In the race to make Winnipeg a City of the Future, nothing conjures the imagination more than the idea of light rail transit. Forget acquiring an IKEA store, which is Winnipeg's latest claim to be a major centre. Building a monorail would truly allow Winnipeg to claim the "Big City" tag.

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This article was published 14/1/2009 (4659 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

In the race to make Winnipeg a City of the Future, nothing conjures the imagination more than the idea of light rail transit. Forget acquiring an IKEA store, which is Winnipeg's latest claim to be a major centre. Building a monorail would truly allow Winnipeg to claim the "Big City" tag.

Mayor Sam Katz instinctively understands this, which is why he's asked his civil service to investigate the feasibility of light rail transit for Winnipeg. Is it possible that new technology could provide the city with a relatively inexpensive light aluminum monorail? Maybe, and it's obvious why this idea is so attractive. It harkens back to the science fiction of yesteryear when the future would be composed of monorails and flying cars.

As a way of encouraging public transit in this city, however, light rail transit, whether provided by overhead monorail or what we used to call "streetcars" may be more important as image than function.

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I'd love to see a monorail in this city. It would enforce the idea that Winnipeg truly cared about moving people by other means than the private car. As a symbol, it would be magnificent. Practically, though, there are many smaller improvements that could be made to getting around in Winnipeg that would cost less and might do a lot more. What concerns me most about planning for light rail transit is that it's a little like Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burns. It's a big, sweeping idea, which potentially dwarfs smaller initiatives.

All of which brings me to the Great Taxi Debate and a few anecdotes. Do we need more taxis or don't we?

Until recently my family had three cars in this city: One for our teenage daughter, one for me and one for my partner. Now that we divide our time between Winnipeg and Toronto and the teenager is away at school, we have one. We don't own a car in Toronto and get about by subway, taxis and a car-sharing service called "Zipcar." It's easy not to have a car in Toronto. In Winnipeg, it's hard to get by sharing one car with two people.

Partly, this is because of the way that taxis operate here. You can't just walk out in the street and hail one, and where taxis do wait -- like at the airport -- it's a mixed bag as to how long the wait is going to be.

Three out of the last four times I've arrived at Winnipeg airport late at night, I've had to wait 10 to 15 minutes in the freezing cold to get a cab home. Winnipeg cab companies are faced with a common conundrum. At peak times, there aren't enough cabs, but most of the time, there are. That's why the two biggest taxi companies, Unicity and Duffy's, tell the taxicab licensing authority not to increase the number of cabs on the road and if they do, give the licences to them.

The question the board and the city might ask, though, is what would happen if taxis operated slightly differently. Roaming cabs are probably too much to expect. A first step would be to locate more taxi-stands in the downtown for business traffic during the day. Manning the taxi-stands could be a condition of licence for larger companies. I suspect that if more taxis were more easily available, more people would use them and more taxis on the street would create innovative competition and might drive the city to being more of a taxi culture. An executive I know who recently arrived in Winnipeg is buying his first car since he turned 17. In his previous jobs in other cities, he was used to walking out of his business door and hailing a cab. After calling for cabs here and being 30 minutes late for two meetings, he bit the bullet and bought a car. That doesn't mean the taxi service in Winnipeg is poor. It means it doesn't measure up to being a regular alternative to the private car. If the city wants to reduce private car use, easy availability of taxis is a place to start.

The city could also investigate other simple ways of making Winnipeggers less reliant on cars. Calgary and Halifax (a much smaller city than Winnipeg) both have local car-sharing schemes similar to the commercial Zipcar and Autoshare systems in major centres. Could the city encourage setting up similar ventures here? What about bicycle-sharing? Authorities in Washington, D.C., and Montreal both have such services.

Flexible taxis, car- and bicycle-sharing don't have the sexy impact of light rail transit, but they don't need millions of dollars either. Light rail transit may be an old-fashioned view of the future. Small and cheap may be just as effective and far easier to accomplish.

 

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.