Environment featured

Make space for pedestrians – an open letter to Jacques Dubé (Halifax CAO) and Brad Anguish (Director, Public Transportation and Works)

Photo John van Gurp

Dear Mr Anguish and Dubé,

I read your response to councillors on the citizen-led request for additional street space to effect safe social distancing for pedestrians (also potentially cyclists) with surprise. I believe your concerns are not supported by objective evidence and may be shaped by personal opinion, not fact. 

I am very concerned that genuine issues relating to lack of space for pedestrians walking to work, to services and for exercise have not been taken seriously through understanding the need for rapid implementation of remedial measures, which could be potentially effected through the power afforded to you under section 90(2) of the Motor Vehicle Act to establish pedestrian safety zones. I would like to take the opportunity to address the concerns you have raised.

“The closing of streets whole or partial opposes provincial guidelines to stay (the blazes) home”

Our streets remain open for use by all traffic and therefore already do not in any way encourage people to stay at home. The use of cars in Halifax for non-essential journeys has been widely documented and observed. The World Health Organisation has asked that if people do need to make essential journeys in cities, they should walk or cycle if possible

The key issue raised by citizens is that sidewalks of 1.5 metres wide or less do not provide adequate space for people to pass each other legally with the required 2 metres distance, enforced with an onerous $1000 fine as seen on streets like Quinpool. Where best efforts are made to step into the road to social distance from others, pedestrians then breach section 127 of the Motor Vehicle Act which states “where sidewalks are provided it shall be illegal for any pedestrian to walk along an adjacent Highway”. 

It is well documented that many residents do not own or use a car and so walk or cycle to obtain groceries, visit dependents, get to and from work and for exercise. These people are not advised these journeys aren’t permitted, and have no choice but to move illegally and with great difficulty either in the road or on sidewalks. They are also often elderly or disabled people who are not able to avoid others easily and are most at risk from the Coronavirus.

I understand, Mr Dubé, you have a personal opinion that the proposed temporary social distancing measures in some way opposes Dr Strang’s directives. This opinion is absolutely not supported. His Order requires us to remain 2 metres apart in public, always. Our pedestrian infrastructure does not support that requirement, hence the absolute need to effect temporary additional space, as widely recognised worldwide including by national governments

“Closed streets draw upon critical traffic resources to establish and maintain, and front line responders to enforce”

Our requirement and request is for the traffic authority to provide us with the bare minimum required to effect legal social distancing on key streets, such as traffic cones to separate off the edges of the road usually used for parking. This should not require any additional resources or enforcement and it is a measure we are accustomed to seeing due to the regular activities of construction contractors, whose signs and bollards are negotiated by traffic and pedestrians every time we make a journey. 

Reducing space for cars to speed excessively will also reduce the tasks of front line responders dealing with road traffic accidents and excessive speeding on key pedestrian routes like Quinpool and Spring Garden Road, both of which have seen highly dangerous excessive speeding incidents this month – see links. Also see advice from the United Nations regarding the need for temporary measures that ensure vulnerable road user safety is prioritised due to lower traffic levels and increased speeding.

“There are some supply concerns around barricades and bollards”

Traffic cones have been used successfully in Canadian cities to effect social distancing space on key shopping streets. Could these be deployed in the absence of temporary barriers?

“There is potential interference with business”

There is no research I am aware of which concludes that making more space for pedestrians on streets has a negative impact on businesses. Experience has shown that increasing space for people and reducing space for cars has a profoundly positive impact on increasing business and the commercial viability of any urban core.

“There is potential interference with bus and emergency response routes”

Many of our traffic lanes and routes in our urban core have traffic lanes far wider than the NACTO recommended 10 feet. They also feature multiple lanes and on street parking, sometimes on both sides of the road. Given lower levels of traffic and ample road space, there should be no difficulty with increasing space for pedestrians by a few feet.

“Sidewalks in most areas of the municipality are in low demand”

How has this been assessed and by whom? I am surprised given the lack of resources you mention that time has been found to assess our sidewalk capacities and usage. Data I have seen collected from citizens shows usage of streets by pedestrians and cyclists is high.

“Most medical officers are advising the risk of transmission is negligible on a sidewalk”

As stated above, Dr Strang has by a Health Protection Order required the public to maintain 2 metres distance in public. No breaches of this strict legal requirement are listed or permitted, including people passing closely on sidewalks. I do not understand the basis on which the terms of this Order can be disputed or questioned, neither do medical experts and neither do the police, so I understand. 

“There is a potential increase in demand for masks”

The need for masks is reduced if people are able to move 2 metres apart in public. Also people are already visiting shops and supermarkets where risks of transmission are likely greater.

“We are aware of at least two cities who regret establishing social distancing for several of the reasons cited above”

Please provide details of those cities, and who expressed the regret. Is this a majority consensus resulting from an objective assessment by all relevant decision makers, or is it an opinion from a  specific person(s), such as traffic engineers or management?

You may dispute much of what I have said above, but I have at least supported my conclusions with evidence. It is evidence-based (and consultation led) decision making that is so evidently lacking in our municipality when it comes to vulnerable road user issues and concerns. And evidence that does support the need for a different approach is so often not acted upon, perhaps due to the unquestioning and continued priority afforded to the needs of vehicular traffic flow, always. 

This situation does require urgent remedial action. Please ensure that we do not wait for months to provide space for social distancing and personal safety on key streets used every day by people walking for essential journeys and for the recommended once-daily exercise. There are many people who cannot drive to supermarkets, to drive-thru’s, or to walk in permitted areas. 

They do not have yards or easy travel and exercise options outside of their home, and so are most impacted by your decision to offer streets that do not afford safe and legal social distancing. Please ensure their needs are urgently assessed and met with appropriate low-cost temporary measures within the next few days.

With best wishes, Martyn Williams

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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