Census 2021: What will journey to work data mean when we aren’t leaving home?

The Census of Population and Housing (Census) will be conducted on the 10th of August 2021. The Census provides a comprehensive snapshot of the demographic, economic, social and cultural make-up of Australia.

Unlike sample surveys conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Census provides a detailed snapshot of local communities. The 2021 Census will be important for regional communities which have seen an influx of people over the past 18 months. Higher population growth and changing demographics have implications for the provision of social and economic infrastructure (e.g. schools, sports facilities, local roads, public transport) and planning for housing supply including housing affordability.

Where do you work and how do you get there?

The Census provides important insights into the distribution of local employment and travel patterns. People are asked to record their place of work and which mode they used to travel to work (e.g. train, bus, tram, car, truck, bike, walking). This data is used by a variety of users to understand how cities and regions operate. It is also used by transport agencies to understand the accessibility to jobs, commuting times and help plan future transport networks. The place of work data is used by planning agencies and local governments to develop strategies for the release of commercial and industrial land.

The place of work and journey to work data will be collected by two main questions in the 2021 Census.

  • For the main job held last week, what was the person’s workplace address?
  • How did the person get to work on Tuesday 10 August?

These questions have been developed and agreed with Census users to ensure that they are collecting appropriate data.

A real data collection challenge

COVID-19 lockdowns and the shift to working from home presents a challenge to the collection of this data.

For office workers working from home, a proportion may report their home address rather than the address of their workplace. There are a significant number of workers in this situation. According to the Property Council of Australia, in June 2021 (prior to the most recent round of lockdowns), Melbourne’s CBD office occupancy was at 45 percent of the pre-COVID-19 level. This represents around 180,000 CBD office workers working from home. The other capital cities had higher occupancy rates compared to Melbourne; Sydney was at 68 percent and Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide were in the 70 percent range. Hobart was at 93 percent of the pre-COVID-19 level.

If someone is working from home, the online Census form does provide guidance to record their employer’s address. This should help to direct responses in the right direction, but there still could be some confusion amongst respondents.

In addition to office workers, hospitality and other services workers currently not employed due to lockdowns may leave the place of work question unanswered.

These types of outcomes could result in the 2021 Census data showing a drop in number of people working in our CBDs and a surge in employment in suburban locations. With Greater Sydney and Greater Melbourne in lockdown on Census night the data collected for these regions could be especially impacted.

This will create an issue in understanding the distribution of employment and growth patterns between 2016 and 2021. The size of this issue will be dependent on how many people report their home address compared to their employer’s workplace address. There is a broader question of how representative people’s work location in August 2021 will be for the next 5 years.

The data on the mode of travel will be impacted as those reporting working from home will not be required to report a mode of travel.

Building a small area journey to work dataset

Transport and planning agencies will have to consider how to bring together small area[1] data from multiple sources on people’s residence, usual mode of travel and their place of work which the Census has completely provided in the past.

Small area place of work and journey to work patterns could be constructed by combining, sample survey data (e.g. labour force survey) administrative data (e.g. weekly payroll data, planning data on completion of commercial buildings) with non-traditional sources (e.g. real-time transport data). It is possible that the combination of different data sources could provide timelier or more granular data and even generate insights regarding the location of employment and travel patterns.

Even before COVID-19, KPMG was bringing together data from multiple sources to help navigate complex urban planning and infrastructure investment decisions. If the 2021 Census data does have a lasting impact from the August COVID-19 lockdowns, these data capabilities will be needed to ensure that appropriate conclusions can be made on people’s place of work and travel patterns.

[1] Data is used at a small area level known as a Destination Zone (DZN). There are around 9,200 DZNs in Australia.

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