COVID-19 pandemic may encourage us to make sidewalks wider

It is difficult to find something positive in this pandemic. Sure, we will learn better disease-management ways and everyone is reminded about the importance of proper hygiene, but the way we are forced to learn these lessons is not the most pleasant. However, there is one nicer positive – scientists found that COVID-19 lifestyle and new regulations made towns and cities in England on average over 40% more accessible to pedestrians.

Maintaining this social distance on a narrow sidewalk is impossible. Image credit: Acabashi via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

There are several ways we are reducing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 disease. Masks, ban on bigger public events, frequent hand washing or gloves and, of course, social distancing. Maintaining that 1-2 metre distance is not easy, especially when walking infrastructure is just not made for that sort of thing. Scientists at the Newcastle University said that up to 60% of pavements in some English cities were not wide enough for maintaining a proper social distance. However, that 1 metre+ regulation made areas in England on average 43% more accessible for pedestrians. For example, only 11 % of Newcastle’s pavements are not suitable for this regulation.

So what happened? Well, not much, actually. Just that the 2 metre social distance requirement made a lot of sidewalks unusable in a safe way. This regulation has just changed in the UK to 1 metre, allowing people to use more of the sidewalks without breaking that regulation. However, scientists say that more can be done, especially in the light of climate change and general attention to urban air pollution.

Dr Alistair Ford, lead author of the study, said: “In city centre locations there’s a tendency for wider pavements, and these areas are also where we would typically expect to see higher footfall. This space, however, may not always be available to pedestrians and so even wider pavements don’t always indicate that adequate safe space is available.<…> The reallocation of road space to pedestrians presents an opportunity to transform our urban spaces for the better in the longer-term.”

Cities want to reduce the number of cars on the road. This includes encouraging people to choose cycling and walking. In order to achieve that, cities will have to sacrifice some of the road surface for pavements, which in turn will make for better opportunities to maintain social distance. Having in mind that this is not the last pandemic humanity faces, it is a good idea to improve our chances of maintaining basic distance between strangers.

Is that 1 metre social distance even enough? Well, it depends. If people are wearing masks and follow sneezing and coughing etiquette, it is probably enough. Otherwise, 2 metre standard should be maintained. With COVID-19 sticking with us for years to come, it would be a great opportunity to expand street areas dedicated to pedestrians.


Source: Newcastle University

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