If there's one task that puts a twinkle in Mayor Sam Katz's eyes, it's speeding up the time it takes to get a car from one place to another.
Winnipeg's mayor, who commutes downtown every weekday morning from Tuxedo, seems to care quite deeply about the cause of traffic congestion.
During his second race for mayor in 2006, Katz reserved some of the most impassioned words of the entire campaign for traffic-signal synchronization.
"Winnipeg drivers know all too well the frustration of having their commute constantly interrupted by badly timed traffic lights, being needlessly detained and seeing their paycheque go up in gas fumes," Katz told reporters in September 2006. "The computerized synchronization of traffic signals can help Winnipeggers move around our city more efficiently and avoid the nuisance of stop-and-start traffic."
On election night that year, Katz easily defeated challengers Marianne Cerilli, Kaj Hasselriis and Ron Pollock, none of whom promised to do anything to make a Hyundai move more quickly along Henderson Highway.
True to the mayor's word, the city proceeded to spend $12 million over six years to synchronize lights on major roadways. The project was slated to wind up this year.
Winnipeg motorists, however, are not really moving anywhere more quickly. As transportation engineers have been preaching for decades, increasing the capacity for motor-vehicle traffic tends to simply increase traffic.
Improvements intended to speed the flow of traffic -- signal synchronization, street widenings and additional lanes at intersections -- can and do produce measurable results in the short term. But population increases and additional development at the edges of cities tend to encourage people to drive more often, causing commuters to clamour for even more traffic improvements when streets become congested again.
In some North American cities, severe traffic congestion has contributed to inner-city revitalization. In Toronto, which expanded spectacularly late last century, the annoyance associated with a long and grinding suburban commute did more to lead young professionals and empty-nesters to repopulate the downtown core than any urban-planning initiative ever did.
Similar, if less dramatic, scenes have played out across the continent, even in unlikely, sprawl-plagued centres such as Los Angeles -- and smaller cities more comparable to Winnipeg, which only now is becoming annoying enough for motorists to want to move downtown.
For the first time since the 1980s, private developers are planning to build multiple new apartment and condominium towers in downtown Winnipeg. Some people credit city-provincial tax incentives, others cite economic growth and yet others credit a general sense of optimism.
But there is a much more boring factor at play: As small as Winnipeg is, some of its residents would rather not spend a big chunk of their days inside their cars. Their numbers only add to the many Winnipeggers who can't afford to drive, maintain, insure and park a car.
Creating new infrastructure for cars is expensive. In theory, public-transit investments offer a better long-term bang for the increasingly scarce municipal buck.
But public transit isn't politically sexy. That's why it took six Winnipeg mayors 36 years to build the first tiny leg of a rapid-transit "system" that now runs all of 3.6 kilometres.
There is no money in place right now to complete the Southwest Transitway. But Winnipeg does have $30 million to spend on roads that don't even serve commuters.
On Thursday, Katz pledged to add $10 million to a $20-million Polo Park traffic-congestion kitty created out of the sale of the Canad Inns Stadium site. The cash would be used to make it easier to drive around the city's busiest retail-shopping zone.
Katz said $30 million worth of spending is warranted in Polo Park because Winnipeggers living in all corners of the city drive there.
Origin-destination studies, however, reveal Winnipeg's greatest transportation need is to move people between downtown and the University of Manitoba. The second-greatest need is to move them between downtown and Transcona.
A $30-million down payment could easily finance $300 million worth of rapid-transit connections. But this mayor and this city council would sooner spend it on traffic signals, all to speed the flow of vehicles crawling between one big-box retail store to another.