Transit can be an economic catalyst
THE City of Winnipeg is seeking public input on the proposed alignment for its next bus rapid transit line. The eastern corridor will connect Plessis Road in Transcona with Harkness Station on Stradbrook Avenue, where the existing Southwest Transitway terminates. Two routes are being presented, one running through Point Douglas and one through St. Boniface.
The plans begin by proposing an exciting option to locate the transitway on the elevated rail line between The Forks and Main Street, using Union Station as a magnificent transit stop. This creates the potential for the historic structure to become a multimodal transportation centre for downtown, operating as a central hub for such things as cycling and transit, water-bus, taxi, airport shuttles and tourist trolleys.
The spectacular central hall of Union Station once again bustling with activity represents an opportunity to stimulate growth around south Main Street, by bringing pedestrian traffic to the sidewalks and drawing the vibrancy of The Forks and its future railside community into the rest of downtown.
Beyond Union Station, the two proposals diverge. The Point Douglas option either continues up Main Street or passes through the Exchange District to Higgins Avenue, before crossing the river on a new bridge. The St. Boniface alignment crosses the river on the existing Provencher Bridge and then runs down Provencher Boulevard to Archibald Street and Nairn Avenue.
A key justification of BRT investment across North America has been its ability to influence the patterns of development in cities, through transit-oriented development (TOD). As ridership increases, commercial and residential growth is attracted to the pedestrian density generated at major nodes along the system. Urban planners can use this to target growth by strategically placing transit lines and stations.
Instinctively, the Higgins Avenue option would seem to be the more logical choice because it runs through an area that might benefit more from the TOD economic catalyst. It has been found, however, that TOD is not a silver bullet solution in urban areas, and wouldn’t typically have the power to transform an industrial road such as Higgins into a neighbourhood high street, particularly in a slow-growth city such as Winnipeg.
Increased connectivity can be an economic catalyst, but it is most effective at generating the next level of growth in neighbourhoods that are already places where people are.
The traditional build-it-and-they-will-come strategy for TOD has been found to be less effective than placing transit where development is already happening, where people already are, and connecting it to other places with similar conditions.
Transit is only successful if it is frequent and accessible to a large population, and will only be a catalyst for growth if it has ridership levels sufficiently high to inspire the activity that is attractive to development. Relying on new projects to create the market for transit is rarely as successful as connecting to an existing population and using transit to intensify its density.
Understanding the true capacity of transit as a development tool, the St. Boniface alignment for the eastern corridor becomes an attractive option. Provencher Boulevard doesn’t need to be transformed; it only needs an injection of incremental growth to be prosperous. It has the physical characteristics of a neighbourhood high street but currently functions as a six-lane commuter road, serving the outer suburbs and the adjacent industrial park.
The single-family neighbourhoods surrounding it are not dense enough to support many neighbourhood services, shops or restaurants, resulting in the strip that has the potential to be a primary business street being predominantly destination services or underdeveloped properties.
Coun. Matt Allard is championing a vision for Provencher Boulevard and St. Boniface that could use investment into a transit corridor to fulfil many long-standing community goals. He envisions Provencher as a multimodal, complete street, designed to enable safe access for all users, including pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.
He is proposing to transform one vehicle lane in each direction into a transit priority lane for electric buses. The plan would also slow vehicle traffic and eliminate truck traffic while developing protected bike lanes, enhanced sidewalks and centre boulevards.
This newly defined corridor could become the catalyst for appropriately scaled infill development that creates enough residential density and sidewalk activity to attract the businesses, restaurants and sidewalk cafés that have long been envisioned as amenities for the neighbourhood but have not quite had the conditions to support it.
The second-largest francophone community in Winnipeg is Osborne Village, because it offers the vibrancy, connectivity and affordability that young people are seeking, but is not available in St. Boniface. With increased mobility options and a direct rapid transit line between L’Université de Saint-Boniface and the University of Manitoba, young people would not have to leave their neighbourhood to find more convenient access to education and employment.
New transit-inspired infill development along Provencher could provide the affordable housing options that are able to keep francophone youth, immigrants and seniors in the community. Significant new investment to transform Provencher Boulevard into a transit corridor could restore its place as a bustling commercial street that is the vibrant centre of a rejuvenated and stronger francophone community.
The eastern corridor is an opportunity to think differently about rapid transit and transit-oriented development in Winnipeg. Instead of looking to bypass existing communities, the last few kilometres could be treated more like a streetcar system that is fully integrated into its neighbourhoods. With strategically located stops along the main streets of St. Boniface and even extending into the old town centre of Transcona, there is an important opportunity to become a model for future lines, using transit to inspire incremental infill growth that helps to densify and reinvigorate Winnipeg’s mature neighbourhoods.
*Brent Bellamy is a senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.*