Opinion

Winnipeg, like most Canadian cities, was built around public transit. At one time, 400 streetcars rolled along neighbourhood streets, connected in an efficient grid that allowed riders to jump on and off as they headed in different directions to different destinations.

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This article was published 15/3/2021 (186 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg, like most Canadian cities, was built around public transit. At one time, 400 streetcars rolled along neighbourhood streets, connected in an efficient grid that allowed riders to jump on and off as they headed in different directions to different destinations.

About 50 years ago, we began building cities around cars. Instead of extending the street grids as the city grew, isolated new subdivisions were built, connected by highways, with winding boulevards and cul-de-sac streets. Public transit followed this growth pattern by incrementally extending existing lines into these new areas. Routes became long, confusing and circuitous, service became inconvenient and less frequent, and ridership dropped.

Winnipeg Transit’s new 25-year master plan hopes to change this by taking a long-overdue step back and proposing a complete re-think of how public transit operates across the city. The plan proposes that Winnipeg join a growing list of cities that are implementing what is known as a "high frequency transit model" focused more on service improvements to grow ridership than on geographic coverage.

The system will be less centred on downtown commuting and more on the ability to use transit for daily trips of all kinds.

The proposed scheme divides the system into two categories of service: the primary network and the feeder network. The primary network will transform large streets such as Main Street, Grant Avenue, Regent Avenue, Henderson Highway and St. Mary’s Road into major transit conduits. Along these routes, high-capacity buses running with high frequency – defined as every 15 minutes or less – will shuttle passengers quickly and directly to major destinations, including downtown.

The primary network will operate somewhat like a subway system, with lines that are direct and fast, so frequent that riders will not need to worry about schedules, and so intuitive that it will be easy to navigate.

The primary network will be the backbone of the transit system. In time, six of these routes will become rapid-transit lines incorporated into the street system, unlike the separated roadway of the first phase. Integrated rapid transit will provide service every five minutes and use historic Union Station as its downtown hub.

The primary network will be the backbone of the transit system.

It will incorporate diamond lanes and priority traffic signals to ensure high speeds, and outside of downtown will run in the centre of the road, with stations located in the median like Winnipeg’s old streetcar network. This new idea for rapid transit will be far less expensive, easier to access and better integrated with the city and desired destinations. It will be designed to accommodate light rail if that transition becomes feasible in the future.

A supporting feeder network will revive the old idea of transit routes running in a more efficient grid, replacing the long, slow and winding neighbourhood routes of the current system. Like a series of creeks and streams feeding a larger river, the feeder network will be made up of short residential routes that connect riders to the primary network, where they can transfer to a faster, more direct bus and destinations across the city.

As neighbourhoods evolve, these short feeder lines can adapt to new development without having to alter the long crosstown routes that currently exist.

In new neighbourhoods and areas with low ridership, an innovative on-request service will be introduced, using smaller vehicles and shuttles. The Uber-like system will incorporate a smartphone app allowing users to book rides within a service area, taking riders to local destinations and stops along the primary network. As neighbourhoods grow and begin to show higher demand for transit, regular feeder lines can be introduced.

By streamlining routes and creating efficiency, Winnipeg Transit believes it can increase existing capacity by 25 per cent and implement the network.

The high frequency transit model has been a proven concept in cities of all sizes in the United States and around the world, with strong ridership growth realized in almost every instance. Portland, Oregon implemented the system in 2014 and has seen ridership grow by 45 per cent. Auckland, New Zealand doubled ridership in less than a decade, and Houston, Texas saw a four per cent increase only two months after introducing the system.

Winnipeg has fallen far behind other cities in public-transit investment, resulting in the lowest per-capita ridership numbers of Canada’s major cities, and the only one to serve fewer passengers than it did 20 years ago (pre-pandemic). Cities smaller than Winnipeg, including Quebec City, Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton, have built or are progressing with light-rail transit systems.

Public transit everywhere has been decimated by the pandemic, but it is a vital component to solving the climate crisis and reversing growing social inequity in our cities. For these reasons, our goal for Winnipeg Transit’s 25-year plan should be to make it a five-year plan. We can do it.

By streamlining routes and creating efficiency, Winnipeg Transit believes it can increase existing capacity by 25 per cent and implement the network, excluding rapid transit, over five years with no additional resources. The entire system, including all six lines of rapid transit, an electrified fleet of buses and a new high-frequency network, could be implemented for less cost than the single line of light-rail transit opened in Ottawa last year.

Winnipeg Transit’s plan is exciting and implementable. What is not exciting is that it will only be in place for the next generation to use. 

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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