A call for pedestrian precincts

WalkSydney recently wrote to the Lord Mayor of Sydney arguing that COVID safe public movement requires the pedestrianisation of key precincts in central Sydney. Please see the full letter below.

To the Lord Mayor

WalkSydney is a community group working to make it easier, safer and more pleasant to walk in Sydney. With a growing population, we need to ensure people can easily walk to public transport, local shops and services, and shared transport options.

We’d like to congratulate the Lord Mayor and the City of Sydney for responding quickly and creatively to the complex crises caused by COVID this year, and to some of the decisions to support cycling and walking in response. We do however have a specific and quite significant ongoing concern about the conflict between the physical distancing rules and the amount of walking space on the City’s footpaths. In this letter, we identify this problem, suggest an immediate solution, and highlight the added benefits from such a move.

The problem – limited footpath space for physical distancing

Existing footpaths and pathways do not provide enough room for the people to physically distance in accordance with public health orders made by NSW Health. The orders, which are the same as widely followed international guidelines, are that people must maintain a 1.5 metre separation. To keep 1.5 metres apart requires footpaths to be at least 3 metres wide. For historical reasons, most of the footpaths on local streets in the City of Sydney are substantially narrower than 3 metres wide. To comply people have to walk in the carriageway.

Walking Space Guide, Transport for NSW

The solution

Fortunately, there is an easy solution to this problem. The City can transform a large proportion of its local streets into safe walking areas without affecting the ability of traffic to move around. The state and regional roads that provide traffic movement across the city, for the most part, have wide enough footpaths for social distancing so can largely stay unaltered.

Transformation to safe street neighbourhoods – low-speed areas and walking precincts

The City controlled local streets can be transformed into low-speed areas that give clear priority to pedestrians to walk anywhere on the carriageway or footpaths and in doing so create safe passage for people around the city.

This will create a series of COVID safe pedestrian neighbourhoods or precincts that are bounded by the state roads. The City of Sydney will need to put signs up at the entrances to these precincts announcing the different priorities and safe driving speeds. Residents will still be able to drive into and out of the precincts, and suppliers, and couriers and emergency vehicles will still move through and into these areas, but just at lower safer speeds. Public transport routes will be unaffected as these travel down the major roads.

Councils have been delegated the powers needed to make these changes in response to the pandemic. This transformation can be achieved with a small amount of low-cost signage infrastructure, road markings and targeted use of bolt down speed control devices.

Possible layout of COVID safe pedestrian neighbourhoods


The key benefit of such a move is to immediately improve the capacity of people to move around the City of Sydney with safe social distancing. As we approach spring and summer more people will be walking. Further, as the city starts to recover this creates perfect opportunities for local businesses to create events, festivals, or use some of the newly liberated road space for eating outside.

This intervention will also satisfy a range of other City of Sydney goals including:

  • Immediate improvement to the walkability of the city and will increase the likelihood of people choosing to walk,
  • Spatial efficiency – more people can move walking than driving in the same space, this is critical at a time when public transport capacity is limited,
  • Lowering of car speeds and associated safety improvements for pedestrians,
  • Reduction in air and noise pollution,
  • Climate emissions – City of Sydney has strong targets for climate emissions reduction, this kind of intervention is a great trial to see what the re-prioritising of transport might look like in the near future.