August 16, 2017

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Press pause on rapid transit plan

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/6/2016 (422 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The current imbroglio between the City of Winnipeg and Manitoba Hydro is creating, in the minds of some, a reason for halting the development of the next phase of Winnipeg’s rapid transit plan. However, this is a minor cost — a drop in the bucket of the projected $500-million-plus expenditure for the extension.

Still, there are two fundamental reasons for pausing our transit plans. These are tactical and strategic.

Tactically, the city (and province) has not aligned transit and land-use planning. Planning documents supporting the need for transit in the city pay lip service to the idea that, in the words of the 2011 Transportation Master Plan, "A transportation system that is dynamically integrated with land use." Other equally opaque phrases appear throughout these planning documents, but few concrete ideas emerge.

Sustainable transit, where users pay a large portion of the costs, requires two things — population density at the two ends and population density along the route, at stations. The proposed Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor plan assumes connecting downtown with the University of Manitoba will produce high volumes of ridership. In fact, students at the U of M, travel from homes dispersed throughout the city or from apartments in close proximity to the university along Pembina Highway. Much of the proposed corridor runs through largely vacant or lightly developed land, which means many of the proposed stations will attract few riders.

More fundamentally, the tactical error inherent in Winnipeg’s rapid-transit planning is to maintain a vision of the city that is dated. Cities did have their origins as a central market point, around which residential and commercial activity clustered. Roads formed a radial pattern to allow market goods and residents convenient access to a central trading point. This made sense in the Middle Ages.

That land use/transportation pattern has given way to the "circular" city comprised of systems of neighbourhoods. We see this pattern emerging in Winnipeg. To the southwest Kenaston Commons, Linden Ridge and Whyte Ridge are creating an integrated neighbourhood with industrial, commercial and residential use. To the northwest, Polo Park, the Airport industrial park, and Red River College create another work-residence neighbourhood. To the east, the corner of Regent and Lagimodière features yet another commercial attraction. Finally, in the southeast, St. Vital Centre anchors a major regional shopping/recreation neighbourhood.

To be sure, there are many local neighbourhoods, but that is the point; rather than a few single destination/origin points, Winnipeg has multiple origins and destinations. The major neighbourhoods form a circle. Downtown remains an important neighbourhood, but for many, if not most Winnipeg residents is not the most frequent or important destination. Many of us cut across the city to go to school and work and to shop. This is what makes the inner perimeter highway such a compelling and important investment. No number of platitudes about the dynamic interaction of land use and transportation will negate how residents and business owners are shaping the neighbourhoods of this city.

Another tactical error exists in not understanding the ever-extending sprawl of the Winnipeg region. Development at the edge and just beyond the Perimeter Highway accelerates the sparsity of urban development, which further undermines sustainable transit operation. Rural municipalities and landowners at the edge of the city, whether they are farmers or developers, have a stake in maintaining the extension of Winnipeg. Addressing this issue will require provincial and municipal co-ordination to develop policies to manage sprawl.

A critical strategic error underlies the transit plan. It is delusionary to believe many Winnipeg residents will readily give up the freedom of personal transportation parked in their driveway. Certainly, some residents do not own cars, some because they cannot afford a vehicle and others because they purposely located in an area where they can walk or use a bus to meet their needs. However, the vast majority have arranged their lives around access to a car to manage their multiple destinations and multi-purpose trips.

Aside from poverty, people will relinquish their cars because of costs — time and money. In Toronto and Vancouver gridlock and the cost of parking make transit an attractive option. Even so, consider that for the Toronto transit system, which completed its first subway line in 1974, ridership has stalled.

A similar story emerges in Vancouver; indeed in the last three years transit ridership has stagnated across North America. Apparently, the assumption that "build and they will ride" is unfounded.

Low energy prices have increased the affordability of cars, but a recovery of oil prices and even an aggressive carbon tax are unlikely to encourage transit use. The advent of electric cars and the ability of car manufacturers to increase fuel economy will stabilize the costs of car operation.

Most important is the time savings involved in using a car create an overwhelming advantage for most users. Those who travel between downtown and the university will experience a reduction in door-to-door travel times because of the proposed transit line. The vast majority who remain off the proposed route by more than a few blocks will continue to use their cars.

Land use and transportation are integrated. Eventually, development will occur along the proposed route, however, if the experience of many centres is any gauge, it can take years for that to occur.

In the meantime, the taxpayer must endure major capital and operating expenses for an underperforming transportation system.

Only when the city and province create effective policies to control sprawl and to accelerate development close to the bus rapid transit line, we can consider proceeding. Until then, let us defer the spending. Otherwise, we will strand a large chunk of our fiscal capacity moving nobody to nowhere.

Gregory Mason is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba and a senior consultant at PRA Inc. His views are his own.

www.gregorymason.ca

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