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Would wider sidewalks induce demand?

One of the debates that is happening in cities all around the world right now is about whether or not it makes sense to redistribute public space in order to help with current social distancing measures. We are all being told to stay at home as much as possible, but as we venture out for food and/or sanity walks, many have started noticing that a lot of our sidewalks are in fact too small if you’re trying to stay 2m away from other humans. So with vehicular traffic way down, the question becomes: Should we start borrowing some of that space for pedestrians?

Here in Toronto the official position is no. Closing down streets and lanes to car traffic is usually referred to as creating an “open street.” And the intent of these open streets is typically to bring people together for public life, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do right now. What this implies, however, is that there’s a belief that additional space for pedestrians would induce demand, similar to what is believed to happen when you add additional lanes on a highway.

Lewis Mumford probably had it best when he allegedly said, “Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.” So on the one hand, if you believe that more lanes doesn’t solve traffic congestion, you might also be inclined to believe that more and bigger sidewalks isn’t going to dampen the anxiety we currently feel when other humans get anywhere near us. The additional space would simply get filled with more bodies.

But maybe you could argue that this is a little bit of a different situation. We’re in a global pandemic for God’s sake and most of us have the better sense to stay home unless it’s absolutely necessary. Perhaps in this case, demand would not increase and the greater supply would simply better serve the demand that is already there. Perhaps. I don’t have a strong stance on this, but I’m fairly certain that technology could help with this decision.

What do you think?

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash


  1. Apples and Oranges. If all 4 million of us came out on the street at the same time there’d still be plenty of space between us walking, running and cycling for social distancing; if everyone who owned are car came out at the same time on the other hand the grid would instantly be gridlocked.
    Michael Holloway for @Ward14Bikes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. am

    I think that this point anything that helps people navigating the situation without going crazy is useful. It’s also incredibly weird to see people go out of their way to maintain the 2 meter rule. It leads to some hilariously awkward moments.

    But there is no way to gauge the effectiveness of such a measure so it would be great to see the city test drive it. They could easily shut down half the streets in my hood and that would have no impact on traffice, but it would make safe distancing certainly easier.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Craig Patterson

    I was wondering about this recently as well. I doubt wider pedestrian access spaces will increase foot traffic if people are continuing to ‘social distance’ — sidewalks that are already plenty wide enough are empty where I live, including the Bloor Street ‘Mink Mile’.

    I do subscribe the the automobile theory however as it’s been tested (granted the roads are also pretty quiet at the moment, these are very unique times).

    Liked by 1 person

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