Comment: Let’s reimagine our streets, and give pedestrians priority

A commentary. Dean Murdock is a former Saanich councillor and Capital Regional District director; Teale Phelps Bondaroff is a volunteer board member with the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our communities in so many ways. As we begin to adapt to life in the “new normal,” we have a rare and invigorating opportunity to reinvent public spaces to create places for people.

Physical-distancing guidelines mean that we can’t pile into busy restaurants, cafés, pubs or shops. New indoor capacity rules and line-ups to access businesses are quickly filling up our narrow sidewalks.

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Local governments are uniquely positioned to help us support our local shops and favourite spots as businesses grapple with changes that must be made to keep people safe. Several of our local municipalities, including Langford, Victoria and Sidney, now expedite permits to give restaurants and retailers access to road and sidewalk space for temporary patios, outdoor seating and parklets.

These innovative approaches allow people to patronize and enjoy local businesses. Not only can we get together with friends — at an appropriate distance — but we can provide a needed boost for local businesses that are challenged to keep their doors open and conform to new restrictions.

During the pandemic, people have been increasingly turning toward active transportation, such as walking and cycling to get to work, school or run errands. Some municipalities have responded to this increase by repurposing road space into pedestrian zones, giving people additional space to remain active while maintaining a physical distance.

Victoria council’s much-anticipated step to create pedestrian priority zones on Government Street is a great start. Similarly, temporary measures like this one, or pedestrian zones on Simcoe Street in James Bay and on Cook Street in North Park, are a good start and have answered a pressing need. Our “new normal” needs to include permanent and expanded spaces for people to practise active transportation, which will also help to reduce traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

Wider pedestrian boulevards create space for people to socialize while walking, and allow people using different travel modes to share the path. Many of our existing path and trail systems, such as the Galloping Goose and Lochside trails, are extremely well-used, and increasingly crowded.

Narrow paths mean that we can’t practise conversation cycling, or safely pass other people while maintaining a responsible distance. We have an opportunity to explore ways to widen existing infrastructure to meet increasing demand, keep people safe, and to increase enjoyment.

Join us in encouraging your mayor and council to reimagine our streets and public spaces to give pedestrians priority. Let’s take this chance to re-animate our public spaces and breathe new life into our cities and towns.

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