It's Time to Take Back the Streets for People Who Walk, Run, or Bike

Toronto streetcar right of way

Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

The streets are pretty empty where I live, but there are still people on the sidewalks, walking their dogs and hanging around the doors of the butcher and baker and fishmonger, waiting for their orders. I have taken to running down the streetcar right of way, there is never anybody walking here. Downtown, it is not so easy, and some are demanding that the City of Toronto's main street, Yonge Street, be closed to cars to give people some room to move. Ben Spurr writes in the Star:

Dylan Reid, co-founder of the pedestrian advocacy group Walk Toronto, supports the proposal and argued that shutting Yonge Streets to car traffic, or at least reducing the number of live lanes, would help protect the health of the tens of thousands of residents who live in the area. Public health officials have advised residents to stay home as much as possible, but people can still walk their dogs and shop for groceries. Reid said residents who do those things on Yonge sometimes have to step into the street in order to follow public health directives to keep at least two metres away from other people. “You can’t walk safely on Yonge Street’s narrow sidewalks and keep distance from people the way we’re supposed to,” Reid said.

But the city has refused, saying it would actually encourage people to congregate in groups. Oh, and everybody is too busy to actually do it, "the signage, road barriers, and enforcement required to safely implement a street closure “would divert resources away from where they are most needed.”

Somehow they managed it in Calgary, Alberta, where city officials tell the Star:

“We’re not encouraging people to go and hang around these places, but what we have done is closed a couple of lanes, again in high-pedestrian-centric locations, just to allow people to have more space between them if they are walking,” explained Sean Somers with the city’s transportation department.

Somers explains that there is so little traffic that people in cars can still get around quickly. And somehow they managed all this within their resources, in a city that has been hit harder economically than any other in Canada, with a barrel of Alberta oil selling for less than a can of beer.

New York Runners public announcment
 New York City/Public Domain

In New York City they are reminding walkers and runners to stay six feet away from each other. TreeHugger's Melissa Breyer wrote recently about how hard it can be to do this:

I ventured out into the big world in an imaginary 12-foot bubble in order to keep the mandated six-feet of distance between myself and anyone else. At one point I stopped at the crosswalk waiting for the light and this dude came and stood about a foot away from me, forcing me to move back from my spot to maintain the mandated six feet. This wasn't the worst thing I've seen, by far, but come on. This is New York City, the current epicenter of the pandemic; we need to be taking our space bubbles seriously!

New York City has closed a couple of streets to give some breathing room to people, but according to the Streetsblog team, it is an "overpoliced mess." There are not many closed streets, because "it was shot down by the NYPD."

The massive police presence certainly follows everything the mayor has said up to this point, since Gov. Cuomo on Sunday ordered him to open up some streets so that New Yorkers could keep away from each other during the coronavirus crisis. On the Brian Lehrer show this morning, the mayor said he wanted to “create a new place for people to congregate,” but did not want to do it without enough enforcement because “what I’d hate to see is we think we’re solving a problem and we’re creating a brand new problem of a place for people to hang out that doesn’t have a police officer or a parks officer to keep people separated.”

Doug Gordon Tweet
 Twitter/Screen capture

Commenters wonder: "Isn't it strange that when the streets are filled with fast-moving motor vehicles that regularly maim and kill other street users, no police presence is needed?" This is also true in Toronto where I live, where the police recently admitted that they have been ignoring driving offenses for years. But ignoring the usual complaints about police, we have to look at the bigger picture.

How Covid-19 will change the design of our cities

changing the design of our cities
 © Toon Dreesen

Writing from Ottawa, architect Toon Dreesen says that we should be thinking long term, that things have changed permanently.

What has quickly become evident is that we’re not just looking at a short-term societal change, but rather a new way of thinking about how we approach the design of our cities. With fewer motorists commuting to work, normally busy roads are largely empty. This starkly illustrates just how much of our city is devoted to cars and moving people quickly through the city from one place to another, without stopping to experience the sense of place we’re passing through. Meanwhile, as we try to keep physical distance between us, we realize how narrow our sidewalks are. As we try to keep our physical distance, picture how challenging it is to navigate narrow sidewalks at the best of times, let alone when they are covered in snow or ice. Now picture this as being an everyday occurrence if you are pushing a stroller or using a wheelchair. Maybe it’s time to rethink equity in the built environment.

Dreesen is not alone. Daniel Herriges wrote a strong piece in Strong Towns about Cars and the Luxury of Space.

Everybody thinks their city is overcrowded. Nobody's actually is. Americans have the largest homes in the world. We have wider streets than most of the world does. We have ample parks and a colossal amount of retail space. There is simply no shortage of breathing room. Or at least, there wouldn’t be if we didn’t reserve the majority of publicly accessible space in our cities for people who are traveling inside their own individual giant metal boxes.

Herriges doesn't believe that we are going to return to a world the way it was. "This is not to be at all glib about the tragedy of what is occurring right now. It's merely to observe that in a crisis, we re-evaluate things that weren't up for discussion in normal times." He wrote this a few days ago and said nice things about Toronto and its plans to pedestrianize Yonge Street (didn't happen) but it doesn't stop him from dreaming that we actually learn from this event.

We will imagine a different city, or maybe even try it out, because we're forced to. But then when the threat of illness has receded, we'll still be free to keep the parts we liked about it. Will we? Let's take the opportunity to do some reflection on the staggering cost of reserving the majority of our public space—even in New York—for people's giant metal boxes.

People in cities everywhere have to realize that things have changed. People are not going to want to get squeezed back into open-plan offices, or crowd into subways at rush hour; I suspect that if and when all the jobs come back, workers will demand staggered hours, more working from home, and more square feet per employee. Commuting as we know it will change. Office work will change. Teaching will change. Herriges suggests we look at our obsession with metal boxes; I think we have to look at everything. It's a new world.