Mode share for the journey to work, 1951 and 2011, Melbourne (source data: Thompson and Maginn; ABS Census 2011 via .id)

The exhibit shows public transport was very popular in 1951; the majority of workers in Melbourne travelled to work on trains, trams and buses.

That’s probably not surprising; what’s perhaps less expected is the relatively minor role of cars. Even decades after cars became a familiar site on Australian roads, they accounted for only a fifth of trips to work in Melbourne by 1951

The data is from Australia’s first travel survey, conducted by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. The 2011 data was extracted from the Census by .Id. (1)

According to the authors of Planning Australia: an overview of urban and regional planning, Susan Thompson and Paul Maginn, driving was still an expensive option:

Melbourne in 1951 was a city dominated by public transport, with walking and cycling also playing significant roles; car use was confined to the wealthy.

The share of work trips taken by car, truck and motorcycle was 74% in 2011 but back then it was only 19%; that was considerably less than the combined 24% taken by bicycle and on foot at the time (2).

The majority of commutes – 57% – were by public transport. Trams were much more important than today, carrying nearly as many workers (22%) as trains (26%).

The greater mode share of trams was in large measure the result of the tram system covering a much larger proportion of the then urbanised area of Melbourne than it does today.

In fact more workers used on-street public transport – trams and buses – than used trains; 31% vs 26%. The efficiency of these modes would’ve been greatly helped by the relative scarcity of cars.

With a mode share of 9%, cycling was an important means of transport at the time. That’s close to the share of commutes trains attract today (11%) and much larger than the share carried by trams today (2%).

The region with the highest level of cycling by far was around Williamstown, Footscray and Sunshine, where 26% of commutes were by bicycle (the next highest region, in the then outer south-east, was 12%).

This was probably mostly because commuting by tram was very low in this area (2%), no doubt due to the limited network in the region. In comparison, 32% of commutes in Sth Melbourne and Pt Melbourne were by tram and 10% by bicycle.

Walking averaged 14% of work trips across the metropolitan area compared to 7% today. It was much higher in industrial areas like Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond (29%) but a lot lower in predominantly residential areas like Camberwell, Box Hill and Nunawading (6%) where rail, car and tram were the largest modes.

There are other important and interesting variations at the regional level; I’ll leave them for another time. The pattern of travel in 1951 would of course change massively in the years ahead. Following the abolition of petrol rationing in 1950, Melbourne was, as Thompson and Maginn say, at the dawn of the automobile age.

The big story here is the relatively low mode share of cars, but two other points are worth making.

First, the numbers reinforce other evidence indicating cycling was never in the same league in Australia as it was in countries like the Netherlands. As I’ve noted before (e.g. see How big was cycling in Australia in the past?), we’re not the Netherlands:

The bike has a different history here and occupies a different cultural niche. The role of cycling and the way it’s implemented is bound to be different in Australia’s future.

Second, public transport, cycling and walking dominated at a time when cars were simply too expensive relative to incomes to produce mass ownership.

Building more infrastructure won’t be enough by itself to dramatically increase the share of trips captured by non-driving modes; that will only happen if the competitiveness of private vehicles is reduced significantly.


  1. Melbourne’s population at the time was 1.3 million, compared to Sydney’s 1.6 million and Brisbane’s 0.4 million.
  2. Comparing the data on walking in 1951 (14%) with 2011 is somewhat fraught because the MMBW combined commuters who walked to work with those who worked at home. It’s probably not a big deal though given that prevailing attitudes to work organisation in 1951 and the limitations of communication technology at the time suggest the proportion who worked at home was probably much lower than it was in 2011 (4.1%). There were probably more who lived and worked “on premises” in 1951, though e.g. station masters.