One of the ways that the governments has instructed their citizens to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is by keeping a safe distance from others. In Toronto, this works out to at least a 2-metre distance from others when out in public. But this ordinance has led many to ask questions, not about the importance of keeping space, but about how people are meant to keep space in cities where pedestrians already have so little.
As Tom Vanderbilt argues in The Atlantic, modern cities have grown to accommodate vehicle traffic, not pedestrian traffic. Sidewalks often just meet the required length while vehicle lanes have been made wider. In big cities like New York City and Toronto, where there are huge volumes of pedestrians, this means that sidewalks practically force people to move closely together.
This is obviously dangerous at a time when keeping apart is critical for safety, but many are taking this opportunity to point out that, even when not required to keep meters apart, the disproportionate amount of space afforded to pedestrians and vehicles is a problem that needs to be addressed.
"... some of the tensions that have flared during the coronavirus crisis - over runners using the sidewalk, or pedestrians using the bike lane - are particularly tragic. These confrontations are often ascribed to some personality flaw of the runner or pedestrian herself - she's rude or entitled - rather than seen as an indictment of the misguided system that pits two people on a narrow sidewalk against each other in the first place."
Many big cities have become accustomed to this divide in space, especially since it has been in place for so long, but just because it's the way things are currently done doesn't mean that it's the way things have to be done. While vehicles take up more space than pedestrians, pedestrians in urban environments often far outnumber drivers and they have a right to space in the city, too.
Arguing that it won't work is belied by the examples of cities that have given space back to pedestrians successfully. Vanderbilt gives a few such examples; cities like Milan, which widened sidewalks and created temporary bicycle lanes, or Paris, which is creating a massive network of bicycle lanes around the city.
In a crisis, the changes that occur can show us acutely what problems exist and what needs to change. The reduction of cars in cities has led to massive unused spaces, while pedestrians are still fighting to keep distance with the limited amount of space they have always had. This needs to change and hopefully, the realization that pedestrians are getting the short of end of the stick will help enact that change. As Vanderbilt points out, as cities return gradually to normal, or to their new normal, people will still need to keep distance for the foreseeable future. Will they be able to in environment as it exists in the modern city?
For more, check out the fascinating original article by Tom Vanderbilt in The Atlantic.