An open letter to new Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman

Dear Mayor Bowman:

Congratulations! You overcame an underdog status to win a hard-fought race and are now comfortably settled into your new office on Main Street. You are the face of the “new” Winnipeg, and, like Nasheed Nenshi in Calgary or Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, are being lauded as a “hipster mayor.” Which is exactly what Winnipeg needs right now.

But being a hipster mayor is about more than the width of your lapels and and which organic fair trade coffee you’re seen sipping at the hippest new café. The policies which you introduce and execute will make the city either cooler, or lamer. And while there’s much about Winnipeg that’s already cool—The Exchange District’s architecture, a great culinary scene, a large stock of historical homes, an impressive network of bike trails—there’s still much that is lame: inner-city poverty, gang violence, sub-arctic winters, an emaciated street culture, an underwhelming transit system. Your job will be to accentuate the former while mitigating the latter.

Which is why I’m writing you openly on a matter of imperative importance to the city’s future, a topic more contentious and controversial than any other in this recent election. And while you might well interpret your victory as a mandate to fast-track the implementation of the so-called Bus Rapid Transit scheme, do hear me out as I explain why this idea is 125% lame. And there’s a cool alternative.

The first leg of the BRT scheme has been in operation for thirty-one months now, and let’s face facts—it hasn’t been a game-changer. The promised ToD or transit-oriented development hasn’t appeared, as I predicted ten years ago when I was writing for the Free Press. Even during rush hours, I never observed mobs of passengers streaming in and out of Osborne Station. Nobody’s giving up their cars for this. Let’s be honest with ourselves—it’s a bus stop on steroids, not rapid transit. And no matter how much lipstick you put on the pig, a bus is still a bus, and riding the bus will forever carry the stigma of being ghetto.

The rest of the plan is only looking worse. While Osborne Station is at least relatively adjacent to high population densities, take a look at this map and tell me what you see.

I’ll tell you what I see. The Western Corridor is a passageway to nowhere. Nobody lives south of Wilkes, and hardly anyone lives north of it—and of those few who do occupy those low-density Charleswood neighbourhoods, only a tiny minority will use the route for commuting, never mind as an inducement to car-free living. The Southeastern Corridor isn’t looking much better. None of the neighborhoods it serves has a high density or a large proportion of transit users. The Eastern Corridor services the south periphery of Elmwood but runs too far from most homes to be a practical replacement for the 45 Talbot or 47 Regent buses. The Northwestern Corridor fails to be of practical use to the North End’s largely transit-dependent population base. Billions of dollars will be spent—wasted, I should say—on roadways and infrastructure to run frequent buses to places where people do not want to go, and the majority of passenger trips will remain on regular local and express buses on major arterial routes: Portage, Main, Henderson, Osborne, Salter, Corydon.

That millions of dollars went into studies that resulted in this map is to me a source of major second-hand embarrassment. It should be plain to anyone who knows the city and its transit patterns that this is a complete non-starter, but somehow it got started. It must be stopped.

The billions of dollars spent building these busways to nowhere could be much better appropriated toward upgrading the existing system: replacing the fleet, adding 24-hour Night Owl service, restoring frequency of service to pre-Thompson Administration levels, freezing—or even lowering—fares. But that wouldn’t be game-changing either, nor would it fit within your promised mandate of implementing “bold actionable plans that will deliver this city to where it should be.”

It’s time to take another hard, serious look at the Norman D. Wilson subway plan.

Now here’s a scheme that parallels major arterials and actually goes where people live and work. River & Osborne? Yup. Health Sciences Centre & St. Boniface Hospital? Covered. City Hall and The Exchange District? Right there. The Manitoba Legislature, Polo Park, Portage and Main, and The Forks? All of the above. The North End, the West End, Elmwood, Weston, Norwood and Old St. Vital are all represented. It could be expanded: south, to the U of M; west, to Assiniboine Park. And it’s underground. Truly rapid. Protected from the elements.

Before I go on, let me address all the pat objections. This has been studied more than once (1958 & 1966) and, from an engineering perspective, a subway is totally doable with Winnipeg’s subsoil conditions. So let’s move on to the ostensibly unaffordable price tag. When you consider the ROI [return on investment], it’s the BRT plan that’s looking unaffordable. A bunch of busways to and from peripheral suburbs servicing mostly uninhabited areas aren’t going to do much for the city except perhaps enrich some already wealthy construction contractors. On the other hand, this subway plan would create an entirely new Winnipeg, with high density nodes around every station.

Can’t you see multi-story mixed-use projects at, say, Isabel and William? Main and Mountain? Osborne and Morley? These are urban intersections whose base densities were established during the streetcar era, and this density can be further built upon once served by a transit system that is an actual conduit to car-free living. We need to work within the existing grid rather than pray for prairie to magically turn into vertical homes because a glorified bus route opens nearby. That’s never going to happen, and we shouldn’t want it to happen.

Let’s now address the obvious—in a jobs and labour marketplace that’s increasingly global, Winnipeg is faced with a massive, almost insurmountable, liability: it’s cold. Really cold. On average, 113 days a year the temperature never rises above freezing. Given a choice, talented, educated workers are generally more repelled by than drawn to extreme cold climates. That’s why my brother, a chiropractor, and my best friend from high school, a teacher, are enjoying life in Singapore. It’s why so many of my former classmates have settled in Vancouver. It’s why I’m writing this from Los Angeles. It takes an almost masochistic temperament—or, at the least, vested business interests—to endure such painfully extreme polar vortexes so many days of the year when one is free to leave. There has to be an equalizer. The BRT plan simply ain’t it.

Toronto and, especially, Montreal are both cold (albeit less so) cities that enjoy robust car-free cultures. Surely I needn’t point out why. In the absence of comparative proportions of transit usage, Winnipeg will by comparison always be lame. It will bleed talent and struggle to attract newcomers. The critical mass of density and street culture that Winnipeg needs to compete in the global marketplace as a world-class city capable of attracting top talent—it won’t ever arrive if we continue building busways. It’s going to require building a transit system that, much of the time, is more attractive than driving. That means going where people already go—along existing major arterials. And it means being protected from the elements—underground, with warm, indoor platforms and trains unaffected by the amount of snowfall outside except insofar as the more the streets are covered in snow, the greater the demand for subway services.

Mayor Bowman, are you thinking this vision too bold, too impractical? Duff Roblin too dealt with naysayers, and where would the city be today were it not for the Floodway—which 1997 demonstrated was in fact too timid an ambition and had to be expanded at a cost much greater than if it had been built sufficiently in the first place. Calgary is finding out that its Light Rail system, opened in 1981 after intense naysaying and opposition, was actually too timid a scheme as its station platforms are currently being modified to accommodate larger trains. From the Legislature to the Aquaduct to the Esplanade Riel to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, this city’s greatest gems are the result of grand ambitions.

Where will the money come from? Find it. Squeeze the province for Hydro dollars—the subway would be a showcase for electric-powered transport. Shake down the feds—the impoverished state of the inner city is a national embarrassment. Implement a civic sales tax if necessary. But ultimately a subway would pay for itself, in growth. Naysayers might well say that no one moves to a city for its transit system, and even if that’s untrue people—especially talented, educated people—will move to a city to enjoy the sort of culture that a great transit system will create. The real question is, how can we afford not to do this? In a parallel universe, Winnipeg has already completed this subway system, and we never fell behind Edmonton or Calgary.

Verticality. Walkability. Density. These are the hallmarks of a “world-class” city, and if your campaign rhetoric is to become anything more than empty words we’ll need a world-class transit system to go with our world-class hockey team and world-class National Museum. This BRT plan was conceived while Winnipeg was still stuck in the minor leagues. And, real talk—it was forged so thoughtlessly one can only wonder whether it was proposed by incompetents or, for whatever reason, intentionally introduced to fail.

The proper function of a rapid transit system is to move people to and from various neighbourhoods and points of interest within a city. Need I remind you that in 1972 Winnipeg amalgamated twelve towns, cities, and rural municipalities to create the 464 km² behemoth it is today? The Southwest Corridor excepted, the point of the BRT plan seems to be to feed residents from far-flung suburbs, where almost nobody lives, into the downtown centre, where almost nobody from the suburbs wants to go. And if they do, it’s almost certainly not by bus. The Wilson subway plan would do more than give commuters a way from the suburbs to downtown—although it would do that too. Primarily, it would provide an efficient means of transporting, regardless of weather, people around the city core, the pre-1920 grid. Where the greatest densities remain, and where there exists the greatest potential for added density through vertical infill.

Downtown Los Angeles is in a residential building boom. Hotels, condo hi-rises, and multi-storey mixed-users are popping up where surface parking lots once were. Forty years ago Downtown LA was synonymous with urban decay. Now it’s one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. It’s no coincidence that between 1963 and 1990 there was no rail transit serving DTLA. Now there are the Metro Gold, Blue, Expo, Red, and Purple Lines (the latter of which just broke ground on a westward expansion yesterday) and LA, having run out of lateral space on which to build, is by necessity going vertical. Winnipeg will never run out of lateral space. Inducing wide-scale vertical development is going to require a powerful incentive to keep the city tight. The only possibility is proximity to subway.

I realize being mayor doesn’t make you God. You’re just one man. But you can work on building a consensus for this. You can foster the political will. You strike me as a sincere man who wants what’s best for the city, and you’ve been told that this BRT plan is the best way to go. But now that you’re elected, you can change course. You’re a relatively young man. Young enough to see the ribbon-cutting on Winnipeg’s first subway line well before you reach old age. Demand the impossible. Don’t sell us short. This is your chance to have your name become as synonymous as Duff Roblin’s as this city’s saviour.

Now how cool would that be?

Yours concernedly,

Dallas Hansen