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This article was published 13/7/2015 (2058 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


In an odd twist of Winnipeg politics, Couns. Jeff Browaty, Russ Wyatt, Ross Eadie, Shawn Dobson and Jason Schreyer are playing a role usually reserved for special-interest lobby groups by airing radio ads to rally public opinion against the pedestrian-and-cycling strategy, which council will vote on Wednesday. The radio ads claim, "Mayor and council are rushing through a long-term plan to spend $300 million on commuter cycling infrastructure."

As with all political sound bites, the targeted message often requires context to be fully understood.

In 2011, council approved the transportation master plan. This document outlines a series of principles intended to guide the development of Winnipeg's transportation infrastructure in the next 20 years. The plan identifies spending of more than $5 billion on a number of projects that include new streets, ring roads, bridges, underpasses and rapid-transit lines.

A companion study called for in the plan was initiated under former mayor Sam Katz in 2013 to provide greater detail to the pedestrian and cycling components, resulting in the comprehensive 350-page document heading to council this week.

Opposition to the strategy appears to come in part from the perception a master plan is the same as a final design intended for construction. The pedestrian-and-cycling strategy is a set of guiding principles that establish priorities for long-term development. Specific projects shown in the master plan are only conceptual recommendations. As with the dozens of road projects outlined in the overall plan, before they are realized, years of debate, consultation and design will necessarily occur. The strategy document clearly states in bold letters on page 286, "The city should engage in neighbourhood-based public consultation to implement any recommendations." It continues by saying the strategies are "the first step, not the last step."

Establishing a long-term plan ensures cohesive development and consistent decision-making as players change over time. It also allows efficiencies to be captured as development occurs. As new roadwork projects happen (such as the current redevelopment of Portage Avenue) a plan can be used to inform the debate over including active transportation into the design. Without a plan and conceptual network layout in place, projects are viewed in isolation, and these opportunities are often missed. The cost and inconvenience of later reconstruction can then become significantly higher.

The councillors' radio ads claim the strategy's $300-million price tag will be used to build a "commuter cycling infrastructure." A detailed breakdown of the numbers reveals that statement to be misleading. The estimated cost for cycling-only facilities is pegged at $135 million (less than 50 per cent of the total). Only $7 million of this is for downtown cycle tracks, meaning the majority of the funds are targeted at local neighbourhood improvements, benefiting much more than just commuters.

Another $70 million is to be spent on improving pedestrian-only networks, with the final $125 million going toward combined bike/pedestrian infrastructure (mainly bridges). The $330-million expenditure over the next 20 years compares to $80 million spent on pedestrian and cycling initiatives in the past nine years.

Many strategy opponents feel the plan disproportionately represents the will of a minority bike lobby that is active on social media, defined by Coun. Wyatt as the "dictatorship of the tweeting class." The $330-million cost of the pedestrian-and-cycling strategy represents six per cent of the $5-billion transportation master plan. That tax-dollar-to-user ratio appears to be equitable when considering eight per cent of total work commuter trips in Winnipeg occur on bike or foot. As well, when surveyed, 80 per cent of Winnipeggers indicate they walk and 40 per cent bike for exercise at least once a week during the eight non-snow months.

The goal of the strategy is to increase the use of cycling-and-pedestrian infrastructure to further improve that spending ratio. Other cities offer conclusive evidence that improved infrastructure results in increased participation. In Minneapolis, commuter cycling rates have tripled after protected bike lanes were introduced, making it the top cycling city in the U.S., despite its northern climate.

Surveys have found 47 per cent of Winnipeggers would cycle more if they had access to the safety of protected bike lanes. Evidence for this can be found on Assiniboine Avenue's cycle track, which has seen average rush-hour traffic go to more than 500 in 2014 from 100 bikes in 2010. Implementing the strategy's proposed 80-kilometre protected network would likely have a significant effect on participation.

The strongest message delivered by strategy opponents is the money being spent diverts funds from the priority of road repair. Adding perspective to the numbers reveals the comparatively minor impact redirecting that amount of money would have in the broader context. Extrapolating 2015 spending levels over the next 20 years, the city-wide cycling network would represent approximately 2.5 per cent of annual government road expenditures.

If implemented today, the strategy would instantly transform Winnipeg into a progressive global leader in active transportation. If directed to street renewal, the full strategy cost would relieve a mere four per cent of the city's total infrastructure deficit. The entire 20-year network could be constructed for the cost of only one of the recently announced rail-line underpasses.

Most Winnipeggers believe road repair is the city's top priority. The scale of the infrastructure deficit has become so great that simply filling the potholes by shovelling every dollar we can find into them is no longer a realistic solution. Our sprawling city pushes us further behind with every spring melt. The solution to potholes is to increase density and grow the economy, creating a balance between the roads that need fixing and the tax base that pays for it.

It is important the city make strategic investments to stimulate the type of growth that can achieve these goals. As a mobility and quality-of-life amenity, active transportation is one of these catalyst investments. The demographic groups that use cycling and pedestrian networks the most are youth and lower-income citizens. Making economic choices that elevate the prosperity of these two groups represents the greatest potential to grow the city's economy.

Effective public transit as well as pedestrian and cycling networks help build an equitable and socially inclusive city. Mobility is a quality-of-life investment that creates opportunity for people of all ages and social background, through easier access to education, employment and recreation.

A dense, vibrant city, offering lifestyle choices that are attractive to the younger generations may be able to retain more of the thousands of young, talented people we lose to other cities every year. No young person will ever say they moved to Vancouver because of Winnipeg's potholes, but they do move seeking a quality of life that Winnipeg doesn't offer. An active, connected and walkable lifestyle is often a key factor in that decision.

As a community, when we evaluate major investments such as the pedestrian and cycling strategy, we cannot view them exclusively through the lens of a middle-class, middle-age voter, living in a car-centric suburb. To build a strong city, supporting the lifestyle choices of those who do not write letters to councillors must also be considered, even if they represent a minority position.

Mobility is empowerment. The most prosperous cities are built to empower every one of its citizens.


Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.