The ACT community maintains a high dependence on cars for transport with the number of registered vehicles and their usage increasing. Cars are used for around 80% of all trips undertaken including commuting to work. Public transport, cycling and walking only represent 16% of all travel to work, although public transport use has increased over recent years. Car use contributes to air pollution and greenhouse gases, and has significantly increased road congestion in the ACT. Only 1% of vehicles in the ACT are electric or hybrid.
Indicator assessment legend
Environmental condition is healthy across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have negligible impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is neither positive or negative and may be variable across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have limited impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is under significant stress, OR pressure likely to have significant impact on environmental condition/ human health.
Data is insufficient to make an assessment of status and trends.
Adequate high-quality evidence and high level of consensus
Limited evidence or limited consensus
Evidence and consensus too low to make an assessment
Assessments of status, trends and data quality are not appropriate for the indicator
This indicator assesses private and public transport which accounts for the vast majority of transport demand in the ACT. Transport undertaken for business and industry purposes are not assessed.
Transport is an essential part of modern living, enabling the movement of people and goods for work, education, industry, social connection and recreation. However, road-based transport in the ACT and globally is dominated by vehicles, mainly private cars. This requires continual investment in extensive infrastructure such as roads and parking areas to cope with growing transport needs, as well as increased demand for fossil fuels. This has many environmental impacts including:
- air pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (see Indicator A1: Compliance with air quality standards).
- greenhouse gas emissions (see Indicator CC3: Greenhouse gas emissions).
- reliance on non-renewable fuels
- land clearing and habitat loss for roads and other infrastructure, and
- loss of amenity due to noise.
Transport emissions are particularly important for the ACT. With the Territory moving to 100% renewable electricity in 2019–20, transport will account for over 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, by far the dominant source (see Indicator CC3: Greenhouse gas emissions).
Most of the ACT’s transport emissions come from passenger vehicles. Private modes of transport such as cars are less efficient at moving large numbers of people and so have greater impacts on the environment than public transport. In addition to environmental impacts, the increased use of private vehicles leads to greater congestion and travel times, and demand for new road infrastructure. Consequently, improving the uptake of public and alternative forms of transport, as well as increasing the number of electric vehicles, is important for the ACT.
Urban expansion and population growth are the main drivers for escalation in private car usage. Urban spread has also increased requirements for transport infrastructure in the ACT, including the expansion of freeways.
Condition and trends
Transport modes in the ACT
The ACT community is highly dependent on cars. A 2017 survey of daily travel undertaken in the ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council, found that 78% of all trips were undertaken by car including 55% as a driver and 23% as a passenger (Figure HS18). ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council, 2017, Household Travel Survey (ACTQP HTS), (accessed 15 October 2019). Bus transport only accounted for 4% of trips, and cycling only 2%. Walking was the second highest mode with 14% of the total trips taken. However, it should be noted that walking data includes that undertaken for recreation (for example, dog walking or for exercise) which accounted for nearly 40% of all walking trips, and so does not necessarily represent travel to a specific destination.
Figure HS18: Daily travel mode undertaken in the ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang region.
The survey also determined that the most common purpose for car travel was work related which accounted for 27% of all car travel (Figure HS19). Other common reasons for car use included picking up or dropping off someone (19%), social and recreation (15%) and to buy something (13%). This spread of car use across a range of purposes means that cars are the main transport choice for a range of daily activities.
Figure HS19: Daily car use by travel purpose for the ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang region.
The ACT community’s dependence on cars is further shown in a comparison of the transport modes used to travel to work. Cars were used for over 80% of travel to work (Figure HS20) with car as driver accounting for 74%. This not only shows the dominance of car use for travel to work, but also that most commuting by car is undertaken with the driver as the sole vehicle occupant. Public transport was used for only 8% of travel to work, cycling 5% and walking 3%.
Figure HS20: Commute to work by mode for the ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang region.
The ACT Government has commuting-to-work targets to be achieved by 2026. Environment and Planning Directorate, 2015, Building an Integrated Transport Network, Active Travel, ACT Government, Canberra, (accessed 15 October 2019). These include increasing the mode share of public transport to 16%, and walking and cycling to 7% each. The travel- to-work data reported here shows that these targets are currently not being met.
Vehicle numbers and kilometres travelled
The number of registered vehicles in the ACT has grown from around 253,000 vehicles in 2010, to over 304,000 in 2018, an increase of 20% (Figure HS21).
Figure HS21: Total kilometres travelled and number of registered vehicles in the ACT, 2010 to 2018.
In 2018, passenger vehicles were responsible for 84% (255,000) of the total vehicle registrations (Figure HS22). Light commercial vehicles accounted for 10% of the total vehicle registrations. Light commercial vehicles include some types of sports utility vehicles, which are being increasingly used by the community for non-work purposes. These large vehicles are more damaging to the environment, with increased emissions of air pollutants due to higher fuel usage. The number of registered vehicles per 1,000 population has also increased in the ACT from 726 in 2014 to 731 in 2019.Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2019, 9309.0 Motor Vehicle Census, Australia, 31 January 2019, ABS, Canberra This is mainly due to an increase in passenger vehicles from 607 per thousand people in 2014 to 611 in 2019.
Figure HS22: Registered vehicle types in the ACT, as at 2018.
The annual kilometres travelled by vehicles was variable between 2010 and 2018, but data shows that vehicle usage is increasing. In 2018, the distance travelled by ACT’s vehicles was nearly 3,900 million kilometres (Figure HS21). Similar to registrations, passenger vehicles were responsible for 82% of the total kilometres travelled, with light commercial vehicles accounting for 13% (Figure HS23).
Figure HS23: Percentage of total vehicle kilometres traveled by vehicle type in the ACT, as at 2018.
The growth in registered vehicles and kilometres travelled not only impacts on the environment, but also congestion on the roads in the ACT. Increased time spent on travel to work and other daily activities, and the level of inconvenience and stress experienced in travel, are major factors affecting the liveability of a city. Congestion also has an economic cost because of losses in time at work.
Between 2002 and 2017, daily commute times increased by 65% in the ACT, the highest of any Australian city (Figure HS24). Wilkins, R. et al., 2019, The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 17, Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research, University of Melbourne. The mean daily commute time in 2017 was 52 minutes compared to 31 minutes in 2002, although the time estimate for 2017 was a slight decline on 2014 which was 55 minutes (Figure HS25). The ACT’s commute times are now approaching those recorded in other Australian cities.
Figure HS24: Percentage change in mean daily commute time for selected Australian cities, 2002 to 2017.
Figure HS25: Mean daily commute time for selected Australian cities, 2002 to 2017.
Vehicle fuel types in the ACT
In 2019, 86% of registered passenger vehicles were fuelled by petrol making it the dominant fuel type in the ACT (Figure HS26). This represents a decline in the proportion of petrol vehicles, which fuelled 94% of all passenger vehicles in 2010. This decline is the result a threefold increase in diesel-powered passenger vehicles over the same period, from 4% of total passenger vehicles in 2010 to 12% in 2019. The large increase in diesel vehicles is of concern as their impact on air pollution is becoming recognised as a problem in both Australia and globally. For example, diesel engines generally have higher emissions of nitrogen oxides and much higher emissions of particulate matter (see Indicator A1: Compliance with air quality standards).
Hybrid and electric cars only make up 1% of the total passenger vehicles in the ACT, but in terms of vehicle numbers, have increased from around 150 in 2010 to nearly 2,900 in 2019. The ACT, along with South Australia, have the highest number of electric car purchases in Australia, with 21 electric cars per 10,000 vehicles sold. ClimateWorks Australia, 2018, The State of Electric Vehicles in Australia. Second Report: Driving Momentum in Electric Mobility, ClimateWorks Australia, Melbourne.
Figure HS26a: Vehicle fuel type for registered passenger vehicles in the ACT, 2010:
Figure HS26b: Vehicle fuel type for registered passenger vehicles in the ACT, 2019:
Public transport uptake
Bus use in the ACT declined sharply from the 1980s to the 2000s (Figure HS27), which may have been due to an increase in car affordability.Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment, 2015, ACT State of the Environment Report 2015, ACT Government, Canberra. Since then, public transport use has remained relatively stable at around 45 to 50 boardings per person each year. However, public transport use has increased in recent years, growing from 17.6 million boardings annually (45 per capita) in 2014–15 to 20.1 million (48 per capita) in 2018–19.
The light rail commenced operation on 20 April 2019, with nearly 878,000 boardings to the end of June 2019. The opening of the light rail also coincided with updates to the bus network, and this combination of changes is thought to have contributed to the growth in public transport uptake in 2018–19.
Figure HS27: Public transport boardings per year and per capita for the ACT, 1983–84 to 2018–19.
Cycling is highly variable across the ACT with the Civic area having a significantly greater uptake of cycling than other parts of Canberra. Based on 2014 data reported in: Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment, 2015, ACT State of the Environment Report 2015, ACT Government, Canberra. This is likely due to a flatter terrain and shorter distances to work and study centres.
Between 2011 and 2019, cycling participation in the ACT was higher than the national average for weekly, monthly and annual participation (Figure HS28). In 2019, the ACT had the highest cycling rate of Australian jurisdictions for both weekly and monthly participation, and second highest for annual participation.10 Austroads, 2019, Australian Cycling Participation 2019, Austroads Ltd, Sydney. Despite this, there are wide variations in cycling participation across survey years and a statistically significant decline in ACT’s weekly cycling participation between 2017 and 2019. It must be noted that the cycling data includes physical activity participation (the most common reason for cycling). This means that changes in cycling participation may not reflect changes in the use of cycling for actual transport to work or for other purposes.
Figure HS28: Cycling participation for the ACT and the national average for weekly, monthly and annual use, 2011 to 2019.
The absence of a growing trend in cycling participation in Australia is contrary to the investment made by governments in promoting and encouraging cycling.11 Austroads, 2019, Australian Cycling Participation 2019, Austroads Ltd, Sydney. This is certainly the case for the ACT which has extensive cycling infrastructure. In 2019, the ACT had around 3,100 km of shared paths and some 600 km of on-road cycling lanes. The paths cover 10 principal cycle routes in the ACT, links between these routes, and connect town centres and major employment districts. Given the high level of cycling infrastructure in the ACT, there is much scope for improving cycling participation, including across gender and age groups.
Canberra’s bike barometer
The ACT Government installed a bike barometer at the juncture between the Sullivan’s Creek shared path and MacArthur Avenue in O’Connor in November 2017. Data is provided on an hourly basis in two directions, capturing trips coming from the north towards Civic and from the south heading towards Gungahlin. It does not capture trips coming from Belconnen. The data can be viewed online in real time.
Between December 2017 and May 2019, the barometer counted over 710,000 cyclists (Figure HS29). March followed by October had the highest number of cyclists. There is a clear seasonal variation in the number of cyclists with winter and summer having the lowest counts, although this is not significant. This suggests that climatic conditions may have an impact on cycling numbers, particularly for days of high temperature, rainfall and wind. Of particular interest is the impact of extreme temperatures given the increase in hotter days due to climate change. During such weather, cyclists may benefit from planning decisions that increase thermal comfort such as shading, material choices or location away from infrastructure that increases urban heat effects.
The data also showed that cycling is highest from Tuesday to Thursday and lowest on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays suggesting that most of the trips recorded are for work and education.