Building active transportation routes on a tight budget possible, councillor says

As more residents make biking and walking an essential part of their day through the coronavirus pandemic, one city councillor says supporting active transportation might not necessitate big-budget investments.

"The nine active transportation corridors we’ve opened, we were able to do that with very small financial implications, so perhaps there’s ways of expanding active transportation in the city without spending a whole lot of money," Coun. Matt Allard said.

"Part of it is investment, but part of it is what do we want to do as a city? How do we want to use the spaces that we have?"

Allard’s remarks came Monday as city officials cut the ribbon on the latest multimillion dollar piece of infrastructure built with pedestrians and cyclists in mind.

The new $2.5-million underpass connecting Niakwa Trail to Des Meurons Street beneath Fermor Avenue saw plenty of people jogging, cycling and walking past news crews gathered Monday morning to cover the opening.

The pathway, located about midway between St. Anne’s Road and Archibald Street, and not far from the Windsor Park Golf Course and St. Vital Outdoor Pool, was part of the city’s $29.6-million Fermor Avenue reconstruction project.

The underpass allows easier access to active transportation corridors connecting to downtown from southeast Winnipeg.

"This brings us a step closer to the dream, which is a completely connected separated network from the road," said Allard (St. Boniface), who is chair of the city’s infrastructure renewal and public works committee.

"I’m cycling much more since being elected to city council and understanding the value of these facilities, but as the father of an 11-year-old girl, I can tell you protected facilities are essential to get people to make the choice to use their bicycles and active transportation — to make the switch."

In April, the city extended four Sunday and holiday bike routes to allow for pedestrians and cyclists to use the routes seven days a week with vehicle traffic restricted to one block between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., as part of its COVID-19 response. Five additional residential streets were added in the following weeks, with vehicle restrictions in place until July 6.

Allard said use of these active transportation corridors has been significant and, overall, more people are choosing to leave their vehicles at home or find alternatives to using the bus.

"With COVID-19 we’ve seen some trends and one trend that we expect, and are actually encouraging, is bus ridership is down," Allard said. "We’re asking people to ride the bus only if they have to… that’s a big part of the mode shift in Winnipeg."

The standing policy committee on infrastructure renewal and public works will vote Tuesday on a motion to extend the initiative to Sept. 7. The motion also calls on the public service to report on the results of the program and the feasibility of establishing permanent year-round active transportation routes.

A petition by Trails Winnipeg to keep the routes in place had received more than 7,800 signatures by Monday afternoon.

"In terms of a culture change, I think that’s just happening now," Allard said. "It’s going to have an impact on what the public demands of city hall."

St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes, whose ward residents will also benefit from the Fermor Avenue underpass, said he wants to see the city upgrade existing, well-used active transportation infrastructure and assets.

"I’ve been on this campaign to upgrade all these running tracks across the city and we could fix some of those up pretty cheaply, and we haven’t," Mayes said. "So we should have a balancing act here.

"I think we should keep building and cycling walking paths but also we’ve got some old running and walking infrastructure; people can use those and we need to put some money into that, too."