Homesick New Yorker Maps the Impossibility of COVID-19 Distancing on City Sidewalks

Leila Hawa finds that her hometown gives too much space to cars to be safe during the coronavirus

Leila Hawa is a native New Yorker, the daughter of a healthcare worker, and currently in Montreal, where she studies civil engineering at McGill University. Like New York, Montreal is that country’s coronavirus epicenter, and trapped inside, Hawa got to thinking about how people were getting around her hometown.

At McGill, Hawa’s research focuses on micromobility. “As a New Yorker, I am particularly driven to help change the way people move around cities, to decrease personal car use, to promote public transit and active transportation,” she says.

Her project, which involved mapping the city’s sidewalks by their width to see where physical distancing was possible, was born of homesickness, concern for her mother, a hospital administrator, and her observation that even in Montreal, outside of walking in the street, there did not seem to be enough room for people.

“There’s a couple of reasons I did this project. One is that my family is still in New York City, and I felt that I wanted to help out somehow, because New York is really hurting right now and I can’t actually be there,” Leila explains. The other reasons, she says, were born of observing Canadians coping with their new reality.

Two weeks ago, Leila was out in a Montreal park on the first really nice day since that city shut down. She noticed two things that set her off. She saw people walking in the street and swerving on sidewalks to avoid one another, and she watched a reporter asking people why they were not maintaining social distance.

“It felt a bit unfair,” says Leila. “People are trying their best, but there’s just not enough space. It’s a design problem. I don’t think it’s fair for individuals to be blamed when it’s really a problem in the way cities are designed.”

That problem sparked a question for Leila.

“I wondered how wide sidewalks need to be to maintain social distancing, and given that, how many sidewalks are actually that wide?” she explains. “ Plus, I had a lot of free time.”

Leila dove into New York’s open data portal and set about mapping the city’s sidewalks by width. She did not, however, use the often-mentioned “six feet of social distance” as her required minimum.

Instead, Leila organized New York City’s sidewalks by a minimum of 13 and 20 feet. Why? Because she knows from experience what it’s like to walk down them.

“In New York, there’s trees, there’s trash, there’s a lot of things in your way,” explains Leila. “The sidewalk space that you’re actually walking on is pretty different than the width from a building to the curb.”

It makes sense that if a minimum of six feet of distance is needed between two people, then a six foot sidewalk will not suffice. Leila added to that the two to three feet of body width taken up by each person, and the fact that no one should be expected to hug the curb or a building, and came up with 13 feet as a hard minimum and 20 feet a reasonable width for safe passage during COVID-19.

With those limits in place, Leila tested her metric on New York City’s sidewalks. In terms of safe physical distancing, the results were disastrous. Of all the sidewalks Leila mapped in New York City, 74 percent were below her absolute minimum physical distancing requirements. A full 98 percent of sidewalks were narrower than the ideal width for safe passage during coronavirus.

“I choose 13 feet because it would be the minimum required to maintain social distancing, but even that’s not that adequate; 20 feet is a more reasonable distance for maintaining social distancing on a sidewalk,” Leila explains. “As you can see, there’s pretty much nowhere you can walk where the sidewalk is 20 feet wide.”

The answer is the same as the problem, Leila explains. If the streets and sidewalks are not designed for what New Yorkers need right now, the design needs to be changed. Everything you need to know can be found in how people are already adapting.

“It’s a really telling tale, people are already walking in the street,” she says. “New York needs to open those streets to people first. The fact that they’re not opening any streets now, I think it’s pretty sad. Open streets would go a long way these days to help people stay safe and healthy.”

Send a message to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, asking him to open city streets to people. You can learn more about how open streets can help maintain safe physical distancing during COVID-19 and Transportation Alternatives’ #OpenStreets Campaign at openstreets.nyc.

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.

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