A year and a half ago, COVID upended daily life worldwide. Ottawa was no exception. Almost overnight, workplaces shuttered and car traffic disappeared from our streets. As the weather warmed, Ottawans struggled to maintain safe physical distance as they poured outside in droves seeking fresh air and exercise. 

This concern led many cities around the world, from Paris to MilanPhiladelphia, to Bogota, to reinvent how they allocate outdoor space. Cities prioritized cyclists and pedestrians in urban areas, in many cases closing lanes or entire roadways to make this happen. More inspiring still, some cities are working to make these changes permanent.

As we consider a return to some kind of post-Covid “normal,” we’re faced with major questions about how we choose to live in our city. Nowhere is this clearer than the issue of how we manage our streets.

Let’s expand on the progress Ottawa has made on safe and healthy streets. Sign the “Safe Streets, Healthy Streets” petition now.

In March 2020, Ecology Ottawa launched “Safe Streets, Healthy Streets,” an initiative that urged council to repurpose underused street space for safe and healthy outdoor access by pedestrians and cyclists. Despite powerful community momentum, council refused to lead on this file, instead leaving the choice up to individual councillors with paltry office budgets. Nevertheless, we’ve seen impressive leadership from the National Capital Commission and various councillors (examples here, here and here).

Many Ottawans saw huge benefits of closing roads to private motor vehicles as it gave them easy, carefree access to open spaces for exercise, fresh air and socially distanced-socializing. Given that work from home will likely continue in some form even after the pandemic, we will continue to see reduced traffic throughout the city, which means there is still opportunity to build on the gains on pandemic-time street closures.

The question we must now ask is, can we afford to go back to business as usual? Are we satisfied with going back to a city built just for moving cars over one that emphasizes health and safety for all road users? We know the city envisions car-free zones as a key part of its climate plan, but has shown no clear strategy on how to get there. We know the city has a plan to reduce death and injury on our streets, but still spends its money on costly road widenings that do nothing to improve road safety or relieve congestion. So, as council sets its new budget priorities, it’s time to turn up the heat for safe and healthy streets.

Click here to sign the petition for safe and healthy streets. Let’s respond to the Covid crisis by making Ottawa a true leader on active transportation.

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