Closing roads to make room for pedestrians during COVID-19 should not be controversial

It can be difficult being a pedestrian in Saskatchewan’s two largest cities.

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to work toward better cities

Traffic flow was retricted in Wascana Park on Friday, April 3, 2020, but efforts to have roads in the park closed to vehicles have been met with resistance. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

It can be difficult being a pedestrian in Saskatchewan's two largest cities.

Both have narrow sidewalks, faded or unlined crosswalks, resistance to slower speed limits, resistance to an increase in space and pedestrian routes that lead to nowhere. 

Our values are not focused on walking in Saskatoon or Regina. We are stuck in 60-year-old development patterns.

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to challenge these patterns and work toward cities that better promote health, safety and the environment.

Initiatives met with resistance

Regina and Saskatoon have new official plans, which oversee their design. Design Regina was adopted in 2015. Saskatoon is set to adopt a new Official Community Plan in June 2020.

You could be forgiven for not knowing what an Official Community Plan is. They are often dry, pedantic documents full of policy and bureaucratic language.

Nonetheless, both new plans espouse the development of walkable cities. Both prioritize community quality of life by defining how the big developments — roads, sidewalks, servicing, land use, buildings — work together to form a pleasing, efficient, safe, attractive community. Both focus on local, walkable, mixed-use environments, ideally located as close to the city centre as possible.

So why the loud debate when people request more space for walking, jogging, cycling, skateboarding or almost any other form of non-motor transportation? 

We shouldn't be arguing over closing a portion of Wascana Drive in Regina, or a portion of Spadina Crescent in Saskatoon. Yet these initiatives are met with resistance.

People in Saskatoon and Regina feel a strong sense of ownership when it comes to roads. Requests for more space for walking, jogging, cycling or other forms of active transportation are met with negative reactions, especially from drivers. 

Such requests have been made in both Regina (closing portions of Wascana Drive) and Saskatoon (closing portions of Spadina Crescent) during the pandemic. Both reqiests have been rejected. Saskatoon cited the risk of people congregating and potentially spreading COVID-19, despite a recent study from the University of Massachusetts finding the overwhelming majority of positive cases of COVID-19 were contracted indoors.

'COVID-19 has exposed and magnified flaws in our communities'

Many people are convinced that the changes caused by COVID-19 are going to become part of a new norm. They are speculating that physical distancing and the shift to work-at-home may have some benefits, such as more time with family, more services offered online, more productivity and more urges to get out and be active.

As the pandemic began in Saskatchewan, the City of Saskatoon spent $250,000 on laptops to allow staff to work from home. When the pandemic is over, many organizations will likely look carefully at the cost/benefit of working from home versus using expensive space in an office. Company policies governing how people work together are likely to change as some people find they are more productive working from home. 

In April Saskatoon Cycles proposed designating a portion of Spadina Crescent for cyclists and pedestrians. (Guy Quenneville/CBC News)

As people adjust to work-life at home, they will find that most of our neighbourhoods are lacking in interesting places, sidewalks, trails or destinations. 

If you don't believe me, take a look at Stonebridge Boulevard in Saskatoon. This major roadway has no sidewalk at all on one side and the sidewalk on the other side is completely separated from the transit stop located only a few feet away. Was this done consciously? Rather the opposite. 

In Regina, the downtown is plagued with vacant, unattractive sites used for parking and reserved for grand redevelopment schemes like the Railway Redevelopment area.

COVID-19 has exposed and magnified flaws in our communities. For example, sidewalks are only 1.5 metres wide, too narrow for two adults and a dog to go for a walk. Yet 1.5 metres has been the standard for decades. Very few people question that standard, yet it is used everywhere, whether it is appropriate or not.

This is caused by a one-size-fits-all approach to infrastructure. This is common in small to medium-sized cities where a single approach to infrastructure has met most of the transportation demands for decades. 

An opportunity to change

The time is right to critically examine how our infrastructure reflects our changing demographics and values. Some European cities are now taking advantage of the pandemic to make permanent changes to their roadway systems to capture space for active transportation. 

Prior to the pandemic, nearly every medium to large city in Canada had adopted an active transportation strategy. Yet, very few have been willing to make permanent changes. Instead, the strategies seem to entail decades-long periods of implementation.

The pandemic is an opportunity to advance those strategies and change peoples' habits by providing infrastructure to encourage the desired changes. 

To sum up, the poor attitude toward pedestrians and cyclists seems out of scale with the amount of effort and cost needed to make positive changes to encourage healthier lifestyles. Councils in both Regina and Saskatoon barely think twice about spending large sums to add or widen roads, but studies from the U.S. indicate that adding components such as bike lanes and sidewalks account for only four to eight percent of the total cost of roadways. 

To be fair, our local councils at least seem interested in encouraging active transportation. The large obstacle is attitude. A prevailing disdain of pedestrians, cyclists or anyone who doesn't drive is winning, despite all the good arguments in favour of better infrastructure for walking and cycling.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Alan Wallace is the planning director with Wallace Insights and president of the Saskatchewan Professional Planners Institute. He is the former director of planning and development for the City of Saskatoon.


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