A step backward for Open Streets initiative


HAS the Open Streets pilot project arrived at a “Don’t Walk” sign for city pedestrians? The concept for seasonal active transportation across Winnipeg that began in 2020 restricted motor vehicles to travel for only one block on 10 different routes every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the spring, summer and fall, allowing for cyclists and pedestrians greater and safer access.

It was a pandemic-inspired expansion of a similar plan that has been in use for many years on summer weekends on Wellington Crescent and Wolseley Avenue.

Open Streets proved to be welcome relief for Winnipeggers stuck at home during the COVID- 19 crisis. Walking or pedalling on Churchill Drive or Scotia Street along the Red River, or Egerton Road beside the Seine River, became a way to get some fresh air and exercise while enjoying the city’s scenery without having to dodge a procession of trucks and cars.

The concept allowed for physical distancing for pedestrians, keeping sidewalks from getting crowded and becoming potential pandemic hot spots.

The city’s public works committee will vote today on a proposal to extend the pilot project for a second year. If it receives approval from city council, it would begin May 3, on 14 streets around the city.

While the cycling aspect of Open Streets is expected to roll on, the pedestrian part of the plan has stepped squarely into an administrative mud puddle.

On Monday, city staff reminded councillors that allowing pedestrians to use roadways that have “reasonably passable” sidewalks, such as Wolseley Avenue and Wellington Crescent, contravenes the province’s Highway Traffic Act.

They recommend pedestrians be excluded from these “enhanced summer cycling routes,” and should stick to sidewalks. However, crowding on sidewalks remains a COVID-19 concern, especially considering new information regarding outdoor transmission of the virus’s highly contagious variants.

Excluding pedestrians from Open Streets flies in the face of the reasoning that launched the project in the first place.

Apparently, the city either didn’t know about the provisions in the Highway Traffic Act or overlooked them when it gave the project the go-ahead last year. Public works director Jim Berezowsky said the city was looking out for Winnipeggers’ best interests when it launched the Open Streets project during 2020’s state of emergency. A year later, a provincial state of emergency remains in place, but legalities seem to have forced pedestrians’ best interests to take a step back.

The recommendation also fails to recognize that pedestrians have walked on Wellington Crescent and Wolseley Avenue for years without facing enforcement or penalties when similar rules restricted motor vehicles on weekends.

The notion of excluding pedestrians from Open Streets is bound to create resentment in those who strolled or jogged on those streets last year. They will no doubt be struck by the irony of a provincial act intended for motorists adding restrictions on those who choose to travel on foot.

City officials are lobbying the province to amend the HTA to allow for Open Streets’ pedestrian plans, but legislative procedures, including a new bill and debates, are hardly a walk in the park.

The city and province could take a forward step together by agreeing on an interim measure that would allow both cyclists and pedestrians to use Open Streets’ designated roads this year while providing motorists the restricted one block access to the streets.

It would give city council and administration more time to gather information on whether Open Streets could become a permanent feature of Winnipeg summers, and grant pedestrians another opportunity to enjoy one of the few improvements on city life the pandemic has presented.