Livability: Transport



Transport plays an essential role in the economic and social development of our societies. Transport provides access to jobs, housing, services and recreation, and opens up peripheral and isolated regions (Armstrong et al. 2015). Effective transport systems are an essential part of a healthy built environment, and help in the management of traffic congestion, health and the environment (see Impact of traffic increases in Pressures affecting the built environment).

Access to transport remains a critical social equity consideration, particularly for the outer suburbs of Australia’s cities and most parts of regional Australia. These areas generally have an undersupply of transport services (especially public transport) and of local employment options (Infrastructure Australia 2016).

The type of transport used is directly influenced by location within urban centres: inner cities have experienced improved public transport frequency and increases in cycling, whereas households on the edges of Australian cities still rely on cars and long commutes to access work.

Reducing the number of vehicle-kilometres6 travelled in our cities would improve population and environmental health (NSC 2013). Public transport and active transport are therefore important components of our overall transport approach.

Types of transport

Australian cities have relatively low population densities and are highly car dependent. Australia’s cities tend to have higher rates of private transport use than public transport use when compared with overseas cities (DIT 2013), although they are better than most cities in the United States.

Travel within Australia is dominated by road transport, mainly passenger cars. Use of road transport remained relatively constant in the 6 years to 2009–10, but has grown steadily since 2010 (Figure BLT25), although per-person use of cars has declined (see Figure BLT28). Passenger travel using other modes increased in recent years, with travel by air increasing rapidly since 2001 (BITRE 2015a).

Despite some recent large increases in public transport modal share (Figure BLT26), metropolitan passenger travel remains dominated by private road vehicles. Road vehicles (cars, motorcycles and the nonfreight use of commercial road vehicles) accounted for approximately 171.4 billion passenger-kilometres across the 8 capitals in 2014 (about 86.2 per cent of total travel), and approximately 178.5 billion passenger-kilometres when buses are included (accounting for 90 per cent of all capital-city passenger travel) (BITRE 2015a).

Since around 2005, car ownership has continued to rise (Figure BLT27), in line with population growth, whereas car passenger-kilometres travelled per person in capital cities has fallen (Figure BLT28).

Increasing demand

Nationwide, population increases and ongoing prosperity drive an increasing need for road space, public transport capacity, freight capacity and improved gateways for trade (Infrastructure Australia 2015). However, some reports are suggesting that gross domestic product and car use are decoupling in developed cities (Newman & Kenworthy 2015).

Roads, public transport, freight, active transport (in some cities) and air travel are all experiencing increasing levels of activity in Australian cities (Australian Government 2015a). With population growth happening largely in the centre and outer suburbs of our largest cities, there are significant impacts on demand for transport. Although there has been high-density development in inner-city locations, the development of new suburbs on city fringes has continued (see Urban sprawl). These new greenfield suburbs tend to be constructed at relatively low densities, where distances between all urban services and activities are longer, on average. This results in more travel, and, with such a dispersed set of trip origins and destinations, this travel is frequently undertaken by car. New suburbs also tend to exhibit lower employment densities, suggesting that residents must travel further to jobs, which contributes to the increase in vehicle-kilometres travelled (Australian Government 2015a).

There is also a disparity between access to transport infrastructure in the inner and outer suburbs of Australia’s cities, with those living on the outskirts generally serviced by less reliable road and public transport services (Infrastructure Australia 2016), which are much slower than urban rail. Hence, many cities are now building fast urban rail to the outer suburbs (see Box BLT14).


People travel in different ways, depending on which part of a city they live in, particularly when commuting to work (Atkins et al. 2015).

Most people in Australia travel to work or study by private motor vehicle—more than 8.4 million, or 78 per cent of Australian commuters in 2012 (ABS 2012b). In 2012, Melbourne overtook Sydney as the capital city with the most people travelling to work or study by private motor vehicle (1.49 million people compared with Sydney’s 1.47 million people—an increase of just under 6 per cent since 2009, compared with a small decrease of nearly 2 per cent for Sydney). The other populous capital cities of Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth all saw increases in the number of people commuting to work or study via private motor vehicle, the largest being a 9 per cent increase in Adelaide between 2009 and 2012 (Figure BLT29).

Overall, however, the proportion of commuters using a private motor vehicle to get to work or study decreased for nearly all capital cities between 2009 and 2012—the exceptions being Adelaide (from 78 per cent in 2009 to 80 per cent in 2012) and Canberra (from 85 per cent to 88 per cent). This can mostly be attributed to a rise in the proportion of commuters using public transport as their main form of transport to work or study. In Sydney, public transport use increased by 35 per cent from 2009 to 2012, with 31 per cent of Sydneysiders using public transport to get to work or study in 2012. Twenty-two per cent of Melbourne commuters travelled to work or study by public transport in 2012, neither an increase nor a decrease on 2009 levels, although active travel increased during this period (from 4 per cent of commuters in 2009 to just under 7 per cent in 2012) (Figure BLT29). It should be noted that Melbourne experienced a 38 per cent increase in public transport use for commuting to work or study between 2006 and 2009 (see also Figure BLT33 for a longer-term view).

Public transport commutes increased by 31 per cent between 2009 and 2012 in Brisbane (with public transport’s share of commuters shifting from 16 per cent to 20 per cent during this period) (Figure BLT29). Perth experienced a 15 per cent increase in commuters using public transport between 2009 and 2012 (compared with a 3 per cent increase in private car use)—this followed a 57 per cent increase in the use of public transport by Perth commuters between 2006 and 2009.

Sydney (and Hobart) saw small declines in the number of people using private motor vehicles as their main transport mode to work or study between 2009 and 2012. The largest increases in journey to work or study by private car between 2009 and 2012 occurred in Adelaide (an increase of nearly 10 per cent), followed by Brisbane and Melbourne (each a 6 per cent increase) (ABS unpublished data, 2012).

In 2012, 31 per cent of Sydney commuters used public transport as their main mode of transport to work or study. This compares with less than 10 per cent of commuters in the smaller cities of Hobart, Darwin and Canberra. Capital cities with the largest increase in public transport use between 2009 and 2012 were Hobart (not shown), Sydney (a 35 per cent increase) and Brisbane (a 31 per cent increase) (Figure BLT29).

A small proportion (less than 4 per cent) of Australians use active travel (walking and cycling) as their main form of transport to or from work or full-time study (see Active transport). Although figures are less reliable because of the small numbers, Hobart consistently reports the highest proportion of commuters using active travel as their main form of transport to work or study (11 per cent).

In noncapital cities, the rate of private motor vehicle use for journeys to work is higher than in capital cities, with just over 90 per cent of noncapital-city commuters using private vehicles as their main form of transport (compared with 71 per cent of capital-city commuters). Public transport as the main form of transport to work or study was just under 3 per cent for noncapital-city commuters (compared with 22 per cent for capital-city commuters), whereas journey to work by active travel (walk or cycle) was just over 5 per cent for capital-city and noncapital-city commuters (ABS unpublished data, 2012).

Despite the flexibility offered by motor vehicles, there are environmental, economic and social costs of commuting. These include traffic congestion at peak hours (see Increased traffic), which puts pressures on road infrastructure, increases air pollution and greenhouse gases, and increases travel time for other commuters (BITRE 2015c).

Based on place of residence, Australia’s average commuting distance is 15.6 kilometres. The average commuting distances for the rest of the state are generally higher than for the corresponding metropolitan areas (BITRE 2015c).

In capital cities, there is a pattern of inner-ring residents having the shortest average distance to travel (7–10 kilometres), followed by the middle-ring residents (10–15 kilometres). Outer-ring residents have the highest average commuting distances (greater than 15 kilometres) (BITRE 2015c).

In Sydney, 3 subregions of residence—city and inner south, eastern suburbs, and inner west— had the shortest average commuting distances. In the other main capital cities, the Melbourne inner, Brisbane inner city, Perth inner and Adelaide west subregions were the only regions in each corresponding metropolitan area with an average commuting distance of less than 10 kilometres. This is typically in the central part of the inner ring (BITRE 2015c).

Including other major cities, the average commuting distance of residents can be grouped into 4 ranges (BITRE 2015c; Figure BLT30):

  • 9–12 kilometres—Townsville, Cairns, Launceston, Albury–Wodonga, Toowoomba and Canberra–Queanbeyan
  • 12–14 kilometres—Bendigo, Darwin, Adelaide, Ballarat and Hobart
  • 14–15 kilometres—Melbourne, Brisbane, Geelong, Perth and Sydney
  • 15–20 kilometres—Newcastle–Maitland, Gold Coast – Tweed Heads, Sunshine Coast, Mackay and Wollongong.

Average commuting distance varies widely in different regions (BITRE 2015c):

  • For coastal areas with populations of more than 30,000, commuting distance was 14.1 kilometres.
  • For coastal areas with populations of 10,000–30,000, people travelled 16.5 kilometres.
  • For coastal country regions, distance travelled was 25.8 kilometres.
  • For remote regions, people travelled 31.2 kilometres.

Increased distances often result in increased commuting times. Various negative aspects of commuting or journey-to-work times have been identified, including the monetary cost of congestion and journey delay, air pollution, stress and fatigue, and other health impacts (see Impact of traffic increases).

Since around 2010, commuting times have either stabilised or fallen. Population growth and rising road congestion levels since 2010 in the major cities have not translated into a significant rise in average commuting times. This contrasts with a statistically significant (14 per cent) increase in commuting times between 2002 and 2007 (BITRE 2016). The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics suggests that ‘saturation tendencies’ (including congestion, travel time and cost) influence the amount of daily travel that people will undertake in Australian cities. This is expected to lead to lower growth in aggregate travel compared with historical trends.

The average commuting time in Australia is 29 minutes. However, nearly one-quarter of commuters—more than 2 million people—travel for 45 minutes or more one way (defined as a ‘lengthy commute’). Generally speaking, the larger the city, the longer the commuting time. Nearly three-quarters of public transport commutes involve lengthy commutes, compared with 16 per cent of private vehicle commuting trips and 1.6 per cent of active transport commuting trips. Most lengthy commutes occur in Sydney and Melbourne (BITRE 2016; Figure BLT31).

Within each of the 5 most populous capitals (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide), the highest rates of lengthy commutes (i.e. travelling for 45 minutes or more one way) were in a mix of middle and outer suburban areas. For Sydney, the highest rate of lengthy commutes occurs for the middle-ring locations of Burwood, Auburn, Ku-ring-gai and Kogarah (see also Box BLT6). In Melbourne, lengthy commutes were highest in a mix of middle suburban and urban fringe locations such as Whitehorse, Bayside, Melton and Nillumbik (BITRE 2016).

Lengthy commuting has a serious impact on mental and physical health. Several common impacts of lengthy commuting have been identified in the medical arena, including blood sugar rises, high cholesterol, anxiety increases, declining happiness and life satisfaction, blood pressure and cardiovascular issues, sleeping problems and back aches (Hilbrecht et al. 2014).

Resident satisfaction

The proportion of capital-city residents who feel that their city has a good road network and minimal traffic congestion is considered a good measure of progress for the health of our built environment. This is because, as our cities grow, congestion threatens to affect the wellbeing and health of many city dwellers. Increasing levels of satisfaction with road networks and congestion are associated with other benefits for residents, such as reduced pollution, reduced time lost sitting in traffic and reduced feelings of stress.

In 2013, less than half (45 per cent) of Australian city residents felt that their city had a good road network and minimal traffic congestion, according to a report prepared for the Property Council of Australia (Wyatt 2014). The smallest capital cities—Darwin (80 per cent), Canberra (75 per cent) and Hobart (55 per cent)—were the only capitals in which more than half the surveyed residents felt that this was true.

Least satisfied were Sydney and Perth residents, where less than one-quarter believed that their city had a good road network and minimal traffic congestion. Since 2010, however, most capital cities have reported an increase in the proportion of residents feeling positive about this aspect of their cities (consistent with a rise in public transport commutes across cities). The exceptions were Adelaide—which, unlike other capital cities, did not show an increase in public transport use in the past 5 years—and Perth (Wyatt 2014).

Public transport

Public transport performs many critical functions in Australia’s cities. It is used by many thousands of city residents across Australia to commute to work, and provides a base level of mobility for many who cannot, or choose not to, commute by private motor vehicle (Atkins et al. 2015). It reduces pollution and congestion, requires less land use than road infrastructure, and encourages a more active lifestyle, as well as enabling the development of knowledge economy–based centres because of their greater spatial efficiency.

As Australia’s urban economies transition and more jobs are located in city centres, public transport use has grown significantly (Figure BLT33). In the past decade, the rate of average annual growth of public transport patronage (2.4 per cent) surpassed the rate of population growth in capital cities (1.8 per cent). Heavy rail lines carry the bulk of these kilometres travelled, reflecting both growth in patronage because of population growth and longer trips being undertaken from extending outer areas (Atkins et al. 2015).

New rail and bus infrastructure has been built in Perth and Brisbane in recent years. In Melbourne and Sydney, however, rail passenger-kilometres have increased despite largely static investment in the network, which has meant that overcrowding has started to occur (Atkins et al. 2015). Urban rail projects are now happening in these cities (see Box BLT14).

Box BLT6 How Sydneysiders get to work, by area of work

In 2011, the share of Sydney residents who used public transport to commute to the city and inner south area, and the North Sydney and Hornsby area, was 50 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively. This indicates better public transport access to these workplaces, and reflects limited and costly parking options in these areas (Figure BLT32).

The City of Sydney local government area was the place of work for 37 per cent of people who had lengthy commutes (45 minutes or more one way); other places of work where people experienced lengthy commutes were North Sydney, Parramatta and Ryde (BITRE 2016).

For Sydney commuters working in the city and inner south, around half commuted by public transport, 32 per cent commuted by private vehicle, 8 per cent commuted by active travel, and 2 per cent worked at home (Figure BLT32). Inner-city residents using mass transit commuted for 46 minutes, while those in mid-ring suburbs commuted for an average of 59 minutes (Tables BLT12 and BLT13). Outer-city mass transit users had an average commuting time of 79 minutes, with 90 per cent of users commuting for longer than 45 minutes (BITRE 2016).

The rest of Sydney, particularly in the outer suburbs such as Blacktown and the south-western areas, had the largest share of private vehicle commuters (up to 80 per cent). In Parramatta, out of more than 183,600 people working there, 72 per cent of workers commuted by private vehicle. The local government areas with above average prevalence of lengthy commutes (between 32 and 35 per cent of commutes defined as lengthy) include Fairfield, Hornsby, Parramatta, Sutherland Shire and Hills Shire (BITRE 2016).

Many of Sydney’s urban fringe local government areas—such as the Blue Mountains, Camden, Gosford, Hawkesbury, Liverpool, Penrith, Wollondilly and Wyong—had a smaller prevalence of lengthy commutes (between 16 and 30 per cent), reflecting the small proportion of these residents who commute to work in the central business district. Instead, these residents tend to work locally or commute to neighbouring local government areas (BITRE 2016).

Table BLT12 Average commuting distances, by place of residence, Sydney, 2008–13

Place of residence

Average road distance (kilometres)

Inner Sydney


Middle Sydney


Outer Sydney


Rest of Greater Sydney


Source: BITRE (2015c)

Table BLT13 Average trip duration, by place of residence and place of work, Sydney, 2008–13

Place of residence

Work in inner Sydney


Work in middle Sydney


Work in outer Sydney


Inner Sydney




Middle Sydney




Outer Sydney




Source: BITRE (2016)

Public transport use is partly influenced by the level of accessibility to public transport for the population. Good accessibility to public transport also promotes walking for active transport. The RESIDE project, conducted by the University of Western Australia’s Centre for the Built Environment and Health, found that:

  • having a train station within a 15-minute walk meant that residents were 50 per cent more likely to walk for active transport
  • participants with better access to more bus stops were 88 per cent more likely to walk for active transport
  • residents with public transport stops close to both home and work were 16 times more likely to use public transport than those with neither (Bull et al. 2015; also see Active transport).

Metro ARIA data were used to analyse the proportion of a city’s population with accessibility to transit stops for bus, train, tram and ferry. Brisbane recorded the highest proportion of the population with ‘limited’ and ‘low’ accessibility to public transport in 2011. Sydney and Hobart both had more than 80 per cent of their population with high to very high accessibility to public transport (Figure BLT34).

The presence of public transport infrastructure attracts higher-density development, with corridors of higher-density housing and commercial premises located along transit routes. This change in urban form in Australian cities is becoming increasingly common (Atkins et al. 2015).

Transport disadvantage is experienced by certain subgroups in the population (e.g. families with young children, people with a disability, Indigenous Australians). Transport disadvantage can also occur in specific geographical locations such as outer-urban (‘fringe’) areas (Figure BLT35), and rural and remote Australia. The reliance on private motor vehicles in outer-urban and inner-regional areas particularly affects lower-income groups. Rising fuel prices, combined with poor public transport infrastructure and the need to travel further distances to employment, can result in ‘transport poverty’ for these groups (Armstrong et al. 2015).

Active transport

Active travel (walking or cycling) has several positive aspects for the built environment:

  • It offers health benefits to those people who opt to walk or cycle (the prevalence of obesity is considerably higher in countries such as Australia, where motor vehicle travel dominates).
  • It reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It provides more human-scale activity on city streets.
  • It reduces demand on other congested modes of transport.
  • In contrast to road and public transport infrastructure, the network can be improved relatively cheaply and can be made comparatively quickly (Atkins et al. 2015).

Habit, convenience, perceptions of safety and a lack of alternatives all continue to create demand for use of the private motor vehicle. Whether someone can walk or cycle to work depends heavily on the distance between their home and workplace, and the pedestrian, cycling or shared-path infrastructure that supports and promotes active travel. For example, just over 50 per cent of commuters surveyed in 2012 stated that their work or study distance was too far to ride a bicycle (ABS 2012b). As a result, the majority of commuters using active transport are those who live and work in the older and higher-density inner areas of Australia’s cities (Atkins et al. 2015; see Box BLT7).

Australia has generally followed the model provided by the United States (rather than Europe), where walking and cycling trips are discouraged by longer trip distances caused by land-use policies, the relatively low cost of car ownership and use, and public policies that generally facilitate driving.

In 2012, out of a total of 10.9 million Australian commuters, 3.8 per cent (approximately 419,000 commuters) usually walked to work or full-time study (ABS 2012b). A small 1.6 per cent of Australian commuters (approximately 179,000) used a bicycle as their main form of transport to work or study. At a national level, the proportion of the population using active travel as their main form of transport has remained stable or, in the case of walking, shown a small decline since 2006 (Table BLT14).

Tasmanian commuters, at 7.4 per cent in 2012, were most likely to walk to work or study, whereas Victorian commuters were most likely to cycle to work or study (2.3 per cent). Tasmanians were more likely to cycle and/or walk than use public transport to get to work or study (ABS 2012b). Although small in percentage terms, both Melbourne and Perth are the 2 capital cities to see significant growth in active travel between 2009 and 2012 (ABS unpublished data, 2009, 2012).

Table BLT14 Journey to work by active travel, by state, 2006, 2009, 2012


2006 bicycle (%)

2006 walk (%)

2009 bicycle (%)

2009 walk (%)

2012 bicycle (%)

2012 walk (%)

New South Wales





















South Australia







Western Australia





















a Figures are subject to high standard errors and should be used with caution.

Source: ABS (2009, 2012b)

Active transport for children has rapidly declined in most developed countries. Australian studies suggest that only around 20 per cent of secondary students, and 35–39 per cent of primary school children now use active forms of transport. This is a reduction from an overall figure of close to 70 per cent in 1970 (Armstrong et al. 2015). Approximately 40 per cent of car trips between 8 am and 9 am, and 3 pm and 4 pm, are to drop off or pick up school children. This ‘chauffeuring’ of children constitutes as much as 17 per cent of peak traffic and contributes significantly to traffic congestion (Armstrong et al. 2015).

Box BLT7 ‘Walkability’ and our urban environment

There is a growing international recognition among policy-makers and academics that urban environments are an important determinant of health behaviours and outcomes. Neighbourhood and locational choices may affect health through a range of mechanisms. In recent years, medical research has drawn attention to relationships between walkability and health. ‘Walkability’, and its association with individual physical activity, are based on land-use patterns, residential densities and street layouts, as well as access to public transport.

Creating walkable environments encourages active travel (e.g. walking and cycling for transport purposes, use of public transport) by providing opportunities to habitually engage in physical activity. This, in turn, protects against many noncommunicable diseases and obesity, and there is now considerable evidence showing associations between walkability and health outcomes (Badland et al. 2015).

Since World War 2, the standard in Australian cities has become sprawled, low-density suburban development, particularly on the urban fringe. A report commissioned by the Heart Foundation in 2014 (Giles-Corti et al. 2014), found consistent cross-sectional evidence that:

  • those living in lower-density neighbourhoods, or who perceive they live in lower-density areas, undertake less walking than those living in higher-density neighbourhoods (and vice versa)
  • living in lower-density areas is associated with increased overweight and obesity in adults and adolescents (although the relationship with weight status in younger children is less clear)
  • there are positive associations between people’s perceptions of higher densities, and walking and cycling.

There is also relatively consistent cross-sectional evidence that residential density is associated with ‘… transport mode choice, with higher residential densities positively associated with active transport modes, and (in general) negatively associated with car dependency outcomes. Hence, living in lower density developments is likely to increase car dependency with residents using fewer active modes of transport’ (Giles-Corti et al. 2014).

Coleman S (2016). Built environment: Livability: Transport. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8