Living In The City: Rapid Transit & Winnipeg

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There are many reasons why I absolutely love living here.  This town is fascinating.  But I also say that with just a hint of sarcasm, because we all know that living in Winnipeg can also be the most frustrating of experiences -- particularly for those who have travelled  and seen how other cities function.  We come back home and look around and shake our heads.  Its incredible what isolation will do for a city, making it oblivious to the many great ideas and movements in city-building over the past 25 years.

Did you know that Henry Wilson, the same man who designed Toronto's subway system, was hired to plan out a subway for Winnipeg in 1959?  His thorough report identified the growing trends in automobile use throughout North American cities and forsaw the problems created by auto-dependant sprawl: inner city decay, increased crime, vacant downtown streets, people choosing to live where they must drive instead of walk or bike, decrease in central property values and the prolifieration of downtown surface parking.  Time has proven all of these correct, as well as several others: pollution, and a culture of individualistic isolationism -- documented each day by highways filled with cars with only one single occupant.

Obviously, city hall voted down his plan and decided to start tearing down buildings downtown and building highways instead.  The math adds up pretty quick.

Accordingly, the public has abandoned its once-noble-value in the relationship between Civilization and City. We are increasingly fast-paced and utilitarian in the way we live.  Our architecture is now rarely inspiring.  Our buildings are seldom made to last a century, let alone 30 years.  Winnipeggers cry for the filling of potholes, while moving further and further from the core -- rarely realizing that their act of abandonment is at the historic root of many inner city neighbourhoods' problems.

The city has encouraged these activities, and even passed bylaws to promote more and more suburban development while establishing a property tax and land use system without the teeth to guide development inwards.  The gradual decrease in downtown population over 50 years, the slow removal of "buildings gone missing like teeth" (Weakerthans) only to be replaced by more surface parking, the provincial government now taking on the ilbegotten role of the environmentally hyprocritical sprawl developer in Waverly West -- Winnipeg's largest sub-division EVER.  (Having now abandoned the 3 primary urbanist values to the development that placated its critics 4 years ago.)

What can we do to slowly turn this city around?  How can we start to reverse the tide of investment and construction, so that our growing economy begins to benefit the areas of the city that need it most desparately after a half-century of neglect?  Luckily, we musicians and artists are most often found in the core.  We relish the older buildings and denser communities, being able to run into people we know around every corner, surrounded by cultural and artistic amenities.  But we are a small minority.

Rapid transit has been hovering over Winnipeg like a ghost for 50 years now.  Juba had his Monorail plans. 'The 80s brought new conversations about transit.  Susan Thompson made ferocious cuts to transit service in the mid-90's.  Glen Murray put BRT on the table, only to have Katz take it off.  But now we can put it back on the table.

Here's whats going on: The federal government recently alotted $500 million for transit improvements nationwide; $18 million specifically for Winnipeg.  IF (and its a big if) the city puts forward concrete plans by March 31. Thats in a couple weeks.

Luckily, the 2005 Rapid Transit Task Force outlines a whole system to be built, with room for improvements to rail-based transit if BRT proves to be a success.  All the city has to do is say, "YES, we will build the first leg of the plan."

The Winnipeg Rapid Transit Coalition, of which I am a member, is currently circulating a petition asking the city to finally make Rapid Transit a reality.  We will be meeting with the Mayor and the Executive Policy Committee on Monday March 17 at which time we will present the petition.

Please take a brief moment to sign the petition, and help us as we work to getting transit back onto the priority list for this city.  There is a donation form that follows the signup, you can close the browser at that point and ignore it and your name will still be included.

If you represent an organization or company that would be interested in having your name stand in support of rapid transit on Monday, please contact me.

Good luck, Winnipeg!
Mike Petkau

Lastly, it would be a great disservice to post this blog without honouring my ideological and linguistic partner-in-crime, Robert Galston, who writes the Rise & Sprawl blog -- now being periodically printed in The Uniter.  Do yourself and your city a favour by grabbing a nice big cup of coffee and spending a couple hours reading between the lines here:

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