Want Canadians to spread out during a pandemic? Give them the urban space to do so

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“The streets were packed [this weekend] and that’s unacceptable.”

—Ontario Premier Doug Ford

“We recognize that people do need opportunities to get outside, to get some fresh air, to get some physical activity.  And that’s appropriate, if [physical] distancing can be maintained.”

—Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health

“On sidewalks, it’s tough to keep two metres away from another person as you walk; many sidewalks in Toronto are 1.8 metres wide at best, and standards in suburban municipalities are similar.  There simply isn’t enough room.”

—Alex Bozikovic, Globe and Mail architecture critic

More contagious and far deadlier than influenza, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is sweeping unapologetically through humanity.  Our collective lack of immunity to the novel pathogen conjures images of the Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds succumbing to infection due to an absence of antibodies, their gargantuan metallic tripods collapsing to the ground in harmless heaps.

As the virus spreads, public health officials have given us three primary instructions: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and engage in physical distancing – remaining two metres (or six feet) apart from people you don’t live with.

That’s all well and good, but the latter directive is well-nigh impossible when stepping outside in most Canadian cities.  The design of our urban streets has been almost entirely made with the private automobile in mind, cramming pedestrians and cyclists into slender slivers of leftover asphalt.  Remaining at an adequate distance from other people is simply unfeasible when the width of a sidewalk is narrower than the prescribed distance of two metres.

Constrained by our current infrastructure, physical distancing advice cannot be adhered to where most Canadians live.  The pandemic has made walking, which should normally be a pleasurable act, into a stressful activity – a real-life version of Frogger, in which pedestrians desperately attempt to avoid each other within tightly confined spaces.  And closure of parks has only exacerbated the problem of pedestrian overcrowding.

To be clear: our unsuitable urban streets design is the result of bad political decisions, rather than an inevitable outcome.  (And nor should the population density of cities be blamed for viral spread, as Singapore’s relative imperviousness to the pandemic illustrates.)

Europe shows us that cities – particularly city centres – can be built starkly different than here in Canada.  The ample space provided for walking that makes such cities feel distinctly more humane at the best of times is what also renders them safer during pandemics.  Rather than allowing cars to be the dominant form of transport, many European city centres make it obvious that they are engineered for people, and that cars are merely interlopers that may only advance cautiously.  People are able to spread out during the COVID-19 outbreak without fear of being struck by a recklessly operated ton of steel.

Most Canadian cities, however, treat the quintessential human activity of walking as undesirable.  Numerous wide lanes are devoted for cars to race through at high speeds, while pedestrians are shoehorned into the remaining narrow scraps that often feel dangerous and intimidating to traverse.  Nothing has made this faulty design as apparent as a pandemic in which we’re instructed to spread out – something that’s simply not possible to do on most Canadian sidewalks.

As a solution to physical distancing requirements, many cities around the world have temporarily appropriated empty street lanes – and in some cases, entire streets – for walking and bicycling.  Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver are three such cities here in Canada, but even infamously car-friendly New York City has made such alterations to their roads.

Providing more space for people as a short-term measure during this pandemic doesn’t have to be expensive.  Many cities have employed inelegant traffic cones as a cheap quick-fix.  The biggest hurdle, as always when it comes to improving street design, remains political inertia.

When public calls for Toronto to open its streets became too loud for officials to ignore, city staff rushed in to quash any such hopes.  Jacquelyn Hayward, a director with the city’s transportation department, dismissed following the lead of other Canadian and international cities, and instead claimed that devoting more space for walking and cycling would “…bring people together, and this is the exact opposite of what we need to see right now.”

Not wanting to encourage street parties is one thing, but when a simple walk to the grocery store contravenes physical distancing advice from the city’s medical officer of health, it would be nice if car-centric politicians and bureaucrats could be a bit more flexible.

In the long-term, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus is but a painful memory and we’re back to repairing existing streets and building new ones, Canadian cities should strongly consider devoting our downtown urban avenues primarily to walking and cycling on a permanent basis.  This would mean wider sidewalks, separated and protected cycle tracks (also known as bike lanes), as well as an aggressive increase in public transportation.  Cars are king in Canada – even, rather inexplicably, in the centres of our largest cities – and we’re long overdue to rectify this glaring design flaw.

Sadly, the need to retrofit our urban streets remains painfully obvious in Canada’s most prominent city: Toronto.  After the departure of “transit city” mayor David Miller, Hogtown has spent a decade under his successors – a suburban populist and an austerity merchant – neither of whom has improved the pedestrian experience to any noticeable degree.  Traffic violations are rarely enforced by the city’s ineffective police service, while most sidewalks are left unplowed after snowfall.  The current mayor, John Tory, has regularly opposed efforts by city staff to improve cycling infrastructure, as keeping taxes low (and services starved) is his re-election raison d’être.

The pandemic’s physical distancing requirement has made it obvious that Toronto is in desperate need of urbanist leadership once again.  When cities like Winnipeg and Guelph become more innovative on transportation than Canada’s economic capital, it raises numerous questions of leadership competency.

Retrofitting our cities for people – rather than cars – will be a monumentally difficult task.  But luckily, such change appears inevitable, especially when we observe transformation in cities like Vancouver, New York and London.

The earliest that Toronto’s transportation philosophy may embark upon radical change would be in 2022, after the next municipal election.  But until then, Mayor Tory can help us through this dreadful pandemic by opening those damn empty street lanes for people.

We all pay for them.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

More from Devon Rowcliffe.    @DevonRowcliffe

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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