In the spirit of avoiding crowded parks during the coronavirus (COVID-19) self-quarantine, I’ve been walking on roads in my suburban community of Ardmore, 10 miles northwest of Philadelphia. There’s plenty of green, luscious trees and a small creek that babbles along next to my usual route. I even discovered a bird sanctuary just a mile away from my apartment.
With less traffic while people follow stay-at-home orders, it’s felt a little safer to walk on a road without sidewalks. A car only passes me every 10 minutes or so. Driving has decreased almost 80% in the Philly area in the last couple of months.
The trickiest safety endeavor on my walk is keeping an appropriate distance from my neighbors. When I pass someone else, one of us needs to skirt around the other and walk into the road to make sure we maintain our proper social distance.
Our cities and communities have been designed to give most of the space to cars and not to pedestrians. Most sidewalks are way less than six feet across. In my case, sidewalks are nonexistent when I cross the main road outside my apartment and venture into the more residential area of town. As my community starts to ease some restrictions on work and social interactions, more traffic will make my walking routes unsafe.
I’d like to see my city prioritize street space for people rather than 2-ton vehicles. In Philadelphia, MLK Drive is usually closed to traffic on Sundays from April through October. Mayor Jim Kenney has now closed the road indefinitely to allow Philadelphians to safely social distance while enjoying outdoor recreation.
Cities across the country are temporarily closing streets to vehicular traffic, but it would be even better to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists on those roads for the long-term. Citizens are happier, healthier, and safer when streets work better for people traveling by foot and bike. Exercise, fresh air, and sunshine are great for the immune system -- as well as mental health, a key concern in these stressful times.
Encouraging more walking and biking can also help reduce global warming pollution. Barring cars from streets reduces pollution from the traffic that would have clogged roadways. It also allows more people to choose to walk or bike, picking low-carbon options over driving a polluting car.
Going on a daily walk -- while still being able to be six feet from other pedestrians -- is keeping me sane. It is freeing to walk on the double yellow line down the middle of the street like I’m in a parade. And a hush has fallen over the concrete without the aggressive honking of commuters and rideshare drivers sitting in traffic. Car-free streets are positive for communities now, and turning our roads into massive sidewalks could benefit us long after this crisis.