A pair of high traffic areas in Oak Bay that were opened to pedestrians and cyclists have now been re-prioritized in favour of those who drive automobiles.
To make room for social-distancing the Corporation of the District of Oak Bay’s emergency operations team prioritized parking along the Esplanade and the Willows Park parking for pedestrians and banned all automobiles other than the local residents who use the roads as access to their homes.
The initiative created additional room for people to pass each other with social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak and was put into effect on April 9 until Friday, May 15. It was met with praise by the Oak Bay Police, who regularly patrolled the popular beach. According to the District, it is no longer necessary.
“This weekend let’s stay local and stay apart,” said the web release on Friday. “If you are enjoying our parks and beaches, we ask that you do so carefully and maintain a physical distance of six feet from others.”
The move comes as Oak Bay readies for a transition to “Phase 2” in support of re-opening of businesses and some of the Tweed City’s public facilities, starting Tuesday (May 19).
“Please be reminded that your shopping experience will be different than it was prior to COVID-19,” said the Oak Bay release. “Show Oak Bay businesses some love and shop local. Please be patient and understanding with other shoppers and businesses as we all learn to function within this new normal.”
Also re-opening are tennis and pickleball courts, the skatepark, lacrosse box and basketball courts.
Mayor Kevin Murdoch supported closing the streets to pedestrians and re-prioritizing automobiles as the primary users.
“While many of us enjoyed the extra space for walking on the Esplanade, given the current public health guidelines and the parking pressure on surrounding streets, it makes sense to reopen,” Murdoch said. “We ask that people still take care to physically distance and of course staff will continue to daily monitor the impacts and adjust policies as needed.”
While Oak Bay has reverted to the status quo at Willows, other cities in Canada are still introducing changes that ban cars and promote safe walking. The City of Toronto was in the national spotlight for the high number of pedestrians and cyclists that used Lake Shore Boulevard – closed to cars – on the May long weekend. And on Thursday, the City of Victoria’s council voted to open Beacon Hill’s parking lots at Heywood Avenue, Circle Drive and Nursery Road, as well as the roads serving as their closest access points, for the rest of the summer. Victoria will also keep other roads in the park closed to traffic, including the parking lot at the top of Beacon Hill Loop.
Ray Straatsma of Victoria Placemaking, an advocacy group that focuses on the use of public space, saw the Willows changes as a success. He’s watched closely at the trends of re-thinking public streets, such as west coast cities Oakland and Seattle, which have re-dedicated entire streets for people to socially distance while they walk, use a bike, skateboard, scooter, wheelchair or other personal transportation devices, free from the threat of autos.
“What’s happening in other cities is a rethinking of public space and access across the board,” Straatsma said. “It’s clear there is a need and desire for more public space and pedestrian spaces, walkable spaces, in this region and in cities around the world.
“We’re reopening parks and golf courses, but pedestrian spaces and sidewalks are in a different category,” Straatsma added. “This was an opportunity to rethink how access to Willows might work differently.”
Ultimately, Oak Bay’s position remains one of conservatism in breaking the chains of transmission, such as urging against all non-essential travel.
“The best place we can be [this weekend] is at home,” said the District release. “We want a strong start next week and in order to achieve that we need to stay local, stay apart and stay committed… we must continue to hold the line.