship between job density and mode share?

You could argue that if general public transport “attractiveness” had not changed, you could still expect a mode shift towards public transport in areas with both high and increasing job density, as car parking might struggle to grow at the same rate as jobs growth (as the land becomes increasingly valuable/scarce). This might particularly be the case in the city centre.

I’ve calculated weighted job density for each SA2 – that is, the average density of destination zones in the SA2, weighted by the number of jobs in each zone (similar to population weighted density, so that large areas within SA2s that house few jobs make little contribution to such scores).

Here’s how weighted job density and workplace private mode share changed in Brisbane for higher density SA2s:

While there is some relationship between job density and private mode share overall, there wasn’t a consistent negative correlation between changes in those values. If there was, you would expect all lines on the chart to be on a similar diagonal orientation (upper left – lower right).

South Brisbane and Upper Mount Gravatt saw increased density but little change in private mode share. Chermside, Auchenflower, and Woolloongabba (which incidentally is at the southern end of the Clem 7 motorway) saw increased job density but also increased private transport mode share (the opposite effect of what you might expect). Spring Hill had only a small drop in job density but a large increase in private mode share.

Newstead – Bowen Hills had the largest shift away from private transport, and also one of the largest increases in job density

You might be wondering how the Brisbane City SA2 (which includes the CBD) can have had an increase in total jobs, but a slight decline in weighted jobs density. It turns out that the 2016 SA2 boundary goes further into the Brisbane River than the 2011 boundary. Here’s a map generated on the ABS website, where blue lines are the 2011 boundaries and red the 2016 boundaries:

If you discounted the increase in area, you might expect a slight increase in job density (about 4% in unweighted average density) to result in a small mode shift away from private transport, quite the opposite of what actually happened. If increasing job density by itself might have pushed a mode shift away from private transport, it appears it was overpowered by factors working in the opposite direction.

The Brisbane City SA2 accounted for 12.5% of Brisbane’s jobs so its mode split impacts more than most on overall city mode shares.

So what might be the stand-alone impact of increased job density in the city centre on private mode share? It’s very hard to quantify. I can certainly look at other city centres, but there will be so many factors at play in those cities that it would be almost impossible to isolate the impact.

But as a rough stab, had Brisbane City SA2’s private mode share increased from 29.0% to 29.5% (instead of 30.6%), and all other things were the same, then the overall Brisbane private mode share would have been 0.14% lower.

While the actual impact is uncertain, it would only increase the influence of the “other factors” that are responsible for at least half of the 2% mode share towards private transport.

And what about the spatial distribution of population growth?

All other things being equal, if population growth had disproportionately occurred in places with high private transport mode share (eg the middle and outer suburbs), you might expect a mode shift to private transport. However I don’t think this was significant in Brisbane as there has also been inner city population growth.

Indeed, if the home-based private transport mode share of each SA2 had not changed between 2011 and 2016 (but population numbers had), then the overall Brisbane private mode share (by place of enumeration) would have increased only 0.1% (rather than 1.9%). So the overall mode shift doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with where population growth happened.

So what are these effects other cities? I’ll cover that in an upcoming post.

Appendix: about the data

Here’s how I have defined “main mode”:

Private (motorised) transport any journey to work involving car, motorcycle, taxi, truck and/or “other”, but not involving any mode of public transport (train, tram, bus, or ferry)
Public transport any journey involving train, bus, tram, or ferry (journeys could also involve private or active transport modes)
Active tranport journeys by walking or cycling only

I have extracted data from the ABS census for 2006, 2011, and 2016 for areas within the 2011 boundary of the Brisbane Significant Urban Area. The detailed maps are at the smallest available geography – Census Collector Districts (CD) for 2006 and Statistical Area Level 1 (SA1) for 2011 and 2016 for home locations, and Destination Zones (DZ) for workplaces in 2011 and 2016 (detailed workplace data is not readily available for 2006 for most cities). I’ve aggregated this data for distance from city centre calculations (filtered by 2011 Significant Urban Area boundaries), which means the small randomisations will have amplified slightly.

In 2011, a significant number of jobs were not assigned to a destination zone:

  • 3.8% of jobs were assigned to an SA2 but not a DZ – I’ve imputed these proportionately to the DZs in their SA2 based on modal volumes reported for each DZ (for want of something better).
  • 18,540 Queensland jobs (0.9%) were only known to be somewhere in Greater Brisbane.
  • 115,011 jobs (5.8%) were only known to be somewhere in Queensland (hopefully mostly outside Greater Brisbane!).

These special purpose codes are not present in the 2016 data – presumably the ABS did a much better job of coding jobs to DZs. It means that the volumes in 2011 may be slightly understated, and so growth between 2011 and 2016 might be slightly overstated.

I’ve also extracted the data at SA2 (Statistical Area Level 2) based on 2016 boundaries for the purposes of calculating mode shifts and changes in trip volumes at SA2 level (to avoid aggregating small random adjustments ABS applies). However this wasn’t possible for jobs where 2011 SA2s were split into smaller SA2s in 2016 – because some 2011 jobs were assigned an SA2 but not a DZ, so we cannot map those to a specific 2016 SA2 (I aggregated imputed DZ numbers to 2016 SA2 boundaries instead).

I also extracted data at the Brisbane Greater Capital City Statistical Area level, as noted (the boundary did not change between 2011 and 2016).

I have not counted jobs that were reported to have no fixed address in my place of work analysis. I’ve also excluded people who worked at home, did not go to work on census day, or did not provide information about their mode(s) of travel. These workers are also excluded from job density calculations.

Where are the unoccupied dwellings in Australian cities?

Sat 4 November, 2017

Over one million private dwellings in Australia were unoccupied on census night in 2016 – 11.2% of all private dwellings – up from 10.2% in 2011.

This raises many questions. Where are these unoccupied dwellings and where are they now more prevalent? What type of dwellings are more likely to be unoccupied? How long have these dwellings been unoccupied? Do we know why these dwellings are unoccupied?

This post will focus on dwelling occupancy by geography, dwelling types and trends over time. In a future post I hope look into those last two questions in more detail.

I’ve prepared data for sixteen Australian cities, with various maps in Tableau (you will need to zoom and pan to your city of interest).

Why am I blogging about dwelling occupancy on a transport blog? Well partly because I’m interested in urban issues, but also because land use is very relevant to transport. If dwelling occupancy rates in the inner and middle suburbs were higher, there would be more people living closer to jobs and activities who might be less reliant on private motorised transport for their daily travel.

If you’d like to read more around the associated policy issues, Professor Hal Pawson from UNSW has a good piece in The Conversation highlighting the increasing number of empty properties and spare bedrooms, and advocates  replacing stamp duty with a broad-based land tax to improve housing mobility. Also read Eryk Bagshaw in the Fairfax press, Jonathan Jackson in Finfeed, and a piece in Business Insider where the Commonwealth Bank state that 17% of recently built dwellings are left unoccupied (not sure how that was calculated).

What are the dwelling occupancy rates in Australian cities?

Here’s a chart showing private dwelling occupancy rates for sixteen Australian cities (using 2011 Significant Urban Area boundaries) from the last three censuses:

Note the y-axis only runs from 84% to 94%, so the changes are not massive. However a small change in dwelling occupancy can still have a large impact on housing prices (rental and sales).

The Sunshine and Central Coasts have the lowest occupancy, almost certainly explained by many holiday homes in those regions, although all three have been trending upwards. Curiously, the Gold Coast – Tweed Heads had a significant increase in occupancy between 2011 and 2016 to take it above Perth, Townsville, and Darwin.

Hobart and Cairns also had increased occupancy between 2011 and 2016, but all large cities declined between 2011 and 2016. Perth, Darwin and Townsville had big slides – quite possibly related to the downturn in the mining industry and slowing population growth (all three have seen slowing population growth in recent years after a boom period). Then again, if there are more fly-in-fly-out workers in a city you might expect dwelling occupancy on census night to go down as a portion of them will be away for work on census night.

How does dwelling occupancy in capital cities compare to the rest of the country?

Private dwelling occupancy is significantly lower outside the capital city areas. While the capital city areas contain 63% of all private dwellings, they only contain 51% of unoccupied private dwellings.

How does dwelling occupancy vary by dwelling type?

Here’s a chart of 2016 dwelling occupancy by Greater Capital City Statistical Areas and the most common dwelling types:

In many cities there is a strong correlation between housing type and occupancy, with separate houses having the highest occupancy rates, and multi-storey flats/apartments having the lowest. The pattern is strongest in Perth – perhaps reflecting reduced demand for apartment living following the end of the mining boom(?).

The data suggests higher density apartments are more likely to not be occupied on census night, but it doesn’t tell us why. Of course different dwelling types have different spatial distributions, so is it the dwelling type that drives the occupancy rates? I’ll come back to that shortly.

Where are the unoccupied dwellings?

Quite simply, here is a map showing the density (at SA2 geography) of unoccupied dwellings in Melbourne over time (you might need to click to enlarge to read more clearly):

(I’ve not shaded SA2s with less than 1 unoccupied dwelling per hectare. You can look at other cities in Tableau by zooming out and then in on another city).

You can see a fairly significant increase in the number of unoccupied dwellings in the inner and middle suburbs (at least at densities above 1 per hectare).

From a transport perspective – this isn’t great. If people lived in those dwellings rather than dwellings on the fringe of Melbourne, the transport task would be easier as there would be many more people living closer to jobs and other destinations with non-car modes being more competitive.

But these areas with a relatively high density of unoccupied dwellings are also areas with a high density of dwellings in general. The density of unoccupied dwellings has risen in the same places where total dwelling density has risen:

(see in Tableau – you may need to change the geography type)

Given you would expect a small percentage of dwellings to be unoccupied for good reasons (eg resident temporarily absent, or property on the market), it makes sense that the density of unoccupied dwellings has gone up with total dwelling density.

But a decrease in the dwelling occupancy rate requires the number of unoccupied dwellings to be growing at a faster rate than the total number of dwellings. We already know that is happening at the city level through declining occupancy rates, so how does that look inside cities?

How does dwelling occupancy vary across Melbourne?

Here’s a map of dwelling occupancy in Melbourne and Geelong at CD/SA1 level geography:

(see also in Tableau)

You can see very clearly that occupancy is lowest on Mornington Peninsula beaches to the south – which almost certainly reflects empty holiday homes on census night (a Tuesday night in winter).

In fact, I’ve created a map of dwelling occupancy at SA2 level for all of Australia, and you can see many coastal holiday areas around Melbourne (and other cities) with low occupancy (with Lorne – Anglesea at 32% and Phillip Island at 40%):

The previous Melbourne map at CD/SA1 level is very detailed and so it’s not easy to see the overall trends. Also, apart from the Mornington Peninsula, occupancy rates are almost all above 80%.

So here is a zoomed-in map with a different (narrower) colour scale, with data aggregated at SA2 level (also in Tableau):

Things become much clearer.

The highest dwelling occupancy is generally on the fringe of Melbourne.

Apart from holiday home areas, the lowest occupancy in 2016 was concentrated in wealthier inner suburbs, including Toorak at 83% and South Yarra west at 84%. This was closely followed by the CBD, Docklands, East Melbourne, Southbank, and Albert Park between 84% and 86%. These areas have all had declining occupancy since 2011.

It can be a little difficult to see the changes in occupancy rates, so here is a non-animated map the change in dwelling occupancy rates between 2006 and 2016 (also in Tableau):

There are at least small declines in most parts of Melbourne. The biggest decline was 7% in Bundoora North (with lowest 2016 occupancy of 79% in these new units in University Hill ), followed by 5% in Doncaster (lowest around Doncaster Hill where there are new apartments, perhaps too new to be occupied on census night?), 4% in South Yarra East (lowest in the new apartments around South Yarra Station, again possibly because some are very new) and Prahran – Windsor.

Curiously, Docklands dwelling occupancy increased by 9% from 75% to 85% (rounding means that those numbers don’t perfectly add). Perhaps there were many new yet-to-be-occupied dwellings in 2006? For reference, Dockland’s 2011 occupancy was 84%, only slightly below the 2016 level.

The outer growth areas are a mixed bag of increases and decreases. This possibly depends again on how many brand new but not yet occupied dwellings there were in 2006 and 2016.

What are the dwelling occupancy patterns in other cities?


You can see lower occupancy around the CBD, North Sydney, Manly, and the northern beaches, and higher occupancy in the western suburbs.

The largest declines are evident in the city centre and North Ryde – East Ryde:


Brisbane has some big declines to the north-east of the city centre, Rochedale – Burbank, Woodridge, Logan, and Leichhardt – One Mile. The Redland Islands in the east are presumably a popular place for holiday homes.


Low occupancy is evident around Mandurah in the south (a popular holiday home area). Lower occupancy has spread around the inner city, and beach-side suburbs of Scarborough, Cottesloe, Fremantle, and Rockingham (many of which are areas with higher concentrations of Airbnb properties).

The biggest declines were in Maylands, Victoria Park – Lathlain – Burswood, and South Lake – Cockburn Central. For the first two of these areas the decline was mostly in flats/units/apartments.


The lowest occupancy is on the south coast and in Glenelg. The biggest decline was in Fulham (-5%), followed by Payneham – Felixstowe (-4%):

[Canberra, Hobart and Darwin added 6 November 2017]


Dwelling occupancy was lowest around Parliament House (the census was not during a sitting week in 2016), and highest in the outer northern and southern suburbs. The 2006 census was during a sitting week, so it’s little surprise that big dwelling occupancy reductions were seen around Capital Hill between 2006 and 2016.  There was also a 5% decline in Farrer and a 6% growth in Gungahlin between 2006 and 2016 (Gungahlin’s dwellings almost doubled between 2006 and 2011, so the 2006 result might reflect brand new dwellings awaiting occupants).


Dwelling occupancy was lowest in central Hobart, with the biggest decline of 4% in Old Beach – Otago, but overall there was little change between 2006 and 2016 (average occupancy did drop slightly in 2011 though).


Darwin dwelling occupancy was lowest in the city centre at 82% in 2016, while Howard Springs had 100% occupancy (in 2016). Declines are evident between 2006 and 2016 across most parts of Darwin.

Gold Coast

Here’s a map of 2016 occupancy at SA1 level, with the original broader colour scale:

You can see quite clearly that the beach-side areas have low occupancy, while the inland areas have much higher occupancy (some at 100%). Presumably many permanent residents cannot or choose not to compete with tourism for beach-side living.

Sunshine Coast

Similar patterns are evident on the Sunshine Coast, particularly around Noosa and Sunshine Beach in the north:

If you want to see other cities, move around Australia in Tableau for occupancy maps at CD/SA1 and SA2 geography (choose you year of interest), and occupancy change maps (at SA2 geography).

So are there lots of unoccupied inner city apartments in Melbourne?

Some commentators have spoken about many inner city apartments being unoccupied – perhaps through a glut or investors chasing capital gains and not interested rental incomes.

Here is dwelling occupancy in central Melbourne at SA1 geography for 2016, using the broader colour scale (also in Tableau):

There are quite a few pockets of very low occupancy, particularly areas shaded in yellows and greens. The average private dwelling occupancy for the City of Melbourne local government area was 87%, lower than the Greater Melbourne average of 91%.

The lowest occupancy is a block between Adderley, Spencer and Dudley Street in North Melbourne at 56%, which is probably related to the recent completion of an apartment tower not long before the census (from Google Street view we know it was under construction in April 2015 and completed by October 2016).

There are several patches of yellow  (65-70% occupancy) in the CBD, Docklands and Southbank.

But what about apartment towers? For that we need to drill down to mesh blocks – and thankfully 2016 census data is actually provided at this level.

Here’s a map showing dwelling occupancy of mesh blocks in the City of Melbourne (local government area) with at least 100 dwellings per hectare (as an arbitrary threshold for large apartment building – see the appendix for an example of this density):

(explore in Tableau)

Some notable low occupancy apartment towers include:

  • 48% for an apartment tower at 555 Flinders Street (Northbank Place Central Tower) between Spencer and King Street and the railway viaduct. It wasn’t brand new in 2016.
  • 47% in a block that includes the Melbourne ONE apartment tower, possibly because it was only just opened (as I write there are still apartments for sale)
  • 65% for one of the towers at New Quay, Docklands (which seems to include serviced apartments)
  • 66% for a tower at 28 Southgate Ave (corner City Road), and 67% for the Quay West tower next door (almost certainly popular places for Airbnb / serviced apartments).

Several of these towers include advertised serviced apartments, and I expect the towers would contain a mix of serviced apartments, owner-occupied apartments and rentals (regular and Airbnb). However ABS advises me that field officers do speak to building managers, and are therefore likely to not code serviced apartments as private dwellings.

That said, according to the 2016 census data there were only 11 non-private dwellings in Docklands that were classified as “Hotel, motel, bed and breakfast”, and zero non-private dwellings in the New Quay apartment towers.

I snapped this picture at 9pm on a Sunday in September 2017 of the apartments at New Quay (Docklands) that at the 2016 census had 65-70% occupancy:

Of course you wouldn’t expect lights to be on in all rooms in all occupied dwellings at 9pm on a particular Sunday, but I dare say it’s probably a time when fewer people would be out. It looks like a lot less than a quarter of rooms are lit. I know very few of these are on Airbnb (more on that in a future post!), but I don’t know how many are actually serviced apartments.

There’s huge variation in dwelling occupancy across these mesh blocks. So is the lower occupancy more concentrated in higher density areas? Here’s a scatter plot of all mesh blocks in the City of Melbourne by dwelling density and occupancy:

There’s not a strong relationship between density and occupancy. The variation in dwelling occupancy between mesh blocks will probably depend on a lot of local factors.

What about occupancy by dwelling type for the inner city?

(data points removed where dwelling counts were small, the isolated blue dot at the bottom is for Southbank).

There’s no evidence that flats / apartments have lower occupancy than other housing types in the central city. However there is evidence that inner city areas have relatively lower occupancy.

So how does the occupancy of apartment blocks of 4+ storeys vary across Melbourne?

Box Hill had the lowest apartment occupancy of 50% (perhaps some were brand new?), followed by Ringwood, Glen Waverley, and Brighton in the 70-75% range.  Croydon East, Templestowe , Seddon – Kingsville, Clayton, Carnegie, West Footscray, Braybrook and Frankston reported occupancy above 95%. The inner city areas were around 84-85% occupied, and these would make up the majority of such dwellings in Melbourne.

Apartments in blocks of 4+ storeys seem to have lower occupancy on average because most of them are located in the central city, which generally has lower dwelling occupancy.

Here’s a similar map (with a different colour scale) for dwelling occupancy of separate houses across the Melbourne region:

The lowest rates in metropolitan Melbourne are 82-83% in some inner city areas, while the urban growth shows up in pink and purple, mostly 94-96%.

Explore the 2016 occupancy rates at SA2 geography for different dwelling types for any part of Australia in Tableau. You can also view changes in occupancy rates since 2006 for separate houses, flats/units/apartments, and semi-detached/townhouses.

Why are there lower dwelling occupancy rates in the central city?

The census doesn’t answer this, and I’m not a housing expert, but I dare say there are plenty of plausible explanations:

  • Many dwellings are rented out on Airbnb (and/or other platforms) – but are not in high demand on a weeknight in mid-winter (more on that in this post).
  • Many dwellings are serviced apartments that are indistinguishable from regular private dwellings (in buildings with a mixture of dwelling use). ABS say they don’t count these as private dwellings, however they are not showing up as non-private dwellings.
  • Dwellings are more likely to occupied by executives who travel more frequently.
  • Dwellings might be second homes for people living outside the city.
  • Dwellings might be owned by employers for interstate staff visiting Melbourne.
  • Dwellings might be poorly constructed and uninhabitable (eg mould issues).
  • Investors who are not interested in rental income might deliberately leave properties vacant (something that is disputed).

But I’m just speculating.

What about dwelling occupancy in the centre of other cities?

Here’s a map of the Sydney CBD area at SA1 geography:

There are some very low occupancy rates in the north end of the CBD, but very high occupancy rates around Darling Harbour and Pyrmont.

Here’s central Brisbane:

Here are occupancy rates for different dwelling types for selected inner city SA2s in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth:

In all SA2s except Surrey Hills (Sydney) and South Brisbane, flats or apartments in 4+ storey blocks had the lowest dwelling occupancy in 2016. Only in Perth City SA2 (which is quite a bit larger than the CBD) is there a reasonably clear relationship between housing type and occupancy.

Summary of findings

Couldn’t be bothered reading all of the above, or forgot what you learnt? Here’s a summary of findings:

  • Dwelling occupancy, as measured by the census, has declined in most Australian cities between 2006 and 2016 (particularly larger cities).
  • Dwelling occupancy is generally very low in popular holiday home areas, but also relatively low in central city locations.
  • Dwelling occupancy is generally highest in outer suburban areas.
  • Higher density housing types generally have lower occupancy, but that is probably because they are more often found in inner city areas.
  • There are examples of low occupancy apartment towers in Melbourne, but there’s not a clear relationship between dwelling density and dwelling occupancy in central Melbourne.

In a future post I plan to look more at why properties might be unoccupied, and for how long they are unoccupied, drawing on Airbnb and water usage datasets.  I might also look at bedrooms and bedroom occupancy which is a whole other topic.


Appendix – About the census dwelling data

I’ve loaded census data about occupied and unoccupied private dwellings data into Tableau for 2006, 2011, and 2016 censuses for sixteen Australian cities at the CD (2006) / SA1 (2011,2016) level, which the smallest geography available for all censuses. I’ve mapped all these CDs and SA1s to boundaries of 2016 SA2s and 2011 Significant Urban Areas (as per my last post). Those mappings are unfortunately not perfect, particularly for 2006 CDs.

The ABS determine a private dwelling to be occupied if they have information to suggest someone was living in that dwelling on census night (eg a form was returned, or there was some evidence of occupation). Under this definition, unoccupied dwellings include those with usual residents temporarily absent, and those with no usual residents (vacant).

For my detailed maps I’ve only included CDs / SA1s with a density of 2 dwellings per hectare or more.

For reference, here is a Melbourne mesh block with 100 dwellings per hectare:

And here is a mesh block with 206 dwellings per hectare (note only a small part of mesh block footprint contains towers):

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

Sun 30 July, 2017

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

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

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

Is motor vehicle ownership increasing in all cities?

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

(you can explore this data in Tableau)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(explore in Tableau)

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

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

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

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

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

(view in Tableau)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(explore in Tableau)

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

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

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

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

Trends in motor vehicles per persons aged 18-84

(explore in Tableau)

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

How does motor vehicle ownership relate to density?

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

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

Is densification related to lower motor vehicle ownership?

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

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

(explore in Tableau)

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

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

(explore in Tableau)

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

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

Some interesting outliers include:

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

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

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

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

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







(Find Mandurah in Tableau)






Sunshine Coast


Central Coast (NSW)

Newcastle – Maitland

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

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

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

Appendix – About the data

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

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

I’ve used two measures of motor vehicle ownership:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is Melbourne’s population density changing? (2006-2016)

Sun 9 July, 2017

With the first major release of 2016 census data, it’s possible to take a detailed look at the latest population density numbers in Melbourne. This post will explore how and where Melbourne’s density is increasing by comparing data from the 2006, 2011, and 2016 censuses.

About the data

This post looks at data mostly at the mesh block level. Mesh blocks are the smallest geographic unit at which the ABS publishes population and dwelling counts. They aim for each mesh block to have the same land use, and between 30 and 60 dwellings (where residential).

I’ve used Tableau Public to create this post, so you will be able to explore the maps in more detail yourself, using the links in this post. Be warned though: Tableau tried to dissuade me several times from adding so many mesh blocks to the maps and charts, so they may take a little time to load and update.

Background map data has been used that is copyright © The State of Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning 2017

What does Melbourne’s population density look like?

Firstly, here’s the population density picture for most of Melbourne (you will probably need to open this is in a new window to see it more clearly).

(explore in Tableau)

Here is a closer look at Melbourne’s growing west, stretching as far as Bacchus Marsh:

You can see the expanding urban area, and you might also notice some of the new areas are coming up in red (densities in the 60-70s). This demonstrates that recent urban growth areas are much more dense than growth areas of 5-10 years ago. However that’s not happening in growth areas of Bacchus Marsh (which is outside Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary.

Here is a closer look at the northern growth areas:

You can see large areas of orange and red in north-western Craigieburn (top left of map) and Roxburgh Park in 2016 – that’s around 50-60 people per hectare, around double that of old-school suburbia.

Here’s the south-east growth corridors, where new high density areas are less widespread:

There’s also been plenty of change in population density in the inner city:

If you look carefully you can see a lot more purple around the city centre, but also plenty of population density increase around Brunswick in the north and Footscray in the west.

So this is this increase in population density due to rising dwelling densities or more people per dwelling?

Here is the dwelling density around Craigieburn:

(explore in Tableau)

There are dwelling densities of over 20 per hectare in the new north-western areas, which is likely to be contributing to higher population density.

Here’s a map showing the average dwelling occupancy – the ratio of population to dwelling counts. Note: this includes unoccupied dwellings at census time, so it’s not the average occupancy of occupied dwellings.

(explore in Tableau)

One clear trend is that the growth areas have higher average dwelling occupancy, quite probably related to young families moving into those areas. This, together with smaller block sizes, is likely leading to higher population density in growth areas.

If you look carefully you’ll also see some older outer areas with reducing average dwelling occupancy – quite possibly family homes where children have moved out.

What are the broader trends in density?

The above maps are incredibly detailed, and you are probably struggling a little with so many blocks of different colours. Time to take a step back.

Calculating the straight population density of Greater Melbourne makes no sense because most of the land within the statistical boundary is non-urban.

In other posts I’ve looked at population-weighted density, which is the average population density of all areas, weighted by the population of each area. It aims to summarise the population density at which the “average” person lives, which takes out the impact of large areas that are sparsely populated. But it is important to keep in mind that “average” does not mean typical (I’ll come back to that).

Here’s a chart showing Melbourne’s populated weighted density, as well as average density for mesh blocks with a population density of at least 5 persons/ha (an arbitrary threshold for urban residential areas).

Yes, that’s a massive increase in population-weighted density. So what’s going on here?

Well, here’s a chart showing the densities at which people in Melbourne lived at each census:

If you look at the green levels and below, you’ll notice in all years less than 2.5 million people lived at densities of below 35 persons/ha. There’s been little population growth at such lower densities – it’s mostly been at 35 persons/ha and above, pushing up the population-weighted density.

Greater Melbourne’s population-weighted density of 59 is quite high relative to the density distribution within Melbourne. Only around 600,000 people live at this or higher densities, with around 4 million living at lower densities. That’s a classic problem with summary statistics.

Where is the population-weighted density increasing the most? Here’s a map showing population-weighted densities by SA2 (2016 boundaries):

(explore in Tableau)

There are big increases in population weighted densities across inner Melbourne, but also in places like Clayton, Box Hill, Preston East, Doncaster.

What’s going on there? Box Hill’s population-weighted density went from 45 in 2011 to 72 in 2016. Here’s a look at the mesh block density for the area:

You can see a little densification outside the main centre on the rail line, but if you look really carefully, you’ll see some tiny purple mesh blocks right in the centre – apartment towers with large populations are bringing up the populated weighted density of the whole SA2.

What about median densities?

While no one statistic will tell you about “typical” density, we can calculate median density, which tells you the density in which the middle person lives.

Greater Melbourne’s median population density hasn’t increased a great deal:

Here’s a look at median density by SA2 (open in a new window to see more detail, including the numbers):

(explore in Tableau)

(note that a different set of colour ranges used to the previous maps because the medians are so close)

You can see a lot more red on the map – i.e. more and more areas of Melbourne have a median population density of in the 40s.

How has population and density changed by distance from the CBD?

Firstly, here’s a reference map of distances from the CBD:

(explore in Tableau)

Here’s the population of Melbourne by density and distance from the CBD:

(explore in Tableau)

You can see a lot of growth close to the CBD, but also around 20-23 km from the CBD, which includes several outer suburban growth areas.

Here’s a look at five year population growth by distance from the CBD:

In the five years to 2016 there was a lot more growth within 30 kms of the CBD, particularly within 5 km.

Finally, which mesh block densities are becoming more common. Here is the five year change in population by (mesh block) population density:

In the five years to 2011, the biggest population increase was at densities of 30 to 45 persons/ha. In the five years to 2016, the biggest population growth was at densities of 35 to 55 persons/ha. There was also considerable growth at densities of more than 400 persons/ha, which is likely to reflect new apartment towers.

You’ll find a few other charts in Tableau. Hope you enjoyed this post.

Which Australian city is sprawling the most?

Sat 3 December, 2016

[Updated April 2018 with June 2017 population estimates and new data on components of population growth]

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

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

Firstly, I need to define “outer” growth.

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

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

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

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

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

As you can see almost all population growth in Perth is happening in the outer suburbs (in fact there was population decline in the rest of Perth in 2016-2016), while almost half in Melbourne and South East Queensland, 29% in Sydney and 40% in Adelaide.

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

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

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

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

But an emerging new trend is that Perth’s weighted population density (at least when measured at SA3 geography) peaked in 2013 and has been declining since.

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

On my definitions of outer areas, Melbourne is charging ahead, with over 61,000 residents moving into growth areas in 2016-17. Perth peaked in 2012, but has fallen back since. Adelaide just hasn’t seen a lot of population growth in recent decades.

I’m measuring sprawl by population, but you could argue that it might be better measured by urbanised area. I’ll have to look at that in another post.

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

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

Around 2007 there was an acceleration of population growth in non-outer areas in most cities (although there was a subsequent lull around 2010-2012). In 2015-16 in Perth, the population of the non-outer areas decreased by an estimated 3867 people.

A couple of things to note:

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

Where did the new residents come from?

The ABS now publishes the components of population growth down to SA2 geography, so we can dig a little deeper.

Here are the components of outer suburban population growth in 2016-17:

Domestic migration refers to people moving to/from other parts of Australia (possibly including other parts of the city)

In Perth and Adelaide, less than half of the outer suburbs population growth was from new residents, whereas it was more like 72% in the other three urban centres. This might reflect relatively slower outer urban growth in Perth and Adelaide – with population growth coming more from existing residents growing families rather than new residents.

Here are the components of population growth for the five urban centres as a whole:

Sydney, Perth, and Adelaide have seen existing residents leave for other parts of Australia, replaced with babies and international migrants.


Here’s the same for the non-outer suburbs:

The three columns for each city do actually add to 100%. In Perth the net population increase was only +614 people, whereas there was a natural increase of 5560 (906% of 614), domestic migration to other places of 12171 (1982% of 614) and net 7225 international migrants (1177% of 614).

That chart is quite confusing, so instead let’s look at the underlying numbers:

In Melbourne and Sydney, the net increase from births/deaths in non-outer areas was effectively cancelled out by people migrating away domestically (many likely to the outer suburbs of the same city), with the net population growth then mostly accounted for by net overseas immigration.

The only urban area where the existing non-outer area didn’t see net outbound domestic migration was South East Queensland.

Finally here’s a chart comparing the distribution of net new overseas migrants to total population growth:

In all cities, the proportion of new international migrants settling in outer suburbs is much lower than the outer suburbs’ share of total population growth. International migrants appear to prefer the inner and middle suburbs of cities (and that would certainly make sense for international tertiary students who want to be near educational institutions).

Some non-Australian residents might be confused by the term “overseas”. We use it interchangeably with “international” because Australia has no land borders with other countries.

Appendix – Maps showing outer areas of cities

For Melbourne refer to the top of this post.



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

South East Queensland


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



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



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

Are Melbourne’s suburbs full of quarter acre blocks?

Sun 22 May, 2016

A lot has been said about the great Australian dream of moving to the suburbs and living on a quarter acre block. But is Melbourne suburbia actually full of quarter acre blocks? Where are they to be found? Are they disappearing? This post delves into block sizes in Melbourne.

Where are the quarter acre blocks?

A quarter-acre translates to 1011.7 square metres in modern units, but for the purposes of this post I’ll allow some leeway and count any block between 900 and 1100 square metres. For this post I’ve also filtered out blocks in planning zones that cannot include dwellings (eg industrial areas), but that does mean I’ve included blocks in mixed use zones, commercial zones, etc. So not every block counted is residential. Also some larger blocks might contain multiple small dwellings but not actually be subdivided (eg a block of flats).

First up, here is a map of Melbourne showing the prevalence of quarter acre blocks. It looks like there are lots of them, but because the blocks are so small, the total area occupied by quarter-acre blocks is significantly over-represented on this large scale map.

Melbourne quarter acre block map

There are larger concentrations in the outer north-east and outer-east, but very few blocks in the current growth areas to the west, north and south-east.

Here are the top 20 suburbs for numbers of quarter-acre blocks:

Mooroolbark 1625
Rye 1545
Ferntree Gully 1504
Boronia 1471
Croydon 1437
Mount Martha 1430
Eltham 1229
Mount Eliza 1125
Werribee 1054
Sunbury 1035
Lilydale 996
Mornington 982
Reservoir 978
Balwyn North 936
Berwick 898
Upwey 897
Pakenham 772
Langwarrin 767
Kilsyth 732
Greensborough 724

There are almost 78,000 quarter-acre blocks within Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary, which sounds like a lot, but is only 3.75% of the 1.8 million blocks in my dataset.

So what are typical block sizes in Melbourne?

For this analysis I’m considering blocks within land use zones that can include dwellings, that are also within the urban growth boundary. But I’ve excluded blocks of less than 40 square metres on the assumption these are unlikely to contain dwellings.

Here’s the frequency distribution of block sizes in Melbourne:

The most common block size is 640-660 square metres, and 34.5% of blocks are between 520 and 740 square metres. The median is 540-560 square metres. 180-200 is the most common smaller block size, and there is a small spike in block sizes of 1000-1020 square metres, which includes the quarter-acre block. But quarter-acre blocks are certainly very uncommon.

I’ve calculated the median block sizes for all suburbs within Melbourne’s Urban Growth Boundary.

The inner city has median block sizes under 300 square metres, and 300-500 is typical in the inner northern and western suburbs. Block sizes are larger in the middle and outer eastern suburbs, older suburbs in the south-east, and blocks along the Mornington Peninsula. But the more recent growth areas to the west, north and south-east see median block sizes of between 400 and 500 square metres (purple), reflecting higher dwelling densities encouraged by current planning policy for growth areas. Quarter-acre blocks are the median only in places like Upwey, Belgrave and Portsea.

Inner city Carlton has the lowest median of 100-120 square metres, followed by Cremorne, North Melbourne, South Melbourne at 120-140 square metres, and then Abbotsford, Fitzroy North, Port Melbourne, Richmond, West Melbourne at 140-160 square metres. Urbanised suburbs at the other end of the scale include Park Orchards at 3020, Selby at 1440, and Warrandyte at 1260.

There are two interesting outliers in the central city: Southbank (in yellow) has a median block size of 980 square metres, and Docklands (in blue) has a median of 660 square metres. Both have been redeveloped in recent decades with many medium to high-rise apartment towers on those larger blocks.

Beyond these medians, there is a lot of variation within suburbs. Let’s go for a wander around the city.

Mooroolbark has the highest count of quarter-acre blocks and a median size of 840 square metres. As well as larger blocks, you can see a lot of further subdivision, particularly close to the train line (thin black line).

You may have noticed in the suburb map above a black coloured suburb in the middle south-eastern suburbs. That suburb is Clayton, and here is how it looks:

While blocks of 700-800 square metres were probably typical in the original subdivision, further subdivided blocks now outnumber the larger blocks, with a median of 260 square metres. Clayton of course is home to a major Monash University campus, and I suspect a lot of the smaller blocks house students.

A bit further down the line in Noble Park you can see extensive further subdivision near the rail line, surrounded by almost uniform blocks of 500-600 square metres:

Heading further south, Cranbourne is an interesting mix. The inner core (old town) has larger blocks but lots of further subdivision. This is surrounded by many blocks of around 700-800 square metres, but the most recent development has much smaller bocks, most less than 500. It’s a bit like tree rings, with each ring of incremental urban growth reflecting the preferred new block size of the time.

The area around Berwick also has a wide variety of block sizes, depending on the timing of development:

Here is the Frankston area:

Again significant further subdivision in central Frankston, a variety of block sizes in different parts of Langwarrin, and lots of large blocks in Frankston South and Mount Eliza (in some of the pink areas most blocks are over 2500 square metres).

In the middle northern suburbs you can see suburbs from an era when new block sizes were relatively large, and they’ve since had extensive subdivision. Here is Pascoe Vale:

Here is Reservoir. You can see smaller blocks in the surrounding suburbs:

The large block area to the west of the train line was apparently developed around the 1960s.

And to the west St Albans is another suburb with larger blocks being subdivided:

And further east there is a lot of further subdivision in Boronia and Bayswater, particularly near the rail stations:

The north-west corner of Templestowe has not too many larger blocks yet to be subdivided. But to the south-east you can see areas with blocks larger than 1200 square metres (light pink).

The area around Eltham has many large blocks, including many larger than quarter-acres. There has been quite a bit of subdivision around the rail stations however.

Another area with many large blocks is around Upwey/Belgrave:

A significant proportion of blocks are larger than a quarter-acre, with a median of 1060 in Belgrave, 1120 in Upwey, 1000 in Tecoma, and 980 in Upper Ferntree Gully.

If you want a quarter-acre block relatively close to the city, then Balwyn North has quite a few (many with swimming pools). Good luck saving a deposit for those.

But if a quarter-acre block isn’t big enough and you can afford the real estate, then you might want to try Canterbury or Deepdene, also relatively close to the city:

Or of course Toorak with plenty of very large blocks even closer to the city (although many will contain apartment buildings).

Essendon also has some larger blocks, including some quarter-acres:

There has been plenty of further subdivision, but there is also a stripe of green that is mostly in tact (a restrictive covenant applied perhaps?). You can also see the recent Valley Lake development in purple in Niddrie.

Most of the growth areas have small blocks, but here are some exceptions in eastern Doreen:

So there is plenty of variation in block sizes across Melbourne, but not that many quarter-acre blocks. Perhaps we should talk more about the one-seventh-acre block.

Data acknowledgement

This analysis was made possible with data available from under a creative commons license. The data is Copyright © The State of Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning 2016.

I have used November 2015 property boundary data and May 2016 planning zones (sorry, not quite aligned, but this post has been a while in the making and the differences are unlikely to be significant).