Australian cities rate poorly on walkability and public transport access

Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide failed to meet health and sustainability thresholds when compared with some lower-income countries in the new Lancet Global Health series.

Let down by poor access to public transport and car-centric designs, the three Australian cities fell short on walkability and other measures of healthy and sustainable lifestyles.

The research analysed urban design, transport and health outcomes for 25 cities in 19 countries.

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

Professor Ester Cerin, who leads the Behaviour, Environment and Cognition Research Program at ACU’s Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, co-authored four papers in the series.

“An essential characteristic of a healthy and sustainable city is a physically active population,” Professor Cerin said.

“If people are to walk more, they need urban environments that encourage and support walking. We need to 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.”

Professor Cerin said urban design and transport features— such as higher residential density, mixed land use, street connectivity, and better access to public transport, amenities, and parks—had been associated with increased walking for transport rates.

Researchers involved in the series have called for urgent policy reform to help rebuild healthier and more sustainable cities.

High-income countries including the USA, Australia, and New Zealand – in the 20th century under a car-centric planning model - were the worst performing cities for walkability.

Results show that older, compact cities had better walkability, irrespective of economic development status.

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 Professor Billie Giles-Corti from RMIT University said the report was a wake-up call.

“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,” she said.

“Fifty-one percent of people in Sydney do, and very few people in Adelaide.”

The Lancet Global Health Urban Design, Transport and Health Series reports and scorecards are among the first to assess health-supportive city planning policies, urban design and transport using standardised methods.

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