Toronto is going to be locked down for a while yet. Weeks, possibly months. But one thing remains unclear about how Torontonians are supposed to cope: When we go outside for a walk, where can we go? The answer is clear: in the street. Even as Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa has introduced stricter social-distancing measures, she maintained that going for a walk, for exercise or to walk a dog, remains a reasonable practice. But, she said forcefully, it is crucial to maintain social distancing.
That’s hard to do. 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.
Conveniently there is a lot of empty space available in the form of roads. With most of the world staying home, car traffic has dropped dramatically. Our streets are wide. It’s time to reallocate that space to allow for walking and cycling.
A number of major cities around the world, even Calgary and Winnipeg, have begun to take such steps. But Toronto is resistant. Why?
Partly it’s a lack of resources. City government is scrambling to cope with the crisis.
But I suspect politics are involved as well. Last week, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam requested that a section of Yonge Street be closed to cars. City staff think this is a bad idea. Such moves ”are typically meant to bring people together, and this is the exact opposite of what we need to see right now,” Jacquelyn Hayward, director of Transportation Project Design and Management, said by e-mail. “We do not want to inadvertently contribute to worsening the spread of COVID-19 through opening streets, which could encourage higher pedestrian demand and social gathering.”
That’s fearful thinking, the work of a city led by some people who are loyal to cars above all.
In truth, I doubt that pedestrianizing Yonge Street would induce pandemic street parties. (COVID-themed cotton candy! Cold Corona!) It would, however, allow the tens of thousands of people who are moving along that corridor on foot to avoid each other, and to keep the necessary distance that Dr. de Villa suggests.
Likewise, we should make more room for cycling as a way of getting around this spring. During a pandemic, would you rather be in a crowded streetcar or on a bicycle?
Gil Penalosa, a Toronto-based planner and an advocate for active transportation, suggests bicycle corridors running across the city. Mr. Penalosa’s hometown of Bogota, Colombia, has introduced more than 75 kilometres of temporary bike lanes. For Toronto, he suggests four east-west and six running north-south, covering the old city of Toronto. “This would be great now for all essential workers, but even more so as the isolation starts to end,” he says. “People will still be concerned about physical distancing on public transit.”
I suspect he’s right. It’s time to build for that future.
Meanwhile, we’re supposed to stay home. But over a period of weeks and months, people will need an outlet: They will get out to recreate, whether they’re supposed to or not. Right now people are flocking to big destination parks in search of open space, and ending up in crowds.
Road reallocations – widespread lane closings and road closings – would help here, too. Making it safer and more comfortable to walk would let people get some air in their own neighbourhoods, instead of flooding the big destination parks.
When this crisis passes, we can debate whether to go back to the status quo. For now, people need room to breathe.
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