Why these advocates hope COVID-19 could lead to a more walkable, bikeable Winnipeg

Traffic restrictions from the City of Winnipeg on a handful of streets across the city turned them into physical distancing-friendly pedestrian paths, for residents cooped up thanks to COVID-19.

COVID-19 has cut car traffic and made Winnipeg more bike-friendly — but will impacts last when lockdown lifts?

Wellington Crescent is among the Winnipeg streets that have been turned over to pedestrians and cyclists, with daytime vehicle restrictions in place until at least late May. Motor vehicle traffic has fallen now that Winnipeggers are being urged to avoid non-essential trips. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Strolling down any of Winnipeg's traffic-free streets over the past several days has been a "beautiful experience," in the eyes of Patrick Krawec. 

"You're seeing lots of people, lots of smiles, lots of children, lots of play," said Krawec, the executive director of the Winnipeg Repair Education and Cycling Hub, or WRENCH.

Traffic restrictions from the City of Winnipeg on a handful of streets across the city has turned them into physical distancing-friendly pedestrian and cycling paths for residents cooped up thanks to COVID-19.

Temporary traffic restrictions on four streets were announced in April, with five more set to join on Tuesday, limiting vehicle traffic to one block, so people and families can walk and ride — while distancing — outside. 

"It is a very elegant, simple solution," Krawec said. "No costs, tons of savings and it was led by the people."

Across the country, other cities have made similar moves, from a ban on cars in Vancouver's Stanley Park to reduced traffic lanes to make room for cyclists on some Calgary streets.

Around the world, expansive, kilometres-long networks have sprung up in cities like New York, Paris, Lima and Bogota. Those, alongside tanking oil prices, have prompted some observers to wonder if COVID-19 could be a nail in the coffin of the car.

"It was like flicking a switch, and it achieved so many goals of community wellness," Krawec said of the changes he saw on closed streets in Winnipeg.

"In a time of isolation, it has really brought people together, although they're staying apart."

As Manitoba starts reopening Monday and restrictions roll back, Krawec and other advocates are hopeful the change in how Winnipeggers use and view their streets won't fade away.

'Reconnecting with nature'

Cities across Canada and around the world have seen drops in traffic since the pandemic began, with wide swaths of the population staying home thanks to shutdowns and physical distancing measures.

In Winnipeg, the traffic measurement company TomTom has recorded a congestion drop of 21 to 34 per cent during peak rush hour every day over the past week.

Two security guards walk through an empty downtown Vancouver intersection on March 23, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Emptied streets combined with the need for physical distancing have thrown a sudden spotlight on decades of traffic-centred urban planning strategies, said Anders Swanson, executive director of the Winnipeg Trails Association.

"You very quickly realize how the space has been allocated, as soon as you're walking down a 1.5 metre-wide sidewalk towards somebody [and] you're afraid of having them breathe on you," said Swanson on the phone from Finland, where he was stuck due to the pandemic. 

"You very quickly realize that you don't have anywhere to go to, except for this giant, wide street, which is right there and empty."

WATCH | Winnipeggers take to closed streets to get active during pandemic:

Streets turned over to pedestrians

4 years ago
Duration 1:31
Wolseley residents speak highly of the city's decision to surrender one of their streets to cyclists and pedestrians to encourage residents to stay apart from each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robin Cox, a professor of disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, says that realization is being accompanied around the world by a greater value placed on getting outside.

"We are witnessing in many areas, particularly urban environments, people … reconnecting with the value of nature to them and to their lives, as other aspects of their lives get more constrained," said Cox, who is also the director of the Resilience by Design Research Innovation Lab.

The devastating global impacts of the pandemic have exposed or amplified fault lines in many sectors, she said — from social inequities on health outcomes to the fragility of global supply chains for food and medical supplies.

It's also sparked a greater focus on health, particularly in how underlying conditions can influence the way individuals experience the disease, said Lawrence Frank, a professor in the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia.

Staying active can help prevent some of those pre-existing conditions, such as heart and lung disease, he said.

"Myself and others have been doing lots of studies showing that active transportation contributes significantly to the reduction of chronic disease, reduces health-care costs," said Frank, who teaches sustainable transportation and health and runs the school's health and community design lab.

When it comes to fighting chronic disease in general, and COVID-19 in particular, he said, "we think that investing in active transportation is, really, probably one of the best things we can do in the near- and long-term."

Building back from crisis

Global drops in traffic and air travel have been accompanied by a reduction in observed emissions. In late February, CO2 emissions in China dropped by 25 per cent after the country locked down entire cities and shut factories, highways and airports.

The pandemic is now expected by some to lead to the biggest single-year CO2 emissions drop since the Second World War, according to the World Meteorological Organization. That group predicted COVID-19 would lead to a global drop of roughly six per cent by the end of this year.

Scientists around the world have been clear these temporary drops won't make a dent in long-standing climate issues.

"We need to understand that the climate crisis is a health-care crisis that will impact, and has already impacted, health," Cox said. "And if this isn't a warning siren for that, then I'm not sure of what is."

It's hard to say for sure whether temporary interventions like a few closed streets will translate to long-term policy change, said Cox.

But hallmarks of communities that have faced disaster and come back better include slow, purposeful rebuilding, she said, along with early community engagement. Crises disrupt the "normal," she said, and should be followed by questions about what wasn't working.

"We tend to be a reactive culture, whether it's health care or economics or whatever. And what we're seeing [about] that reactive culture is that it doesn't serve us well."

'Dipping one toe in the water'

In Winnipeg, Swanson said he wants to see leaders do more for cyclists and pedestrians. Across Canada, he characterizes the policy moves made so far as focused on recreation, rather than transportation.

"Most of the cities I've seen in Canada kind of made that same mistake, of only dipping one toe in the water — and Winnipeg, too," he said.

Opening only a few streets at a time creates a destination, making it harder for people to stay distanced, he said.

The drop in vehicle traffic is a break in a 'vicious circle' that keeps many people from biking, says Anders Swanson, seen here in a 2018 file photo. (CBC)

The Winnipeg Trails Association he heads is calling on the city to create an emergency cycling network and curbside lane dedications in its OpenStreets 2020 plan, to give more Winnipeggers access to trails to give commuters options as the economy reopens.

Winnipeg Transit is reducing bus service and laying off 253 full- and part-time drivers because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and city officials said last month ridership dropped 72 per cent compared to the same timeframe in 2019.

"When you have an entire transportation system shut down in the middle of an emergency … you would think that you'd want to have some kind of serious backup plan in place," Swanson said.

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said in an emailed statement the city is collecting data on the current routes to track usage.

"The city will re-evaluate at the end of May to determine if the designations need to be extended," he wrote.

Like Krawec, he's hopeful the pandemic will leave a long-lasting shift in how Winnipeggers see their streets.

"We've known that people want to walk and bike a lot more than they can, but they just feel concerned about traffic, basically," he said.

"It becomes a kind of a vicious circle, and all of a sudden, that vicious circle got broken."