Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Looking up Portage Ave from Main, 1921

"Where would this city be without this concentration of high tax values? That is the question we must ask when we consider where this city would be without public transit. The future of transit is the same as the future of downtown Winnipeg--neither one has any future apart from the other... In the coming struggle between downtown business and the suburban shopping areas, a modern and efficient transit service will be the key to downtown's survival."
-Winnipeg Transit official, to the Winnipeg Tribune, September 17, 1955

Fifty-one years ago today, Winnipeg's last electric streetcar rolled down the tracks, ceremoniously rounding Portage and Main for the last time. Many politicians and transit officials called it progress (and traffic engineers squealed in delight at having more lanes for cars to drive faster on), but the ding-ding-woosh sound the car made as it left its stops that day, proved to be a death knell for downtown. Overall, transit ridership declined for the next half-century, and it didn't take long for a stigma to attatch itself to riding the bus. And we all know what has happened to downtown since 1955.

Winnipeg, 1915. Blue lines indicate electric streetcars lines

Winnipeg owes every ounce of it's urbanity to the streetcars. Great physical legacies survive today: hundreds of storefronts and walk-up apartments (often sharing the same building) stand along the former lines. These streets (Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Osborne, Sargent, Selkirk, West Broadway, Corydon, etc.) and the neighborhoods that surround them, will be unable to reach their true potential without an effective and attractive transit system. Without one, we'll spend the next 50 years wondering "when's someone going to do something with the Avenue Building," parking lots will remain a neccessarily dominant feature of downtown's landscape; our supply of heritage buildings will be gradually wittled away; strip malls will be the prefered building typology on Portage, single-use and storey buildings on Osborne, weed lots on Selkirk.

Gresham's Law has been at work over the last 51 years: bad transit ideas have gradually driven out the good ones. Winnipeg has gone from planning a subway, to a mono-rail, to surface light-rail, to "bus rapid transit", and finally to "quality corridors". It's time (and was time years ago) to build a transit system that builds the city again, as the electric streetcars did. It's time to start building transit for urbanity, not for sub-urbanity. It's time to start building to restore sidewalk commerce downtown, not in a Waverly West that exists in the imagination of the naive. We'll go nowhere--like the old rail right-of-ways eyed for "BRT" do--without good transit again.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Critical Spandex

I greatly appreciate the effort made by SPIN Cycle organizers, and the SPIN ride's adding to the demand for a better accomodation of cycling in Winnipeg, so I am writing this very much 'on your side'. However, to the organizers, politicians and regular citizens who rode today, got on TV, and proceded to smugly congratulate themselves for "not being like Critical Mass": It might not be your thing, but please understand that if it wasn't for Critical Mass and their "clashes with police", the issue of cycling would never have entered the public conciousness this summer, City Hall would be even further than it is from doing anything about Active Transportation studies, and your ride would not have happened.

And don't forget the young men like the one below, who took beatings and were detained for "disrupting traffic". Them, not you, provided the catylist for change--a June 1919, if you will-- in this city's ignorance towards cycling.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A warning to Winnipeggers ready to finance their lives away on a stucco snout house (oh-so loved by the Free Press' guest editorial column writer) in Waverly West: the robust housing market will soon be as stylish as pleated slacks, perms, and denim dresses.

Just don't expect to find that out by reading the local paper: you'll have to pick up the Globe and Mail, National Post, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or pretty much any major paper that isn't the once-major Winnipeg Free Press, where life carries on as if the housing bubble will live forever. While they remind readers that the inevitable has been prolonged, publications less bound to advertising dollars from developers almost unanamously proclaim that the American housing boom is about to collapse, and that Canada's is expected to follow suit. In today's Wall Street Journal, for example, E.S. Browning writes:

"Sales of new homes fell more than 4 per cent in July, and sales of previously occupied homes fell that month to the lowest level since 2004. Housing inventories are building and prices are falling in some markets. Banks with big mortgage lending departments are warning that profits could suffer. Consumers who refinanced mortages in order to buy new cars and high-definition television sets are turning more cautious."

And like a poor man who went to the races and bet his last penny on the wrong horse, Winnipeg would have much to lose from a housing collapse. Here, suburban development greatly outpaces population growth, and excercizing this sprawl-without-growth formula for decades has meant a greater and greater physical expansion of city services that are paid for by a tax base that thins (not only as new, thinly-populated developments grow outward, but as the dense populations of old neighborhoods thin out, as most have for the past 35 years). When the local housing boom fully depletes (I'm thinking right around the time the first Waverly West houses are built), the hopes, dreams and financial well-being of people living way beyond their means in a new McMansion, simply because "there's never been a better time" to do so, will crumble like the neglected streets they drive on.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Garbage Day 22

Three weekly garbage pickups have come and gone through Point Douglas since this overflowing dumpster behind Main Street near Jarvis Avenue was first noticed. As this photo taken today shows, the trucks have left it alone, rotting in the sun and rain for at least 22 days. Perhaps Fresh IE can provide fresh ideas to mayor Katz on how to handle this term's election theme (Do the basics) better than he did his first campaign theme (Attract and retain the young). Ensuring that competent garbage-men--not the privatized kids hopped on speed to get them through the night shift--are removing trash thoroughly and promptly would be a good start.