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.


Anonymous Chris R said...

Do you have a higher resolution version of the streetcar map available?

6:42 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Chris R,

High-resolution maps that show streetcar lines in 1906, 1911, and 1915, are available at: http://winnipedia.ca/wiki/Winnipeg_Maps_-_Old

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in the North part of the City.

I can get downtown in 20 minutes on a bad day.

I like the autonomy and independence my car provides. I can make a few stops along the way home and at times I need to pick up the kids from school.

A number of people in this city are like me, maybe the majority. Its just not practical for me and others to use a LRT / BRT or a Subway. Not unitl major gridlock at least whic i am sure will not happen for another 50 years based on how slow our City is growing, which I am fine with by the way.

Our City is small both geographically and population wise in order for this investment to be anything other than an albatross.

Sorry, it just does not make any common sense.

If you want me to go downtown then things like restaurants and boutiques and unique stores not found in the shopping malls with easy parking would get me there. Fun places to walk like the Forks will do it to. Or fun and friendly events like Doors Open does it. MTS Centre has led me to spend some cash downtown in the last year too. More housing choices for when I am older is what is needed too. I would like to live downtown one day.

I like your passion but for me its more simpler than just transit.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the gentleman above:

Even in Manhattan there are motorists. Some people it's true will not give up driving altogether. But for those who live near a subway stop, many will.

Motorists like yourself, who today have no use for the bus, will find themselves drawn to the subway not just during blizzard and post-blizzard conditions, but for more convienient trips to an ever-pleastanter, ever-more difficult-to-ignore, ever-more-difficult-to-find-parking downtown.

Rapid transit, real rapid transit (subway or elevated), is the difference between cities like Toronto and Chicago, and cities like Kansas City and Detroit.

10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for the people that think Winnipeg is to small for rapid transit or ooo its to expensive.........well that's why we pay for it in sections then see how well that did.....our previous mayor raised money from federal funding then Sam katz decided to put it into community centers instead..... lets face the facts Winnipeg is a 'has been city' and the way people that live in it seem to think, it looks like it will stay that way...

8:09 PM  
Anonymous nonanonymous said...

rob, i live in the north end and haven't seen any clues at all that you might be running for public office, or that the green party even has a candidate. when are you going to get some signs out? i'll put one on my lawn!
and who would you recommend i vote for to be the school trustee?

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Been almost a month since you updated; where's that protestant work ethic?

2:04 PM  

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