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Signs on the sidewalk outside the Victory Cafe on Bloor St. West in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, are photographed on April 28, 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto is promising to move quickly to create more space for cyclists and pedestrians, taking action after more than a month of calls for the sort of changes other cities have been making in response to the pandemic.

Mayor John Tory announced Wednesday a plan he called “activeTO,” which was backed by the city’s top doctor, Eileen de Villa.

“We know that people can’t stay home forever, they will need to go outside and it is good for their health, provided they continue to a reasonable extent to keep their distance from others” Mr. Tory told an afternoon briefing. “We are working to find ways to encourage and assist people in keeping their distance.”

While immediate details of the plan were limited, it will include three main parts. There is a target of 50 kilometres of residential streets where traffic will be slowed down and restricted to locals, making it safer to ride or walk. There will also be the temporary closing on weekends of some as-yet-unidentified roads adjacent to parks where people gather in large numbers. And there is the already announced acceleration of the city’s 10-year cycling infrastructure plan.

Dylan Reid, a co-founder of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, said that while the city “has not been a leader” on opening streets, he was gratified to see the issue being taken seriously.

”It took a long time and a lot of people telling them to do it,” he said. “I know that Mayor Tory and the medical officer of health were saying [at the briefing], ‘No no, it’s not a change in direction, we’ve been kind of thinking about this all along.’ But it really is a change of message and it’s a welcome one.”

Mr. Tory defended the city’s previous position, saying that it was “the right and the responsible approach to take” at the time. He said that he’d never ruled out the possibility of opening up roads and that work had been under way for weeks to identify where to focus city efforts.

“It didn’t happen to coincide with some of the calendars that were set forward by advocates, and I understand that,” the mayor said. “It’s their right to put forward whatever calendar they want or pick streets [to open] at random out of a hat. We were going about preparing a methodical, careful, sensible plan.”

Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of Toronto’s Board of Health, praised the city’s shift as an appropriate response to moderating COVID cases in the general population while addressing the desire to be outside as the weather warms up.

“It’s essential that our streets are redesigned to move people, and move people safely,” he said.

Toronto’s progress toward providing this space has trailed many international cities, scores of which have announced temporary car-free streets or laid out pop-up bicycle lanes.

A few cities have also started to roll out permanent changes to the roadway, to encourage foot and bicycle travel after the pandemic and thereby ward off a rise in driving among people concerned about the safety of public transit. London has been among the most ambitious, announcing extensive plans for wider sidewalks and new bicycle lanes to deal with huge projected increases in walking and cycling.

For weeks Dr. de Villa voiced concerns that opening up roads could encourage people to go outside and gather in groups.

Her overarching message throughout this pandemic has been that people should stay home as much as possible. But she has often added that going outside is good for people’s mental and physical health, providing they keep apart from those with whom they don’t live. And on Wednesday she said that her advice has evolved over the course of the pandemic.

“There’s been some time where I’ve been talking about the peak period and thinking beyond the peak period,” Dr. de Villa said. “The decisions that we’re making at this point in time and the advice that we’re providing is consistent as we move from COVID response towards COVID recovery and living safely with the virus in our community.”

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