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 Milan, Philadelphia, 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.
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.