Healthy streets for people, not just cars, says UK public health expert taking pulse of Perth streets

Perth’s streets are failing to “meet people’s basic needs” according to the architect of a world-renowned transport strategy.

UK public health and transport expert Lucy Saunders founded the Healthy Streets framework that puts health and people at the heart of city planning.

Ms Saunders was in Perth to hold workshops about the framework, which has been adopted in London in the Lord Mayor’s 25-year Transport Strategy, and included staff from Main Roads WA, the Department of Planning, the WA Local Government Association, and the Public Transport Authority.

‘Barely accommodating people’

When Ms Saunders walks down any street, she asks herself three key questions:

  • Is there enough space for two people to walk side by side and have a conversation?
  • Would you be comfortable looking after other people’s children cycling along this street?
  • Is there somewhere comfortable to stop and rest if you need to?
Cyclists and pedestrians line-up to order a coffee on a neighborhood cafe strip
Cars, bikes, and pedestrians share the road on Oxford Street in Leederville.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

“The question is, are we prioritizing people while accommodating cars? Or are we prioritizing cars and barely accommodating people?” she says.

“When I look at [Perth streets] … I can see that they’re not really meeting some people’s basic needs.

“If there’s anywhere in the world where you could build the perfect street, it’s probably in Perth because you are building new streets from scratch and a lot of cities aren’t doing that.

“So, you may not get total perfection but pretty close to it.”

Crossing the road

Ms Saunders says the simple task of crossing the road is often overlooked in urban design.

“[Streets] have been designed to provide the opportunity for people to cross when it’s not too inconvenient for the cars moving through,” she says.

A wide shot of a cyclist rides along Kintail Road in the Perth suburb of Applecross
A cyclist rides along Kintail Road in Applecross.(ABC News: James Carmody)

“That creates a situation where it’s really difficult, frustrating, and annoying for people to walk or even to cycle around neighborhoods, so understandably they choose to get in the car instead.

“So, we end up with most people being in cars, very few people walking or cycling, and then the streets don’t have that life in them, that community spirit, the opportunity for people to take some exercise as part of their daily routine.”

Focus on removing freeways, not building them

Perth-based urban planner Eric Denholm is one of a “groundswell of professionals” teaming up to deliver the Healthy Streets framework to planning in WA.

“One of the problems we have is a lot of our street design guidance is really focused on what the car needs,” he says.

“We have measurements at the state government level that measure the network efficiency and the safety aspect of the vehicles moving around.

“But we don’t have measurements for the people walking and cycling.

“We want to start creating a place that is ‘car optional’ — so to operate as a member of society, you don’t have to have a car.

“Other cities around the world are talking about how they can remove freeways, tear the ones they’ve got down from creating these barriers, but we’re talking about putting in new ones.”

School children walking to their class in school.
The decline in children walking and riding to school will have an impact on public health, experts say.(ABC News: Cason Ho)

Mr Denholm says despite claims of a “record $347 million investment” in cycling and walking in the 2022–23 state budget, this was only a “measly” 1.6 per cent of the $21.9 billion allocated to big transport infrastructure over the same period — a “far cry” from the UN’s recommendation of 20 percent to achieve healthy and liveable cities.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic at peak hour in Perth.
Charles Street in North Perth can be slow going in peak hour.(ABC News: Ashleigh Davis)

He says the number of children walking or riding to school has declined enormously over the past 40 years, contributing to rates of obesity and negative health outcomes.

“It’s no surprise the rates of walking and cycling to school are so low when the design of our streets prioritize the movement of vehicles at the expense of people walking and cycling,” Mr Denholm says.

“Every time we are using public money on streets in WA, there is no reason we shouldn’t be looking to improve the situation for walking and cycling by assessing those Healthy Streets indicators.”

According to a 2021 report by WA’s Department of Transport, only 20 per cent of Perth school children walk or ride to school and 50 per cent travel to school by car despite living less than 1km away.

A man stands in front of colorful background smiling at the camera wearing a suit jacket and shirt
Craig Wooldridge says Main Roads is “embracing” other modes of transport.(ABC News: Kate Leaver)

Main Roads WA project development manager Craig Wooldridge says Main Roads is logically seen as an organization that moves vehicles around.

“But we are much more than that. We move pedestrians, cyclists,” he says.

“We embrace different approaches out there, so we can always do business better.”

Mr Wooldridge says Main Roads is focusing on improving the pedestrian experience by installing more raised crossings and zebra crossings.

“Some locations are challenging, but that’s where we need to work a lot more closely with the community — they live and breathe the area,” he says.

“So the more we work with the community, the better results we’re going to be getting.”

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