[Note: Also see Brent Bellamy's response to the article, pasted below this one.]
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*More recreation space, roads, rapid transit near-equal priorities*
*City split three ways on desired infrastructure path: poll*
TINA Montemayor is like many Winnipeggers, staring at a public policy fork in the road.
As a commuter, she knows how frustrating driving in the city can be — especially on Kenaston Boulevard at rush hour.
Route 90 has become a no-go zone for her. She takes Shaftesbury Boulevard, then McCreary Road, McGillivray Boulevard and a short stretch on Kenaston to reach her Bridgwater neighbourhood home after work.
“For my own mental health, I’m avoiding Kenaston,” Montemayor said with a laugh. “I know how crazy the traffic is.”
If another lane were added, however, she says she would take Kenaston all the way home.
But when asked to choose between more concrete traffic lanes, more green and recreational space or more rapid transit, Montemayor’s decision mirrors that of most Winnipeggers, according to a new Probe Research survey for the Free Press.
While she’s all for widening roadways — like 31 per cent of respondents — Montemayor desires more spending on recreation, which edged out transportation as the top priority in Probe’s poll at 36 per cent.
“For me, (it’s) more funding so that people get more active and get to interact with each other,” Montemayor said.
With the City of Winnipeg proposing two road-widenings — Route 90 (Kenaston) between Ness and Taylor avenues, and Chief Peguis Trail, at an estimated cost of $1 billion — the Free Press asked Probe to survey residents to ask which of the following would be their top priority: widening major roadways, building more rapid transit, or creating and renovating recreation facilities and other amenities that improve quality of life.
The results elicited a near three-way split.
Suburban residents in north Winnipeg were most likely to prioritize expanding roadways, as were Progressive Conservative voters.
“Not surprisingly, you have… people who live in some of the more suburban areas who are affected by congestion and gridlock (picking roadway expansion),” said Curtis Brown, a principal with Probe Research.
However, despite Winnipeg capital spending debates often being framed around “better roads” or more active and rapid transit, the data show “a pretty strong current across the city” of people wanting recreation investment, Brown said.
Spending more on recreation topped Robin LaFreniere’s list.
“Everyone’s struggling with their mental health,” said LaFreniere, 35. “Wrapping around more wellness and (having) a bit (of a) slower pace for people, I think, would be good.”
She’s taken her five-year-old son to parks, pools and play structures. She couldn’t choose a favourite spot — all are “unique” — but more free programming at facilities is needed, LaFreniere said.
“I think no matter where you live — whether you live in Wolseley, or whether you live in the far reaches of North Kildonan — you want to have rinks and pools and splash pads that you and your family can use,” Brown said. “It’s pretty much universal.”
Graham Lowes considers Winnipeg behind, when comparing it to peers’ recreation centres: “Go to a pool in any place in B.C. or Alberta… even Steinbach.”
Support for recreation was widespread throughout Winnipeg, Probe’s survey found.
At least one-third of respondents in each area — central Winnipeg, the suburban north and the suburban south — listed recreation centres as their top priority, at 41, 37, and 33 per cent, respectively.
Julie Chamberlain, a University of Winnipeg urban studies professor who researches urban development and planning, counted herself among the group to put recreation at the forefront.
“It addresses… a whole range of concerns the city has that seem disconnected.”
Studies show accessible recreation improves physical and mental health, community safety and connection, she said.
“It’s especially important in neighbourhoods where people can’t afford to pay to send their kids to programs, and where there isn’t adequate and safe and attractive greenspace.”
Widening roadways, of the three options, was at the bottom of Chamberlain’s list.
“The expansion of roadways is…. notoriously poor planning practice. I know it seems counter-intuitive,” she said. “It doesn’t do what people think it does.”
Road-widening draws more traffic and pollution, and often comes at the expense of green space, Chamberlain said.
Ciara Okumura, 25, would prefer to not own a vehicle. Lately, she’s been living the lifestyle; her car broke down.
“I think we should be moving away from a car-oriented city anyways,” Okumura said, waiting at a rapid transit station near Pembina Highway. “Just for our carbon footprint.”
Thirty-two per cent of survey respondents crowned rapid transit their top priority. The number jumps to 45 per cent when counting respondents ages 18 through 34, and 43 per cent when considering households earning less than $50,000 annually.
Nearly half of NDP voters — 47 per cent — ranked rapid transit a top priority, as did central neighbourhood residents (45 per cent).
“We need a way better bus system,” Okumura said. “Not even just rapid transit, just all the buses working better.”
She’d like reliable bus service — especially in the winter, as she’s waiting in freezing temperatures for a ride to university.
It’s not uncommon for buses to be late or pass her by, too full to stop. The Linden Woods resident said she needs a car because buses don’t come frequently or transport her everywhere she needs.
Chamberlain, who lives in the North End, echoed that concern.
“By the time I’ve waited for the bus to come, I could’ve ridden my bike there already,” Chamberlain said.
Kyle Owens, president of Functional Transit Winnipeg, believes increasing bus frequency — and returning the fleet to 2018 levels — is the first step to improving Winnipeg Transit.
“No one can be forced onto a bus with enough advertising,” Owens said. “It has to be a more convenient option than just taking your car.”
Speeding up implementation of the city’s Winnipeg Transit Master Plan is also critical, Owens said.
“So many families are suffering economically,” he added. “The existing system does not meet the needs of so many people who would be happy to not buy a car, not use their car or get rid of their car.”
Winnipeg Transit has made headlines for a persistent driver shortage. Meantime, the City of Winnipeg is projecting a $27-million deficit this year, one which is expected to drain its so-called “rainy day” fund.
Several people the Free Press spoke to highlighted the need for more active transit, including Lowes, who bikes on major arteries such as Kenaston Boulevard.
“If they’re going to widen the roads, they should put a (protected) bike lane,” he said, adding he regularly visits a bustling Assiniboine Avenue cycle track. “When you build that infrastructure, people use it.”
Survey respondents answered online from May 31 through June 13, after being randomly recruited via phone call. The survey has a 95 per cent accuracy, plus or minus four percentage points, if Winnipeg’s entire adult population had been surveyed.
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Winnipeg’s three Rs: recreation, roads, rapid transit
The *Winnipeg Free **Press* and Probe Research recently conducted a poll asking people to identify their top infrastructure spending priority for the City of Winnipeg. The results reveal Winnipeggers have diverse opinions about how to improve their quality of life.
Thirty-six per cent of respondents identified their top priority as building and renovating recreation centres and related amenities such as community clubs, parks, splash pads and arenas.
Thirty-two per cent favoured building a rapid transit network.
Thirty-one per cent preferred widening and expanding roads.
[image: WENDY SAWATZKY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS] https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2023/07/probe-infrastructure-area-040723.jpg?w=1000WENDY SAWATZKY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
At first glance, the responses appear to be distinct priorities whose implementation would require choosing one over another. With careful and strategic planning however, they can be tied together in a symbiotic relationship that allows the city to achieve the goals of each.
The poll illustrates Winnipeg’s connection to its community centres runs deep.
While many cities have moved to a big-box recreation model that combines several uses into large, regional complexes, Winnipeg has been able to maintain a wonderful network of community centres deeply woven into the fabric of neighbourhoods.
For generations, they have supported physical and mental health, providing people from youth to seniors with places for social connection and relationship building. Skating at the local rink or joining an after-school program, creates a sense of community and represents a vital building block of a walkable neighbourhood.
The community centre model in Winnipeg is unique from other Canadian cities in that they are owned by the city but governed and operated by volunteers. It’s estimated each year, 17,000 volunteers devote more than 1.2 million hours to them.
As important as the facilities are, they are facing significant challenges, including the ability to maintain such a level of volunteer support.
The challenges facing Winnipeg’s 63 community centres can in many ways be connected to how the city has grown and developed over the last 50 years.
Most of Winnipeg’s mature neighbourhoods have at least 30 per cent fewer people living in them today than in the 1970s, largely due to smaller household sizes. In contrast, population growth has exploded in new suburban neighbourhoods.
The impact is recreation services in older areas are underused and being supported by a smaller community, while at the same time, new facilities are being built to support new communities. This growth pattern has meant more thinly-spread volunteer support and a stretching of city budgets to maintain facilities and programming.
In 2018, 40 per cent of Winnipeg’s community centres, and 100 per cent of city-run arenas, were evaluated to be in poor condition, requiring funding for maintenance and new construction to meet modern building codes, evolving recreation trends and community needs.
Rapid transit, the second priority identified in the Probe/*Free Press* poll, offers part of the solution to the challenges recreation facilities face. Rapid transit can address issues of social equity, cost of living, and environmental sustainability, but it can also be used as a strong urban development tool.
When rapid transit is effective and convenient, large numbers of people want to use it, creating market pressure for high-density residential development near the system’s access points. This can create powerful magnets for population growth in established communities.
Known as transit oriented development (TOD), it allows planners to strategically locate rapid transit stations to target areas for infill growth and densification. This has proven to be particularly successful with light rail transit systems.
Growing a mature neighbourhood’s population through TOD can breathe new life into existing community centres by increasing the number of potential users and broadening the volunteer pool. This also allows overall population to grow without creating the need to build new facilities to serve new residents.
With more taxpayers supporting a smaller number of recreation facilities, the city’s financial model becomes more viable, freeing up funding to improve maintenance schedules and explore redevelopment options for existing community centres.
The financial advantages of higher-density existing neighbourhoods stimulated by initiatives such as TOD also hold true for the recent poll’s third identified priority: building and expanding roads.
Larger roads aren’t necessarily the end goal, but higher levels of maintenance and lower levels of traffic congestion are likely to be.
Using TOD as a tool to direct population growth to mature neighbourhoods means more people using roads that already exist, requiring fewer expensive, new roads to be built. More taxpayers paying to maintain less road naturally results in better road conditions.
As for reducing traffic congestion, a good rapid transit system has consistently proven to be far more effective than increasing vehicle capacity. Bigger roads result in more cars — always.
The speed, lower cost and reliability of rapid transit make it an attractive alternative to driving. This mode shift can reduce the number of cars on the road and the corresponding traffic they create.
In Calgary, as an example, the convenience and affordability of the C-Train has made it North America’s busiest light-rail system, attracting almost half of downtown commuters to transit.
An important takeaway from this poll is city building is an interconnected network of priorities. The ability to implement one can be directly affected by another.
When strategic investments are made that more efficiently use existing resources, it creates financial flexibility for other priorities.
Rapid transit is just one example of an infrastructure investment that, if combined with strong planning strategies, can transcend its primary function — to become a city-building tool that enables a wide range of other quality-of-life public investments.
*Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group*