Your COVID-19 ‘Sidewalk Wars’ Think Piece is Missing the Point

The debate over who has the right to the sidewalk right now ignores the fact that cars still dominate our roads.

No one disagrees that these people are standing way too close for our current viral moment (unless they live together.) But the conversation over who has the "right" to the sidewalk during the COVID-19 pandemic isn't so simple. Source: Creative Commons.
No one disagrees that these people are standing way too close for our current viral moment (unless they live together.) But the conversation over who has the "right" to the sidewalk during the COVID-19 pandemic isn't so simple. Source: Creative Commons.

We’re all learning a new vocabulary to navigate our streets in the age of COVID-19.

There’s “couple-spreading,” a word for inconsiderate lovebirds who stroll hand-in-hand instead of walking single file so their neighbors can more easily give them a six-foot berth on the sidewalk. The long-maligned “scofflaw cyclist” got a partner in crime at some point over the last month: the scofflaw jogger, who doesn’t elect to run in the wide-open street and zips down the sidewalk instead, terrifying unsuspecting pedestrians in their wake. And of course, there’s “Covetiquette,”  a cutesy portmanteau of the deadly virus that’s killing thousands of Americans every day, and “etiquette,” a thing that rich people use to shame each other over stuff like thank you notes and wearing a hat inside.

The debate over the “right” way for pedestrians and cyclists to behave on our streets is certainly not new. But in the age of social distancing, it’s gained a new lexicon — and some harrowing new stakes.

Where once we just criminalized “jaywalking” — the crime of walking through an intersection without the permission of a driver — we’re now threatening to criminalize going for neighborhood jogs. Die-hard cyclists used to debate whether it was okay to ride on the sidewalk when the roadway was full of high-speed motorists; now we’re debating whether we need to follow Italy and France‘s lead and ban bikes on the street altogether.

We’re doing these things to stop a global pandemic — and no one but the most deluded and irresponsible is arguing that social distancing isn’t crucial right now.

But there’s something that sidewalk-shamers aren’t talking about nearly enough: the fact that in the vast majority of cities in America, there isn’t enough sidewalk for pedestrians on a day when we don’t all need our six-foot protection bubbles – because we’ve devoted so much of our road to drivers.

The real enemy in the ‘pavement wars’

On Twitter and in the traditional media alike, most Americans seem to think that the “pavement wars” are being waged between two groups: the good social distancers, and the bad ones.

“Good” social distancers, of course, are perfect. They only venture outside their homes when absolutely necessary — to go to essential jobs or maybe the grocery store or for exercise. “Good” social distancers walk alone, or at least stay in strict single file with their loved ones. They cross the street immediately upon seeing another pedestrian coming up in their line of sight. They never bike, and if they do, they do it in the street — or better yet, they drive for miles until they can get to isolated trails where they won’t disturb another soul. And they certainly don’t jog in urban areas — because everyone knows those guys are pieces of shit.

But here’s the thing about the most popular “enemies” in the pavement wars: they wouldn’t look nearly so bad in a world with adequate pedestrian infrastructure.

For the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman, for instance, “bad” social distancers include the notorious “couple-spreaders” (he coined the term), plus cyclists “gone full speed-freak” at intersections, solo walkers who use the middle of the sidewalk instead of hugging the edge. But Teeman ignores the fact that every single one of those hypothetical villains is a direct product of his or her car-focused environment.

The couple-spreaders and the middle-of-the-sidewalk guy wouldn’t be obtrusive if the damn sidewalk was just a little wider — something that would be a whole lot easier if the federal Department of Transportation didn’t say that a sidewalk wasn’t necessary for every neighborhood road, and that five feet was plenty wide enough. (It’s not. It never was.) The “freshly liberated urban cyclist” whom Teeman frets will mow him down at the intersection wouldn’t be a danger to pedestrians if she had a dedicated bike lane, and maybe even her own signal. (It should be noted that Teeman expressed no trepidation about getting mowed down by a driver at the same intersection — despite wide evidence that drivers are speeding because there are so few cars on the road.)

And it’s not just the think-piece authors. When armchair traffic engineers such as Sheena Glass tweet things like the embedded gem below, they ignore the fact that when we ask cyclists and joggers to behave “responsibly” on a sidewalk in the age of social distancing and jump into the road to give a fellow ped a little more space, we’re often asking vulnerable road users to step (or bike, or jog) into high-speed driving lanes that are not closed to deadly car traffic, and where the drivers who remain are speeding more and more. 

The wrong way to fix a deadly road

In a sane world, it could go without saying that the real enemy in the “pavement wars,” is the same enemy walkers have faced for generations: the car.

But what’s different about the age of COVID-19 is that even though the motor vehicles themselves have largely disappeared, the environment we built for them is still around — and those roads themselves proving to be dangerous to walkers in a way that society has never experienced.

Crowded, narrow sidewalks contribute to the spread of coronavirus just like crowded, narrow classrooms and crowded, narrow restaurants — two things we’ve collectively agreed to give up right now, however painful the sacrifice might be. The difference is, unlike your kid’s school and your favorite take-out spot, it’s exceedingly easy to retrofit the sidewalk for the age of COVID-19 — because in most places, we have a shit ton of unused asphalt right next to sidewalks that could be taken over to give walkers more room to spread out.

Cities are already doing it. Oakland just re-dedicated 74 miles of driving lanes to walkers, so fewer Bay Area residents have to make the impossible choice between passing too close to a fellow walker and risking a mid-block dash in front of a car. Minneapolis is doing an 18-mile version of the same experiment. Denver is doing a smaller pilot that’s growing quickly. As is Burlington, Vt. The list is growing every day, as is the list of expert advice on how to do it quickly, cheaply and safely.

But so is the list of cities who are taking the opposite tack.

Wholesale park closures are rampant in in the age of COVID-19, with each new shuttering accompanied by a chorus on social media lamenting that the “bad” social distancers who crowded public spaces have really gone and ruined it for everyone. But there’s rarely any outcry that safe, car-free public space was so limited in the first place.

(And while we’re on the topic…it’s telling that traffic jams that result in deadly, multi-car pileups don’t cause governments to shut down roadways for the sake of the public good, with politicians tutting the “few bad drivers” who “ruined it for everyone.” Well, anyway, a girl can dream.)

Parks aren’t the only public spaces that are getting squeezed. Beverly, Mass. announced earlier this week that sidewalks on one popular road would become one-way, no-loitering zones, configured similarly to grocery stores that require customers to keep moving through the aisles. The only difference is, in the grocery store, you won’t get a $100 fine for pausing to tie your shoe.

And while it hasn’t come to American streets yet, the specter of the criminalization of all walking still looms. Italy, France and China have required government permits for something as simple as walking a dog or going to the pharmacy.

But so far, there are plenty of American cities that have managed to do a passably good job of containing the coronavirus outbreak without resulting to Draconian measures. (And plenty who have done an epically terrible job, but that probably wasn’t because they didn’t barricade people inside their homes against their will.)

The leading cause of coronavirus transmission is people breathing and coughing and sneezing near each other in close quarters — and what most cities in America have, for better or worse, is space.

But until we change the physical arrangement of our roads to allocate more space to vulnerable road users and less space to cars, people will die. So let’s widen our sidewalks and bulk our bike lanes to help stop the spread of COVID-19 today, and keep those changes intact long after the virus is over.

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Source: Open Norfolk.

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