Mr. Bowman, tear down these walls!

Another year, another round of buzz about the potential removal of the hideous and disgraceful pedestrian barriers adorning the four corners of Winnipeg’s premier intersection, Portage & Main.

This time the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ has brought in Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance and the man instrumental in pedestrianizing a large swath of Broadway in Manhattan, to tell us what we already know: we’re doing it wrong.

City planning has come a long way since the late 1970s, and informed opinion is unanimous that the Portage & Main barriers—emblematic of the longstanding supremacy of cars over people in downtown Winnipeg—have got to go. Mayor Brian Bowman even made getting rid of them part of his campaign platform.

Well Mr. Bowman, you were elected more than a year ago—what are you waiting for?

Were I elected to the Mayor’s Office with a mandate to remove the barriers, there would be no hesitation. Much as the intersection was swarmed upon news of the Jets’ return, at the exact moment victory was confirmed I would invite my supporters to Portage and Main for a celebration rally. With all four corners blockaded and traffic re-routed, I would commence distribution of dozens of sledgehammers and invite the public to usher in a new, pedestrian-friendly era for the City of Winnipeg by smashing concrete like it was 1989 in Berlin. Once the party ended I’d order heavy equipment to finish the job. Pedestrian signals would be set up within the next 48 hours.


There’s a precedent for this. Winnipeg wants to be the Chicago of the north? Well in 2003, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley had enough of the federal airport near downtown known as Meigs Field. The idea of low-flying planes so near the skyscrapers of the city’s vertical skyline was unnerving in the post-9/11 era, and considering they were nearly all private flights for the wealthy he decided it was in the public interest to close the airport and turn it into a park.

Naturally the FAA resisted so what did Mayor Daley do? Showed the feds The Chicago Way. Ordered a fleet of heavy equipment to roll through in the middle of the night and tear up the runway. Goodbye Meigs Field. Hello Northerly Island Park.

The Winnipeg Way seems to be years of dithering. Decades of hemming and hawing. Sponsor a meaningless design contest. Pay to fly in outsiders. Years and years of blathering on about the topic.

Look, if Mayor Daley can break a lease with the almighty FAA, surely Mayor Bowman can grow a pair and void the agreement with the Portage & Main property owners that keeps people out of the intersection. It’s set to expire in 2019 anyway.

These barriers are a national embarrassment. What other North American city does this? Not a one.

Don’t tell me Winnipeg is special. Other cities have intersections where two wide thoroughfares meet. Really, the appropriate thing to do here would be to return the intersection to the people, and have a pedestrian scramble—where traffic is stopped in every direction so pedestrians can cross from all sides, and diagonally if they wish.

Portage Avenue and Main Street themselves could use a road diet. Protected bike lanes. A bus lane. Even then you’ve still got room for street parking and a couple of lanes of vehicular traffic.

Winnipeg grew up around an electric streetcar network but for too long has felt the debilitating effects of automobile dependency. Downtown has turned into a massive parking lot, core neighborhoods have thinned out while becoming increasingly littered with unsightly strip malls. I’ve nothing against cars per se—I own three and I change my own oil, thank you very much—but when there’s no other acceptable option for transportation, when the city’s historic primary intersection has been purposely retrofitted to accommodate cars and exclude pedestrians, you don’t have a city that’s inclusive, or vibrant, or ready for the 21st century and beyond.

I’ve advocated in the past for the 1959 subway plan that was once a serious consideration in Winnipeg but nobody in political power seems to want to touch it today. Too bad. It’s now more relevant than ever.

The subway that could've been

The subway that could’ve been

Meanwhile, the one single action the current mayor can take in order to end the era of car dominance in downtown Winnipeg won’t require a large capital expenditure. Or years of study and endless meetings.

Mr. Bowman, it’s high time to call in the heavy equipment. And if you want to do it right, be the first to swing the sledgehammer.