I live in Toronto where cars are king and everything else deserves to be banned from the road, heck we rip up bike lanes while other cities grow their bicycle networks (and we’re spending millions on a highway that gets fewer users than a bus route). Toronto has been shamefully slow in reusing streets for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities around the world have closed streets to car traffic and made life better for people who need more physical space so the disease won’t spread as easily. In Toronto we’ve closed parks and told people to walk single file on sidewalks while car traffic is down by 70%. basically, shame on Toronto.
What are good cities doing about this? They’re banning cars and using streets as a public space instead of a strip of land dedicated to moving single occupant vehicles. Some cities are considering making these changes permanent as the quality of life benefit from banning automobiles is quick to see and fall in love with.
Like many others in New York City, I live in an apartment that’s about 250 square feet. It’s a lot harder for me to abide by the same orders as people in sprawling suburban McMansions. Our sole escape is the public spaces that typically fill beyond any ability to socially distance on warm days. When people are stuck at home, and so many other establishments are closed—our libraries, museums, gyms, pools, restaurants—the parks are already more crowded than usual. Even the Green-Wood Cemetery has threatened to close because of overcrowding by people in search of spaces to walk. The situation stands to create a viral tinderbox that will ignite New York in the heat of the summer. To propose that the solution is to limit the use of these already precious public spaces is the inverse of a solution.
Open the streets. Open at least half of them. If we do not have enough police to enforce temporary closure to traffic, then open them semipermanently with concrete barriers. Open other streets permanently. Dynamite the asphalt, sod the land, plant trees and flowers, and do not look back.
Bad urban design makes for poor living conditions and when cars are involved it can mean lethal conditions. As people know all to well, the last century’s bizarre love of the automobile has given us a lot of issues that we need to deal with today. Some solutions are really complex (like climate change) while others can be solved easily through simple design tweaks. One fast and easy way to save lives is to lower the speed limits on cars. Another simple solution is to stop designing our streets to allow cars to travel at high speeds. Cars kill, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Many people fear that slowing the speed limit in urban areas will dramatically increase journey time. However, average road speeds in cities are more determined by the frequency of intersections than speed limits. A safer speed limit can achieve more uniform speeds and reduce dangerous midblock acceleration, while adding little to overall journey times. Research from Grenoble, France has shown that a speed limit of 30 kmph (18.64 mph) rather than 50 kmph (31 mph) only added 18 seconds of travel time between intersections 1 km (.62 miles) apart. Lower speed limits may even reduce congestion in some cases, as they reduce the likelihood of bottlenecks. This has been observed in Sao Paulo, where lowering the speed limit on major arterials reduced congestion by 10 percent during the first month of implementation, while fatalities also dropped significantly.
Navigating cities can be a challenge for anybody with mobility issues due to a lack of infrastructure and poor communication. Decades of efforts to improve urban design have made a positive difference while more recently apps for mobiles have come into existence. Not all solutions are valued by everyone, but the upward trend of making our neighbourhoods more accessible is a thing we should all appreciate.
People have been crowdsourcing accessibility data far longer than apps have been around. Disability activists have been drawing maps by hand for decadesto prove the need for curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, signage, and other features that make public access possible, particularly for wheelchair users. In cities such as Berkeley, California, and Urbana and Champaign, Illinois, environmental audits, mapmaking, ad-hoc design practices, and “guerrilla urbanism” have enabled wheelchair and power-chair users to get around otherwise inaccessible cities by, for example, fashioning curb cuts from found materials.
Urban planners know adding streets won’t make traffic any better, indeed adding capacity for more cars does the opposite: it makes traffic worse. The problem is that the average person (and politicians) don’t know this little quirk of urban planning. As a result we still build sub-urban areas to cater to old notions of traffic design instead of letting urban planners implement smarter, better solutions.
So what’s a solution to bad traffic? Road diets.
Today, we now know that bigger roads and extra traffic lanes do nothing to solve congestion. In fact, it tends to induce even more traffic. So we didn’t fix the congestion issues, and on top of that, we built wide roads that are relatively unsafe.
Transportation planners in the 21st century recognized that many of the roads that were overbuilt could be redesigned to calm speeding and add space for newer multimodal transportation options. And thus, the road diet was born.
The video above demonstrates how communities can transition from an unhealthy, vehicle focused, urban design to a healthy pedestrian design. Regular readers of this site know that streets designed for people are better for communities by making cities healthier and economically more productive. Cars are an clunky way to move people in cities so much so Oslo is banning cars, and other cities are making similar efforts around improving transportation. We know what we need to do to reduce needless deaths at the hands of car drivers, all we need is the political will.
If you’re in Toronto today then you can meet at city hall at 5:45pm to call on local councillors to stop pedestrian deaths.