Avoiding the sprawl: which cities really face the longest commutes

By David Donaldson

May 23, 2018

Sydney warringah freeway rush hour traffic with blurred head lights at sunset

Brisbanites and men travel further to get to work, and Canberrans are more likely to walk, according to census data. Plus Hobart is least affordable for renters.

Canberrans enjoy a shorter work commute than any of the big capitals in Australia, data from the 2016 census reveals.

The average ACT commuter travelled around 14km to get to work, compared to 16.5km in Sydney and nearly 17km in Melbourne.

Brisbanites cover the most distance, at 17.4km on average.

Residents of the bush capital are also the most likely to walk or cycle to the office. Just under 8% of commuters chose cycling or walking in both Canberra and Hobart, compared with 5.5% in Sydney and 5% in Melbourne. Perth had the fewest using what the Australian Bureau of Statistics calls “active transport”, at only 3.5%.

It certainly makes you wonder about the government’s argument for decentralisation out of Canberra — that public servants could live like “kings and queens” in regional Australia. They already do, if such figures are any guide.

The data, released Tuesday, shows that the average Australian commuting distance to work is 16km.

Of the 9.2 million commuters across Australia on census day, 79% travelled to work by private vehicle, 14% took public transport and 5% either cycled or walked. A further 0.5 million Australians reported that they worked from home, and 1 million employed persons did not go to work on census day.

Despite being big on feet and bikes, Canberrans are also among the biggest drivers, with a small number using public transport.

Share of commuting by mode of transport for greater capital city, 2016. Source: ABS.

Around 83% of ACT commuters drove to work, compared with 66% in Sydney, 74% in Melbourne, 80% in Brisbane, 83% in Perth and 84% in Hobart and Adelaide.

Sydney and Melbourne unsurprisingly have the highest proportion of public transport commuters, at 27% and 19% respectively, compared to 8% in Canberra.

How far do Australians in different regions commute?

Area Average commute, km Area Average commute, km

Greater Sydney 16.5 Rest of NSW 16.9
Greater Melbourne 16.8 Rest of Victoria 16.7
Greater Brisbane 17.4 Rest of Queensland 16.9
Greater Adelaide 13.5 Rest of SA 17.2
Greater Perth 15.7 Rest of WA 20.7
Greater Hobart 13.8 Rest of Tasmania 16.4
Greater Darwin 13.1 Rest of NT 16.1
Australian Capital Territory 14.4


The breakdown of commuter mode has changed little since the last census in 2011, except in NSW and Victoria, where public transport usage has increased and car use has declined slightly.

Residents of Brisbane had the longest average commute of any city, followed by Melbournians and Sydneysiders. For areas outside the capital, Western Australians had to venture furthest to get to work.

Men commute further

The census also found that men commute longer distances than women.

Males travel an average of 17.7km and females 14.2km. This coincides with men comprising a larger share of workers in occupations that have longer average travel distances.

“While most occupations averaged journeys under 17.0km,” said Phillip Wise, director of census dissemination, “technicians and trade workers travelled an average of 18.2km to get to work, machinery operators travelled 21.1km, and the grand champions of long journeys to work were by people in the mining industry, who averaged 40.3km.

“At the other end, the industry with the shortest average journey to work was accommodation and food services workers, at 11.4km.”

The data also show that as income rises so does people’s average commuting distances. People with a weekly income of $2000-$2999 travelled the longest average distance to work (20km), while people with a weekly income of $1-$149 had the shortest average distance to work (9.6km).

Hobart least affordable for renters

House prices might not be as high in Tasmania, but once incomes are taken into account rental affordability in Hobart is the worst in the country, according to the Rental Affordability Index.

Renters in Hobart now spend an average of 29% of their income on housing.

“On average rents in metropolitan Hobart are now unaffordable even to the median rental household,” says the report, released Wednesday.

“Household incomes in Tasmania are significantly lower than the national average, while rents are more comparable to mainland averages.”

Sydney is second worst.

“Greater Sydney is the second least affordable capital city, though it has seen marginal improvements from the first to the second half of 2017. Unaffordability for very low income households is most severe in Greater Sydney and Canberra, where the median incomes are well above the national average,” says the affordability report.

For someone on a pension, Sydney is by far the least affordable, with average rent taking up 94% of income.

Perth is the most affordable for renters compared to income as the end of the mining boom brings down prices.

Record labour force participation

The ABS also announced last week that the trend labour force participation rate — the number of people working or wanting to work, seasonally adjusted — increased to a further record high of 65.7% in April 2018. That’s the highest it’s been since the ABS started recording it in 1978.

The trend unemployment rate remained at 5.5% for April.


You can read more on the commuting statistics released by the ABS here.

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