December 15, 2018

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Opinion

City should consider streetcar revival

SUBMITTED PHOTO</p><p>Streetcars ran regularly down Portage Avenue in their heyday.</p>

SUBMITTED PHOTO

Streetcars ran regularly down Portage Avenue in their heyday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/1/2018 (327 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One hundred and 17 years ago this week, the first electric streetcar in Winnipeg jingle-jangled its way down River Avenue between Main and Osborne streets. Soon, a network of routes would criss-cross the city. At its peak, almost 400 cars carried 60-million riders annually on more than 200 kilometres of track.

Winnipeg owes much of its current urban form of large streets radiating out from the core to those early streetcar routes. The attraction of public transportation was used to drive development and target growth in new suburbs, by extending streetcar lines down streets, such as Osborne Street, Corydon Avenue, Sherbrook Street, Broadway, Portage Avenue, Academy Road and St. Mary’s Road. These roads would become dense retail and service corridors, running through neighbourhoods of grid-pattern residential streets that provided easy pedestrian access to transit stops.

As car ownership boomed and diesel buses became the future, the last streetcar made its final run down Main Street in 1955, with a banner on its side proclaiming, “I’m giving way to transit progress.” The city form would change to follow this evolution, with primary growth occurring in distant, car-focused, low-density, cul-de-sac subdivisions with regional retail centres.

With most population growth happening on the suburban fringes, many North American cities are looking to establish more sustainable development patterns by attracting greater density to mature neighbourhoods and promoting inward growth in central suburbs.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/1/2018 (327 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One hundred and 17 years ago this week, the first electric streetcar in Winnipeg jingle-jangled its way down River Avenue between Main and Osborne streets. Soon, a network of routes would criss-cross the city. At its peak, almost 400 cars carried 60-million riders annually on more than 200 kilometres of track.

Winnipeg owes much of its current urban form of large streets radiating out from the core to those early streetcar routes. The attraction of public transportation was used to drive development and target growth in new suburbs, by extending streetcar lines down streets, such as Osborne Street, Corydon Avenue, Sherbrook Street, Broadway, Portage Avenue, Academy Road and St. Mary’s Road. These roads would become dense retail and service corridors, running through neighbourhoods of grid-pattern residential streets that provided easy pedestrian access to transit stops.

Looking north on Main Street in 1919. Streetcars played a big role in the rolling out of electricity in Winnipeg.

Looking north on Main Street in 1919. Streetcars played a big role in the rolling out of electricity in Winnipeg.

As car ownership boomed and diesel buses became the future, the last streetcar made its final run down Main Street in 1955, with a banner on its side proclaiming, "I’m giving way to transit progress." The city form would change to follow this evolution, with primary growth occurring in distant, car-focused, low-density, cul-de-sac subdivisions with regional retail centres.

With most population growth happening on the suburban fringes, many North American cities are looking to establish more sustainable development patterns by attracting greater density to mature neighbourhoods and promoting inward growth in central suburbs.

The OurWinnipeg municipal development plan and its supporting neighbourhood plans strategically target regional streets as important opportunities for infill development to increase the city’s overall population and commercial density.

To stimulate growth along these corridors, many cities are reintroducing streetcars, reviving their traditional role as a driver of investment in a similar way that transit-oriented development has become an important benefit of rapid-transit systems.

Unlike rapid transit, where the primary goal is to transport twice-a-day commuters between distant suburbs and the inner city, streetcars are neighbourhood connectors, travelling slower, shorter distances, with more stops. They differ from buses because their image, ride quality, capacity and ease of use attract a broader transit rider demographic.

With frequent stops, which promote pedestrian and sidewalk retail activity, streetcars can inspire an improved neighbourhood economic vitality and social vibrancy. This, along with an attractive, modern image and improved access to mobility, creates demand along transit corridors for places to live and work. The public commitment to rail infrastructure provides a guarantee of permanence that ensures developer investment follows demand.

The model for modern streetcars began in Portland in 2001 with construction of a 12-kilometre loop that serves 20,000 riders per day. The system has been credited with transforming the Pearl District, a once-declining industrial area, into a vibrant, trendy urban community, stimulating construction of 18,000 residential units and US$2.4 billion in new development.

Streetcars, vehicles and pedestrians all contend for passage during a more bustling age.

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Streetcars, vehicles and pedestrians all contend for passage during a more bustling age.

In Kansas City, after only one year in operation, a new four-kilometre streetcar line has moved two-million riders and is credited with attracting US$2 billion in economic activity.

Eight other American cities have reintroduced modern streetcars as part of their public transit systems, with three more under construction and as many as 40 others studying the idea.

Minneapolis is designing a six-kilometre line through its city centre, and Toronto, one of only two North American cities to never abandon the streetcar, is modernizing and expanding its 85-kilometre-long system.

With Winnipeg’s transit system struggling to find consistent funding, more radical solutions, such as the introduction of modern streetcar routes, might be worth considering.

As Winnipeg’s low-density pattern of suburban growth continues, the efficiency of transit will only decline further. Providing traditional public transit service to new subdivisions designed for cars results in buses travelling long distances with low ridership, a significant financial strain for transit and a diversion of resources from areas with high demand.

Archives of Manitoba

Archives of Manitoba

Concentrating transit routes along the key corridors of the central city and increasing service frequency to neighbourhoods that grew up around streetcar corridors, with a density and physical structure that makes transit use effective and efficient, might bring greater viability to transit service.

Instead of investing in more long-distance rapid-transit lines, we could direct those funds to several significantly less costly, dedicated streetcar routes that run out from the city centre in all directions. Possible routes could extend from Portage and Main to Polo Park; down Provencher Boulevard to Archibald Street; and along Main Street to Kildonan Park. The end of each streetcar line could be designed as a transfer point to move people out to further suburbs using modern mobility options such as car co-ops, private shuttle buses, ride-hailing services such as Uber, autonomous vehicles and park-and-ride facilities.

Transit ridership will only become viable when it offers a convenience and comfort that comes closer to matching private vehicle use. Centralizing transit service on rail-based vehicles that offer a comfortable and attractive ride, efficiently shuttling large numbers of passengers along dedicated transit lanes and streets, might be a creative way to redefine transit service in our city.

Increasing service capacity along Winnipeg’s mature neighbourhoods and returning to the city’s roots by introducing modern streetcar lines into the mix of transit services could transform how we move around the city. And, if designed well, it could follow the precedents set in Portland and Kansas City to realize significant and targeted infill growth, increasing overall population density and stimulating economic development across the inner city.

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

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

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

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