We waited 15 years for an NHL hockey team. Now we have one. We waited 36 years for an IKEA. Next Christmas we will have one. We waited 53 years for a modern rapid transit system. In two weeks we will have one. Well, sort of.
After more than a dozen studies, countless advisory committees and an endless number of task forces, Winnipeg's first, three-kilometre-long rapid transit line will soon be running. This modest first step comes more than five decades after the now infamous 'Wilson Plan' first recommended the creation of a rapid transit system for Winnipeg.
Since that time, we have overwhelmingly built our city with a focus on car-oriented development. Decades of low-density subdivisions leapfrogging each other towards the periphery have resulted in Winnipeg's urban area growing disproportionately to its population. Between 1974 and 2006, the city's population grew by only 15 per cent, while its area increased by more than 50 per cent.
Winnipeggers engage in few topics of discussion with greater passion than they do the cost of gasoline, the pace of traffic and the physical condition of our streets, yet we continue to support the urban sprawl that compounds these issues. As our city expands outward, we drive farther, buy more gas, build more roads, navigate more traffic and emit more pollution. With a lower-density tax base, government budgets struggle to maintain basic services and infrastructure for an increasingly unsustainable city.
A convenient and affordable public-transportation alternative can reduce the number of cars on the road, helping to alleviate many of the challenges that follow sprawling urban expansion. In Ottawa, a city with an extensive rapid transit system, almost 20 per cent of the population takes public transit to work, compared to only 12 per cent in Winnipeg. With more than 430,000 people in the city's workforce, that eight-percentage-point difference can have a significant impact on traffic volumes, parking requirements and their corresponding effects on the city and the environment.
Rapid transit can also be used as an important catalyst to direct and influence the patterns of development in a city. As ridership increases, retail, commercial and residential growth is attracted to the pedestrian density generated at major nodes along the system. Urban planners can use this transit oriented development (TOD) as a tool to control sprawl by targeting areas for infill growth and neighbourhood densification with the strategic location of transit lines and stations.
Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver have used this strategy with great success, realizing billions of dollars' worth of construction along their transit corridors. Winnipeg's humble first line has already attracted a vital TOD, with the Fort Rouge rail yards soon transforming from a brownfield site into a dense residential infill neighbourhood.
Like many cities, we have spent considerable time and effort debating the relative merits of bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail transit (LRT). The controversial decision to implement BRT was based largely on a significantly lower capital cost for construction, greater integration with on-street bus lines and lower per-capita operating costs.
Proponents of LRT assert its quieter, more comfortable ride, higher passenger capacities and "sexy" urban image would attract greater levels of TOD, alleviate the public stigma of bus transit and be a 'big-city' amenity consistent with that of other Canadian municipalities.
It has been shown in cities like Ottawa and Pittsburgh that a well-designed BRT system, with a dedicated corridor, distinctive transit stations, attractive branding and real-time schedule information can convey the image of quality and sense of permanence that attracts ridership and TOD, at a similar level to an LRT installation.
The stunning Osborne Street Station, a crown jewel of the Winnipeg line, will be instrumental in alleviating much of the criticism of the BRT system. The station designers, GPP Architecture and Friesen Tokar Architects, overcame the significant technical challenges of creating a building perched on a bridge above a busy street, while maintaining an architectural elegance that promotes transit use and encourages the community to take ownership of the building as a cherished neighbourhood amenity.
Transit-station design is often driven by the engineering requirements of passenger capacity and crowd dynamics, but Osborne Street Station also manages to successfully address qualitative issues of comfort, beauty and views. Its expressive roof structure references the machine esthetic of the great train stations of Europe, and its forest of arching round trusses evokes imagery of Winnipeg's great elm tree canopy, so familiar to the residents of Osborne Village.
Sloping glass walls create an impression of volume and openness and address issues of safety by providing clear sightlines into and out of the station. Sunlight floods the space through a translucent polycarbonate roof, transforming at night into a beacon that glows brightly against the prairie sky.
On April 8, Winnipeg will finally be introduced to rapid transit. The danger of such a modest first installation is Winnipeggers will judge its merits based on the performance of an incomplete system. A less than enthusiastic public response may stall momentum for further development.
The Osborne Street Station, however, will be a compelling reminder of the sophistication and quality a completed system can offer Winnipeg if a commitment is made by our community and our government to continue its implementation until the full benefits of rapid transit are realized in our city.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Email him at: