Australia is big, so perhaps it’s no surprise that 60% of working Australians drive a car to work each day. The distance between major towns and cities is huge; however, when you consider that the majority of those drivers live in major capital cities, it could begin to seem a little strange. This article looks at the numbers for transportation efficiency, comparing how we travel to work.

With greater environmental awareness, many people are becoming concerned with their energy use, and personal carbon footprint. This article looks at transportation options in our cities, and estimates how much energy is being used in a typical journey.

*The examples do not include any extra food required to for transportation that could be considered exercise.

The inner city office worker

Distance to CBD: 5-10km
Transport options: Car, bus, tram, train, bicycle, walking

People living closest to the city centres generally have the greatest number of transport options available, as most transport networks, including roads, radiate from a central hub. The closer to the spoke of the hub, the closer the transport routes are to any given point.

Personal transport

Some people prefer the convenience of leaving home when they wish in order to arrive where they need to be in their own time. Personal transport options can mean walking, cycling or driving. Only driving a car or motorcycle offer the option of taking extra passengers.

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Walking & running

Workers with a commute of 5km or less from a CBD could potentially walk to work.

Costs: This will cost nothing, except possibly comfortable walking shoes which will probably cost between $100 and $200 annually.  For the fitter among us, a 10km run to work may not be out of the question; this has a similar expenditure to walking. The energy cost of running or walking shoes comes mostly from manufacturing as shown in this MIT study, as the input of energy in use comes solely (pardon the pun) from the wearer.

Health: With the benefits of walking on the body, money could even be saved on a gym membership, and possibly even health care, according to some research as described here.

An average 30 year old, according to this 1997 Study, should be able to complete a 5 KM walk at a comfortable pace in a bit less than an hour.

Estimated consumer cost: $100-200 per year (gym savings optional!)
Manufacturing energy cost: Assuming 231 working days at 10km per day, and carbon emissions of 13.6078kg per pair or trainers, total emissions per km = 0.6g/km
Operating energy cost: 0

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Many roads in capitals cities have dedicated bike lanes and a short ride of 5 KM should take a reasonably fit person about 15 to 20 minutes. Parking is much easier with a bike than a car, with many offices now offering private storage. Even if cycle lanes are not available, bicycles are permitted on all roads with the exception of freeways.

Health: The health benefits of riding versus walking will depend on the speed or travel, and the duration your heart rate is elevated (if at all) for each transport type.
Costs: According to this article on Slate, the total annual cost of a bicycle to the commuter is only $35, assuming an initial outlay of $350.

The energy used to manufacture a bicycle is dependent on the materials used; steel, aluminium and other metals are the most common. In this article from the Public Transport Users Association, a bicycle is estimated to use 0.08MJ/km travelled.

Carbon fibre bikes are a great deal more expensive both to buy and to manufacture

Estimated consumer cost: $35 per year
Manufacturing energy cost: 0.08MJ/km
Operating energy cost: 0
Total energy for 1 weeks commuting (5km each way): 4MJ


The consumer cost of buying a car can be divided over the number of years it is kept, and the RAC from Western Australia has a list of running costs of a range of vehicle sizes and types here.

Costs: For a new small car, the total annual cost for just owning the vehicle would be around $8,000, the calculations can be seen here.

Want to save energy in all areas? Compare providers here

Health: There are no real health benefits in driving to work, if anything the added stress could cause health problems. New research reported by the Telegraph found that driving was more stressful than taking the bus. Additionally, if driving to a desk job, you may be adding extra sitting time to you day, which by most accounts is not good for your health, here’s just one.

Many people would cite convenience as the primary reason for driving, but in some respects it’s among the least convenient methods of commuting when the difficulties of peak hour traffic and city parking are considered.

Estimated consumer cost: $8,000 per year
Manufacturing cost: 0.5 – 1.0MJ/km
Operating costs: 2.7 – 3.7MJ/km
Total energy for 1 weeks commuting (5km each way): 197.5MJ

Public Transport

Public transport options move away from the personal in obvious ways, and the number of passengers on each vehicle has an effect on any measure of energy efficiency. In term of cost, public transport vehicles are not borne directly by the passengers, but offset by operating bodies or governments over the lifetime of the vehicle, and included in the fares.

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Not every city has trams, but where they do exist they provide rapid transport over relatively short distances. Trams are a form of road transport in most places outside the CBD, however they do often have dedicated, car free routes in inner city areas making them much faster than cars or buses along those sections.

Health: Standing on a tram may be better than increasing sitting times, also the walk to and from the stop provides some exercise.
Cost: Many cities operate a pass system where users can travel on any public transport type. This varies from city to city, but would cost a full-fare, full-time commuter approximately $1500 per year.

Estimated consumer cost: $1,500 per year for all public transport types
Manufacturing cost: 0.02 – 0.17MJ/km per passenger
Operating costs: 0.17 – 0.8MJ/km per passenger
Total energy for 1 weeks commuting (5km each way): 29MJ

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The efficiency of bus travel predominantly depends on the type of fuel the bus uses. Diesel engines are most efficient, but in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas powered buses produce less carbon dioxide than other fuels types. Buses are also road based, and are usually at the mercy of traffic conditions as with other road vehicles, except in cases where dedicated bus lanes are provided and enforced.

Related: Five green cities and what Australia can learn from them

As with all transport, buses are most efficient when fully loaded, and the off peak services that run almost empty must be included in calculations of efficiency for bus travel. Buses in the inner city have the drawback of often being full during peak times, with can affect their convenience.

Estimated consumer cost: $1,500 per year for all public transport types
Manufacturing cost: 0.03 – 0.3 MJ/km per passenger
Operating costs: 0.28 – 1.1MJ/km per passenger
Total energy for 1 weeks commuting (5km each way): 42.75MJ

Train / Metro

Trains are capable of carrying the most passengers in a single journey. This potentially makes them the front runner for the most efficient form of transport for commuters, but the cost of infrastructure and maintenance is quite high, though this is not borne directly by commuters.

A major drawback with train travel in urban Australia is the reliance on brown coal fired electricity in most places to power them. If less polluting sources of electricity were possible, the efficiency of train and electric tram travel would increase.

Train stations are usually farther apart than other public transport stops, so convenience may be reduced. But they are also free of traffic obstructions, so journeys are usually much faster than other forms of urban transport.

Estimated consumer cost: $1,500 per year for all public transport types
Manufacturing cost: 0.04 – 0.01 MJ/km per passenger
Operating costs: 0.004 – 0.01 MJ/km per passenger
Total energy for 1 weeks commuting (5km each way): 2.5MJ

Taking all this into account, here is our ranking of the most efficient and convenience transport types for a commute of 5km per day, the higher the score, the better.

Transport $ Cost per year Manufacturing energy Operating energy Convenience Health Total score
Walking 4 5 5 1 5 20
Bicycle 5 4 5 2 3 19
Car 1 1 1 4 1 8
Tram 2 3 3 3 2 13
Bus 2 2 2 3 2 11
Train 2 4 4 2 2 14

To take the numbers further, here are some examples journeys of how energy can be reduced.

Combing the convenience of the car with the efficiency of trains

Distance to CBD: 20KM
Transport options: Car & Train

Moving further away from the city can have advantages, in many cases housing gets cheaper the further from the CBD for example. The major disadvantage is that radial transport routes become further apart, so distance between any given home and the nearest bus, train or tram is likely to be further than in the inner suburbs.

Driving a 20km one-way commute uses approximately 788MJ per week.If you split your journey drove 5km each way to the train station, how much energy could be saved in one week? 579.25MJ or 160kWh. That’s equal to 800 hours of refrigerator use

Ditching the car for a bike and train

Distance to CBD: 20 KM
Transport options: Swap car for bicycle & train

For those too far out to cycle the whole way, but interested in getting fit, here’s the ultimate in energy saving over a 20km distance. Cycle the first 5km from home to the station, hop on the train for 14km, and ride last 1km to the office from the station – now that’s distance door-to-door!

Total train:  7 MJ | Total Bike:  4.8MJ | Total Energy = 11.8 MJ

Energy saving in one week compared with driving to work: 776.2 MJ, or 216 kWh. That’s equal to microwaving 2,808 meals.

Where public transport is available and easily accessible, city based workers will save energy by getting on board, both in terms of money, time and environmental concerns, as reported here. Those living close enough can reap some health benefits by getting to work under their own steam too, whether it be walking or riding a bike.


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