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A man wears a mask as he walks down the sidewalk in Peterborough, Ontario on April 17, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

I keep to the right on the sidewalk and almost nobody else does. Every time I walk somewhere, I get blocked by people coming from the opposite direction, people walking two or three abreast, and people who walk right into me because they’re staring at their stupid phones. Before COVID-19, it was just annoying. Now it’s dangerous because it makes physical distancing impossible. We have to follow arrows in stores and keep right on escalators right now, but on sidewalks, it’s still the Wild West. I don’t expect painted lines (although that would be nice), but aren’t there laws requiring people to stay to the right? – Nancy, Vancouver

When it comes to sidewalks, the law doesn’t take sides.

“The provincial Motor Vehicle Act doesn’t really say anything about where people walk on sidewalks,” said Paul Storer, Vancouver’s director of transportation. “In our Street and Traffic By-law, it says that if you’re crossing in a crosswalk, you should keep to the right – but I think that’s somewhat outdated.”

Across Canada, provincial traffic laws require cars to keep right on roads, but they don’t apply to pedestrians on sidewalks.

“Although you can’t operate a motor vehicle on a sidewalk, for obvious reasons, the rules of the road only apply to the road,” said Sgt. Murray Campbell, with Toronto Police Traffic Services.

Most provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, say that pedestrians should use the sidewalk if there is one. But they don’t specify what pedestrians do once they’re there.

Cities could pass bylaws that fine pedestrians who don’t stick to the right, but most cities – including Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal – let pedestrians walk where ever they want to on sidewalks.

While several cities have passed laws requiring physical distancing during the pandemic, the laws generally haven’t been applied to people on sidewalks.

“There aren’t any ‘set in stone’ rules pertaining to pedestrians on the sidewalk, whether it is during the pandemic or not,” said Const. Tania Visintin, Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman. “[But] keeping to the right and maintaining social distancing on sidewalks are really good common-sense measures that people should be taking.”

Other rules that apply to drivers, like bans on texting while moving, don’t apply to pedestrians either, police said.

Although most cities have bylaws against blocking sidewalks, they typically wouldn’t apply to someone who stops suddenly to text – or to groups of people who walk side by side.

Old rules

Some cities, including Toronto, once tried making rules about walking on sidewalks.

Toronto’s 1944 traffic bylaw, which had a section requiring pedestrians had to keep to the right on sidewalks, was mocked in newspaper editorials.

When the law was replaced in the 1950s, the sidewalk rule wasn’t included.

Even if some cities still have antiquated laws on the books telling people where to stick to on sidewalks, they’re probably on the wrong side of history, said Dylan Reid, co-founder of Walk Toronto and author of The Toronto Public Etiquette Guide.

“It’s an etiquette rule that you should walk on the the right and pass to the left,” Reid said. “But it’s not a rule that should be dictated by the government because it’s not enforceable – and it could be abused and used disproportionately against marginalized people.”

While getting blocked on the sidewalk is annoying, it’s unlikely to get anyone hurt or killed, Reid said.

“We need to focus on the things that cause danger and harm.” Reid said, “I think walking on the right is a habit for most people anyway – there have been studies showing that it takes a few days for people from Japan and the UK to get used to not walking on the left on sidewalks here.”

More space, by design?

During the pandemic, some cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, have opened up parking lanes to pedestrians to make room for people waiting in lines to get into grocery stores and other businesses.

“When we look at places where people are uncomfortable on sidewalks, it’s places where there just isn’t enough space,” Storer said. “That’s especially true in some older areas.”

In new developments, the city plans to make sidewalks wider, Storer said. Plus, it has closed some roads to car traffic to give more space for pedestrians.

But, as the pandemic continues, could we see measures like directional arrows or painted lanes on sidewalks?

“Probably not – sidewalks are complex places where there’s a lot of stuff happening, like people walking in and out of stores,” Storer said. “If we started to hear that community transmission on sidewalks was a big problem, then maybe that would be something we’d start thinking about.”

Sidewalk stragglers are annoying but they probably won’t make you sick.

“Passing someone in a hallway or on the street are not considered significant risks for transmitting the virus,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health. “If someone is walking side by side with another person for over 15 minutes, that is a higher risk.”

Even though the law doesn’t require you to stick to the right, it’s still a good idea.

“With people being a lot more cognizant of maintaining physical distance, we’re seeing a lot of people questioning what other people are doing,” Storer said. “When I’m on the streets of Vancouver, I see most people being really respectful and courteous and trying to maintain that distance.”

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