Transport policy at the crossroads: travel to work in Australian capital cities 1976-2011

2 January 2013

Australian commuters are turning back to trains, trams and buses in record numbers, new analysis by RMIT University researchers shows.

This report analyses the way residents of Australia’s seven capital cities (the six state capitals plus Canberra) have travelled to work over the last 35 years. It uses data from the census, which has included a question on the mode of transport used to travel to work since 1976.

Key findings

• The number of cars driven to work each day in Australia’s capital cities has nearly doubled since 1976, from 2,027,990 to 3,942,167. Just under two-thirds of the increase is due to growth in the workforce; the remaining third is due to a shift away from more sustainable transport modes: public transport, walking and car-pooling.

• After two decades of rapid decline, public transport usage rates commenced a revival in 1996. The revival began slowly, but the five years to 2011 saw the biggest increase in public transport mode share seen since 1976. There has been a corresponding fall in the share of workers travelling by car, although the fall in the car driving rate has been dampened by continuing declines in car-pooling. Adelaide, Canberra and Hobart have missed out on this public transport revival.

• The revival of public transport has occurred mainly on rail systems, which have recovered the ground lost during the two decades of decline to 1996. The share of workers travelling by train is now higher than at any time since 1976, and in Perth is three times as high as 35 years ago. Buses and (in Melbourne and Adelaide) trams have been less successful, with current usage rates still less than half those of 1976.

• Walking is the most sustainable of all travel modes, and makes a significant contribution to work travel in Hobart, Canberra and Sydney. Walking receives little support from policy makers, but despite this, walking rates increased in the decade leading up to the 2006 census. However, walking rates have declined since 2006 in all cities except Canberra and Perth, suggesting that a renewed policy effort is required to improve conditions for pedestrians.

• Cycling is of negligible importance as a travel mode for work trips in all cities except Canberra. It is not clear that increases in cycling have come at the expense of the car, since higher cycling rates are usually accompanied by lower walking rates. Cycling receives much more attention from policy makers than walking, even though it plays a much smaller role in the journey to work: one possible reason is that cycling is by far the most male-dominated transport mode, reflecting the gender composition of the transport planning profession.

• Despite the publicity devoted to its transport problems in recent years, Sydney is Australia’s sustainable transport capital, with by far the lowest mode share for car driving, the highest share for public transport and above-average rates of walking. More cars are driven to work each day in Melbourne than Sydney, despite the latter’s larger workforce. Public transport grew rapidly in the five years to 2011, reversing a decline over the previous five years. Despite this, the state’s infrastructure advisory body is recommending that funding be redirected from rail to road, based on projections that the census data has shown to be erroneous.

• Melbourne has the second-highest public transport mode share, but the lowest rate of car pooling and below average rates of walking: as a result, car driving is higher than in Brisbane. Melbourne has experienced the fastest growth in public transport mode share of all seven capitals since 1996, but had the most rapid decline in the two decades before then: because the earlier decline was much greater than the recent increase, Melbourne had the biggest decline in public transport usage, and the biggest rise in car driving, over the 35 years since 1976, except for Hobart. Given the recent revival in public transport, it is strange that the Victorian government’s top transport priority is an as-yet-unfunded east-west road tunnel estimated to cost between $12 and $15 billion. No serious analysis has been presented to justify this project, which if it proceeds would likely put a stop to the revival of public transport.

• Census figures also cast doubt on recent rail patronage figures from Sydney and Melbourne. Travel to work by rail in Sydney grew faster between 2006 and 2011 than published patronage data, while travel to work in Melbourne grew more slowly. This suggests that patronage estimation methodologies may have underestimated rail patronage growth in Sydney and overestimated it in Melbourne.

• Brisbane has the second-lowest rate of car driving among the seven capitals, and has also experienced a revival of public transport over the last three censuses. However, the growth in public transport over the last five years has been slower than in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth: indeed, rail usage rates are now higher in Perth than in Brisbane. Public transport growth has been held back by the City of Brisbane’s large program of tunnel, bridge and motorway building.

• Adelaide is Australia’s ‘car capital’, with the highest rate of car driving among the seven capital cities. This is the result of low public transport usage and low rates of active transport (walking and cycling). In the five years to 2011, Adelaide missed out on the public transport revival that occurred in other larger capital cities: public transport mode share stagnated, while both walking and cycling rates declined. These trends are the result of the abandonment over the last 30 years of the Dunstan government’s pro-public transport policies.

• Perth has had the most impressive turnaround in public transport of any capital city during the period covered by this study: it is the only city where public transport mode share is higher than in 1981. A concerted community campaign, backed by skilled planning and budgeting, has revived the city’s rail system, which now carries more passengers than Brisbane’s. This success suggests that Perth can be a model for other Australian cities, particularly Adelaide.

• Canberra has experienced a sustained decline in public transport, and a steady rise in car driving, for the last two decades (apart from a temporary reversal during 2001-06). The current car driving rate is the highest ever recorded, something that has not occurred in any other capital city except Hobart. Public transport mode share actually declined slightly in the five years to 2011: Canberra was the only one of the seven cities where this occurred. The problems are the result of poor transport policies, which have focussed on road construction, while reversing the successful public transport approach employed in Canberra until the late 1980s.

• Hobart has relatively high rates of walking, but public transport has been declining, and car use growing, since the Tasman Bridge reopened in 1977. The current rate of car driving is the highest on record. No serious attempt has been made to improve the attractiveness of public transport, while facilities for pedestrians also require attention.

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Cite this document

Paul Mees, 2013, Transport policy at the crossroads: travel to work in Australian capital cities 1976-2011, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, viewed 07 March 2015, <>.

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