It’s a street fight that has pitted Winnipeg’s elites against each other.
The tug of war over closing Wellington Crescent to vehicles, so cyclists and pedestrians can use the tony boulevard almost exclusively, is headed toward a showdown at city hall Thursday.
A small group of residents rallied Tuesday to show support for current rules that restrict vehicles to one block of travel from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily from Academy Road to Guelph Street.
The "Open Streets" program affects several streets across the city that are popular with cyclists and pedestrians and is scheduled to continue till Nov. 5.
Organizer Sharon Kirk said the group represented a fraction of overall support to keep the street closed to vehicles, pointing to an online petition she and her husband organized that collected nearly 500 signatures over two days.
"I’m a counsellor, so I fully believe having a safe place to exercise enhances the mental well-being of everyone, not just during COVID times, but moving forward," Kirk said. She said the program improves the neighbourhood’s "community feel."
On the opposite side, a group of residents has submitted letters to city hall asking it to lift restrictions for vehicles on the street. Some argue traffic congestion has moved to nearby Academy Road, while others say people should be allowed to drive down the crescent and look at the landscaped yards.
Gail Asper wrote it is "simply unfair to ban all vehicles from having any opportunity to experience Winnipeg’s most beautiful street" and that the prioritized access to cyclists is "discriminating against thousands of Winnipeggers."
Resident Brenlee Carrington-Trepel compiled a 68-page document that includes dozens of letters from residents who complained about the program. That prompted city hall to consider lifting the ban on vehicles on weekdays as of Sept. 7
In an email, Carrington-Trepel said more than 100 residents have contacted her and want "to keep Wellington Crescent part of the Open Streets program as a Sunday and holidays bike route after Sept. 7." She notes the street had closed on Sundays and holidays "for decades."
She declined to speak further before council votes.
Resident Atul Sharma said the letters exaggerate the inconveniences of the program.
"I actually resent people speaking for me and saying that these are insurmountable obstacles," he said. "They’re minor inconveniences."
Sharma has a disability which forces him to use a walker. He said he uses an adaptive bicycle to get exercise. The bike is wider than a regular bike, he said, which makes it difficult to safely coexist on the road with cars.
Some of the residents who want the street open said the project discriminates against the disabled, but Sharma disagrees.
"This opens the crescent up to them. We see them. We see them in electric wheelchairs, being pushed along by family members, using adaptive vehicles. I think it expands opportunity."
One major concern for resident Jutta Essig is making Winnipeg’s transportation culture safer and environmentally friendly. The mother of three from Germany said she and her family used to bike everywhere in Europe, but when she moved to Winnipeg, she noticed a lack of bicycle infrastructure. When a close friend was hit while biking on Wellington Crescent, her habits changed, she said.
"From that moment on we went into North American lifestyle that we use the car for every little commute. It bothered me, but there was no option," she said.
Anders Swanson, executive director of Winnipeg Trails Association, a non-profit that advocates for sustainable infrastructure, said reopening the street early to motorists would be a step in the wrong direction.
"We can’t declare climate emergencies then roll back the simplest thing we’ve done," he said. "That’s not leadership."
He said "Open Streets" is a "drop in the bucket" in terms of what needs to be done to boost active transportation. He commended residents who showed up on Tuesday, but said the issue affects everyone in Winnipeg.
"Access to fresh air is a right," he said. "The ability to drive is not."
The city conducted a survey about "Open Streets" in November 2020. At the time, 83 per cent of Wellington Crescent residents responded positively to the idea, out of the 48 per cent who answered the survey. Kirk said she believes this poll still represents her neighbourhood.
In research conducted for the program in 2020, Wellington Crescent had the most cyclists and pedestrians during two 12-hour periods. The second-busiest street was Wolseley Avenue.