Should We Close the Streets?

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, calls are rising to close streets to cars to make more room for people. But is it a good idea?

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically cut vehicle traffic volumes in cities. Meanwhile, city streets, sidewalks, and trails remain some of the few places people are permitted to travel beyond their homes, as parks and other recreational facilities are closed to curb the spread of the virus. The number of people walking on sidewalks and on trails is leading to concerns about meeting physical distancing requirements, and there’s been a rising number of calls over the past two weeks for full or partial closures of roads to address this.

But during this unprecedented time in history, is closing streets a good idea? Many cities are grappling with this question. Some have embraced it, while others have fully shot it down. Caught in the middle of the debate are urban dwellers desperate to go outside, concerned about navigating crowded outdoor spaces, and frustrated by their elected officials’ apparent inflexibility to change anything.

What are the Options?

Cities have essentially three options for dealing with these concerns:

  • Do nothing: Focus city resources on other issues. Leave streets in their current operating capacity and accept the risk that people coming into close contact on sidewalks could help spread the virus.
  • Tighten restrictions on going outside: Limit people’s trips beyond their homes to absolutely essential ones only, with assigned windows when people can leave and back it up with heavy enforcement. This is what’s currently happening in Paris and other heavily affected European cities.
  • Close streets and/or reduce lanes: Expend city resources to convert streets and lanes for pedestrian and bicycle use in feasible locations across cities.

Reasons to Do Nothing

The easiest course of action is always to do nothing, but it’s not always the best one. So far, many cities have firmly decided to take the “do nothing” approach, for reasons including the following:

  • Sending a “mixed message”: Most cities’ messaging right now is focused on avoiding non-essential trips and staying home. Many have closed public facilities like schools and parks to further limit social gatherings. Announcing street closures so that people have more space outside risks governments and health officials contradicting themselves.
  • Risk of people congregating: City officials are rightly concerned that street closures might actually encourage people to congregate in dangerous numbers. After all, virtually any other time cities close streets, it’s for a festival or event of some sort, where crowds of people are expected.
  • A drain on resources: Many peoples’ jobs have slowed down along with the economy, but city resources are likely more stretched than ever. Spending any resources on this non-essential thing may seem like a distraction.
  • Maintaining access for emergency vehicles: Most streets can’t be completely closed, as they’re important for the response of emergency vehicles. Emergency vehicles have always been exempted from street closures though, and with traffic volumes at record lows, it’s unlikely that emergency response times would be significantly affected.
  • Maintaining transit routes: Not only do transit routes operate on many streets, transit vehicles need to access the curb to provide accessible boarding for passengers. This makes closures of curb lanes where transit is operating problematic.

Reasons to Do Something

The growing citizen-led demand for closing streets and lanes is generally being driven by the following arguments:

  • Temperatures are rising: each passing day brings warmer weather, creating more desire for people to go outdoors
  • Everything else is closed: people seeking recreational opportunities and exercise have nowhere else to go. The streets are the last remaining public space left, and people want to walk, bike, and run there.
  • Some street use is still essential: even ignoring the recreational trips, there are still people walking to get groceries and other essential trips. Grocery store lineups are backing up into the street and sidewalks. From an equity perspective, people driving should not have an advantage over those who do not have access to a car.
  • The space is available: traffic is down significantly, meaning that all the road space currently dedicated to vehicles just isn’t needed at this time.

The Right Way to Close Streets

The response of Canadian cities so far is split, but as of March 31st, Calgary and Winnipeg have both decided to implement street closures to some degree. In Winnipeg’s own words, the purpose is to “assist with social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic”. The City of Calgary admits they are implementing closures reactively, is discouraging people from congregating, and plans to implement even more closures if it finds that paths are becoming crowded.

  • Do it quietly: Don’t announce the closures, and don’t celebrate them. These are an emergency response tactic to support physical distancing for people already outside. It’s not a street festival. Calgary is doing exactly this, emphasizing that its closures are not a street party.
  • Make it widespread: Don’t just close the high profile streets that are occasionally closed for events – close streets all across the city to create local opportunities for people, so reduce the risk of people congregating
  • Keep it simple: Don’t make the closures more complicated than they need to be. Place pylons and signs at street entrances with messages similar to construction closures, like “LOCAL TRAFFIC ONLY”. Winnipeg is doing exactly this, by mimicking its regular summer weekend street closures. Signs are posted at the entrances to these areas instructing motorists they may only travel one block.
  • Monitor the situation closely: If the closures draw more people than expected, either reverse them or be prepared to close more streets to spread out the demand.

What to Do?

Nobody wants a situation where people are forced to stay inside, and only time will tell if these measures will be required in other cities. It is up to local governments to weigh the risks and balance resources. Maintaining the status quo risks more transmission of the virus on congested sidewalks, while closing streets takes resources and risks people congregating more.

Anyone living in a densely populated area without a car is at a distinct disadvantage right now, facing stressful and potentially dangerous situations just walking down the street to purchase essentials. Our governments exist to balance inequities in our society – is this not an inequity that needs addressing?

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