Roy Morgan Research
July 25, 2023

Public transport use increases in March quarter 2023 – but frequency of use is over 20% lower than pre-pandemic

Topic: Press Release
Finding No: 9281
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New research shows 11.87 million Australians aged 14+ (54.6%) used public transport at least once during the March quarter 2023. This is up over 2.9 million (+32.4%) from the March quarter 2022, a year ago, and an increase of almost 5 million from the September quarter 2020 when only 6.88 million (32.6%) Australians were using public transport at least once in that quarter.

The pandemic-era low in usage of public transport was reached during Melbourne’s long second lockdown and when there were significant restrictions on people’s movement in Sydney due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in that city centred on the Crossroads Hotel.

Frequency of using buses and trains over 20% lower than pre-pandemic

However, although the overall number of Australians using public transport at least once in the March quarter 2023 is approaching pre-pandemic levels, the frequency of public transport use is still well below the level in 2019. For bus travellers, their frequency of use is over 20% lower than pre-pandemic while for train travellers their frequency of use is over 25% lower than pre-pandemic.

The number of Australians using public transport has consistently increased since reaching a second pandemic-era low of 7.39 million (34.9%) in the December quarter 2021. Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the national capital city of Canberra, all started the last quarter of 2021 in city-wide lockdowns.

The March quarter 2023 was the first since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020 during which all major COVID-related restrictions had been removed – the mandatory isolation requirements ended in October 2022 (December quarter 2022).

Public transport use in Australia from 2016 – 2023

Source: Roy Morgan Single Source, January 2016 – March 2023, quarterly average sample n = 14,127.
Base: Australians aged 14+.

Trains are the most popular form of public transport ahead of buses with trams in third sport

In the March quarter 2023 trains were again the most popular form of public transport used by 9.2 million (42.5%) Australians ahead of buses used by 7.8 million (35.9%). Almost 4.3 million (19.6%) travelled on trams and over 1.9 million (9%) travelled on ferries or rivercats.

The share of Australians now using public transport is approaching pre-pandemic levels and the growth of the overall population over the last three years means that although there are a comparable number of people using public transport their frequency of use is significantly lower.

In the March quarter 2023 there were 11.87 million using public transport (54.6% of the population), at least once in the quarter, compared to 11.79 million (56.3%) in the December quarter 2019.

This new data comes from Roy Morgan Single Source, Australia’s most comprehensive consumer survey, derived from in-depth interviews with over 60,000 Australians each year.

Trains are the most widely used form of transport in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane & Perth, but buses are the most highly used in Adelaide, Hobart & Canberra

The detailed results for Australia’s Capital Cities show trains are the leading form of transport in Sydney (66% travelled by train), Melbourne (56.4%), Perth (44.6%) and Brisbane (43.5%).

These figures represent increases from the lows of the December quarter 2021 – the final lockdown when both Sydney and Melbourne were locked down for several months – when only 35.3% of Sydneysiders and 24.7% of Melburnians travelled by train.

In the March quarter 2021 only 25.1% of Brisbane residents travelled by train while in Perth the low point came at the start of the pandemic in the June quarter 2020 when less than a third, 29.2%, did so.

There was also high number of travellers by bus in these cities with 54.9% of Sydney residents, 40.1% of Brisbane residents, 37.3% of Perth residents and 35.5% of Melburnians travelling by bus in the March quarter 2023. Buses remained the leading form of public transport in other Australian capitals including Adelaide (41.3%), Canberra (35.5%) and Hobart (32.3%).

Melburnians are flocking back to the city’s famous trams with 38.3% of local residents travelling by tram in the March quarter 2023, more than doubling from 18.7% in the December quarter 2021. However, these figures are still significantly below the 43.3% of Melburnians travelled by tram in an average three months in late 2019.

Travelling by ferry/ rivercat is far more popular in Sydney (15.8%) and Brisbane (12.8%) than other cities and is now comparable with pre-pandemic levels during 2019 when 16.1% travelled by ferry/ rivercat in Sydney and 12.2% did so in Brisbane.

Roy Morgan CEO Michele Levine says Australians have returned to public transport in droves over the last 18 months as restrictions were eased with the final mandatory isolation restrictions ended in the final quarter of 2022:

Block Quote

“Public transport usage in Australia has (somewhat)recovered from pandemic-era lows over the last year as restrictions ended and people returned to trains, buses, trams, ferries and river cats. However, there is an important quantitative difference in terms of the way Australians are using public transport today compared to pre-pandemic – the frequency of use is well down.

“In the March quarter 2023 – the first quarter for over three years without any COVID-19 restrictions – 11.87 million Australians (54.6%) travelled by public transport including trains, buses, trams and ferries/rivercats. This is up 2.9 million from a year ago and up by almost 5 million from the pandemic-era low of only 6.88 million (32.6%) in the September quarter 2020.

“The overall usage of public transport in the March quarter 2023 is the highest number of Australians using public transport for four years since the September quarter 2019 when a record high 12.6 million Australians (60.6%) travelled by public transport.

“The key difference when comparing public transport usage today with pre-pandemic is to take into account the changes to the way people work and commute. Now over 40% of employed Australians are working from home at least some of the time compared to around a fifth prior to the pandemic – effectively almost doubling compared to four years ago.

“This factor means that the frequency of use of public transport has plunged compared to pre-pandemic. The average bus traveller in 2023 is using the bus over 20% less frequently than pre-pandemic and the average train traveller is taking over 25% fewer journeys by train. There is a similar drop-off for Melbourne’s tram travellers compared to pre-pandemic.

“Contact Roy Morgan for further details and information on how Australians are using public transport in this post pandemic era, and the impacts that the pandemic has had on usage patterns in 2023 compared to 2019.”

Margin of Error

The margin of error to be allowed for in any estimate depends mainly on the number of interviews on which it is based. Margin of error gives indications of the likely range within which estimates would be 95% likely to fall, expressed as the number of percentage points above or below the actual estimate. Allowance for design effects (such as stratification and weighting) should be made as appropriate.

Sample Size Percentage Estimate
40% – 60% 25% or 75% 10% or 90% 5% or 95%
1,000 ±3.0 ±2.7 ±1.9 ±1.3
5,000 ±1.4 ±1.2 ±0.8 ±0.6
7,500 ±1.1 ±1.0 ±0.7 ±0.5
10,000 ±1.0 ±0.9 ±0.6 ±0.4
20,000 ±0.7 ±0.6 ±0.4 ±0.3
50,000 ±0.4 ±0.4 ±0.3 ±0.2
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