Transitioning streets to pathways to create physical distancing during COVID-19: a look at Canada and beyond

April 8, 2020

Clemence Marcastel

During COVID, health officials are still recommending people get out for some exercise when needed. But going for a walk, jog or cycle while maintaining physical distancing can be a monumental challenge in dense cities.

Because of this, there’s momentum building for designating open streets for people instead of cars in urban neighbourhoods the world over.

Programs promoting car-free streets and neighbourhoods are, of course, not new. In Toronto, for example, Kensington Market has had car-free Sundays for 16 years. Last summer, Montreal launched 4 new walking only streets.

Globally, in the era of COVID-19 Bogota was first to respond by designating open streets so people could enjoy the outdoors while following physical distancing requirements. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Bogota is a forerunner in pedestrianizing streets. The city has had a free-car Sunday program called Ciclovia (Bike Ways) since 1974 in which over 70 miles of streets are car-free. Today, this program operates full time.

Many US cities followed Bogota’s lead. In Washington, D.C., advocates are calling for the closures of select streets pointing to those that extend or are adjacent to existing trails to create more seamless active-transportation networks. New York City, established car-free streets in four of the five boroughs, but before long, the pilot was shut down.

A spokesperson for city hall said that “not enough New Yorkers are utilizing the program to justify its continuation at this time.”

The other explanation is that many police have fallen sick with COVID and resources need to be used to actively enforce social distancing across the city.

In Canada, Calgary has taken the lead in launching a pilot project to reallocate streets for pedestrians and cyclists to promote physical distancing. Calgary’s roads department, in coordination with the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, identified roads where lanes could be reduced to give walkers and cyclists more room to move.

Last week, the city of Winnipeg announced its decision to open four active transportation routes for pedestrians, and cyclists. Normally, vehicle traffic is restricted to a maximum of one block on the four designated routes every Sunday from the Victoria Day weekend until Thanksgiving. But starting April 6th, the four streets will operate as active transportation routes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m every day until May 3rd.

According to Jason Shaw, manager of the city’s emergency operation centre, ”the city is trying to find a balance between allowing people to get out during the pandemic and enforcing the messaging of maintaining a distance of at least two metres from others”.

The Vancouver Park Board announced that all roads on Stanley Park are now car-free starting Wednesday, April 8th at noon to allow pedestrians to access the roads in the park

We’re doing this to reduce congestion in the park, to provide space on the roads within the park, and to relieve congestion on the adjacent seawalls to cyclists and to pedestrians,” said Vancouver Park Board General Manager Malcolm Bromley.

London, Ontario has closed Blackfriars Bridge to car traffic. The oldest river crossing in London, the historic structure is now only accessible by foot or bike. The city has also established one-way sidewalks and right of way rules on congested bridges and tunnels.

City councillors and advocacy groups in Toronto and Vancouver are now asking for the reallocation of main streets in high-density neighbourhoods.

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who was instrumental in the Bloor/Yonge closure last summer, said: “the thousands of residents living on and around Yonge Street need to be able to get outside, to run essential errands or for their physical and mental health, without being squeezed together on the narrow sidewalks”.

This new demand for open streets, in Canada and around the globe, demonstrates that now, more than ever, we understand the crucial importance of open public spaces and their role in providing quality of life in our cities.

People are seeking more room to move, and our streets can become pathways to provide new avenues for active transportation.

 

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