Take Back the Streets and Give Them to Restaurants

CC BY 2.0. Town square in Vilnius/ Umnik on Wikipedia

Vilnius has an idea that would work in a lot of places.

In just about every city right now, the streets are empty of cars. Meanwhile, as restaurants and bars prepare to re-open, they have to deal with physical distancing and don't have the room; they will all have far lower capacity to the point that they probably can't make a living.

Meanwhile, the weather is getting warmer. It's not quite patio season yet, but it's not far off. That's why this plan by the city of Vilnius, Lithuania, is so brilliant; according to John Henley in the Guardian, they are going "to turn the city into a vast open-air cafe by giving over much of its public space to hard-hit bar and restaurant owners so they can put their tables outdoors and still observe physical distancing rules."

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine,” said Remigijus Šimašius. Public safety remained the city’s top priority, the mayor said, but the measure should help cafes to “open up, work, retain jobs and keep Vilnius alive”.

This is a seriously brilliant idea. As the head of the restaurant association noted, this will "accommodate more visitors and bring life back to the city streets, but without violating security requirements."

In North America, politicians don't have much time for this kind of thinking. In New York City the mayor has finally agreed to some street openings (what Streetsblog calls "a flip-flop they can get behind") but he is still a bit of an authoritarian, insisting that they "do it in a way that’s responsive to the core concerns we've heard of the NYPD over safety and enforcement."

toronto is open

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Toronto, the Mayor has been resisting any kind of change to give pedestrians more room, but has finally folded a bit, taking away car lanes at "hot spots" of pedestrian traffic. Of course, he is also creating "special new parking zones to facilitate motorists picking up food deliveries or medicine during the pandemic." I wonder which will get the prime real estate right in front of the drug mart. But hey, it's a start. From David Rider in the Star that it's really the Same Old Story with a slight addendum:

“I know there are some who want more than this now — more bike lanes, more extensive lane and street closures across the city,” Tory said. “I will continue to follow the advice of the medical officer of health, the current advice that we focus on encouraging people to stay home rather than closing long lists of roads.” Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s public health chief, confirmed she is concerned big new pedestrian spaces could encourage people to mingle and possibly contaminate each other at a crucial stage of efforts to halt the virus.

Perhaps the Doctor and the Mayor will look at Vilnius and the crisis in the city's restaurants and bars. As we noted earlier in The coronavirus and the future of restaurants these are the places we might lose, "the places that give our neighborhoods their charm and character." The restaurant operators will encourage people to sit and eat their dinner, not mingle, and then they might actually survive the summer.

Toronto rules for walking

Toronto Telegram via Torontoist/via

But no, that would be too radical for Toronto, where you have never been allowed to have fun, and where they even had laws regulating how you walk on the sidewalk, laws that David Wencer says "made the city a national laughing stock." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.