Pedestrians need more than just the sidewalks

How cities can take from the cars and give to the pedestrians

The pandemic has made us changed the way we travel through the city. We keep our distance from others and avoid public spaces like gyms or public transit. Consequently, walking has become the alternative way of travelling around the city as many people stay closer to their homes.

For many, walking could be the only time in a day for people to get some fresh air, whether it is a grocery trip or dog-walking. It could just be an aimlessly walk down the street to stay active and escape their homes. No matter why people walk, it feels differently during COVID-19: less cars, less people, and less safe.

One of the most common fears for walking during the pandemic is how to stay socially distanced. Most pathways in North America are designed to be 1.2m minimum for two people to pass through, and 1.8m minimum for the sidewalk. Unfortunately, this minimum width requirement doesn’t meet the 2m socially distancing recommendation for Covid-19. This creates a problem in most urban and suburban settings where the sidewalk width is substandard for social distancing. Yet we cannot blame the urban designers or engineers for not foreseeing the pandemic but we can only try our best to find the solutions.

Unless people are paper thin, we need at least a 2.8m wide sidewalk to pass through another pedestrian while maintaining social distancing (considering the average person width is 0.4 meter plus the 2 meters for distancing). Unfortunately, most sidewalks do not meet this number because they are designed based on normal pedestrian traffic flow. According to the Urban Street Design Guide from NACTO:

The pedestrian through zone is the primary, accessible pathway that runs parallel to the street. The through zone ensures that pedestrians have a safe and adequate place to walk and should be 5–7 feet wide in residential settings and 8–12 feet wide in downtown or commercial areas.

Sidewalk at residential areas
Typical sidewalk layout at residential areas. Source: NACTO

In residential areas and most suburban settings, the sidewalks are often designed for low pedestrian traffic flow and only range from 5–7 feet (roughly 1.5–2.2m). This number is way below the desired minimum at 2.8m to be safely distanced, and potentially receiving higher pedestrian traffic due to people working from home.

Typical sidewalk layout at downtown or commercial areas. Source: NACTO

In downtown or commercials areas, even though the sidewalks are designed more generously, the passthrough zone for pedestrian is just barely enough to safely distancing. As mentioned, the sidewalk passthrough zone for pedestrian ranges from 8–12 feet (roughly 2.4–3.6m). The reason for this is that other sidewalk estates are occupied by store frontage, outdoor dining and street furniture.

Even when the math works in favour of the sidewalk, people don’t just maintain a safe distance. Pedestrians tend to walk in the center of the sidewalk or closer to the center of the sidewalk, making keeping a two-meter distance near impossible.

‘Social distancing machine’

If you are not convinced by all the numbers, this video will illustrate the sidewalk dilemma in Toronto streets when the guy struggled to find a safe distance on the sidewalks. Until everyone can afford one of these ‘social distancing machines’, we must seek different solutions.

To deal with this sidewalk problem, we must give the pedestrian enough walking spaces on the streets and make sure they follow social distancing. While designers and planners are not legislators with the power to make up ‘street rules’, they can still do their part to keep the streets safer.

First, we on the mission to find more real estate for the pedestrians on the street. While the streets or sidewalks don’t just get bigger, what option is better than leasing spaces from the cars. This strategy has been used by many cities and in many forms of sidewalk extensions, slow streets or pickup/delivery zones.

In the past, most streets are designed for vehicular traffic with more than one traffic lane, and even have street parking in commercial areas. Cars have always been the favorite child because of their size and popularity, meaning they have extra spaces to give back to the pedestrians.

Street parking spaces have been given for cyclists and pedestrians. Source: NACTO

Simply by giving up street parking or a traffic lane, cities could make room for pedestrians to keep a safe social distance. This space can be repurposed as a sidewalk extension like in the photo above or could be used by storefront owners as a curbside pick-up zone and outdoor dining. In many cities, they have proposed ‘slow street’ where one or more lane of traffic is closed to vehicles and allow spaces for pedestrians and cyclists to socially distancing outdoor.

However, these good intentions from the planners sometimes forgot to address all communities like Black or disable people. Some slow streets initiatives have received comments such as ‘Safe Streets’ are not safe for black lives. When we design for the public, it is necessary to survey and understand from all communities to have a better strategy for everyone.

The second half of our answer is to make sure the streets are safe just like we imagined. Even though we cannot policing people, good designs can make a critical impact on how to keep people at a safe distance.

Piano staircase vs escalator

The experiment of the piano staircase above is an excellent example of how design can affect people’s behaviour. The Fun Theory, an initiative of Volkswagen, has designed a staircase with sounds like an actual piano. By using gamification to make the staircase more exciting, the design had successfully encouraged people to use the stair instead of the escalator.

Pentagram’s Paula Scher affixes green circles to the high line to promote social distancing. Source: Designboom

With this concept in mind, we can apply it for design during the pandemic. Using exciting graphics and designs, we can suggest people follow two meters distance while walking. Paula Scher has used bright green dots on the High Line to create a simple yet powerful design to make the walking experiences safer. We can borrow this idea and have a similar design on the sidewalks, making social distancing easier, and most importantly, more fun.

Even with all these great ideas and designs, there is no definitive answer to the social distancing dilemma. Until the pandemic is over and the world is celebrating, we have to be responsible and take the social distancing seriously.

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Huy Pham

Landscape architect. I design and write about livable spaces for plants and human.