Weekday walking trips by purpose and location (ring), Sydney 2012/13 (source data: BTS)

The inner city is the exemplary case of high walkability in Australia’s capitals. For example, the NSW Bureau of Transport Statistics says 35% of all trips in Sydney’s inner city are made by foot, compared to just 12% in the outer suburbs.

The inner city only accounts for a quarter of all trips in Sydney, so understanding why walking scores so highly there could have important implications for the rest of the city. (1)

It’s especially important for the outer suburbs because they account for half of metropolitan travel in Sydney.

A crucial point is that most walking is for shopping and social/recreational trips; that holds for all three rings. And contrary to common wisdom, walking is seriously under-represented as a means of commuting to work.

So, what’s the outlook for walking in the outer suburbs? On a positive note, there’s a clear trend to smaller lots and higher dwelling densities in new developments.

As I noted recently, the Structure Plan for the new suburb of Rockbank on Melbourne’s fringe envisages around a quarter of the housing will be at medium density (see Is the planning of new fringe suburbs getting better?)

This isn’t driven primarily by a preference for walkability, though; it’s mostly a consequence of declining affordability. The occupants of outer suburban medium density developments are still likely to have much higher rates of car ownership than inner city residents.

Nevertheless, provided there are attractive places to go locally, higher dwelling densities should increase the competitiveness of walking. The challenging question is what might prompt residents to take up walking on a scale that begins to approach that of the inner city.

It’s important to provide an attractive environment and make provision for local centres in structure plans, but the main thing is having destinations within walking distance that are worth going to in the first place. The inner city does that very well.

There has to be something that has a sufficient density and range of shops and services to make it attractive. If it does and it’s nearby, then walking is an option. If it also actively discourages driving then walking is a much more competitive option.

However, an attractive, walkable local centre doesn’t develop just because the planners provide permission; it depends critically on how many – and what sort of – businesses will risk relying on a walkable catchment when outer suburban residents can much more easily drive to larger centres than residents of the inner city.

Larger centres offer a wider range of shops and services and a larger variety of products and services within each category; in the case of cafes, that translates as a greater diversity of patrons and more buzz.

Importantly, larger centres make using a car easy by providing abundant parking. Shoppers who’re driving to a large centre to avail themselves of lower grocery or hardware prices often find it convenient to combine the trip with other shopping and social purposes at the same centre.

I expect higher dwelling densities by themselves will generate some increase in walking. Some activities – like a  small convenience store – might well be viable based mostly on local patronage.

That would be a boon to residents. But it’s not likely to increase the share of walking significantly relative to somewhere like the inner city.

I think it’s instructive that the share of trips made by walking in the older middle ring suburbs of Sydney is 16%, compared to 12% in the outer suburbs. It’s higher, but it’s still a long way behind the inner city.

There are demographic differences between the inner city and suburbs that shape mode choice too. For example, inner city residents tend to be younger, better educated, have fewer dependents, and more disposable income than suburban residents.

But the key difference in my view is the ease of driving. Cars are much less useful in the inner city because parking is harder and driving is slower; conversely, the outer suburbs are less sensitive to their limitations.

Increasing density in the outer suburbs will not by itself trigger a dramatic increase in walking. Reduce the utility of motoring – e.g. by making it more expensive and/or by making parking harder – and walking would be a much more attractive option.

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  1. The inner city is defined here as the municipalities of Ashfield, Botany Bay, Lane Cove, Leichhardt, Marrickville, Mosman, North Sydney, Randwick, Waverley, Woollahra. They have a combined population of 744,659 – about 15% of metro Sydney – and cover an area of 176 sq km; equivalent to a radius of 7.5 km.