Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Barriers to more than feet

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THE Canadian Institute of Planners says Portage and Main is one of "Canada's Great Places." Those of us who routinely cross the street by foot will probably disagree.

As a kid, I once visited Disneyland. It seemed conveniently laid out, and easy to get around. It's easy to see how a visitor could view it as an ideal small town. But it was built to funnel people towards concessions and to keep people there as long as possible.

Disneyland is a lot like Portage and Main. Most people who try and cross the street on most days recognize that being forced underground is inefficient and dangerous. Moreover, the barriers send the message that pedestrians aren't welcome. It's no surprise Portage and Main empties out after office hours. If any of the downtown-revitalization initiatives are going to work, we need to tear down these walls.

It is possible to cross under Portage northbound from the west side of Main in two minutes and 50 seconds, if you're hustling like a Manhattanite in need of a morning coffee. At a merely above-average speed, it takes four minutes and 25 seconds to cross back southbound (and that's assuming you don't get lost or try to exit through a locked door).

If one were to arrive at that intersection by car just as the signal turns red, the wait would only be 55 seconds for the light to change to green. The wait for cars is nearly two minutes less than the crossing time for even the fastest pedestrians.

Some claim there is insufficient demand for surface pedestrian crossings. That's akin to saying there's no demand for a Walmart in a presently vacant lot. There is no demand for what doesn't exist. Few people want to walk past a gauntlet of panhandlers into a subterranean lair filled with closed shops and ATM machines after 6 p.m. It's not exactly somewhere you'd suggest meeting friends after hours.

The stated reasons for stopping pedestrians from crossing the street was that it's too cold and windy. But many of us would walk across the street year-round, if permitted. People cross similar intersections in Chicago, which is known for being cold and windy. The difference is their downtown is welcoming to pedestrians.

Opening Portage and Main would create foot traffic, which helps dissuade crime. After all, criminals dislike having witnesses. Pedestrian dead zones -- such as empty underground crossings -- create a sense of danger for anyone crossing after hours.

Some argue opening the intersection to pedestrians would slow down vehicle traffic. Left turns, however, already are prohibited both northbound and southbound on Main, as well as southbound onto Main from Portage. Additionally, right turns on red lights are prohibited at the intersection. Allowing pedestrians to cross would only really impede right turns on green signals. While this would create some level of inconvenience, it would hardly snarl the intersection.

A larger obstacle to opening the intersection is an agreement signed with retail store owners to retain the barriers until 2016. This means any change will require consent of those owners who benefit from funnelling as many pedestrians as possible past their retail space.

While opening Portage and Main would reduce underground pedestrian flow, it would hardly be catastrophic. Many employees at the banks and other offices at the corner would still frequent the underground food court and shops. Some people will obviously continue going underground out of habit. Potential loss in market share to ground-level retailers could be mitigated by overall increases in pedestrian traffic.

Pedestrians should not be treated as second-class citizens because of some shady deal made by city council and politically connected developers. Downtown neighbourhoods are becoming a magnet for young, talented workers. Attracting these people downtown requires more than tax incentives. Downtown must provide unique experiences, and convenience. As I sit on the northwest barrier at Portage and Main, I can't help but imagine what a great neighbourhood this could be, if we'd just tear down these walls.

Steve Lafleur is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org).

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 A17

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