Brian Bowman recently made a pledge to tear down the barriers at Portage and Main and reopen the iconic intersection to pedestrians if elected Mayor of Winnipeg. It’s an idea that has been gaining momentum as the long term agreement that shut off the intersection to non-motorized people nears its end.
I fully support opening up Portage and Main to pedestrians, but removing the barriers also provides an opportunity to rethink the whole intersection and potentially create something that is not only efficient but eye-grabbing and unique.
I recall sitting on some steps outside the Fira de Barcelona building adjacent to Plaça Espanya in Barcelona, watching the traffic flow in, around, and out of the giant roundabout. At the same time pedestrians made their way around, crossing the streets at crosswalks controlled by traffic lights. It looked confusing at first, but in reality it was very orderly and seamless. I thought to myself: why can’t we do that in Canada, or even in Winnipeg? The naysayers will argue that Winnipeg drivers won’t be able to understand how it works, but other smaller roundabouts have worked very well in this city, and I refuse to believe that Winnipeggers are inherently dumber than Spaniards or residents of any of the numerous cities around the world that have larger urban roundabouts.
I have mulled over the idea of a roundabout at Portage and Main before, but never took a serious look at it until now. My fear was that there wasn’t enough room for that type of intersection. There isn’t much space between some of the existing streets and the buildings that surround the intersection. How could a roundabout fit? I gave up on it for a while, but after the idea popped up on twitter the other night I decided to re-examine the concept.
There are numerous PDF documents with design guidelines for roundabouts on the internet. I scanned through a few of these, and came to the conclusion that a three lane roundabout would work for Portage and Main, given the traffic volumes (up to 52,000 cars per day on Main Street, combined north and south flow). A three lane circle with 62m outside diameter would fit pretty neatly in the available space, and would allow for decent traffic flow with speeds through the intersection of up to 20 mph (32 km/h) which I think is reasonable.
In addition, we can remove a few of the lanes from the approaching roads. Why? Because you don’t need separate sets of lanes for turning left, right, or going straight. Everybody is turning the same direction. You only need sufficient lanes to handle the volume of traffic. You can also have “slip lanes” that allow right-turning traffic to avoid the circle altogether.
Factoring this in, the proposed intersection might look something like this:
Maybe this will work well for cars, but what about pedestrians? After all, the proposal to open up the intersection to pedestrians is what got this started. Well, pedestrians count too. While Plaça Espanya is not the pinnacle of Barcelona walkability, I mentioned earlier that pedestrians handled it just fine.
Crosswalks, protected by traffic lights, allow walkers to cross over each set of lanes. One of the keys, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation, is to have splitter islands at least 6′ wide. Since we have reduced the number of lanes, we can do this very easily. The result is safe passage of pedestrians from one side to the other.
Finally, we need something in the middle of the roundabout! It could be a fountain. It could be an abstract commissioned sculpture that nobody gets. It could be a statue of William Stephenson. Or … it could be this:
Tucked away in the Steinkopf Gardens between the Centennial Concert Hall and the Manitoba Museum, the Volunteer Monument is out of sight and does not get the attention it deserves. The center of the Portage and Main would be the perfect place for it.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Portage and Main of the future: