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Is growth in driving really outstripping surging population?

By Alan Davies - posted Monday, 26 November 2018

The Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) released a report last week comparing historical growth in driving and public transport patronage in Melbourne against growth in population.

Contrary to the clickbait headline in The Age claiming driving is growing faster than population (see Melbourne's traffic growth outstrips population surge), the PTUA's report showed the opposite: car travel has been growing slower than population since 2004.


The trend's been going for 14 years so it's hardly news; I've discussed it many times before. Nevertheless, it's worth analysing it again in these pages as it has important implications for public policy.

I've taken a different approach to the PTUA because it inexplicably compares growth in private vehicle travel (kms) with growth in public transport boardings. These are different measures e.g. consider that the number of trips by bus in Sydney is larger than the number of trips by train, however train trips on average are much longer, so when measured in terms of travel (kms), train use significantly exceeds bus use.

The PTUA's methodology does public transport no favours! The curious thing is it's unnecessary to use different measures; the same source – BITRE – that PTUA drew its historical kms of travel by private vehicles from also shows km of travel by public transport.

The exhibit above accordingly shows annual km of travel by private vehicle (essentially cars) vs public transport in Melbourne and Sydney over the 35-year period from 1976-77 to 2014-15. It also accounts for population growth; it displays the per-capita change in travel for both modes. Some observations:

  • Private vehicle travel increased at a slower rate than population in both Sydney and Melbourne for the last 14 years. "Peak car" was 2003-04; it's been and very likely gone.
  • Public transport travel's remained flat in Sydney since 1987-88. It increased in Melbourne from 2005-06 but it's been flat since 2009-10.
  • Overall, Melburnians and Sydneysiders are travelling less relative to population growth. The much larger share captured by private vehicles means total per capita travel (the sum of both modes) fell significantly since 2003-04; by 988 kms p.a. in Melbourne and by 854 kms p.a. in Sydney.
  • Notwithstanding that travel by car has fallen on the per-capita metric, it's nevertheless increased in absolute terms. For example, Melbourne drivers now travel an additional 5.6 billion km per annum compared to 2003-04. We've passed "peak car", but cars are well and truly still here.

It's tempting to conclude the per-capita decline in Melbourne is due to greater public transport use, and that's true in part, but it's not the primary explanation.


Consider that per-capita private vehicle travel declined in Sydney too, but public transport didn't grow significantly. That was also the pattern in Brisbane and Adelaide. Note also that car travel grew in absolute terms by 4.2 billion kms in Sydney over the last 14 years while public transport travel increased by 1.3 billion kilometres.

Moreover, the decline in per capita car travel is an international phenomenon. I've been discussing the reasons for this for a long time now (e.g. see here and here). There are many possible explanations, including more overseas travel (you can't drive if you're out of the country); it's harder to get a driver's license; the GFC; higher petrol prices; and more.

The key reasons though appear to be a combination of higher traffic congestion; substitution of the internet for (some) trips; more time spent in full-time tertiary education; having children at a later age; ageing population; and perhaps most importantly, 'saturation' of travel demand e.g. the growth in women entering the workforce has slowed (see Why are Australians driving less than they used to?).

The explanation for the jump in public transport travel in Melbourne between 2003-04 and 2009-10 is most plausibly out-growth in the number of new jobs in the CBD over the period. Public transport didn't directly drive the growth; successive governments scrambled to "catch-up" with the exogenously-driven increase in demand.

The data suggests that the out-growth in per-capita car travel of the last century in Australian capitals is finished. For the foreseeable future it will probably grow in line with GDP rather than at the high rates of the past. This is likely to be true even with construction of new road projects like the North West Link and West Gate Tunnel in Melbourne.

Notwithstanding rising congestion, public transport's share of motorised travel has been static since 2009-10 at around 11% in Melbourne and 14% in Sydney. It can likely grow faster than population from that modest base, but that requires an increase in capacity and level of service and, most of all, a significant decrease in the utility of driving. The latter is only likely to come from policies that ration access to road space.

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This article was first published on Crikey.

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About the Author

Dr Alan Davies is a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Pty Ltd ( and is the editor of the The Urbanist blog.

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