Forty-one years ago, Winnipeg metro councillor Bernie Wolfe warned cars would be on a "collision course" with cities unless governments of all levels sat down and negotiated a planned approach to urban transportation.
At the time, Winnipeg was debating whether or not to move ahead with recommendations from a 1968 study to build 30 kilometres of freeways and an 8.6-kilometre subway system.
Ultimately, the idea was scrapped, and the city grew to rely on major routes and traffic signals to keep vehicles flowing.
Winnipeg has been without a long-term transportation plan ever since. Today, the city faces a similar dilemma: How will it upgrade its existing roadways and move people from point A to point B?
The city is in the middle of finalizing a $1.15-million transportation master plan that will identify plans for land use and what future road and rapid-transit improvements are needed. It is expected to be publicly released in September and put to a city council vote on Oct. 19.
Some critics worry history may repeat itself, and the plan will not have a specific vision for Winnipeg’s future.
"Despite efforts and progress, we’re still simply trying to define what the heck we’re doing with our transportation system," said Jino Distasio, director of the University of Winnipeg’s Institute of Urban Studies. "I think it’s going to continue to put us behind other cities that have made significant strides in creating more integrated systems of transportation."
Road infrastructure plays an important role in safety since it influences how people travel — via transit or bike lanes, for example — and how they interact with pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles on the road.
Winnipeg is in a similar bind to other Canadian cities since it is trying to balance the need to fix and maintain existing roads and bridges while investing in major upgrades to transit and active transportation.
Public works director Brad Sacher said roads and bridges built in the 1950s and 1960s are nearing the end of their lifespan. There is a need for significant rehabilitation of Winnipeg’s infrastructure in general, as well as for new infrastructure in response to growth in parts of the city.
"It is a difficult balancing act and it’s a real challenge," Sacher said.
Department staff have reviewed things such as traffic flow, collision data, transit patterns and active-transportation corridors to determine how people and goods move across the city, Sacher said. That way, the city can anticipate future growth and set aside space for things such as intersections and rights-of-way, instead of spending more money on costly road upgrades later, he said.
The master plan will be "flexible," he said, and could prevent situations in which construction of major road infrastructure is required to catch up with development, such as along south Kenaston.
"That’s a situation where it went from being a rail yard in the past to a very desirable location," Sacher said. "The trick in the longer term is to be out in front of as many development opportunities as possible so you can be as efficient as possible in planning them."
Intersections are likely to need improvements before roadways since safety issues often arise when vehicle volumes increase.
Winnipeg public works staff use engineering software tools to analyze how many vehicles travel through an intersection, the types of vehicles, pedestrian activity, traffic-signal timing and side-street traffic volumes to see what improvements can be made and what impact any improvements may have.
One of the big fixes being made to the city’s intersection stop-and-go problem is taking a long time to complete.
Mayor Sam Katz made synchronizing traffic signals an election pledge in 2006, but a recent audit found no workers are dedicated to the $11.5-million project, despite the fact it would improve safety and the flow of cars.
Lights have not been synched in 80 intersections downtown, and traffic-signals-branch staff say they are still working on "tweaking" the timing of lights that have been synched elsewhere in the city. The project might not be done until 2013.
Traffic signals engineer Michael Cantor said part of the difficulty is traffic flow is always changing, and even a five-second interval can make a difference between hitting a stretch of red or a stretch of green lights. Timing patterns will likely have to be updated every few years, he said.
The city has hired an Ontario-based consulting firm to prepare a plan to time intersections based on speed, traffic volumes, distance between them and time of day. City staff will implement the timing plans, and the consultants will make any necessary additional changes.
Engineers are currently trying to gauge how well the synchronization works on certain routes by comparing travel times before and after implementation.
Cantor said city staff are driving the routes and timing them with a GPS.
"We try to reduce delays and see the traffic going more fluidly."
Some transportation activists are worried governments are spending an unprecedented amount of money on highways without considering the impact on cyclists and pedestrians within Winnipeg.
Janice Lukes, head of the province’s activetransportation advisory group, said provincial and federal governments have devoted more than $200 million to build an expressway for the CentrePort transportation hub but have not studied the need for active-transportation corridors or pathways as part of the industrial development.
"Huge opportunities are being missed," Lukes said.
CentrePort CEO Diane Gray said CentrePort has not examined active-transportation routes yet, but it is something that should be looked at as the development moves ahead.
"I’m supportive of that because I don’t want to see cyclists riding on expressways next to large trucks," Gray said. "We need to find a balance here that makes sense."
However, it’s still too early to predict how many people will travel to work at the Centre-Port air, rail and truck cargo hub every day and how many more vehicles could be flowing into Winnipeg, she said, because the numbers depend on what types of industries want to locate there. In general, labour-based industries employ more workers, while warehouses or distribution centres typically employ fewer people, Gray said.
The new expressway is expected to reduce the number of vehicles on the western stretch of the Perimeter Highway by 5,900 trucks and cars a day and take pressure off feeder routes such as Oak Point Highway and Saskatchewan Avenue, she said.
Distasio said what’s really missing in Winnipeg is innovation and leadership.
A "car rules the road" mindset still exists among some Winnipeg drivers, he said, and the city has missed opportunities — such as in the debate surrounding parking at the new Bomber stadium — to educate the public about the merits of rapid transit and active transportation.
Distasio said he’s not optimistic the city’s latest plan will outline any clear vision for the future.
"I’m going to be very interested in whether this comprehensive plan actually says what it is we’re investing in. BRT (bus rapid transit), LRT (light rail transit), subways, seaways, tramways, gondolas to St. Vital?" Distasio said.
"Does it actually say something or, for the umpteenth time, are we going to be wishy-washy?"
Mapping a way forward for Winnipeg traffic
What's the city's plan to improve roadways and traffic flow?
To figure out a plan: The city is in the midst of finalizing a $1.15-million transportation master plan that will identify what future road and rapid-transit improvements are needed. City officials expect it will be publicly released in September and put to a city council vote on Oct. 19.
To finish what we started: The city is also working to end one of Winnipeg’s greatest driving frustrations: getting stopped at multiple red lights on the same stretch of road. While a plan to synchronize traffic signals is six months behind schedule, city staff say it should be done by 2013. Here’s a look at which routes are done and which ones are scheduled to be done in the coming years. City staff say they’re still doing some "tweaks" to get the timing right on intersections that have already been synched.
Routes that are done:
Kenaston Boulevard — Academy Road to Scurfield Boulevard
Lagimodiere Boulevard — Headmaster Row to Bishop Grandin Boulevard
Main Street — Euclid Avenue to Fernbank Avenue
St. Anne’s Road — Aldgate Road to St. Mary’s Road
St. Mary’s Road — Burland Avenue to Marion Street/ Goulet Street
Portage Avenue — Vaughan Street to St. Charles Street
Bishop Grandin Boulevard — Lagimodiere Boulevard to Waverley Street
McPhillips Street — Notre Dame Avenue to Templeton Avenue
Pembina Highway — Confusion Corner to Rue des Trappistes
Routes to by synched this year:
Henderson Highway — Hespeler Avenue to McIvor Avenue
Grant Avenue/Roblin Boulevard — Pembina Highway to Barker Boulevard/Dale Boulevard
DOWNTOWN AREA: How do we get from A to B? In 2007, the city hired an outside consulting firm to find out how and where Winnipeggers travel. They found on a typical weekday, residents in the city made 1,569,470 trips, for an average of 2.83 trips per person age 11 and older.
Thirty-seven per cent of the daily trips took place between the morning and afternoon rush-hour periods, and work-related and school trips accounted for the vast majority — 74 per cent — of all morning travel.
The survey found 81 per cent of trips by Winnipeggers and residents in surrounding areas — including East St. Paul and Steinbach — were in cars. Only 10 per cent of all residents walked or cycled to get from A to B.
The downtown core saw the highest influx of people in the morning rush-hour period. About 16 per cent of all trips in the city in the morning period are to the downtown, more than to any other part of Winnipeg.