KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The Coronavirus crisis has brought to the forefront a perennial problem often swept under the carpet or pegged for gradual street redesigns over decades: How can we enable pedestrians of all ages and abilities to move around safely?
Our sidewalks are less than 1.5 metres wide, barely enough room to pass others. Crossing points are not safe by design, which presents particular issues for pedestrians with vision loss, restricted mobility or movement, and people with impaired and undeveloped mental awareness and judgement.
We need to be two metres apart from others, anywhere in public – the width of a three-seat sofa. This isn’t just advice, it’s now law: A 35 year old man was ticketed last week for failing to provide safe social distance to others in a bus shelter.
The social distance is critical because the virus is carried in minute water droplets produced when we cough or sneeze, even our breath. Passing someone coming from the other direction on the sidewalk brings us into contact with this “bioaerosol”. One doctor has suggested this could be more of a factor when passing someone breathing more heavily, such as a runner.
In the absence of any practical guidance or action from leadership on maintaining social distance on sidewalks, pedestrians are dealing with this issue by walking in the road when they pass others. This is easier for some than others and obviously impossible for anyone using a mobility scooter and wheelchair. It is also unsafe, especially in current conditions where many drivers are moving well in excess of the speed limit due to the lack of traffic
What could be done to make the movement of people on essential journeys safer? The most obvious and widely available method is to free up space from currently underused roads using road cones, bollards or temporary barriers, as completed already in many cities including London, Ontario.
This could be most useful along roads where shops selling essential supplies are still open, for example Spring Garden Road where traffic lanes are currently wider than is strictly required and recommended for urban routes. Also Quinpool Road, where police were reported to be ordering pedestrians to keep 6 feet apart.
We could also deploy temporary barriers along our very many overly wide and underused multiple-lane urban highway-style routes, for example Lacewood, Pleasant Street, Dunbrack and Joseph Howe Drive.These bloated roads are built wide to ensure traffic keeps moving even during peak periods, which is no longer a factor given so many are working from home or not working at all right now.
But could this just encourage more people to go out instead of staying at home? Yes it absolutely could. We know this because we have built our roads wide and fast for decades so people using cars can commute easily. This has encouraged very high levels of car use for commuting – 2016 census data revealed 78% of us commute by car. We haven’t made crossing points safe for use by all or adapted our roads for slower speeds, which has discouraged people from cycling, walking, wheeling and taking the bus.
So we can expect the exact same phenomenon if we use temporary measures to make our roads safer and easier for use by people. We will start seeing more people we have never seen out and about in our neighbourhood, of all ages and abilities. Is this unsafe? Not so long as there is sufficient space to make sure everyone can keep two metres apart. The temporary measures along with appropriate signage will act as a prompt for all to remember we absolutely need to maintain a safe distance from others, and give us plenty of room to effect that if we see others not being as careful around us. Most importantly it will allow those currently trapped in their homes to get out and about to get essential supplies and exercise.
So far, Waye Mason has pointed to lack of resources and staff as a reason for not deploying these temporary measures now. However we have heard Tim Outhit agree that the lack of traffic is a good opportunity to get ahead on pothole repairs, once the asphalt plants are open for the season.
We have road cones and temporary barriers which can be deployed quickly and easily. Leadership must make space for the safe and legal movement of people our first priority, not road repairs. Failing to do so puts us in the involuntary position of being law breakers and risk takers on our sidewalks.
These are unprecedented times which require unprecedented measures to change the status quo. Using the whip and keeping people contained in their homes for a (likely) extended period isn’t the solution nor the means to effect safety and comfort for all.
If you walk, cycle or use a wheelchair and are affected by road safety issues, please join HRM Safe Streets for Everyone. If your local crosswalk needs a crosswalk flag, please contact the Crosswalk Safety Society. Please remember to report issues affecting your safety to our municipal authorities using the 311 service.
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