Winnipeg’s next round of "open streets" may be closed to foot traffic.
A proposal calls for council to approve a second pilot project testing seasonal active transportation routes. Last year, the city limited vehicle traffic to one block from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily on 10 different sections of streets to create space for cyclists and pedestrians to engage in physically distanced exercise.
This year, the change would apply from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily on sections of 14 streets, from May 3 to Nov. 5, if council approves.
However, pedestrians will not be invited this time, since doing so could violate the Highway Traffic Act. The act prohibits pedestrians from walking on roadways where a "reasonably passable" sidewalk is present.
Jim Berezowsky, Winnipeg’s public works director, said the city wasn’t aware of the legal issue when it moved to quickly offer "open streets" last year.
"We tried to operate in the best interests of (Winnipeggers) … under a state of local emergency," Berezowsky said.
City staff are now asking council to exclude pedestrians from what would be deemed "enhanced summer cycling routes," though officials are also in talks with the province to try to amend the act so foot traffic can eventually resume.
"What we would like to see is a safe opening with pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles," said Berezowsky, who warned that may not occur in time for this year’s pilot project.
Public works officials also refrained from making the routes a permanent, seasonal addition, since the "open streets" concept has only been tested since traffic plummeted due to the pandemic.
Those who’ve lobbied for more active transportation options say cutting off pedestrian access would ignore a large portion of Winnipeggers the routes were meant to serve.
"This again will force pedestrians to crowd on to very narrow sidewalks, so it misses that reallocation of (travel) space, which was the point of the open streets … This is very disappointing," said Mel Marginet, a co-ordinator with the Green Action Centre’s sustainable transportation team.
Marginet said she’s seen many residents safely use open streets to walk and run.
"I experienced many of these streets as a pedestrian myself … Last year I went on multiple times a day and I didn’t get that sense (of a safety risk)," she said.
The executive director of Bike Winnipeg, a group that conducted cyclist and pedestrian counts at open streets last year, said he’s also concerned about cutting off pedestrian access.
"That will have a pretty big impact on the open streets. A lot of the counts we did showed, especially on … Wellington Crescent, there were really some huge uptakes from people walking on those corridors," said Mark Cohoe.
Cohoe said he hopes the province can provide the city with interim permission to allow pedestrians access to the routes during the pilot project.
Coun. Matt Allard, the chairperson of council’s public works committee, said he ultimately wants the seasonal routes to return every year and include pedestrians. Still, he believes the current proposal offers an important step forward.
"If I had my (way, the routes) would be permanent. But I think this is a step in the right direction. They were a tremendous success last year," said Allard (St. Boniface).
Other councillors said the pedestrian component is a critical aspect of the program.
"It’s definitely disappointing that pedestrians are not included and, in fact, I think it changes the program altogether," said Coun. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan).
In an email, Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said changing the Highway Traffic Act would require a new bill and legislative debate. He didn’t directly answer whether or not the province supports the city’s specific request.
"The province remains open to exploring amendments to The Highway Traffic Act if a permanent and long-term need is identified that benefits all Manitobans," said Schuler.
Council’s public works committee will cast the first vote on the proposal on April 16, which also requires full council approval.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.
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