Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cycle of UNJUSTIFIED BLAME

There's no one party responsible for bike-pedestrian-trail fiasco

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Somewhere in the deepest, darkest fantasies of Winnipeggers, city employees are lazy slugs who spend all their days with their feet up on their desks, drinking coffee while they watch kittens cavorting on YouTube.

Those of you familiar with logic will immediate recognize the first sentence of this column as a "straw man" -- a dubious statement created specifically to be knocked down. It's the cheapest way to construct an argument.

But I'm not alone in this city right now. Straw men are getting erected and whacked all over town in the name of a spectacular argument about pavement.

Back in September 2009, all three levels of government announced a plan to spend $20.4 million in Winnipeg on 36 new bike-and-pedestrian projects. Each government would chip in about $7 million as part of Ottawa's infrastructure-stimulus plan.

The catch was all of these projects had to be shovel-ready, which means they had to be planned to a great extent but also couldn't be on the books of any existing budget documents.

They had to be new, but ready to go. Some policy geeks believe that's an oxymoron. But given the badly underfunded state of Winnipeg's infrastructure, no politician in his or her right mind would give up the offer of cash.

Spending the money on bike-and-pedestrian trails was the city's idea, but other levels of government loved it, too. Mayor Sam Katz and Winnipeg's city council have been proudly increasing funding for active transportation since 2007, when politicians belatedly embraced a comprehensive study they actually shelved the previous year.

Civic politicians like bike infrastructure because it allows them to get a big bang for their funding buck. For a fraction of the cost of building roads, they get new amenities to encourage Winnipeggers to get out of their cars and engage in healthier, more environmentally friendly commuting.

So going ahead with the active-transportation project was a no-brainer. I mean, what possibly could go wrong?

The early concerns about the project had to deal with capacity. Were there enough engineers to design the projects? Could the construction industry absorb the work?

That didn't turn out to be the problem. Rather, the fact Winnipeg is an older city, planned in about seven minutes in 1905, turned out to bite everyone -- politicians, administrators and the public -- in the padded posterior.

Cyclists and motorists alike prefer bike routes to be separated from street traffic. But you can't mow down a few blocks of downtown or other older areas just toput up a concrete commuter cycling path.

So roughly 75 per cent of the city's 102 new kilometres of cycling routes were planned for streets, either as painted lanes or as separated bike boulevards. Four-way stops would also be replaced with traffic circles on some routes, to end the stop-start routine cyclists dislike. Two-way traffic would also end on other routes to discourage all motor-vehicle traffic.

The city recognized it had to sell these changes to the public. The expectation was motorists would not be happy with any of the on-street improvements.

So the city held "public consultations" in a variety of ways: setting up booths, sending out mailers and holding some meetings. The only problem was, the city had never tried doing this with 36 projects.

A plan to outsource the public relations was issued and cancelled and issued again. A bike-and-pedestrian bridge in Omand Park was shot down because residents were told where it was going, not asked what they wanted in their neighbourhood. Other meetings attracted few people. Generally, few people paid attention.

And as the year wore on, the task of "consulting" became a rush job -- a task that needed to be ticked off in order for construction to commence.

Today, as the work is being done, there's opposition to several of the routes. Some of it is legitimate anger over changes in traffic flow that affect businesses and homeowners. Some of is it plain old NIMBYism from motorists who don't easily accept any change.

Winnipeg is a low-density city. Most of us use cars and spend a lot of time in them. That's why it's ironic a program designed get some of us out of those very same cars has directed anger toward cyclists themselves.

This is ridiculous. Cycling groups who lobbied for more commuter routes should not be blamed for advocating for themselves. The engineers who planned the routes should not be singled out for accepting the work. The city administrators who co-ordinated the project should not be blamed for doing what the politicians asked them to do.

The mayor and councillors cannot be blamed for taking advantage of federal-provincial dollars. And the federal Conservatives cannot be blamed for their "shovel-ready" project demands, especially as the Liberals were advocating even more aggressive stimulus spending at the time.

It's tempting to blame one party for all of this, but scapegoating may be a primal impulse. And the myth of the lazy city worker has some otherwise well-intentioned types directing all their ire toward public servants -- unelected, sometimes powerless people who suffer the whims of their political masters. Those politicians are also blaming each other, which serves none of them well at election time, when they need to be leaders.

I'd argue this mess is a group effort. Every party played a role, somewhere down the line. This does not excuse the fact Winnipeg bit off a little more than it could chew this year.

If this city can build roads, it should be able to build bike paths. Let this year be a lesson and not an excuse for future inaction.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2010 A3

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on Citytv’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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