Safety concerns underground have women calling for Portage and Main to be reopened

Women working, living and commuting downtown are calling for Portage and Main to be reopened to pedestrian traffic because they fear for their safety in the underground walkways.

'It's dark, there's no one around ... anything can happen down there,' says woman who works nearby

Erin Riediger, 30, says she avoids the underground public walkways beneath Portage and Main at all costs because of of the lack of visibility. (CBC)

Women working and living downtown are adding their voices to the call to reopen Portage Avenue and Main Street to pedestrian traffic because they say they fear for their safety in the underground walkways.

Erin Riediger, 30, is an architectural designer who works in the Exchange District. During business hours, she relies on the underground tunnels through private buildings, such as the Richardson building.

After 6 p.m., when those businesses close, her only option to get across the intersection is to use the underground public concourse — a route she avoids at all costs.

"I would never use the public walkways because I feel that they're completely unsafe," she said. "It's dark, there's no one around ... anything can happen down there so basically as I approach these stairs, I think it's not worth it. It's not worth the safety risk."

If she has to stay late at work, Riediger said she will take a cab home or arrange for someone to pick her up so she doesn't have to cross through the underground area.

"The only way to get out of an unsafe situation there would be try and find desperately a staircase that you can go back up," she said. "If you could just be in the light where cars can see you, where buses can see you, where other people can see you … it would be much safer for everyone."

Women voice concerns on Twitter

Riediger took to Twitter to share her concerns about the underground last week, following city council's decision to allow Winnipeggers to vote this fall on whether to reopen the iconic intersection to pedestrians. 

Several other women reached out to her to share similar concerns, she said. 

Alyson Shane, 30, tweeted that she was attacked in the stairwell near 201 Portage Avenue when she was 18 years old, on her way to the bank.

"There was a gentleman who I thought was passed out in that stairwell. I tried to step around him and as I stepped up the stairs he grabbed my backpack and tried to pull me down into the stairwell with him and grabbed at my clothing," she said, adding she was able to run away. "It was a very traumatic experience for me as a young person."

The small business owner and blogger said it's not a failure of security in the underground concourse, the walkways simply lack visibility. She wants the intersection reopened to foot traffic.

"It is unsafe, it's inaccessible and it prioritizes vehicles over pedestrians which is not what a healthy downtown needs," she said.

Joyce Wei, 34, works in sales downtown. She moved to Winnipeg from China two years ago and said not only is the underground tunnel system confusing, it makes her uneasy, especially after business hours.

"It makes me feel a little bit nervous because there are not a lot of people there," she said. "I didn't have any bad experience but it didn't make me feel very safe. If I can see more people passing by or a security guard that would make me feel better."

 "It's totally understandable, it's underground, it can be very scary for a woman."- Hannah Friesen, who lives downtown

Hannah Friesen, 48, lives downtown and said she feels "leery" about the underground tunnel system and often uses different routes. However, until hearing other women's concerns Friesen admitted she had been in favour of keeping the intersection closed.

"At first I thought it was not a good idea because I thought it was a waste of time and a waste of money. Now that I realize it's a safety issue for women I'm all for it," she said.  "It's totally understandable, it's underground, it can be very scary for a woman." 

She will be voting to reopen the intersection this fall, she said.

Riediger hopes Winnipeggers think carefully when casting their ballot in the October referendum.

"It's not just about cars moving through," she said. "Even if you feel safe walking through here you have to think about other people. You have to think about young people, people who are disabled and other vulnerable populations who may not feel safe walking here."