I urge the City of Newcastle to open our streets to safe exercise and active travel.
It's our collective responsibility to maintain 1.5 metre physical distancing to reduce COVID-19 transmission. As already reported in the Newcastle Herald, maintaining physical distancing on Newcastle's cramped pavements is not easy, and may even be impossible for those who live in the highest density areas of our city.
Global cities are doing it
More than 60 cities globally are opening their streets for walking and cycling. The list of cities includes Auckland, Berlin and Vancouver.
Three main reasons are driving cities to open streets to walking, cycling, residential and essential vehicles only.
The first is to ensure people walking and cycling can do so safely while keeping at least 1.5 metres apart. The second is to reduce demand on public transport, by making it safer and more appealing to walk or cycle for travel.
The third is to reduce the risk of road traffic crashes, so hospitals are not unnecessarily burdened.
Funding transport projects as part of the COVID-19 response package should be a high priority for urban councils. The funding required isn't actually that high. In fact, some residents in North America have taken it upon themselves to install temporary open streets.
As a physical activity researcher, I know there is good evidence showing that streets, pavements and urban environments influence our transport mode and capacity and motivation for exercise. For short journeys, reduced-speed and narrower roads encourage us to ditch the car for the bike. Wider footpaths and pedestrianised areas encourage walking and running for exercise.
Why the city needs it
A typical path in Newcastle City isn't wide enough to allow pedestrians to pass each other safely.
Fortunately, the road adjacent to this path is more than wide enough. Some Novocastrians have been stepping out into the road to maintain physical distancing. But this isn't safe or equitable. We shouldn't expect our children, older adults and people with disabilities to step onto roads with car traffic.
Initial data suggests we are doing up to 30 per cent less physical activity since physical distancing measures were introduced. I plead with the City of Newcastle to open its city streets. For our physical and mental health, exercise has arguably never been more important. Exercise has proven benefits for preventing and treating depression.
What are open streets?
Open streets prioritise walking and cycling over car traffic. Open streets aren't rocket science, and we have options that make for workable solutions. One option is fully open streets, which are ideal for roads adjacent to parks and beaches that are magnets for exercise.
Open streets aren't rocket science, and we have options that make for workable solutions.
Full open streets are closed to all traffic except residents and emergency vehicles, and may include new temporary speed restrictions and lane narrowing for local traffic.
Full open streets aren't appropriate for all roads, including those main roads that are transporting essential workers. In this case, partial open streets are more appropriate.
Partial open streets are also called 'road-diets', because the roads become leaner. Partial open streets repurpose road space from on-street parking and car lanes, to temporary lanes for active travel.
How do we do it?
Let's fast-track traffic management plans for key roads, such as those by our beaches and port. As an example, the exercise hotspot at the Newcastle foreshore is too narrow. The road adjacent to the foreshore could be an open street, open to emergency and residential vehicles only.
Practically speaking, any form of traffic cone or reflective traffic barricade is a good option with associated signage, similar to that shown pictured. Some cities have published guidance on temporary cycle provision, including Berlin.
Once the project is rolled out, the City of Newcastle or police may not have the capacity to monitor these open streets, nor should they have to. Activating non-profit groups and volunteers to replace fallen signs or barricades places ownership on our communities and may even provide a meaningful activity for people feeling isolated in more ways than one. It would get these groups out walking which, ultimately, fits the brief of maintaining exercise during this pandemic.
Newcastle can take the lead in Australia by opening its city streets.
Matthew 'Tepi' Mclaughlin is a PhD candidate at the School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle
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