VANCOUVER — The popular seawall path along English Bay in Vancouver got a whole lot wider this week as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
As temperatures climbed past 15 C, cyclists, rollerbladers, walkers and runners hit Vancouver’s beachfront paths over the Easter long weekend to take in some fresh air — albeit, at least two metres apart.
That distance was made possible thanks to the city, which partly closed the adjacent Beach Avenue to vehicle traffic, as well as roads within nearby Stanley Park. Opening up more space for pedestrians and cyclists who live in the area allowed them to, well, keep their space.
“The goal of this partial closure is not to encourage large gatherings, but to give nearby residents more room to move while also being able to practise physical distancing,” said a statement from the city. “This is a responsive measure and not intended as an invitation to gather.”
Similar closures are making their way across North American cities, as urbanists and municipal politicians push to make social distancing on their streets more convenient. As municipalities close parks and large gathering spaces, could the solution actually be creating more space to spread out?
The case is compelling.
Six feet apart
The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends people keep a distance of at least two metres (six feet) apart to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Part of that “social distancing” we’ve all become familiar with in recent months, it limits contact and the possibility of transmitting the virus between people.
But in most cities, regular sidewalks don’t allow for such a space. Most city sidewalks are 1.8 metres at their very widest — not nearly enough space for two people to pass each other while maintaining physical distancing without stepping into the street.
Toronto artist Daniel Rotsztain demonstrated the issue with his city’s sidewalks through his “social distance machine,” which visualized a six-foot radius around the wearer.
Navigating the streets of Toronto in the contraption, Rotsztain showed how the city streets aren’t really all that equipped to accommodate social distancing.
“The only safe space is the middle of the street,” Rotsztain noted over footage of him walking through the narrow sidewalks of Kensington Market.
Multiple groups, including Toronto Public Space Committee and Bells on Bloor are calling on Toronto Mayor John Tory to close or partially close streets in the city’s core to allow for better physical distancing between residents and essential workers.
Organizers have even gone so far as to crowdsource some suggestions.
Like many campaigns, there’s even a hashtag — #streets4peopleTO. And people are using it to get fired up about urban planning.
Former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat said streets would provide “essential space” for pedestrians.
“Streets are essential *pedestrian* infrastructure for maintaining a safe physical distance as essential workers walk to work, we get groceries and walk for sanity in the dense parts of our cities,” she wrote on Twitter. “Easy policy fix: designate some lanes currently wasted for driving, for walking.”
On Monday, the city pledged its commitment to enforcing social distancing measures through ticketing and fines, but did not mention possible street closures.
Wide open spaces
While Toronto isn’t on board yet, other Canadian cities are jumping on the idea of closing their streets to make room. The City of Calgary, the city tested partial road closures on the weekend to make space for pedestrians who are out and about. In Winnipeg, specific streets have been deemed “active transportation” routes during designated hours.
Of course, the idea of pedestrian and cyclist-focused infrastructure has been circulating long before the pandemic.
In a recent blog post, former Vancouver city planner Sandy James wrote about the city’s greenways — a network of wide pedestrian-focused streets — as a model for the ideal social distancing urban space.
These roads, often designated as cycling priority routes, are equipped with pedestrian accessible washrooms and tend to connect major transit hubs.
“These streets lend themselves well to closure for all but local traffic and emergency vehicles. That was the intent when they were first conceived, that they could be closed for pedestrian and biking use,” James wrote. “And as the city develops, these streets may be permanently closed in the future, forming new linear parks in a densifying city fifty years in the future.”
WATCH: Oakland mayor announces ‘slow streets’ measures to limit city traffic. Story continues below.
So, the whole “streets as park space” thing has some legs. But it’s all the more prescient now.
The idea of mass-closing streets in response to the pandemic has gained notable traction in cities like Oakland, Calif. Around 10 per cent of the American city’s streets — 119 kilometres of roadway — will be closed to cars and opened up to pedestrians in the coming weeks.
“In this unprecedented moment we must do everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of all families across our city,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement Friday. “Closing roads means opening up our city. It gives our residents the opportunity to get outside and walk, bicycle, or run through their neighbourhoods and get around in a safer way.”
But some experts warn such public openings could be an invitation for people to gather in public — the exact opposite of what such moves are trying to encourage.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said that, while his city is doing rolling road closures to make more space, he doesn’t that misinterprted as a signal to gather.
“We’re really doing it much more on a reactive basis,” he told reporters. “It’s going to be much more along the lines of just making sure that if we need to use roadway space so that people have room, we will do so.”
Earlier this month, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson told reporters his city wasn’t planning on closing any streets, and encouraged people to just pick less busy routes for their time outdoors.
“You don’t go to the busiest street in a particular neighbourhood if you want to maintain a safe distance,” he said.
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