Closing roads to cars showed promise
AMONG the many assumptions the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to confront is: why are we driving everywhere? An initiative that let people physically distance while getting fresh air and exercise was the restriction of motorized traffic on certain city streets. It was instituted in the spring and city council voted to extend the restrictions through the summer. The limitations were lifted on Tuesday.
In a city where many events were cancelled, fitness and entertainment venues were shuttered, and many people worked and studied from home, the street closures allowed many thousands of Winnipeggers to get out and enjoy themselves. Wide, paved surfaces are good for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users, skateboarders and many more to travel safely while maintaining physical distance.
The move on the city’s part coincided with a boom in bicycles, as sales of new bikes increased and many Winnipeggers hauled out their dusty bikes and tuned them up.
To paraphrase Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will ride.
Of course, the streets in question didn’t necessarily form a connected network, so they weren’t a permanent solution to provide space for active transportation.
And many residents in the affected areas weren’t happy about the effects the restricted streets had on traffic in the area — often, motorists trying to get through the neighbourhood merely shifted to a nearby street, which concentrated more vehicles on fewer routes.
Clearly, what is needed is a long-term approach. Blocking off certain streets from motorized traffic, as has been done for many years on Wellington Crescent and Wolseley Avenue — but only on weekends, for a designated period of summer months — is a piecemeal approach that treats active transportation as a diversion.
Instead, as the city upgrades road infrastructure, many streets and neighbourhoods are getting an active transportation component. This is often done in consultation with the affected residents, and the various stages each project is in can be found on the city’s website.
If the city keeps building its active transportation network, will more people use it? Maybe. It will largely depend on whether the network is a reliable way for Winnipeggers to ditch their cars and power their way to work, school, errands or entertainment.
But if they do, then motorists and area residents win as well, even if they never use those protected lanes or bike paths. More people using bikes, rollerblades, skateboards or scooters means fewer vehicles on the road, making the traffic less clogged. And that also means residents tired of blocks-long lines of cars and trucks will see fewer of those.
The city has been slowly improving the active transportation infrastructure over the years and, despite the recent cash crunch owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, continued investment in such improvements should be part of every street renewal project. It will pay dividends in people’s quality of life and better health for decades.
There’s also the fact that merely increasing road capacity doesn’t solve traffic jams, it merely results in more vehicles using the streets. What if we apply the same logic to active transportation — increase capacity, and see how many more people take advantage of it.
The temporary, improvised open streets transformed neighbourhoods by showing Winnipggers what they can do with their streets when they’re not behind the wheel. Long-term, continued active transportation investment could transform the entire city. We’d all be better off for it.