As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads around the world, cities are struggling to find innovative ways to safeguard public health while providing residents with access to fresh air and exercise.
To slow the spread of this deadly virus, public health officials are recommending physical distancing of around two metres from others on the street.
In normal times, pedestrians are crowded onto sidewalks, and cyclists pass along the edges of roadways, within close range of pedestrians (as well as cars).
Of course, these are not normal times. With the closure of non-essential businesses and a dramatic shift to online work, Covid-19 has upended the daily rhythms of our city. Streets have cleared out in dramatic fashion.
In response, cities around the world are working to re-purpose roadways. Philadelphia, New York City, Bogotá, Toronto and Vancouver are making more streets accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists.
For example, Philadelphia had closed one of its main streets, Martin Luther King Junior Drive, to cars. New York City has added protected bikeways to two key corridors and two pedestrianized streets would open in each of the city’s boroughs. Bogota added dozens of kilometers of bikeways and announced the city’s open streets on some days. More than 76 kilometers of street closures will now take effect each weekday to give people alternatives to commuting through the public transit system. Perth, Auckland, or Boston have automated crossing signals so that pedestrians don’t have to touch “beg buttons” that may be contaminated. Los Angeles has suspended bus fares. London has made bikeshare systems free.
This idea was discussed at Ottawa City Council on Wednesday, March 26. Unfortunately, Mayor Jim Watson has avoided any commitment to implement a city-wide policy for this initiative. Further, the mayor has recommended that any funding for safer streets come from councillors’ small office budgets, as opposed to general municipal funds. This means, if taken, measures will be small and piecemeal. Thousands of Ottawans – especially within denser, urban areas of our city – will lack safe access to the outdoors.
The City of Ottawa has a major opportunity to do much more. With spring around the corner, and with physical distancing measures set to extend into the foreseeable future, now is the time to show leadership by re-purposing under-used streets for the health and safety of pedestrians and cyclists.