The critical role that good pedestrian infrastructure plays in city life has been exposed by the coronavirus lockdowns. Why can’t cities fix their sidewalk gap?
Stuck at home because of the coronavirus, millions of urban residents suddenly became acutely aware of an easily overlooked element of urban infrastructure: their neighborhood sidewalks (or lack thereof).
“Maybe when this is all over we can widen the sidewalks,” mused Dan Rather in an April 2 tweet that garnered over 26,000 likes. The retired newscaster was on to something: During the lockdowns, as walking provided a critical antidote to cabin fever, sidewalks become crowded, contested space. Many are too narrow to provide the requisite six feet of physical distance from others, as a performance artist in Toronto memorably showed. With vehicle traffic temporarily in retreat during Covid-19 shelter-at-home rules, many cities claimed street space for pedestrians via quick-fix solutions like traffic cones and Jersey barriers. Meanwhile, retailers and restaurants, desperate for safer outdoor space, are making their own incursions into this increasingly valuable infrastructural commodity.
With sidewalk awareness ascendant, this is indeed an opportune time to start an overdue national upgrade. Sidewalks play a vital role in city life: Long after the pandemic has ended, better sidewalks can continue to offer a host of benefits, including improving resident health, reducing automobile usage and helping to address historical underinvestment in low-income communities.
Current sidewalk deficiencies have accumulated over decades of neglect. In the pre-automotive era, many cities had far more space for pedestrians, says Arlie Adkins*, a professor of urban planning at the University of Arizona. “Since the 1920s we’ve seen this explosion of driving, and there’s been a competition for fairly scarce real estate,” he says. “There’s only so much space between buildings, and we’ve made some clear choices about how that should be distributed.”
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