'There has to be something else': Winnipeg's car culture is unsustainable, say urban planning experts

If Winnipeg is to shift out of the well-worn rut of being a car-first culture, it's going to require two crucial elements: creativity and visionary leaders, say urban planning experts.

City needs transportation alternatives to 'a system that we allowed to be dominated by the automobile'

The car is still very much the king of the road in Winnipeg. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

If Winnipeg is to shift out of the well-worn rut of being a car-first culture, it's going to require two crucial elements: creativity and daring leaders, say urban planning experts.

"That is the biggest challenge — the overwhelming scale of retrofitting a city to be something more, to reflect new ways of thinking about how we as citizens move within the urban environment," said Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

"To create a sustainable city, to create a sustainable country, we need to look at alternative modes of transportation, and to get it right we need to have visionary leaders.

"We cannot continue to build cities based on automobile use. There has to be something else."

Winnipeg has taken some steps, such as adding bike lanes around the city, but their effectiveness is questionable.

Many have no protection from cars, some are marked by symbols painted near curbs of lanes that were never widened for bikes, several end without notice and force cyclists into traffic, and others run between lanes of traffic and leave cyclists exposed.

The bike lane over the Osborne Street Bridge suddenly ends as riders enter the Village, pushing them into a traffic lane. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

In multiple places, the city has dedicated lanes that are shared between bikes and buses — pitting the smallest, most vulnerable mode of transport against the largest.

"It's a work in progress," said Mark Cohoe, executive director of cycling advocacy group Bike Winnipeg.

But since the city adopted its pedestrian and cycling strategy in 2015, there's been improvement from what was previously a random, disorganized system, he said.

As the city grows we have to make some different choices and focus not on how to move cars, but how do we move people.- Mark Cohoe

At the same time, Cohoe says it often seems like the city slapped together a section of the network just to say a cycling component was included in a project "rather than creating something that's built around the needs of the system … aimed at attracting the type of user we're hoping to convert, to get out of their car."

Winnipeg has installed a handful of bicycle traffic lights as it builds up cycling infrastructure. (James Dunne/CBC)

There are new, concrete-curb-protected, bicycle-only lanes throughout the Exchange District and along part of Sherbrook Street (before it ends at Broadway, leaving cyclists in an unprotected lane). Those protected lanes take away a lane from cars, which is a good start, said Cohoe.

"It's shown that you can do it but it takes a willingness," he said. "As the city grows we have to make some different choices and focus not on how to move cars, but how do we move people."

Distasio signalled the Graham Avenue transit mall, created in 1995, as a positive change. That has relocated a number of buses off other roads in an attempt to ease congestion.

It runs parallel to the city's major artery of Portage Avenue and hosts 1,800 buses and 100,000 riders every weekday, according to the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone.

The Graham Avenue transit mall downtown runs parallel to Portage Avenue and hosts 1,800 buses and 100,000 riders every weekday, according to the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

But that's not enough progress to make significant change, said Orly Linovski, assistant professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba.

"There's not a lot [that has been done], to be honest with you. They're going in fits and starts," she said.

Distasio agrees, saying there needs to be "a massive shift" with a full commitment to change.

"We're trying to retool a system that we allowed to be dominated by the automobile, and trying to retrofit all these other uses into it," he said. "It doesn't work."

Chicken and egg

Part of the hesitation in committing to that massive shift can be attributed to the city being in a chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to public transit, said Linovski.

That being, which comes first — ridership or investment?

"It's 100 per cent a chicken-and-the-egg thing. Obviously politicians don't want to put money into a system that's seen as failing, but also people won't take it if the service isn't good," Linovski said.

A bicycle with a crumpled rear wheel lies on the pavement after a collision with a truck on Higgins Avenue at King Street in early June. The cyclist died. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Same goes for the bike network, said Cohoe, whose Bike Winnipeg commissioned a Probe Research survey that found 21 per cent of Winnipeggers ride a bike daily or a few times a week.

"When we asked [how many people would ride] if we … create the facilities and the network to make cycling comfortable for you, that percentage of people who might be biking went up to 45 per cent," he said.

Winnipeg is making strides in that direction with its rapid transit network — designed to cut down commuting time by having buses zip along exclusive corridors — though many people probably haven't noticed much change yet, said Distasio.

The initial 3.6-kilometre stretch, from downtown to the Pembina Highway/Jubilee Avenue underpass, opened in 2012 at a cost of $138 million.

Historically, we have subsidized roads and cars, as well as gas, in a way that has made it very easy and very cheap to drive.- Orly Linovski

"I think it's done well but it's such a small scale I don't think people get the full impact. As that second leg gets completed, I think Winnipeggers will get their first strong taste of how quickly you can move at a long distance without repeated interruptions by street traffic," Distasio said.

Phase 2, a seven-kilometre extension from Jubilee to Bison Drive, near the University of Manitoba, is scheduled to be done in 2020 at a cost of about $470 million.

"I think the city is trying to take important steps forward," but it can't do it alone, Distasio said.

"We need the enhanced political support from all levels of government, along with the citizens of this city, to realize investment in transportation benefits everybody. It's about creating a more efficient city that will take us into the next century."

City originally designed around public transit

Ironically, Winnipeg had it right a long time ago.

In its early days and into the beginning of the 1950s, the city was designed around the streetcar and public transportation. The automobile was almost secondary.

"A lot of the neighbourhoods that are easy to cycle and walk in today is because of their built form that's historic," said Linovski. "Osborne Village was developed as one of the first streetcar suburbs, so its built form was based on people, not driving."

The neighbourhood developed a healthy density because people wanted to live close to the streetcar line. That density also attracted businesses and services, which turned the area into a compact community, with many people walking and cycling.

"That mix of uses is hard to replicate in a new community," Linovski said.

But the city wants to try. It hopes to develop density along bus rapid-transit corridors with residences close to the stations.

A streetcar travels through Osborne Village in an undated photo. (Heritage Winnipeg)

"We were at the leading edge and now we're sort of looking back at where we should be," said Distasio.

The change came during the late 1950s and '60s as suburbs became popular and vehicles became a necessity to get around. That was the period where many North American became "hell-bent on punching freeways through inner-city neighbourhoods," said Distasio.

Winnipeg also embraced the automobile "hook, line and sinker," building bigger parking lots and wider streets and became dominated by a car culture, he said.

However, its growth didn't match that of other large Canadian cities and Winnipeg avoided the freeway frenzy — but not by choice.

There were plans in place, including one that called for the demolition of much of the East Exchange District to make way for modernist buildings and expressways.

However, Winnipeg is seeing a rebound. The city's population has grown by nearly 42,000 — or 6.3. per cent — since 2011, according to 2016 census data (the latest census profile available). In comparison, it added about 30,000 people between 2006 and 2011 — a 4.8 per cent change.

And a report from the City of Winnipeg projects the population will surpass 1 million by 2040.

The city has also seen rapid growth in its suburbs in recent years.

As a result, Winnipeggers are facing more traffic congestion than they have in generations.

Every year that we …  hesitate on creating a sustainable transportation environment, the more critical it's going to be and the more expensive it will become.- Jino Distasio

"We're now at the point where, in the next 10 years, if Winnipeg's growth continues, people are going to face an even more significant traffic crunch and more interruptions by infrastructure renewal projects that are going to continue to heat up tempers," said Distasio.

That is, unless pressure is taken off that road infrastructure by establishing a multi-modal network — whether that uses buses, subways, trains, or monorails — that respects bicycles, cars, and pedestrians, he said.

"Now is the time. Every year that we hesitate on creating a sustainable transportation environment, the more critical it's going to be and the more expensive it will become."

The tricky part is how to do it.

"We can look at the great cities of Paris and New York and London and say that they have these wonderful transportation systems," Distasio said.

"But we need to look at what would work for this city, this climate, our topography, our urban structure, and come up with a solution that fits the city not only today, but for the next 50 years."

Some cities on the right track, he said, include Seattle, Ottawa and Minneapolis, all of which have seen their car culture evolve into a transportation system that combines buses and light rail transit.

Winnipeg considered light rail when it first began plans for rapid transit. The city's executive policy committee recommended that route in 2010 but a new council nixed the idea in 2014.

While Distasio likes what those other cities are doing, it doesn't mean Winnipeg can just use their template.

"Those systems can't simply be transplanted here. We need to figure out, with our rivers and our existing patterns, what's going to make sense."

Political will

In addition to infrastructure changes, there need to be policy changes to discourage vehicle use, such as higher taxes on fuel and cars, Linovski said.

"Other jurisdictions have car registration taxes, like in Quebec, [where] the car registration tax goes to fund public transit," she said.

"But there isn't the political will to tax ourselves to pay for different types of improvements even though, historically, we have subsidized roads and cars, as well as gas, in a way that has made it very easy and very cheap to drive."

The thing that has consistently proven to encourage people to drive less is making it easier to walk or cycle, or providing fast and convenient transit options. Period.

That's the framework on which Winnipeg needs to build its system, Distasio said.

"It's incumbent upon us to come up with a system that alleviates that pressure but does so in a manner that is sustainable," he said.

"We're talking about a plan to continue to ensure that Winnipeg is a healthy, safe place to commute in — by any mode that anybody selects on any given day."

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About the Author

Darren Bernhardt


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email:


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