Australian cities among worst performing on walkability and public transport access

By Donna Lu & SSB
Research shows most people in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide live in areas that do not meet thresholds in line with WHO physical activity targets
Australian cities among worst performing on walkability and public transport access
Australian cities are falling short on walkability and other measures of healthy and sustainable lifestyles when compared with some lower-income countries, new research suggests. 

A Lancet Global Health series, launched on Wednesday, analysed urban design, transport and health outcomes for 25 cities in 19 countries, including Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. 

It found most Australians live in areas that do not meet density and walkability thresholds in line with World Health Organization physical activity targets. 

“The worst performing cities for walkability were in high-income countries including the USA, Australia, and New Zealand. These cities were developed primarily in the 20th century under a car-centric planning model,” the research found. 

“Our results show that older, compact cities had better walkability, irrespective of economic development status.” 

Between 37% and 44% of the population in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide live in neighbourhoods with above-average walkability, a measure of how accessible amenities in a city are by walking. This compared with 97% of people in São Paulo, 96% in Hong Kong, 92% in Chennai and 87% in Mexico City. 

Australian cities were also let down by lack of frequent access to public transport. While 87% of Melbourne’s population had access to any public transport, only 49% had access to stops with weekday services every 20 minutes – less than the average for cities in high-income countries, which was 55%. 

In comparison, 94% of São Paolo residents and 93% of people in Lisbon lived near frequent public transport. 

Lead researcher Prof Billie Giles-Corti, director of the Healthy Liveable Cities Lab at RMIT University, said Australian cities were particularly low density. 

“You need density not for density’s sake, but because density means … there’s enough people to support shops, services and public transport. 

“Only 18% of Melburnians live in neighbourhoods that have density thresholds that are enough to encourage walking for transport to achieve … World Health Organization targets,” Giles-Corti said. “Fifty-one percent of people in Sydney do, and very few people in Adelaide.” 

She said it would be a challenge to retrofit cities to improve liveability outcomes. 

“How do we create 15 or 20 minute neighbourhoods in our existing cities so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of living in a healthier, more sustainable community?” 

Australian cities also scored poorly for access to fresh food – less than quarter of the populations live within a 500 metre walk of a healthy food market, compared with 70% in Bern. 

The effects of the pandemic were not included in the study, but were likely to “have a big impact on CBDs of our cities”, Giles-Corti said. 

“More people are working from home and doing so more often.” 

Figures released last week by the Property Council of Australia show that while office occupancy in major central business districts has increased since the beginning of the year, they are still only a fraction of pre-Covid levels. 

CBD office occupancy at the end of April was highest in Adelaide, at 59% of pre-Covid figures, followed by Brisbane (51%) and Perth (50%). Melbourne, which underwent the longest cumulative period in lockdown, was the lowest at 36%. 

Transport changes due to the pandemic have shown “that we can work in a different way”, Giles-Corti said. “We could have people living and working more in their communities as well as to travelling to work.” 

The pandemic has also led to other changes globally, such as road space being allocated to walking, cycling, commerce and recreation. 

In Europe, 2021 research into the rollout of pop-up bike lanes found that it was linked to significant increase in cycling. Some such bike paths introduced in Sydney and Melbourne during the pandemic are set to become permanent fixtures. 

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