Thorncliffe Park parents are asking the city to have the Overlea Bridge "reimagined" during the pandemic to ensure their children can physically distance when using its narrow sidewalks on their way to and from school.
Huda Alyacoubi Jazairli, a Syrian mother of five children who came to Canada about three and a half years ago, said she worries about four of her kids when they cross the bridge to go to Valley Park Middle School and Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. Her two eldest are in Grades 12 and 10, while her two middle children are in Grades 8 and 7.
"The bridge gets overcrowded in the morning and afternoon when kids go to school in the morning and come back home. They walk shoulder-to-shoulder. There's no way for them to practise social distancing," Alyacoubi Jazairli told CBC Toronto.
"I am concerned not only about my children. I worry about all the children. I feel it is my responsibility toward my community, my neighbourhood, to mention this."
She has signed a petition circulated by parents that asks the city to give children more space on the bridge to walk and bike to school safely. A neighbourhood flyer suggests if the city "reimagined" the bridge it could shut down a lane of traffic. The demand comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging in Toronto and Thorncliffe Park is seen as a particularly hard-hit neighbourhood.
Charles H. Hiscott Bridge, as it is officially called, is the only connection between Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park. Hundreds of children use its sidewalks as heavy traffic rolls by during the week. According to Alyacoubi Jazairli's children, peak travel times are between 8:40 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 2:55 p.m. and 3:20 p.m. The crowding is said to get worse in the afternoon.
On Thursday afternoon, children were seen running across part of the bridge, some roughhousing with each other. Most took their time and walked, and still others walked with adults. The majority, however, were grouped close together.
A temporary solution could involve crossing guards or school staff members encouraging the children to walk two metres apart. A lane of traffic, blocked by the city for a short period in the morning and in the afternoon during peak student travel times, would be a longer term solution, Alyacoubi Jazairli said.
"I'm not an expert. But that could help."
City to put up signs encouraging physical distancing
One councillor says "there are a lot of moving parts" and closing a lane would constrict traffic and cause delays. Staff at the city's transportation services division, however, say they are monitoring traffic patterns and are looking into putting up signs near the bridge to encourage physical distancing.
Alyacoubi Jazairli said if one of her children got COVID-19, it would be difficult for that family member to go into isolation because the family lives in an apartment.
She said she believes the city should take action because Thorncliffe Park can be considered a COVID-19 hot spot, with 493 cases per 100,000 people as of Nov. 12, according to Toronto Public Health.
Students from Thorncliffe Park attend schools with the Toronto District School Board in Flemingdon Park, which has a high school and middle school.
The board has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Coun. Jaye Robinson, who represents Ward 15, Don Valley West, said in a statement that she is aware of the problem.
"The City's Transportation Services division is currently collecting data on local travel patterns to inform possible options," Robinson said.
"The Overlea Bridge is scheduled for major infrastructure improvements in the next five years, and the Overlea Boulevard and Don Mills Road intersection will be redesigned in 2021/2022."
Closing lane would affect traffic, councillor says
Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong, who represents Ward 16, Don Valley East, said schools should be teaching students about the importance of keeping two metres apart.
"They should be separating themselves when they are crossing the bridge. I think that should be a message told to the students at the schools nearby," he said.
Minnan-Wong said closing a lane on the bridge would be problematic.
"Closing off that bridge to one lane of traffic going each way would significantly constrict traffic and cause substantial delays. Closing a lane would require extensive consultations and I don't believe it would be received positively by the community," he added.
City staff working on longer-term plans
Becky Katz, manager of cycling and pedestrian projects in the city's transportation services, said city staff have been studying the corridor, including the Don Mills and Overlea Boulevard intersection, and are reviewing several options.
"City staff in Transportation Services are working on longer-term plans (which may include future bridge widening) as well as more interim improvements along the corridor to help support mobility and safety," Katz said in an email to CBC Toronto.
"It should be noted that public health officials have stressed that passing someone on the sidewalk is not a high-risk activity and does not generally support virus spread."
Sidewalks 'barrier' to distancing: city report
In a report on ActiveTO approved city council in May, Barbara Gray, general manager of transportation services, noted: "Overlea Boulevard has high bus ridership and four lanes of travel. The narrow sidewalks along the corridor, especially on the bridge, create a barrier for physical distancing."
Katz said the city would have to look at how closing a lane of traffic would affect transit, the safety of intersections and other modes of transportation.
"City staff have observed that this section of roadway on Overlea Boulevard has a number of competing demands and considerations that make it complex (including transit routes, access to local schools and a bustling local community)," she said.
"Staff aim to continue their work with the Councillor's office on any proposed future course of action."