July 26, 2021

Let’s Start Making Wider Sidewalks

By admin

Nothing like a good ol’ PANdemic to remind us how badly we plan most of our infrastructure.

Take sidewalks.

They’re typically built just ONE metre wide, forcing all of us lowly pedestrians to sidle up beside each other as we try to get some fresh air.

That’s not right.

Through the pandemic, we’re told to stay at least SIX feet or TWO metres apart.

At the start of the pandemic, the Globe and Mail was asking why we build sidewalks in such a skimpy and cheap manner.

Daniel Rotsztain built his “Social Distance Machine” out of plastic pipe and bicycle inner tubes. The contraption fits around his body like a giant hoop, creating a bubble of two metres in all directions. It isn’t very practical, and that’s the point. It perfectly illustrates the challenge of physically distancing on Canada’s streets.

Mr. Rotsztain, an urban geographer in Toronto, published a video on Monday of his awkward ambles through the city. As he and his Social Distance Machine tried to walk down the sidewalk – hitting poles, bumping into passersby, failing to squeeze through construction scaffolding – the result was an amusing reminder that downtown Toronto was not built for gaps of two metres between people.

We now know when any pedestrian already knew: there’s a major discrepency in term of comfort when walking urban and even suburban streets.

And then there’s bike ‘lanes’ … which are pretty much almost always shoulders on roads. As a cyclist, I feel somewhat ‘privileged’ when the small part of the shoulder after the white line is paved. If it is, it MIGHT be one metre.

So … let’s use what we’ve learned from the pandemic – ie. people like to walk and have something to do when they have nothing to do – and start building better sidewalks that are more inclusive and that will reduce the number of pedestrian deaths per year.

It has to start with separating cars and all other non-car forms of traffic.

Pedestrians, wheelchairs, bikes – basically anything non-motorized all deserver the same kind of latitude we’ve given cars for the last 100 years or so. Once we start, we’ll wonder why the hell we made so many roads in the first place!

And when we come to the intersection of pedestrians and vehicles?

BOLLARDS. Lots and lots of bollards.

When construction crews are working close to street level, they get nice big immovable cement blocks to protect them.

Why don’t we implement something similar for cyclists and pedestrians? WHY are we sending the message that it’s OK to protect developers and their employees but not citizens?

It’s messed up.

In response, Strong Towns is recommending that the US implement the addition of a BILLION bollards to protect non-car movement.

They ask:

If licensed professionals placing breakaway poles in sidewalks isn’t institutionalized gross negligence, at the very least, then what is it? If transportation professionals refuse to put up bollards to protect people from the violence of an errant vehicle, how is this not abetting the slaughter of thousands every year? I have no satisfactory answer to those questions. I know none that do.

If the federal government wants to fund transportation, skip the megaprojects. Start with a billion bollards. There is nothing we can do that will save more lives, and few things that will put us in a better position to build strong towns.

Of course, if that’s not enough to stimulate the conversation, let’s look to Planner’s Network for a list of ideas about how to approach this.


Leuven, Belgium

Pedestrians on a sidewalk, two-way bicycle traffic on a red-surfaced corridor, and parallel-parked cars are all accommodated between the historic buildings and the street. Pavers provide space for passenger-side car doors to open and bulbouts with bushes and trees enhance the ride and the street. Bollards further separate the rider from the parallel-parked cars and raised pavers deter cars from parking on the median.

Erlangen, Germany

Incentive or bonus zoning, used often in urban environments such as New York City, allowed developers to build additional floors of office buildings in exchange for open public plazas, available to pedestrians but no other users. Often, these public plazas traveled through building courtyards and provided enhanced passage for pedestrians wanting to get to the other side. Similar design innovations could be provided for bicyclists, in-line skaters and joggers through buildings as a form of public space that is then available to all populations.

Let’s round out the whole conversation with ‘what’s next’: smart(er) planning.

More examples: sidewalks and trails made with recycled materials and smart paths.

Or how about a path that actually collects solar energy for use in other places as opposed to adding to our heat trapping?

Imagine a colorful modular paving system that snaps together “like LEGO bricks” replacing dull pavements currently populating today’s concrete jungles. Hungarian startup Platio designed that paving system to make our sidewalks do more for us. Their paving system, made with recycled plastic, offers firm ground while harvesting clean energy from the sun.

So folks, there are no more excuses.

Let’s stop being stupid with our planning and demand better.

Our lives depend on it.