The province has rejected calls to change the law to let Winnipeg welcome back pedestrians to “open streets” this year, arguing the city can mark out separate spaces for vehicles and foot traffic instead.

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The province has rejected calls to change the law to let Winnipeg welcome back pedestrians to "open streets" this year, arguing the city can mark out separate spaces for vehicles and foot traffic instead.

However, a city councillor fears that option would force Winnipeg to start the entire concept over from scratch.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said the province would never alter the Highway Traffic Act to let the city mix pedestrians with vehicle traffic.

"The law is very clear and we’re not going to budge on the law…. We are not contemplating an exemption, either," Schuler said. "We do not believe, as a government, that pedestrians and traffic are a good mix."

Last year, Winnipeg designated 10 sections of local streets where vehicle access was restricted to one block between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily to create space for pedestrians and cyclists to get outside for some fresh air a safe social distance.

Council is considering a proposal to test 14 more routes this year. But the new routes would be reserved for cyclists only, after the city discovered including pedestrians violated the Highway Traffic Act.

The act prohibits pedestrians from walking on roadways where a "reasonably passable" sidewalk is present.

Schuler said the city can offer active-transportation access to both pedestrians and cyclists by closing a section of a street or lane to vehicular traffic.

He said the city would need to use road paint and add signs at every affected block to make the rule obvious.

Coun. Matt Allard, council’s public works chairman, said that concept isn’t a good fit for "open streets" because it would cut off vehicle access entirely.

"We would have to look at every street, at how parking and traffic would be impacted. So it really would be a starting-from-scratch scenario," said Allard.

Ideally, Allard said he’d like to find a legal way to allow pedestrian access.

Jim Berezowsky, Winnipeg’s public works director, said the city would need to complete a new round of public consultation before it could implement the province’s option.

"We engaged with the public last year…. We would have to go back to that same community and ask these new questions," said Berezowsky.

Several groups are urging the city to find a way to restore pedestrian access.

"People walking really did make up such a large percentage of the people who took part in our open streets program," Mel Marginet, a co-ordinator with the Green Action Centre’s sustainable transportation team, told council’s public works committee Friday.

"In Winnipeg, our sidewalks are narrow, they are often in poor shape where they exist at all. So relegating people to walking during a pandemic on narrow spaces fails in terms of accessibility and public health."

Marginet said it would be difficult for the city to keep pedestrians off cycling-only routes.

"This is going to create a lot of confusion and we don’t think it’s really possible or equitable to start ticketing people for walking," she said.

Emma Durand-Wood, an active transportation advocate, called it "mind-boggling" that pedestrians could suddenly lose this access.

"We saw last year that (this) more or less worked fine," said Durand-Wood. "This (change) just lacks common sense."

If the proposal is approved as is, this year’s seasonal active transportation routes would serve only cyclists and limit vehicular traffic to one block from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. That’s expected to begin as early as May 3 and continue until Nov. 5, pending consultation.

The changes require full council approval. Council’s public works committee will vote on the matter Tuesday.

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

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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