Daniel Rotsztain built his “Social Distance Machine” out of plastic pipe and bicycle inner tubes. The contraption fits around his body like a giant hoop, creating a bubble of two metres in all directions. It isn’t very practical, and that’s the point. It perfectly illustrates the challenge of physically distancing on Canada’s streets.
Mr. Rotsztain, an urban geographer in Toronto, published a video on Monday of his awkward ambles through the city. As he and his Social Distance Machine tried to walk down the sidewalk – hitting poles, bumping into passersby, failing to squeeze through construction scaffolding – the result was an amusing reminder that downtown Toronto was not built for gaps of two metres between people.
On Yonge Street, which like much of central Toronto has both narrow sidewalks and lots of pedestrians, keeping his distance proved to be impossible. He discovered that the only safe place to walk is in the middle of the street.
What a great idea.
Made a Social Distance machine to show why @cityoftoronto needs to close major streets like Yonge during COVID-19. Our sidewalks are too narrow to keep a safe distance.— Daniel Rotsztain (@theurbangeog) April 13, 2020
Tell @JohnTory and your local councillors: #streets4peopleTO!https://t.co/uUmYOxOGZv pic.twitter.com/ZiCwuSECx9
There is an immediate need to open up space in densely populated areas of Canada’s cities. While Toronto has rebuffed calls to close streets such as Yonge to cars, even as vehicle traffic has plummeted, other cities have acted.
In Vancouver, the city banned cars from the road around Stanley Park and parts of Beach Avenue, to make room for pedestrians and bicycles. Montreal opened a “corridor sanitaire” – a health corridor – on a stretch of Mont-Royal Avenue filled with essential businesses in the busy Plateau neighbourhood.
These cities join others in Canada and around the world making similar moves. Oakland, Calif., has gone the furthest, closing almost 120 kilometres of city streets – 10 per cent of its total – to cars.
The worry of some civic officials in Toronto is that turning streets over to pedestrians could lead to gatherings or street parties. That assumes people are idiots, which they are not. The mayor instead has floated the idea of one-way sidewalks. Single file, everyone!
The concern of drawing crowds is an issue but planning can mitigate it. Oakland is the best example. Instead of creating just one showcase street that might lure too many people, it created a city-wide network of car-free streets. That gives people room to get the kind of exercise we all need to stay healthy and sane. Oakland’s closed streets remain uncrowded.
In Vancouver, the city has expanded its efforts. This week, it widened its partial closing of scenic Beach Avenue on English Bay to provide additional room for cyclists.
In Montreal, the city is looking to expand the Mont-Royal Avenue model to other streets, in part to ensure the original pedestrian area does not see an undue surge of people.
In Toronto, closing a long stretch of Yonge to cars makes sense. So does banning cars or reducing lanes on adjacent streets, in neighbourhoods where thousands of people live in tall condo towers surrounded by narrow sidewalks. It means creating a downtown pedestrian network, so people going to and from essential services and seeking some exercise can safely adhere to physical distancing.
Yonge Street is the obvious starting point. Before the pandemic, the city already was working to redesign the street. Data have shown that more than half of people who use Yonge south of Bloor are pedestrians, and the city was looking at halving the lanes of traffic to two, and repurposing the rest for people, bikes and transit. It was also studying closing a stretch of Yonge to cars.
These are good ideas, and overdue. In the past year, Paris went car-free in an area along the Right Bank of the Seine, and San Francisco closed part of Market Street.
The immediate need for more room to physically distance highlights a problem city-dwellers have lived with for years: Streets are designed for cars, not pedestrians. Vancouver is a typical example. More than a quarter of all the land in the city is devoted to roadways. That’s almost double the amount of space given to parks and green spaces.
The pandemic is an opportunity to start thinking about how to improve cities after the health crisis recedes.
Right now, however, these experiments are a necessary emergency measure.
Calls to physically distance are one thing; being able to do so is another. With spring coming, cities need to act quickly to make more room for people.
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