Automobiles, pedestrians, buses

The demise of the new transit system took a lot of people by surprise; our new mayor threw us a lemon; but here we are.

The mayor has stated that $7 million of the moneys originally slated for the transit corridor will not be dedicated to improvements to the city’s transit system.

This is a paltry sum compared to the original tri-level government commitment, but it is still real money.

Which got me thinking about possible ways to make lemonade.

Winnipeg grew up around and along its original ox-cart routes.  These routes roughly parallel the banks of our rivers, and 200 years later remain our primary arteries for movement and commerce.  (For those who do not know of these routes, look at a map of Winnipeg, and trace the lines of Portage Avenue, Main Street, Henderson Highway, St. Mary’s Road and Pembina Highway.)

These arteries – and a few others which link our city together – are the funnels for nearly all movement around the city; and these funnels provide access to the networks of streets between the arteries.

Mass transit

Those who lived in or visited cities with effective mass transit know that where there is really good bus and subway service it is used by all strata of the population, and is the preferred way to move around the city.

The defining characteristics of successful systems is that service is remarkably frequent at nearly any time of day or night.  Wait times of five to seven minutes are the norm, and it is this frequency which allows users to simply show up at the bus stop or the subway station with confidence that a bus or train will soon be there.

Winnipeg Transit has a commitment to provide service within a reasonable walking distance of any home in the city.

With the thousands of miles of streets in Winnipeg, this commitment to provide local access results in hundreds of thousands of bus-miles driven every year through lower-density suburbs.

Winnipeg Transit estimates that nearly 50 per cent of its bus-miles are through these areas.  Even with this commitment to broadly-based service, wait times between buses in these area are often between 45 and 90 minutes during the periods of best service.

It has been estimated by Winnipeg Transit that if service to the capillaries – or smaller residential streets – were discontinued, and if all of those bus-miles were assigned to the city’s main arteries, transit could provide five to seven minute wait times for bus users along those arteries for 14-16 hours per day.

The impact on ease-of-use and rider-ship would be immense, and within its current budgets, our transit system could easily provide a level of service comparable to that found in other great cities of the world.

So what about all of the people in the lower-density areas?  Would they be left high and dry?

Dr. Barry Prentice, director of the Transport Institute of the University of Manitoba, has an appealing answer to this concern.

Dr. Prentice argues that private enterprise has the ability to serve the low-density routes.


Private business could obtain licences wither for specified routes or zones of the city, and could provide service on a relatively frequent basis in smaller buses, holding 8-12 passengers.

These jitney succeeded in many markets around the world.  Many of these markets have economic and development patterns similar to those found in Winnipeg.  There in no reason to believe that this solution would not work here.

Jitney routes could connect to (heated!) transit stations on the arteries and provide an integrated, high-quality service throughout Winnipeg.

This proposition in not far-out, and is eminently doable.

The city could use the $7 million slated for transit improvement to realize a first phase of this system.  The cost and risk would be modest, and the benefits of success could be significant.

One of the nice things about detours is that they can prove more rewarding than the original direction – and the lemonade could be better than what we planned before.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, October 23, 2004

Sometimes a compromise really isn’t better than nothing.

And sometimes the successful negotiators end up believing that the deal was really what they wanted in the first place.

This kind of memory is great for one’s sense of self-worth, but it can be destructive, too.

We have a recent example of this process at work in our downtown:  Several years ago, our city’s transit department wanted to make Graham Avenue into a buses-only corridor.

But the city’s planning department wanted to keep the street open to automobile traffic in order to assure the health of the street.

Following an intensive negotiation process, it was agreed that Graham west of Eaton’s, where there was significant commercial development, would be open to both cars and buses, while Graham east of Eaton’s would be reserved for buses because there was no commerce there anyway.

As a result of the closing of east Graham, we have reached a situation in which cars traveling east in downtown have no alternative routes between Portage and York avenues – a distance of over 1,500 feet, or nearly half a kilometer.

It is not possible to enter the Centennial Library parkade without first going north of Portage Avenue.

And the new arena will impose new loads on downtown traffic right where these issues are a problem.

The City has just started a program of signage helping drivers find their way to parking structures, but cannot get those drivers from south of Portage directly to the Library parking lot.  And Graham Avenue east remains one of the least attractive and underused areas in our downtown.

When challenged on this policy, the planning department’s response has been that the deal was struck and that everything is fine – which may be true, but I doubt it.

Many buses-only malls all over the world have been reopened to car traffic because of the enervating effect of large areas with awkward or non-existent car movement.

The compromise really did give up something significant in our downtown by making local automobile traffic difficult, and while the lack of development on east Graham cannot be blamed on the decision to keep cars out, that decision has not helped encourage development either.

I am, of course, not advocating the dominance of high-speed car movement.

A truism in the world of planning and urban design is that fast cars are bad, but that slow cars – with lots of stopping and starting and inning and outing and shopping – are a tremendously enlivening part of our urban scene.

This truism holds as much for Graham Avenue as for the streets of New York or San Francisco.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, January 3, 2004

Jimi Hendrix had it right – crosstown traffic is tricky

Jane Jacobs, the well-known urban thinker everyone loves to quote, opened the discussion on one-way streets more than 40 years ago.

She claimed that downtown one-way streets might be good for moving traffic, but that their effect on neighbouring businesses is negative – and therefore the net effect on urban vitality, variety and livability is also negative.

Her observations have slowly become a form of accepted truth.  They’ve inspired a growing movement in North American cities to reopen one-way streets to two-way traffic.

In Winnipeg, the latest news is that some of our downtown one-way streets will soon be converted back.  All of which leads me to make two observations:

1) Any accepted truth should be taken with a grain or two of salt, even if handed down by Jane Jacobs.  Experience and observation to indeed suggest that crosstown one-way streets, which are designed to move traffic efficiently, do not seem to attract small and medium-scale commerce (and actually seem to mitigate against successful local commercial enterprise).

But one-way streets have been developed to great advantage in many cities: Former two-way streets have been re-signaled as one-way in residential areas of downtown.  These streets often change their direction of travel every two or three blocks in order to encourage use by local residents and to thwart crosstown short-cutters.  This allows an additional lane for parking, effectively doubling the parking capacity on these streets.

Another evolving strategy has been to convert local commercial streets to run one way in order to make room for assigned two-way bicycle lanes.  These strategies have actually enhance the quality of urban life.

2) A few details on the “back to two-way” initiative in Winnipeg deserve further discussion.  For example, traffic engineers believe that some “paired” one-way streets should be maintained as effective movers of traffic across downtown.

Two pairings in downtown Winnipeg act in this way:  St. Mary and York Avenues (east-west), and Smith and Donald Streets (which continue north-south with King and Princess Streets).  There is a strong argument to be made that these two sub-systems should be maintained, especially if the intersection of Portage and Main are re-opened to pedestrians.

However, the interim report also proposes to keep Fort and Garry streets and Notre Dame Avenue as one-way carriers.  These are not significant cross-town arteries, and were all successfully used as two-way routes until the 1950s.  They should be converted back to their original two-way use – especially as all three suffer from less-than-vibrant commerce and street life, and any action that might bring them back to life should be welcomed.

Perhaps the worst impact of changing our downtown streets to one-way routes 50 years ago was that the converted street were widened, and hundreds of mature avenue trees were cut down.  As we work to repair the damage, we should remember that.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, December 13, 2003

Occasional traffic snarls shouldn’t curtail development

In an attempt to address traffic concerns, city council its intention to severely restrict future development in the areas around Polo Park.

I hope that their attempt at crisis management, and the possible side effects, receives further examinations by our city fathers, and that some of them have serious second thoughts.

In the world of shopping centres and big-box retailing clusters, Polo Park stands out as something of an anomaly.  The concentration of major shopping centre and associated large-scale commercial outlets is closer to downtown than is normal; parking is well below standards in the industry; and land costs are much higher than is normal for big-box commercial outlets.

Yet business in the area keeps growing, land values keep rising, and Polo Park is one of the best-performing large-scale shopping centres (based on sales per square foot) in North America.

The other main shopping malls in Winnipeg are considerably further from downtown, and serve their own “corners” of the city.  The Polo Park area, on the other hand, is close enough to the centre to feel reachable – and usable – by people from all party of the city.

It is, in effect, the city’s central shopping mall. It is so central that it can be considered as an integral part of the central city – and the next step in this logic is to realize that it is more a downtown shopping area than a suburban mall.

Saturday traffic in the areas around Polo Park has become heavy.  Yet customers continue to come because of the convenience and range of goods and services available.   The current pattern of use, and continuing development, tells us that it is not too much trouble for consumers to come to Polo Park to shop – and it tell us that there’s room for more commercial activity to come.

If this is really a downtown service area (which is slowly replacing an industrial area), what are we complaining about?

Two intersections on Empress Street have become serious bottlenecks for traffic movement, and some minor traffic-lane realignment at these intersections would relieve a real – though minor – problem.

Surely dealing with these localized issues is preferable to the large-scale traffic interventions requested by some, or to a blanket ban on further development.

Polo Park really was the park where they played polo 50 years ago.  The site was surrounded by huge cottonwood trees, which were all cut down as the first act of redevelopment of the site.  The paltry landscape development that was installed 15 years ago has been allowed to deteriorate badly.

City Fathers and the owners of the shopping centre would do us all a lot more good to replanting the cottonwoods and allowing a success story in our city continue to unfold.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, December 6, 2003

For the first in this series of articles about architecture I was going to deal with the quality of modern architecture, but instead, I’m going to write about an important new project:  the new pedestrian and vehicular bridges linking Provencher Avenue to The Forks and downtown.

The pedestrian bridge has been built on the original alignment between Provencher Boulevard and Broadway (look at a map to see that they really are in line!). The vehicular bridge is built north of the pedestrian bridge, and links Provencher and Water Street.  A pedestrian sidewalk runs along the north side of the vehicular bridge, and there is no sidewalk on the bridge’s south side.

Access to the pedestrian bridge is problem for those who want to go east from downtown, and have found themselves on the south side of Water Street.  They must either detour through the The Forks to the pedestrian bridge (perhaps not safe for singles at night), or cross the bridge against traffic to reach the sidewalk (unwise at any time).  Those traveling to downtown from St. Boniface meet the same challenge in reverse.

An additional sidewalk on the south side of the vehicular bridge would have cost approximately $2 million. This sidewalk would have connected with sidewalks along Water Street and could have been comfortably linked to The Forks.  Instead, it was decided to build the complex and less convenient pedestrian bridge for $20 million.

To put the financial decision into perspective, the total cost to open The Forks in 1990 – including purchase of lands, development of the market, service infrastructure, and major public spaces was $25 million.  The impact of that expenditure on our public psyche has been immense.   A friend of mine, a city planner, remarked that the $20 million spent for the pedestrian bridge would have been better spent to subsidize downtown housing, which would have brought huge economic and social benefits to the city centre.

Now that the structure is a reality, my response to it is somewhat surprising (to me).  The practical excess, and awkward circulation patterns, of this grandiose project are, on balance, a good thing for all of us.  The new cable-stay bridge, designed by Wardrop Engineering with Gaboury Prefontaine Perry, is a handsome and remarkable structure that will help to re-define our city.  Whether the investment in the bridges has a greater effect on the economic and social health of Winnipeg than an equal investment in housing is difficult to measure. It would certainly be nice to find another $20 million for housing subsidies and not have to decide which is the better use of public funds.

Originally published in Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, November 29, 2003