WHEN Mayor Sam Katz put off Bus Rapid Transit, public transportation advocates were relieved. As the great Winnipeg journalist Val Werier wrote many years ago, "If transportation problems are to be solved, they must be tackled with ingenuity and vigour."
An impotent and detrimental compromise, BRT's bus freeways would further eviscerate the city, creating what Jane Jacobs termed border vacuums — dull, grey zones of pedestrian inactivity. Unpopular in Ottawa, where Light Rail Transit is now planned, studies show BRT lacks the efficacy of a train in getting motorists on board.
But in a cold February morning lies a most obvious challenge to ridership. That is as true this year as it was years ago when Werier wrote: " More than other centres, (Winnipeg) requires a transportation system protected and secluded from the elements."
In 1959, it looked like Winnipeg was going to get a subway.
When Norman D. Wilson, a Toronto engineer, was hired to study Winnipeg's transportation issues, his recommendation caught city officials off guard. The Winnipeg Tribune, however, was listening. "The Wilson Report suggesting a 23-mile long subway...will probably be regarded as a controversial and unrealistic document by a number of Winnipeggers," observed a 1959 editorial. "The thought of spending...half a billion dollars on a rapid transit system is staggering."
Yet, "Norman D. Wilson is recognized as a top-drawer authority on mass transit on two continents. He does not deal in dream stuff." Wilson saw Winnipeg's subway complete by 1981, our expected population 800,000. The plan, he warned, was necessary to "stabilize the central business area, save it from decay, and preserve its wealth and taxable values."
Cars, said Wilson, "cannot adequately serve the heavily concentrated business centres of metropolitan cities, but can, if permitted, stifle them with street congestion and scar them irretrievably with car parking facilities." Today, congestion is hardly a problem in the giant surface-level parking lot that is much of downtown.
"A rapid transit system should begin," suggested the Free Press in 1989, "by helping people go where they want to go. Polo Park shopping centre is one favourite destination. Portage and Main is another. The Health Sciences Centre is another." Besides those three, Wilson's plan offered a fast indoor ride to The Forks, Osborne Village, Corydon Village, St. Boniface Hospital, city hall and the civic centre, several high schools, University of Winnipeg, the Exchange District, Portage Place, and the Manitoba legislature, while, minutes away via bus are Red River College, the St. James and St. Boniface industrial parks, the University of Manitoba, St. Vital Centre, Winnipeg International Airport, and most suburban neighbourhoods.
Wilson's plan would serve the city's densest districts, fostering further high-density development around the stations — sharply reducing supply and demand for parking downtown.
"Few people, in this automobile age," the Free Press noted, "have to use public transit. If the transit service is not tailored to the needs and wishes of the people, it will run empty." Except on its downtown portion, BRT would operate within winter walking distance of nothing. Feeder buses alone won't sustain rapid transit.
Transit seems bent on aiming rapid buses toward the low-density suburbs — presumably because that's where lies the city's tax base. But an unattractive, inefficient system does taxpayers a disservice, while a rail-based system throughout Winnipeg's dense, grid-patterned inner areas will draw suburbanites anyway — most passengers on Salt Lake City's new (and already expanding) LRT have left a car at home.
Today a subway system, even if much of it were elevated or surfaced rather than underground, might cost over $2 billion. Ottawa, awash in surplus, could help, for our inner city's tremendous social problems remain a national disgrace. There are ways to cut costs. Trains could be bought used.
Kryvyy Rih, Ukraine, Krasnoyarsk, Russia, and Baku Azerbaijan are similarly sized and have subterranean transit. It's not that they can afford to and we can't — just the opposite. We can afford not to.
Property values, population, heritage buildings, tourist dollars, density, the immeasurable millions spent on downtown "revitalization," — we've lost plenty ignoring Wilson for the automobile's insatiable subsidy. But petroleum supplies are dwindling, and already exorbitant prices will only rise. Mass transit, fueled by Manitoba Hydro, will save us from bankruptcy.