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Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents a downtown ward, 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.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Two of Canada’s most densely populated cities are looking at barring auto traffic from parts of their streets so pedestrians can spread out and maintain the proper distance from each other.

Toronto and Vancouver are following the lead of other jurisdictions as officials grapple with how to allow for safe movement during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to facilitate outdoor respite for people confined to small urban dwellings.

Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who represents a downtown ward, 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 week, she urged the city’s emergency management team to consider closing part of Yonge Street to cars.

“Being able to provide more space for people to walk is actually a responsible thing, because it means we’re responding to the crisis in an adequate way,” Ms. Wong-Tam said

“We’ve encouraged [these residents] to live downtown to prevent urban sprawl, we’ve said this is going to be your living space – and this is how it’s advertised, right, the streets are yours – we just have to now rethink what our infrastructure does during this time of COVID-19 health crisis.”

Nothing should be done against the advice of health officials, she stressed, and said Tuesday she was waiting for the idea to be evaluated.

Vancouver is grappling with the same problem of how to allow enough personal space in a crowded city facing a pandemic.

In a statement forwarded by a city spokeswoman, Vancouver Manager of Transportation Planning Dale Bracewell said staff were “working on a plan to reallocate road space as a way to help people keep proper physical distance away from others.”

He would not reveal specific neighbourhoods or segments of road being looked at, but said “all areas where we see issues are being considered.”

A number of cities dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak have already made such changes. Bogota was the first major city to repurpose road space, followed by Mexico City. This week, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that two pedestrianized streets would open in each of the city’s boroughs, starting Thursday, after a call by Governor Andrew Cuomo for areas to be closed to traffic so that residents on foot could spread out.

In spite of the worldwide restrictions that have been imposed in recent weeks, many jurisdictions continue to see value in people being able to spend time outside.

The government in the United Kingdom, which is under a stricter lockdown than Canada, carved out a specific exemption allowing each person one daily period of outdoor exercise. On Tuesday, the Minister of State for Transport, with responsibility for cycling, tweeted out a reminder that going for a ride is acceptable, as long as people keep proper distance.

On Monday, only hours after Toronto Mayor John Tory declared a state of emergency, Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa specified that while residents should stay home as much as possible, they were still permitted to leave their residences.

“We recognize that people do need opportunities to get outside, to get some fresh air, to get some physical activity,” Dr. de Villa told a briefing. “And that’s appropriate, if social distancing can be maintained.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Tory said in an e-mailed statement that he “will be asking both our Medical Officer of Health and transportation officials for advice on ways to further protect the health and safety of pedestrians during the ongoing emergency.”

Sean Marshall, a co-founder of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, said that, although pedestrian volumes are down sharply on city sidewalks, he has still found it difficult in many places to keep a safe distance from his fellow travellers on foot.

“What you notice, more than ever in a city, is where the pinch-points are,” he said, citing construction hoardings and transit shelters as major culprits. “You really notice, when you’re told to stay apart, how difficult that can be.”

Urbanism consultant Brent Toderian, former director of planning for Vancouver, argues that every mayor and chief planner needs to include the creation of generous new public spaces for people on foot and bicycle in their city’s COVID-19 response, provided health officials continue to permit outdoor time.

He noted that being confined to home is particularly hard on those living in dense downtown areas, where residents have accepted a reduced personal living space in return for the promise of access to public amenities. It would be relatively easy, he added, to create new spaces on roads that now carry less traffic.

“I think the strategy has to be to create … local opportunities to get careful and limited fresh air,” Mr. Toderian said.

“That’s important for our mental health, our physical health, because we are very likely going to be in this for the long haul, and there are implications and risks to complete isolation and staying inside all the time.”

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