Mind the gap: How cities can make physical distancing work

ANALYSIS: What can municipalities do to support residents who have to stay two metres apart?
By Sean Marshall - Published on Apr 27, 2020
London’s Blackfriars Bridge is now closed to motor traffic. (Sean Marshall)

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Sean Marshall is a co-founder and active member of Walk Toronto, a grassroots pedestrian-advocacy group.

Many Ontarians are staying at home these days, heeding the advice of public-health experts and public officials. But it’s not always possible.

Hundreds of thousands still have to commute daily to their jobs in hospitals and long-term-care homes, grocery stores and pharmacies, warehouses and factories. While transit systems in most cities continue to operate — Windsor’s being a notable exception — they are constricted by physical-distancing requirements and a shortage of operators. With reduced transit service and unusually empty roads, walking and cycling may be the best options for some workers.

And those working from home, or those currently unemployed, still need to make essential trips to grocery stores, pharmacies, and urgent medical appointments.

For that matter, many of the same public-health agencies that are telling people to stay home as much as possible are also encouraging them to go on walks for exercise and mental health — as long as they remain at least two metres from anyone else. So how can municipalities use public spaces to support outdoor activities, commuting, and social distancing during COVID-19?

Anne Harris, an associate professor at the School of Occupational and Public Health at Ryerson University, says that there’s “a tension and complexity in encouraging recreation activity during stay-at-home messaging.” Although some cities, such as Brampton, Kitchener, and London, have closed selected roads or traffic lanes to provide opportunities for safe pedestrian and cyclist movement, Toronto has not.

In London, the historic Blackfriars Bridge was closed to motor traffic, and the curb lane of a second bridge over the Thames River was closed to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists. In downtown Kitchener, sidewalks were widened along several blocks of King Street to encourage physical distancing for residents accessing essential shops and services, while providing space to manoeuvre around construction scaffolding.

In Ottawa, city councillor Shawn Menard saw the need for safe physical distancing on urban Bank Street in his ward. The bridge over the Rideau Canal, with narrow sidewalks and close passing lanes, he says, was a particular concern. Many residents in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South neighbourhoods walk to nearby grocery stores, pharmacies, and the LCBO at Lansdowne Park, crowding sidewalks.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city had indicated an interest in transitioning toward active transportation for budgetary and health reasons, but implementing changes to support it remains difficult. Menard points out that Ottawa city council is largely made up of councillors who represent suburban and rural communities. “It doesn’t allow for these initiatives to be approved easily,” he says, as many councillors and their constituents “don’t want to see a slowdown in traffic on their way to work.”

When COVID-19 hit, Menard acted on his own to address the need for safe physical distancing in his neighbourhood. With traffic levels down and parking lanes not being used, he saw an opportunity. The two curb lanes on the Bank Street bridge were closed to traffic, using 160 traffic cones purchased with money from Menard’s own office budget. He also worked with the National Capital Commission to close a section of Queen Elizabeth Driveway along the canal so that joggers and cyclists could safely exercise.

Menard reports that feedback so far has been “overwhelmingly positive.” Ottawa’s Board of Health — on which Menard sits — has tried to strike a balance in its messaging between emphasizing staying at home when possible to flatten the curve and encouraging walking and cycling for exercise and mental health. “People want that space,” he says. “And they are using it appropriately.”

In Brampton, municipal politicians and staff took the opportunity to pilot a planned new east-west cycling route, which connects Bramalea and Chinguacousy Park with Etobicoke Creek and downtown Brampton. Using temporary signage, traffic cones, and bollards at intersections, the route along Vodden Street and Howden Boulevard adds five kilometres to the city’s cycling network.

Councillor Rowena Santos sits on the city’s cycling advisory committee and represents several neighbourhoods along the cycling route. “As a cyclist and a regular runner of the trail systems in Brampton, I knew first-hand that it was not possible to maintain proper physical-distancing protocols on a crowded trail,” she says. The new bike lane serves to reduce congestion on trails and “give people the alternative of using their bikes to access essential services, especially since transit has been reduced significantly for the safety of passengers and staff.”

As in Ottawa, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “My 10-year-old son and I experienced positive interactions with pedestrians on the sidewalk smiling and waving as we rode by,” she says, adding that she received support from Mayor Patrick Brown and that the measure netted the City of Brampton a record number of positive interactions on social media.

In Toronto, Mayor John Tory and city council have been taking direction from the medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, who has not recommended any closures of traffic or parking lanes to promote physical distancing. “We do not want to inadvertently encourage people to leave their homes through opening streets, which could result in higher pedestrian demand and social gathering,” she wrote in response to an open letter from Harris and her colleague Linda Rothman. De Villa stated that the risk of infection from brief proximity to others on sidewalks does not pose a significant health risk.

When asked why Toronto hasn’t taken actions similar to those of other cities, Harris acknowledged that “it’s a hard question to answer.” Toronto, she says, has been facing “multiple wildfires” because of outbreaks in shelters and long-term-care homes and “has not yet flattened the curve.”

At such a difficult time, “it is hard to consider putting your neck out to make decisions like closing traffic lanes for pedestrians and cyclists,” she says, adding that she has “great empathy” for city councillors who are being pressured to do more for pedestrians and cyclists while also trying to ensure they stick with expert advice from senior city staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly and radically changed how city dwellers get around in Ontario and elsewhere. And it’s clear that, although the need for safe physical distancing has allowed responsive civic leaders to pilot proposed road changes, such as the temporary bike lanes in Ottawa and Brampton, it will continue to be a struggle to find the right balance.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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