COVID-19 has cut car traffic and made Winnipeg more bike-friendly — but
will impacts last when lockdown lifts?
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
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 —
"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
Vancouver's Stanley Park to reduced traffic lanes
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
<https://www.tomtom.com/en_gb/traffic-index/winnipeg-traffic/> during peak
rush hour every day over the past week.
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."
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
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
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
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
the country locked down entire cities and shut factories, highways and
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
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 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 <https://www.winnipegtrails.ca/openstreets2020/>, to give more
Winnipeggers access to trails to give commuters options as the economy
Winnipeg Transit is reducing bus service and laying off 253 full- and
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."