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The ‘Social Distancing Machine’ Proves We Need Wider Sidewalks Now

4:05 PM EDT on April 15, 2020

Source: Twitter.

Two Toronto artist just demolished the idea that there's enough space for walkers on our city sidewalks — especially during the era of social distancing.

Daniel Rotsztain and Bobby Gadda, two members of the placemaking group the Toronto Public Space Committee, were fed up that their local government has been loathe to close streets to car traffic during the COVID-19 outbreak, so they decided to use the power of performance art to demand more space. Rotzstain's video of Gadda wearing his "social distancing machine" — a plastic and rubber barrier that puts two meters of distance between the wearer and anyone he passes — quickly went viral among safe streets advocates, and even a handful of local leaders who agreed with their message.

(In case you don't speak metric system: two meters = about six and a half feet. Yes, the Canucks give each other an extra six inches of buffer zone during a pandemic.)

Unsurprisingly, things didn't exactly go smoothly for Gadda when he attempted to navigate downtown Hogtown in the contraption. It was impossible to avoid bopping fellow pedestrians with his plastic circumference on standard sidewalks, nevermind those narrowed by construction crews, newspaper racks, or — ironically enough — mechanized road signs warning drivers to slow down. Even cyclists riding in the adjacent road weren't beyond the reach of his two-meter radius.

But there was one place where the artist and his camera man could socially distance themselves without too much hassle: in the middle of the driving lane.

"Toronto is kind of in the midst of an identity crisis," said Rotsztain. "It was once a city for people, but it’s now primarily designed around the car. The Toronto Public Space Committee wants to be be playful and experimental and bold when it comes to widening the pedestrian realm again. Especially during the pandemic, which is a really dark time for many of us, it's important to keep messaging positive."

Rotsztain credits Austrian professor Hermann Knoflacher with inspiring the project. Knoflacher built a similar wearable "walking tool" in 2005 to help pedestrians re-claim space on roadways, while demonstrating the absurd amount of land devoted to motor vehicles in his native Vienna.

Hermann Knoflacher
Source: TransAlt.
Source: TransAlt.

Of course, American streets are every bit as dominated by automobiles as Canadian and Austrian ones. In the average U.S. city, up to 60 percent of valuable downtown real estate is devoted to moving and storing privately owned cars, while U.S. pedestrians rarely get much beyond a five foot federally recommended sidewalk. And that's if pedestrians get any infrastructure at all: roughly half of roads in Nashville, for instance, don't have sidewalks, period.

As for the Toronto Public Space Committee, this won't be the group's last video to explore inequities in street space allocation. Rotsztain, Gadda and their co-conspirators are busy planning lots of social-distancing-friendly ways to keep drawing attention to the issue — and what lessons we should remember from this dark time once the world starts moving again.

"Another project that we’re thinking of is a public art installation that everyone can contribute to from home," Rozstain says. "Basically, we ask you to fill in the blank in this statement: 'After COVID, we will still…' Then hang the answer in the window of your home. We’re seeing a lot of beautiful things happen during this time; more people are growing local food, there are more conversations about how to end homelessness, more conversations about who and what our streets are really for. We don't want those things to end."

After COVID, we will still keep fighting for wider sidewalks to save pedestrian lives. Here's hoping our leaders join us soon.

Update 4/17/20: Our eagle-eyed friends at Streetsblog Chicago pointed out that cartoonist Jonathan Roth also had a vision for a "social distancing machine." Wow! We love Jonathan's cartoon and consider this even more proof that all of North America needs to widen its sidewalks, stat. 

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