St. John’s city council voted on Tuesday to widen select streets using candlestick-style traffic pylons. It’s a move council says is to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the required physical distancing.
While six possible streets were suggested by city staff, council decided to take a phased approach and pilot four of the streets first, evaluate the changes during a 30-day period and then make a decision about whether to make changes, or add more streets, depending on the outcome of the pilot.
The four streets to be widened include: Elizabeth Avenue from Portugal Cove Road to Torbay Road; Parade Street from LeMarchant Road to Merrymeeting Road; Newtown Road from Merrymeeting Road to Elizabeth Avenue; and Harbour Drive.
The sidewalks will be extended for pedestrians and cyclists by roughly the same amount of space as an on-street parking stall.
The change was approved by council in an 8-2 vote. Voting against the motion were Coun. Wally Collins and Coun. Jamie Korab. All others voted in favour of the motion, except Coun. Debbie Hanlon, who was absent.
It’s estimated it will take between two and four weeks to implement the change because city staff need to issue a tender for the candlesticks, purchase them and set them up.
Korab, Collins vote against idea
Korab said he did not see a demand from the public for this change. He said he received only six emails on this idea, and no phone calls. He said he was tagged in social media posts a handful of times.
Moreover, Korab said public opinion on the change was split 50-50, with some in favour, but some deeming it a waste of money and not a good idea.
Korab said he’s been walking regularly, and cycling with his family, and he did not see the justification for this change, especially given that parks will reopen next week. He said the city has challenging times ahead — it has to ensure a balanced budget — and he doesn’t see this as a good use of taxpayers' money.
Collins said he was voting against the motion for reasons similar to Korab’s, but he also had concerns about safety using the candlesticks, and worried someone might get run over. He said drivers aren’t accustomed to seeing people on the streets.
Safety concerns with the traffic pylons were also noted in city staff’s decision note. The note said Jersey (concrete) barriers were a safer but more expensive option.
“The safety performance of (the candlestick) approach would be significantly lower than using Jersey barriers,” reads the decision note.
However, some councillors said they favoured using the candlesticks option because it allowed council to implement changes on a greater number of streets at a lower cost.
Coun. Maggie Burton said she favoured an extensive network, and the candlesticks option would cover more ground.
Coun. Hope Jamieson also said she preferred the candlestick option because more coverage is preferable, and it’s better to do as much as possible within the confines of the budget.
Changes a necessity
Jamieson countered many of Korab’s points, saying many people walk as their primary mode of transportation. She said this change is not “a nice treat,” rather a necessity for many people. Jamieson said while some neighbourhoods may not be as congested, in others sometimes the only option to ensure physical distancing while walking is to step onto the street.
In a media scrum after the council meeting, Mayor Danny Breen was pressed on why he voted in favour of spending roughly $32,500 to make this change when he recently discussed the financial struggles of the city given the January state of emergency and the start of the pandemic.
Breen said the options for implementing these changes went as high as $160,800 — an amount he would not be comfortable spending without knowing whether the change would see much uptake among the public. Breen said the decision council made was a lower cost, and a good expenditure for a pilot project on active transportation networks — something around which there’s been plenty of interest and discussion for some time.
Coun. Sandy Hickman said during the media scrum that he did not receive much public feedback on the idea until about three hours before the council meeting. He said he then received a couple of dozen emails in support of the idea. He admitted that’s a small percentage of the number of people who live in St. John’s, but he said those who reacted to the idea were very interested.
In addition to this street-widening project, Breen said if downtown businesses are in favour of the idea, he expects some downtown streets, such as Water Street, could be closed entirely to vehicular traffic for certain times during the summer.
He said it could be a great way to reopen Water Street once the infrastructure project is complete, and it could help restaurants increase the number of guests by putting tables outdoors and still meet physical distancing requirements.