Since the opening of the Esplanade Riel in 2003, Provencher Boulevard, the east-west route that links St. Boniface to downtown, has been eyed as the old francophone city's answer to the Exchange District and Corydon Avenue.
Still, the growing demand for Provencher as a place for boutique retail, café patios and inviting streetscaping faces off against the demand for it as a busy truck route between the industries in St. Boniface and points westward. Long seen as a nuisance to nearby residents and merchants, a Winnipeg city council committee recently voted to study the possibility of banning truck traffic on Provencher altogether.
A busy urban street is inevitably contested space between its different users. Some motor vehicles need to temporarily stand or park, while some need to move. Some cyclists are adept and quick; others meander with nothing but time on their hands. On the sidewalk, there are pedestrians who want to stand or sit around and those who have places to go. The greatness of a busy urban street comes in no small part from allowing for this kind of organized chaos. (For an intensive example of this, think of a typical photo of Portage Avenue prior to 1955. For less intensive examples, think of Corydon Avenue.)
However, to do most of these things effectively becomes impossible when these streets must also function as non-local truck routes and seemingly easy funnels for car commuters.
In a city that has been too cheap to build expressways, Winnipeg's traffic engineers have spent the past 60 years fashioning streets such as Portage, Henderson, Pembina, and St. Mary's into what the American organization Strong Towns have dubbed "stroads" -- fusions of a street and a road (or highway). While stroads have some of the characteristics of both urban streets and highways, they fail at being either.
As a street, stroads are uncomfortable and degrading places for pedestrians to be. Most of the street lighting and commercial signage is designed for cars travelling at 60 km/h. There are fiscal consequences to poor pedestrian environments. Big parking lots are a necessity, and stroads become lined by the low-intensity, single-storey strip development that produces low economic yields for city coffers and the local economy.
After decades of this kind of ad-hoc traffic planning, these old main streets are not great for driving on and absolutely depressing to walk along. Sometimes, there are remnants of early streetcar-era suburbanism, such as two-storey buildings oriented to the sidewalk, but these have become so marginalized, they only add to the visual discord.
Even on urban streets that are highly valued and a source of civic pride for their physical form and ability to function like a street, the threat of the stroad continues to gradually creep in. On Corydon Avenue, council committees have recently approved a drive-thru development and a massive highway strip-style electric sign.
Just as the gradual creation of stroads has degraded the form and function of Winnipeg's urban streets, they have made Winnipeg's handful of urban highways not work very well either. Turning lanes, traffic lights, drive-thru entrances and strip-mall driveways all impede the quick passage of vehicles. These things, plus proximity to buildings, the odd pedestrian and sharp-turning radii, keep speed limits relatively low as a matter of safety.
While lining a highway with commercial uses and all the traffic lights and driveways that go along with them may be enticing to city officials eager to quickly rake in property taxes off a new Home Depot or Super 8, long-term value is lost by creating roadways inefficient for truck and commuter traffic.
If, for example, Lagimodiere, Sterling Lyon and Kenaston were allowed to act as the limited-access highways they were originally intended to be, it is easy to imagine the local trucking industry would have little use for streets such as Provencher and Portage Avenue.
Instead, Winnipeg's newer highways currently offer little competitive advantage over the old, wide streets as truck routes. Conversely, many of the city's old streets have little advantage over suburban strips as places for high-intensity development and a meaningful pedestrian environment.
If the city is serious about following its own Complete Communities planning document, it should recognize the importance of creating and maintaining high-quality urban streets by calming traffic and limiting non-local trucks on them. If it were just as serious about facilitating a thriving transport-based economy, it should enhance the efficiency of urban highways by limiting access to them, not increasing it.
It is possible for Winnipeg to do both of these things, just not on the same street.