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Pedestrians walk along the boardwalk in the Beach neighbourhood of Toronto on April 18, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

After more than a month of agitation by pedestrian advocates, Toronto will create bigger sidewalks in a few places by blocking off sections of the curb lane so those on foot can spread out safely onto the road.

The city made the announcement on Monday and will begin with localized sites. With this shift, Toronto is following more than 100 cities worldwide that have reallocated road space during the pandemic.

Toronto is starting small – promising to expand based on public feedback and expert advice – unlike municipalities that are re-purposing dozens or hundreds of kilometres of roadway.

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Mayor John Tory rejected calls for a more extensive shutdown of roads. He acknowledged that “there are some who want more than this,” but said Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa has advised him it would be unwise.

Dr. de Villa on Monday reiterated her concern that people might cluster together if more road is opened up. “Going beyond what we’re proposing here now may inadvertently encourage congregation, which is exactly what we don’t want to see,” she said at a briefing.

The difficulty for Toronto pedestrians keeping apart was illustrated on the weekend by the analytics firm Ratio.City, which used open data to create a map showing the city’s sidewalk widths. It demonstrated that more than two-thirds of Toronto’s sidewalks were less than 2.5 metres wide. Only 8 per cent were more than five metres across.

The map looked only at the edge-to-edge width of the sidewalk and did not take into account obstructions such as transit shelters or refuse cans.

Under the new “CurbTO” plan announced on Monday, some cases of sidewalk crowding may be handled by having staff suggest that a business adopt a different approach to queuing, transportation services general manager Barbara Gray said. In other places, the curb lane will be barricaded to become sidewalk. The program will also create more stopping spots for drivers making quick pick-ups of food or drugstore products.

City staff, police and politicians have identified 10 locations for initial attention. Four will receive pedestrian improvements and two will get increased parking. Four will receive both. The program will eventually expand to about 100 locations, Mr. Tory said.

Dylan Reid, a co-founder of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, said that a major grid of additional pedestrianized space was the ideal scenario, but that localized spots could at least begin to demonstrate the idea had value.

“That’s a start, a step forward,” he said. “The city is recognizing it’s an issue.”

Mr. Reid said walking during the pandemic has some upsides. There is less traffic, less pollution and less ambient noise. But he said the difficulty of navigating around others is stressful, particularly for those who have no access to a street quiet enough to be able to duck onto the pavement to avoid oncoming pedestrians.

“A lot of people live on main streets or live … in areas where there’s not a big network of local streets,” he said. “And for those people, I think it’s been very, very challenging, because a lot of those sidewalks are really narrow.”

The limited space for pedestrians has led to frustration – including a protest by a man walking with a two-metre hoop to illustrate the difficulty of proper distancing – and creativity.

Yusup Mollayev, who is with a startup that is developing a walking app called MapinHood, said in a recent interview that the company realized it could reverse its algorithm, so that instead of directing people to routes popular with other walkers, it would suggest quiet ones.

The app, which will combine historical pedestrian counts and user data, is in beta testing and should be released within weeks. While it will need time to build a sufficient user base for its predictions to be accurate, Mr. Mollayev said that users wanting a quiet walk will eventually be able to input a destination or simply specify that they want an outing of a certain duration.

“You will be given a route to avoid the crowds,” he said.

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