Australian Work Access: Not Yet the New Normal


Around the world, the pandemic produced a strong increase in working at home and a reduction in traveling to work in the last few years. Even as lockdowns have generally been removed or relaxed, the share of the remote work force has greatly increased from previous norms. Results from the 2021 census reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that working at home accounts for 23.9% of work access, more than triple the number in the 2016 census. This is more than four times the work at home share of 5.3% in the last (2016) census.

At the same time, as suggested by Melanie Davern, Alan Both, Jago Dodson and Tiebei (Terry) Li of RMIT University in The Conversation (“COVID skewed journey-to-work census data. Here’s how city planners can make the best of it”), the census data was “skewed.” Some lockdowns remained on Census day (August 10, 2021), which elevated the work at home job access percentage.

The 2021 census work at home share is higher than the 17.9% share indicated in the United States by the American Community Survey for 2021. The 2021 Canadian census results on work access have not yet been released, though the Canadian Labor Survey estimated that 22.6% of worked most of the time at home in August 2021, the month of the Australian census.

Across Australia, autos continued to be dominant in 2021, accounting for 65.2% of work access in the national 2021 data, nearly three times the work at home share and more than 10 times that of transit. Transit’s share dropped to 5.8%, a 57% reduction from 2016 levels. (Figure 1).

Greater Capital City Statistical Areas

Australia has five major metropolitan areas (Greater Capital Cities Statistical Areas or GCCSAs), with more than 1,000,000 population, with work access in each described below. Work access data is summarized for both the 2021 and 2016 census is in the Table below (Note).

The Sydney GCCSA continues to be the largest in Australia, with a 2021 population of 5.3 million, up 14.1% from 2011. In 2021, Sydney’s work at home work access share was 46.3%, nearly ten times the 4.9% 2016 share. It is also more than the auto share of 42.6%. This figure was undoubtedly high due to the continuing lockdown , as has been suggested, when the census was taken. Even so, ABS managed to find some 2.1 million people working on that day, more than twice the number working at home and more than in the 2016 census. Transit’s share was 6.9%, a huge drop from the 26.2% share in 2016 (Figure 2).

Melbourne remains the second largest GCCSA, with a 2021 population of 5.0 million, a gain of 19.4%. Melbourne also had the second highest work at home job access share at 33.6%. This is seven times the 2016 work at home share. Like Sydney Melbourne was under lockdown on census day. However, 2.1 million people were identified as working on that day, more than were counted in 2016. Unlike Sydney, the auto share remained higher than working at home, at 57.1%. Transit use was 6.7%, down from 18.5% in 2016 (Figure 3).

Brisbane, the third largest GCCSA had a 2021 population of 2.6 million, a gain of 19.6% from 2011. Brisbane’s work at home share was 20.2%, nearly four times the 2016 share of 5.2%. The auto share was 66.7%, more than triple the work at home share. Transit’s work access share was 8.0%, down from 14.1% in 2016 (Figure 4).

Perth, the fourth largest GCCSA, had 2.2 million residents, with an increase of 19.6% from 2011, matching Brisbane. Perth had the lowest home work access share, at 8.8%. This is the lowest figure among the major GCCSAs, but is still an increase of nearly 90% from 4.6% in 2016. The auto share was 77.3%, the highest among the major GCCSAs and more than that of Australia outside the five largest GCCSAs Perth is had the highest transit market share, at 10.1%, compared with 11.9% in 2016. This was a modest decline of about 15% compared to the larger GCCSAs. Moreover, only Perth has a higher transit than work at home share. (Figure 5).

Adelaide had a 2021 population of 1.4 million, an increase of 10.9% from 2011. Adelaide’s home work access share was 10.9%, more than double the 2016 figure. Adelaide’s auto share was 76.6%, a figure nearly equally that of Australia outside the major GCCSAs. The transit market share was 7.9%, down less than a quarter, from 10.8% in 2016.(Figure 6).

In the rest of the nation (outside the five largest GCCSAs), home access to work was 13.3%, more than double the 2016 figure of 4.2% and nearly five times the transit share of 3.9%. Autos were the principal means of access to work, at 77.5% (Figure 7).

The Future?

As work access patterns normalize, it seems probable that the highest work at home shares will decline, as commuters return to cars and transit.Yet, as The Conversation authors note “It’s not even clear if work attendance and commuting patterns will ever return to their pre-COVID state.”Australian central business districts (CBDs) continue to exhibit higher levels of working at home than before. For example, in the Melbourne’s CBD, the nation’s second largest, that workers are spending little more than two days per week in the CBD and only one in eight works five days. The new normal, especially for CBDs, which are the most transit dependent areas of Australian (and Canadian and American) metropolitan areas is likely changed forever.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston, a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.

Note: ABS has an unusually comprehensive work access characterization, which unlike in the United States measures multiple methods for individual workers. For example, a worker using a car and transit to reach work, is classified as using two methods. In the US, respondents are simply asked for the method comprising the greatest distance. The approach in this article is to assume that if a transit mode is used, it is the principal method of work access. This analysis excludes those reported to have not worked, or declining to answer, as well as those reported as using three unspecified methods in the ABS GCCSA work profiles.

Table (back to reference)

Major GCCSA Work Access Methods
Australia, 2021 & 2016 Census
2021 Auto Driver Auto
from Home
Transit Walk Moto Cycle Taxi & Hail Other
Sydney 39.6% 3.0% 46.3% 6.9% 2.7% 0.5% 0.4% 0.2% 0.5%
Melbourne 52.1% 3.5% 33.6% 6.7% 2.3% 0.3% 0.8% 0.2% 0.4%
Brisbane 62.2% 4.5% 20.2% 8.0% 2.5% 0.8% 0.8% 0.4% 0.5%
Adelaide 71.8% 4.8% 10.9% 7.9% 2.2% 0.5% 1.2% 0.3% 0.4%
Perth 72.4% 4.9% 8.8% 10.1% 1.7% 0.3% 0.8% 0.4% 0.8%
Other 72.0% 5.5% 13.3% 2.9% 3.8% 0.5% 0.8% 0.2% 1.0%
Australia 60.8% 4.4% 23.9% 5.8% 2.9% 0.5% 0.7% 0.2% 0.7%
2016 Auto Driver Auto
from Home
Transit Walk Moto Cycle Taxi & Hail Other
Sydney 57.9% 4.2% 4.9% 26.2% 4.5% 0.7% 0.8% 0.2% 0.5%
Melbourne 66.5% 4.2% 4.7% 18.5% 3.4% 0.4% 1.6% 0.2% 0.5%
Brisbane 68.8% 5.5% 5.2% 14.1% 3.2% 1.2% 1.3% 0.2% 0.5%
Adelaide 74.9% 5.1% 4.2% 10.8% 2.5% 0.5% 1.3% 0.2% 0.5%
Perth 73.7% 5.0% 4.6% 11.9% 2.2% 0.6% 1.2% 0.2% 0.8%
Other 76.4% 6.1% 6.1% 3.9% 4.5% 0.7% 1.0% 0.2% 1.1%
Australia 69.6% 5.1% 5.3% 13.4% 3.9% 0.7% 1.1% 0.2% 0.8%
Derived from ABS 2016 & 2021 Census data
See text for exclusions from data

Photo: Melbourne Central Business District from the Eureka Tower (Until 2020, Australia’s tallest building measured by roof height). Source: Wikimedia under CC 2.0 License.