City streets are a critical part of municipal infrastructure, and good street design is necessary for smart, future development. Not only do we travel on streets every day to get to work and school; as a concept, streets are a basic unit of urban space, and necessarily impact how we experience our cities.
In around the mid 20th century, the purpose and design of city streets drastically changed from being designed for the pedestrian to instead, designed around the car. Streets which were once shared spaces for pedestrians, public transport, commerce, and play, quickly transformed around the needs of the automobile. With such changes, safe walking, cycling, and gathering places in urban centers became scarcer, and urban sprawl abounded. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for urban spaces and streetscapes which reflect the needs of citizens — beyond just the need for transportation. As citizens not only do we need our streets as mechanisms for transportation; we also need our streets to be spaces to enjoy nature and the outdoors, exercise, and recreation.
In Toronto, one way streets have changed through the pandemic is by reclaiming our streets for patios and outdoor dining. CaféTO is a program created by the city of Toronto in order to support restaurants, bars, and small businesses throughout the pandemic, transforming city streets to meet the needs of the public. CaféTO enables businesses to continue to generate revenue while adhering to COVID-19 social distancing and public health guidelines by “identifying space in the public right-of-way and expediting the current application and permitting process for sidewalk cafés and parklets (sidewalk extensions)”. With over 1,200 businesses taking part in the program to set up temporary sidewalk and curb-lane patios, CaféTO is now becoming a permanent program; a way of maintaining the vibrancy and vitality of Toronto’s streets.
Internationally, as a response to both the pandemic and climate change, cities are making changes to their streetscapes to bring the focus of street design back to the needs of pedestrians. In London, mayor Sadiq Khan implemented a London Streetspace initiative, creating bike lanes and wider pavements throughout the pandemic. Further, Mayor Khan has introduced plans to transform central London into one of the largest car-free zones in the world.
In Oakland, California, the city has introduced “slow streets” closed to vehicular traffic in order to support safe physical activity and alleviate overcrowding in parks and trails as a part of their COVID-19 recovery.
In Shenzhen, China has accelerated plans for a car-free district of 132 hectares with “space for schools, parks and leisure space”. As one of the fastest growing cities in China, and the world — the scale of such a project demonstrates the global trends towards cities geared less towards cars, and more towards citizens.
This shift from focusing on the needs of people instead of cars can lead to positive impacts for our environment and in the way our cities function. Not only do automobiles produce large amounts of exhaust which contribute to greenhouse gases and climate change; cars also create noise pollution, traffic jams, a huge amount of accidents, and take up increasingly scarce space. For example, in North America there is an excess of parking spaces. In the United States alone there are approximately 1 billion parking spaces across the country occupying space which may be better used as greenspace, affordable housing, retail, or other innovative purpose. Further, concrete and asphalt used for parking spaces and street design are a major contributor the carbon emissions, since the creation of concrete emits nearly 8 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. New transportation solutions which use cars more efficiently like Uber, Lyft, and automated electric vehicles are technologies with the potential to transform both our streets and our environment.
When we think of what makes a great city, we often think of streetscapes and the human interaction which is facilitated by a well designed city. In creating a better Toronto — one which facilitates positive human interaction, is safe, and provides spaces in which to enjoy nature and recreational activities, it is important to consider the needs of the people — perhaps over the needs of the car.