Families are being torn apart, coworker is pitted against coworker, and my Twitter feed has turned into a war zone.
It’s no surprise, really. If my 10 years of blogging and 5 years on Twitter have taught me anything, it’s that nothing riles up Winnipeggers like transportation issues, and opening up Portage and Main is apparently the mother of all Winnipeg transportation issues. By backtracking on his promise to open up the famous intersection to pedestrians and instead put it to a vote that will likely result in the status quo, Mayor Bowman has unleashed a firestorm of debate. I am here to add my 2 cents to that debate.
The first thing you need to know is that I drive through Portage and Main every day. I live in the suburbs, work on the other side of the city, and my commute home takes me right through the middle of the city, so what happens with Portage and Main impacts me as a driver.
What happens with Portage and Main also impacts me more generally as a Winnipegger, and this is why I support opening it up.
Opening Portage and Main is good for Winnipeg
Winnipeg has so much potential to be an inviting and vibrant city, and I want this for my town. We are making strides in that direction, but the walls have to come down for Winnipeg to have a shot at realizing all that potential. Or to put it another way, having the intersection closed off to pedestrians is a handicap on the development of downtown.
How do I know this? To me it’s logical. More people on the streets will result in more street-level development and a safer environment. Opening up Portage and Main will help to connect our downtown neighbourhoods and encourage more street life.
Maybe this wasn’t as important in 1972 Winnipeg, at the peak of North American car culture, when there was not much happening at The Forks or the Exchange District. But things have changed. Car culture is slowly dwindling as suburban homes become more expensive and more people, especially those infamous Millennials, are getting around without cars. Downtown has also changed and continues to change: The Forks has become a destination, and the Exchange is no longer a place to be avoided at all costs. Parcel Four at The Forks is going to be developed into a mixed use area, and a new 40-story tower is being built just south of Portage and Main at 300 Main St.
This is all good stuff, but in the middle of all of this lies a big pedestrian dead zone known as Portage and Main. Sure, each of these spaces could succeed on their own, but improving connectivity between them would be a big boost. This isn’t just about improving street life at the intersection itself, but also encouraging growth in the adjacent neighbourhoods.
The other thing is, we see how this works in other cities. We see intersections with higher traffic volumes than Portage and Main that are still open to pedestrians without gridlock traffic or dead bodies on the streets. We see people on the sidewalks around those intersections along with vendors and shops. That’s not to say any specific thing is going to happen because we opened P&M, but the role of a government isn’t to create any specific business or residential unit, but to put in place the conditions under which those things can happen and thrive. It’s part of having vision.
Brian Bowman is lacking integrity
I tweeted that the other day and got 22 “likes”, which for me is pretty good. It’s true though. Bowman ran on a platform of opening Portage and Main. It was one of his most notable promises. He obviously saw some of the same things I do, or at least I presume he did. It is possible that he made the promise only because he thought it was popular, and now that its popularity is in doubt he is backing away from it. Either way, I have lost a great deal of respect for the mayor. Being a (good) leader involves making long term decisions that you believe are in the best interest of your jurisdiction, even if they may be unpopular. Bowman is governing by popularity, not by principle. That does not make for good government.
Sadly, this is par for the course in Winnipeg. We have occasional bursts of what one might call “vision”, but too often we seem to do things in the most expedient way possible, like building a rapid transit route that dodges around populated areas to save a few bucks, or rolling over when rich Friends want to operate an illegal parking lot where an apartment building should be, or refusing to consider redevelopment of Winnipeg’s worst golf course even though it makes all the sense in the world.
I think a lot of cities have the same problem with uninspired leadership, but few have our particular problem with an intersection at the core of the city creating a hostile environment for pedestrians. It’s somewhat embarrassing, it poses a problem for accessibility, and it’s a drag on the vibrancy of our city. It’s time to tear down the walls.
Dillon Consulting Study
Winnipeg RAG Review: Reopening Portage and Main is pocket change next to the Waverley Underpass
Alyson Shane: The Portage and Main debate is an embarrassment to Winnipeg
Menno Zacharias: Should Portage and Main be reopened to pedestrian traffic
Design Quarter Winnipeg: A position on the Portage + Main debate