Winnipeg Rapid Transit
Image by theclyde

The debate over rapid transit in Winnipeg has gone on for decades. In the end all that has been built of Phase 1 is 3.7 kilometres at a cost of $138 million or $38 million per kilometre. It starts at Main Street and ends Osborne Village and speeds can reach 80 kilometres an hour.

The ride is over before it even begins with phase 1.

Many Winnipeggers probably believe they will never use transit never mind rapid transit. The only poll taken of the temperature of the citizens this past week show most want a referendum on the subject. After that, opinion is divided about whether to proceed although leans towards cancelling the project.

Winnipeg has voted on big decisions in the past. The Winnipeg Aqueduct had a vote and even though the cost was $13 million, Winnipeggers saw the wisdom in that decision.

The prospect of a referendum for rapid transit weeks before approvals appeared to some as either a delaying tactic or an outright attempt to kill rapid transit. The impending election in the fall and the annus horribilis at city hall likely spooked people about how popular any spending measures are. There is a lot anger out there.

With so much money on the table from the province and the federal government, the fear was that the offer was gone if rapid transit was delayed or cancelled. City councillors voted 13 to 3 by to set in motion phase 2.

At the zero hour, the prospect of losing promised money from other governments was just too much to bear. This game of chicken being played in the hope that the the province and feds would just hand a check over for the city to decide how to spend was not going to happen. Attempts to leverage more money failed as well.

An attempt to break the logjam of traffic on Pembina Highway by widening or creating overpasses so that there are no traffic lights and a car can travel 80 kilometres an hour would be a lot more than the public transit tab.

To top it off, there are highway proposals, widening projects and bridge reconstructions that in theory could cost billions.

The city already has crumbling infrastructure and not just roads and sidewalks. The water mains, sewers, parks and recreation all need upgrades and regular maintenance.

Some people may indeed want to drive at 80 kilometres and hour on smooth roads with no traffic lights and multiple lanes to a quiet cul de sac with large yard and low taxes but realistically we are seeing it is difficult if not impossible to achieve this. The stretching out of infrastructure and police, fire and school services eventually reaches a point that is uneconomical.

These are the costs of sprawl and they are enormous.

To be fair though, there are costs associated with density in cities as well. Yes, I did say density causes higher costs.

Increasing density increases the property values. Rationing the land, making a city more compact and limiting where you can build causes real estate to rise. In short, it makes housing and industry more expensive. We are seeing debate in the Free Press about what to do with certain tracts of land with some advocating high density housing for Lanark Street in River Heights and Parcel Four at The Forks. The counter arguments have been a dog park and a forest respectively.

We should keep in mind that urban writer Jane Jacobs warned about the dangers of willy nilly high density. She felt it would “begin to repress diversity instead of stimulate it.” By this she meant thought should be given to every development in a neighbourhood in terms of its livability and livelihood.

To put this in context: any savings we might get from density can be lost if property is more expensive. Moreover, if industrial jobs are driven out, we increasingly see reverse commuting where people head farther out in the suburbs for work.

Now in terms of Lanark and Parcel 4, Jacobs would have probably have advocated some sort of accommodation of each neighbourhood’s needs. What that is, who can say? It is why consultations take place and a decision is made to best achieve the results even if some controversy takes place.

A great example of that is the expansion of the Osborne Village Safeway. The first plan presented was blasted. Some saw no need for the expansion at all. Others wanted it but with more sympathy for surrounding area. Back to the drawing board and a new plan was made. It had more support but not a consensus. The result: A Safeway that sustains the area, enhances the area and while not perfect makes Osborne Village a desirable and viable neighbourhood.

This battle of sprawl and density is happening all over the word. In the States it is even worse where people commute from one suburb where they live to another suburb where they work.

It is a bit disconcerting as it seems we can’t win. Density is needed to keep costs from sprawl down but density increases land value making housing and industry more expensive. This is turn drives people to the suburbs as it is difficult to afford housing costs and jobs go to where it is cheaper.

So what is the right solution?

Well, the trick is to continue to balance the needs of the city with the costs.The primary need of the city is to establish a place to live, work and play. The part that a lot of people forget is the work part… and sometimes even the play part with neighbourhoods that are all house and no yard. Some of these suburbs often take a dim view of people playing in the parks they do have.

But let’s not get to far off the track. If the objective is to try and limit sprawl but not go crazy with density for the sake of density, how do we achieve it? The first thing many experts say is not to drive away employers such as industry. There often seems to be an attitude that industrial areas are a blight that needs to be driven out. Well with that goes your jobs.

One of Winnipeg’s major employers is the airport but planners seem intent on building housing on flight paths. Another industrial area in the north part of the city is begging city hall not to build housing too close to them and then try and push them out as undesirable.

If Winnipeg wishes to control sprawl it has to ensure it keeps the jobs close and to embrace industry within its borders.

Keeping this in mind, it is accurate to say that the 35,000 people at the University of Manitoba represent service and industry through the school and the Smart Park. Toss in indoor soccer field and Investor’s Group Field for good measure. These numbers rival Manitoba’s second largest city of Brandon.

And yet we don’t have any means of connection from downtown to university except for roads which we know to be bottlenecked. There are a lot of buses going back and forth but as the Manitoban newspaper has reported, those buses can be packed and pass by students at various times of the day. And now with the Investor’s Group Field, citizens of the city are encouraged even more to use transit and face even greater problems. One sports fan has already died for his beloved Bombers trying to cycle through the tight streets leading to the university.

If ever there was a crying need for remedy, it would seem to be now.

A plan has been presented but city hall has done a poor job to sell it. Moreover, the feeling is that the route appears to be set up for developers. Given the cronyism of the past years confidence is low that this will benefit the people of Winnipeg. Hence, the call for a referendum or plebiscite. As mentioned though, the cancellation of the transit scheme didn’t simply mean money would be used for roads instead.

Provincial and federal money always comes with strings. That was so aptly demonstrated by the location of the Investor’s Group field. Federal money was only available at that site.

Left to their own ends, many on council would probably opt for highways in the city but this option only exacerbates the problems of city growth. The city can ill afford to keep extending itself. The idea of transit corridors should have been adopted long ago when purchasing old rail lines might have been cheaper. Can you imagine what it might have been like if bike paths or a LRT line had resulted from the Oak Bank line through River Heights and Polo Park?

Phase 2 of Bus Rapid Transit has been approved but the city and province need to be gathering the parts for east-west corridors and a north corridor now. It is slow and steady work and some people won’t be happy. But if we’re lucky maybe the south corridor when complete will make people adopt that transit system to make their way north or south from downtown to the University of Manitoba.

Ultimately, we need to limit sprawl and to have density rise in a measured way that takes into account the live, work and play philosophy. Rapid transit can help Winnipeg achieve this goal.

This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations