Public RealmRU City Builders

Letter from RU Epidemiologists: Physical Distancing Needs Space

By April 13, 2020 No Comments

On April 10, Ryerson faculty members Drs. Anne Harris and Linda Rothman called for more cycling and pedestrian space to achieve safe physical distancing, in an open letter to Toronto Mayor John Tory and Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. de Villa and sent to all Toronto city councillors. 

As communities across the globe adopt physical distancing measures to plank the curve of COVID-19, many city dwellers struggle to maintain the necessary two metres of space while walking or biking in dense urban areas. Recognizing this, dozens of cities have repurposed space on streets to expand sidewalks and bike lanes, but Toronto has yet to rebalance its roadways.

Two Ryerson epidemiologists – Dr. Anne Harris and Dr. Linda Rothman – have written an open letter to Toronto’s Mayor and Council, emphasizing the need to allocate space to allow for safe physical distancing for those on foot and on bikes. Ryerson CBI is posting their original letter to amplify their message.

“We are…concerned that people relying on sidewalks for essential transportation are forced to either ignore 2m distancing rules or step into live traffic lanes to give distance. We note that lighter traffic seems to be encouraging increased speed of motor vehicles, posing additional injury risks to vulnerable road users including pedestrians and cyclists and possibly increasing severity of these injuries. Severe injuries competing for hospital resources is particularly counterproductive to COVID-19 management.”

– Drs. Anne Harris and Linda Rothman

Read the full letter:

April 10, 2020

Dear Mayor Tory and Dr. de Villa,

We are epidemiologists who fully support the Stay Home initiative to plank the COVID-19 curve. To ensure physical distancing in the City of Toronto, we urge you to reconsider closing lanes of motor vehicle traffic, or parking lanes, for Toronto residents who rely on sidewalks and bicycles for their essential transportation. We urgently need to protect these residents from both COVID-19 and road traffic injury. A network of individual lane closures (including parking lanes) in high density parts of the city will most efficiently achieve the objective and need not entail complete closure of any streets.

We research and teach public health, with primary appointments at Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health and status appointments at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. We want to enable all road users to comply with physical distancing measures (2m buffer) safely. Our academic research is dedicated to preventing traffic injury at all times, but we observe a heightened urgency in preventing road injuries to preserve our hospital capacity for COVID-19.

Toronto residents depend on sidewalks and bicycling

In preparing this letter, we wish to emphasize the role of sidewalk travel (we will shorthand this as “walking” but include people using mobility devices) and bicycling as essential transportation. We understand there is tension and complexity in encouraging recreational activity during Stay Home messaging. We wish to focus your attention on the dependence of many Toronto residents on these modes of travel for their essential transportation. We are responding in part to this comment from city officials on road and lane closures:

The Medical Officer of Health and the leadership at the Emergency Operations Centre has reviewed the proposal of opening Yonge Street for pedestrian travel and have concluded that at this point in time, it is not warranted. They observe that residents are following the clear and simple public health instruction to stay home and as a result there is a reduced number of pedestrians using public spaces including sidewalks. Furthermore, there is limited capacity in Transportation Services at the moment to manage delivery changes and install new signage needed to amend the traffic alterations (1).

In reading this and other comments, we are concerned that walking and bicycling are inherently perceived as casual, optional recreational activities, and that truly essential transportation is assumed to use other modes.

Bicycling and the use of sidewalks for essential transportation

According to the 2016 Transportation Tomorrow survey (TTS) (2), 13% of trips by City of Toronto residents over the age of 10 relied on walking or bicycling as their mode of travel, with a further 27% of trips using transit (which we note would include sidewalk travel to get to and from transit stops). In the downtown core, this rises to 41% of trips made by walking and bicycling and 27% by transit. Therefore, some 40-68% of trips made by Toronto residents rely, at least in part, on sidewalks or bicycle travel and the reliance is heaviest in the densest part of the city. These percentages may have changed during the pandemic. Other cities have observed increased reliance on active transportation such as bicycling to facilitate optimal physical distancing (3).

Essential transportation comprises thousands of trips per day

We certainly need to drastically reduce the usual number of trips outside the home to plank the COVID-19 curve. TTS data suggest 5.14 million trips by Toronto residents in a typical 24-hour period. We imagine an extremely compliant scenario where all 2.93 million Toronto residents heed the call to stay home, and only go out once per week for essential supplies (two trips: out and back). This is a loose estimate because while some residents will not leave home at all, others work essential jobs and therefore must leave the home every day. Assuming even spread throughout the week, two trips per week for each resident amounts to 837,000 trips per day (an 84% reduction), of which some 109,000 would rely on walking/bicycling and 226,000 rely on transit (which also requires sidewalk use). If residents obey the recommendation to stay close to home on essential trips, we can expect these trips to be concentrated in areas of highest population density.

Safe physical distancing needs space

We are very concerned that Toronto’s narrow and obstructed sidewalks (4) do not allow these trips to be completed safely while complying with physical distancing of 2m. Even two road users passing will often be unable to achieve 2m distance. In the densest parts of Toronto, it is nearly impossible to avoid arterials completely (and please note, transit is found on arterials). We are therefore concerned that people relying on sidewalks for essential transportation are forced to either ignore 2m distancing rules or step into live traffic lanes to give distance. We note that lighter traffic seems to be encouraging increased speed of motor vehicles (5), posing additional injury risks to vulnerable road users including pedestrians and cyclists and possibly increasing severity of these injuries (6). Severe injuries competing for hospital resources is particularly counterproductive to COVID-19 management.

It is time to act to allocate space for physically distant essential travel by bicycle and on sidewalks.

In taking action to allocate more roadway space to sidewalk users and bicycles, Toronto would follow several Canadian cities including Montréal, Brampton, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver and more than 60 other cities worldwide (7). Perhaps Toronto Transportation Services could consult with counterparts in these other cities to devise ways to achieve closures while contending with their limited capacity. Toronto Public Health could look to these cities for examples of messaging that makes clear closures are not an invitation to congregate, but a necessary response to an unprecedented pandemic emergency that requires physical distance between road users engaged in essential activity.

In conclusion, we do not write this letter to compromise COVID-19 management objectives of physical distancing. Instead we emphasize the need to ensure physical distancing is achievable for all residents, not only those who have access to personal motor vehicles.

We will be happy to meet virtually or talk by phone if we can help clarify any points mentioned here.

Sincerely,

Anne Harris, PhD, Associate Professor, Ryerson University

Linda Rothman, BScOT, PhD, Assistant Professor, Ryerson University

Footnotes

(1) Cycle Toronto: https://www.cycleto.ca/news/cycling-time-covid-19

(2) http://www.transportationtomorrow.on.ca/

(3) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/14/nyregion/coronavirus-nyc-bike-commute.html

(4) https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-sidewalk-bylaw-1.4425148

(5) https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/toronto-police-report-more-speeding-stunt-driving-during-covid-19-pandemic-1.4879057

(6) https://usa.streetsblog.org/2020/04/09/covid-19-cuts-car-crashes-but-what-about-crash-rates/

(7) http://pedbikeinfo.org/resources/resources_details.cfm?id=5209

*

Photo by Sunyu Kim, courtesy of Unsplash. Photo not taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.