“Two worlds”: Why Australia’s most walkable cities are home to some of its least walkable suburbs

A new international measurement tool has found massive discrepancies between the walkability of Australia’s inner and outer suburbs.

Melbourne’s central business district might be Australia’s joint most walkable city alongside Brisbane, according to a new measurement which looks at how easy a place is to get around on foot, but some of the city’s outer suburbs are among the country’s least walkable places.

Melbourne and Brisbane’s CBDs each scored 100 out of 100 for their “walkability” on a new measure compiled by US website Walk Score which uses publicly available data and algorithms to rate how walkable a location is to shops, restaurants, services, work, community facilities and entertainment.

A perfect score of 100 means everything a resident might need in day-to-day life is easily accessible on foot.

Adelaide and Hobart’s CBDs come in as Australia’s equal second most walkable cities with scores of 99, Sydney comes in a close third with a Walk Score of 98 while Perth coming in a respectable fourth with a score of 92.

Canberra’s CBD is Australia’s least walkable city… the vast majority of daily errands require a car.

Canberra’s CBD is Australia’s least walkable city, with a score of just 32 indicating the vast majority of daily errands require a car.

But a recent comparison of walkability scores across Melbourne suburbs reveals the city is one of extremes when it comes to ease in accessing things on foot.

While other highly walkable inner Melbourne suburbs were shown to have scores upwards of 94, those living on the sprawling city’s edges are living in some of its least walkable suburbs.

Werribee South, with its score of just 0.6 out of 100, can easily be considered Melbourne’s worst suburb, if not Australia’s, for walking.

As a whole, greater Melbourne doesn’t perform too well on the ranking, with an overall walkability ranking of just 57, coming in below greater Sydney, which has an overall walk score of 63.

Professor Michael Buxton, a professor of Environment and Planning at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University told Foreground Melbourne’s varied walkability rankings were an example of a “clear correlation” between spatial and social difference.

The extremity of the walk scores between inner and outer Melbourne suburbs reflected “two worlds”, Prof. Buxton said.

“Spatial difference is closely related in Australian cities to location, and locational differences are closely related to social disadvantage,” he said.

“Most outer urban areas Melbourne, true of Australian cities in general, are populated by lower income residents, who are generally less tertiary educated, and in suburbs linked to a poorer standard and quality of services.”

The extremity of the walk scores between inner and outer Melbourne suburbs reflected “two worlds”, Prof. Buxton said.

“The fact those suburbs with the highest ratings were in the inner suburbs is no accident, because those suburbs were built not long after the turn of the 20th century, at a time when people had to walk more and use public transport more,” he said.

“Since we’ve been building solely for the motorcar, liveability has plummeted.”

New suburbs being built on Melbourne’s outer edges were not improving suburban liveability or geographic disadvantage, Prof. Buxton said, but in fact making it worse.

“It’s not just that they’re not walkable, they’re a long way from anywhere,” he said.

The question for urban planners and governments was whether outer suburbs could be designed in ways that made them more self-contained and better places to live, Prof. Buxton said.

“We could be designing suburbs that are walkable, that are closer to amenities, but we’re not.” – Michael Buxton

“Can land-use decisions reduce that disadvantage? The answer is we could be designing suburbs that are walkable, that are closer to amenities, but we’re not,” he said.

“The way we’re designing those suburbs worsens those suburbs, and worsens the spatial differences.”

Asked why suburbs were not being designed to be walkable, Prof. Buxton said traditionally governments had “handed over” decision making to developers typically interested in rolling out “detached housing on separate lots”.

“The average lot size has fallen, but developers tend to cram large houses on ever smaller blocks. That’s no solution,” he said.

Instead, planning authorities needed to insist on there being different subdivisions and a range of housing types on a range of block types, he said.

Prof. Buxton said he had “only seen one” improvement in Melbourne recent years with suburban developers have having gone back to using a standard grid system and moving away from the “cul-de-sac model rampant between 70s and 90s”.

“At least the standard grid system is being reintroduced. It’s the only real improvement despite recent claims by Victorian Planning Authority they’re building liveability back into suburbs.”