Making space for physical distancing in Ontario: a conversation


by Jamie Stuckless, Share the Road Cycling Coalition

Brampton is building streets for people (photo: City of Brampton)

With physical distancing requiring us to leave 2m of space between people, it’s clear that our standard sidewalks and bike lanes are just not wide enough. As municipalities move to close parks and other public spaces and institute fines to reduce gatherings, space for essential travel and exercise is even more scarce than usual. We are also seeing significant reductions or suspension of public transit, leaving some workers and residents without reliable transportation to get to work or run essential errands like grocery shopping.

As discussed by Robin Mazumder in a recent HuffPost article, these closures disproportionately affect the poor, those who may not have access to private outdoor space and people for whom a huge fine could be disastrous. Read Robin’s full piece online here.

In response to this lack of space, there is a growing movement towards rebalancing streets to provide more space for people to move safely on sidewalks and on bicycles while observing physical distancing.

Recently, Oakland shared plans to open up 74 miles of space as part of their slow streets initiative aimed at giving people more room to spread out safely. The City’s Slow Streets website offers a lot of information about why they are pursuing this initiative to create more space for physical distancing as well as details on when and how it will be implemented. Bogota also took early action and implemented a 35km emergency bike network and in Canada, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver have taken steps to rebalance some streets to provide more space for walking and cycling.

Oakland slow streets (photo: City of Oakland)

A helpful new dataset has been launched by Dr. Combs and colleagues and is being populated by people around the world to share information about local efforts to rebalance streets. The dataset is available on the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Centre website and is a helpful way to keep up with progress around the world.

According to the dataset, few municipalities in Ontario have taken action to rebalance streets, but we know that many municipalities are talking about it and asking questions about how to make it happen. And in the last few days both Brampton and Ottawa have started to rebalance some streets.

The two main questions we have been hearing about rebalancing streets are (1) what are the public health implications of rebalancing streets, and (2) what criteria should be used when identifying streets to be rebalanced.

Public health implications

With regards to the public health implications, Drs. Anne Harris and Linda Rothman recently shared their thoughts in a letter to Mayor Tory and Dr. de Villa in Toronto. As epidemiologists at Ryerson University, they expressed their support for rebalancing streets to protect residents who rely on sidewalks and bicycles for their essential transportation from both COVID-19 and from road traffic injury. Their letter highlights the need for the City to think of sidewalks and bicycling as essential modes of transportation and not as casual, optional recreational activities.

Drs. Harris and Rothman used their letter to support a network of individual lane closures (including parking lanes) in high density parts of the city as a way to provide the space residents need for physical distancing without requiring the complete closure of any streets.

Rebalancing criteria

The conversation around rebalancing streets seems to change everyday as more municipalities and advocates join the conversation. It’s been challenging to analyze everything out there for trends and common criteria for implementing rebalanced streets, especially because it’s so new.

One approach has been to focus on streets already identified for changes as part of the city’s bike plan (Oakland) or upcoming open streets initiative (Winnipeg).

A position paper drafted and shared by the Vancouver Public Space Network also emphasizes a focus on existing municipal plans, while adding important guiding principles specifically related to physical distancing and equity. In their draft paper they recommend the following priority considerations for pedestrian & bike only interventions:

  • Areas with high amounts of foot traffic (e.g. key destination sites — e.g. grocery stores, key service providers, etc.);
  • Neighbourhoods with reduced provision of parks and open space (note: use of part space per capita to measure to assess);
  • High-density neighbourhoods — in particular apartment zones areas;
  • Neighbourhoods with high populations of at-risk and/or equity seeking communities (note: ensure a broad approach to understanding equity).

Let’s collaborate

These are important questions and considerations that we know many communities are talking about so we’re teaming up with The Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) to host a virtual conversation about rebalancing streets in Ontario. Municipal staff, councillors and community members & advocates are invited and encouraged to join us April 22 @ 3pm.

In addition to sharing questions, challenges and best practices with colleagues across the province, participants will be able to connect with and hear from epidemiologist Dr. Anne Harris whose work was referenced earlier in this post. We will also have representatives from Brampton on the call — including Councillor Rowena Santos — to share their work to rebalance streets in Brampton.

And we want to collaborate with participants about how these rebalancing efforts are pursued. On the call we will be discussing an initiative to co-develop a set of key questions for planners and advocates to use while rebalancing streets to ensure they are meeting the needs of people making essential trips, particularly vulnerable populations.

Sign up online to join us for this (free) conversation using this online form. Participants are required to sign up in order to receive the event access information. More details about this webinar and our other virtual engagements are available at