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A normally bustling Queen Street West is lined with closed stores and empty of shoppers in Toronto on March 25, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

As cities around the world begin to roll out ambitious plans to remake their streets after the pandemic, Canadian cities have yet to reveal anything comparable and some are suggesting there is no urgency to make changes.

Major cities in a number of countries have unveiled plans for giving more space to pedestrians and cyclists, going beyond temporary measures meant to allow for physical distancing. The permanent changes are intended in large part to ward off any postpandemic rise in driving by people who may have lingering concerns about safeguarding their personal space.

“While [this pandemic is] challenging in this moment, it also offers us really this once-in-a-century chance to change course and undo some of the damage of a century of car-focused street design,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, the chair of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which counts several Canadian cities as members.

The New York transportation czar under former mayor Michael Bloomberg and now a principal of urban consultants Bloomberg Associates, she is assisting cities such as Milan, Italy and Bogota with their postpandemic transportation plans.

“Cities that take this moment to reset their streets to make it easier for people to walk and bike and take public transport are the cities that are going to be positioned for after this pandemic and not just recover from it,” she said.

Although a growing list of Canadian cities have installed temporary measures to make it safer to walk and ride during the pandemic, no major municipality has announced plans for permanent changes to how their roads are used. Several have said they have no immediate plans to make lasting changes as a result of the pandemic.

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A woman rides a bicycle on Cordova Street in an unusually quiet downtown core in Vancouver, on March 16, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Other cities, meanwhile, are moving quickly.

Milan announced plans to widen sidewalks, reduce speed limits and add bicycle lanes over the course of the summer. The regional Paris government unveiled a funding plan for hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes, reaching far into the suburbs, with interim infrastructure to start being installed within weeks. New Zealand has said it will help fund improved sidewalks and bicycle lanes as its lockdown eases.

“If the idea of encouraging walking and cycling was valuable in ‘normal’ times, at this time it becomes even more important and strategic,” reads a draft copy of Milan’s new plan.

“While the use of public transport is likely to be perceived as risky and therefore significantly reduced, as well as limited, car travel could be considered safer, leading to a progressive increase in traffic, which could be unsustainable.”

Julie Anne Genter, New Zealand’s Associate Minister of Transport, made a similar point. “It makes sense to prioritize safe active transport,” she said in an emailed statement. “While cars are useful for some trips they take up too much space to be practical in places where large numbers of people are trying to get around.”

The concern is common to many cities, whose roads are at or near capacity. In these places, if even a small percentage of people take up driving after the pandemic, the cities could be strangled by traffic.

“The greatest fear we should all have for cities is that people drive more as a result of this,” said Brent Toderian, an urbanist and former director of planning for Vancouver. “We need, right now, a strategy around ensuring that car trips don’t increase that would include infrastructure projects that facilitate walking, biking and transit.”

Canadian cities have yet to put forward any such plans.

A spokeswoman in Halifax said the city would continue to roll out a pre-existing mobility plan that includes repurposing roads for walking and cycling, but said the plan was not being changed to reflect the pandemic.

In Winnipeg, a spokesman said the city had recently begun work on an overarching transportation plan and that no immediate changes specific to the pandemic were being envisaged. He said in an e-mail that they “likely won’t have a clear understanding of the postpandemic effect [on mobility] until about four to six months from now.”

While two of the country’s biggest cities have signalled that they’ve begun work on plans for postpandemic mobility, the details and timing remain unclear.

In Toronto, where the general manager of transportation services was not available for interview, Mayor John Tory made passing reference Tuesday to a plan for reopening the city, including potential changes to transportation, that would be released “in due course.”

“You’re going to get an integrated plan and not little bite-sized pieces that may well please people that are in groups that care about these kinds of things,” he told reporters.

Vancouver declined this week to make anyone available for interview and forwarded a brief statement from staff: “We are exploring options for recovery and will share more information in the future.”

Brent Bellamy, the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group and commentator on urban issues, said cities need to be careful not to be caught unprepared when it comes time for citizens to start returning to normal life.

“We don’t want to get to a point where people are looking for options and [city officials] haven’t addressed it, now is the time,” he said. “It’s like addressing the pandemic itself, we need to be ahead of the curve not behind it.”

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