At last, after more than 30 years of vacillation and obstruction, it looks as if Winnipeg will finally get the first leg of a rapid transit system. Appropriately for a blue-collar town with a deeply-rooted culture of caution and frugality, it will be a low-budget diesel bus system, rather than a more expensive, classier and more environmentally friendly rail system. Nevertheless, it will open new opportunities for Winnipeg.
The system’s most significant long-term benefit has been largely neglected in discussions leading to the decision to develop rapid transit. Potentially, a dedicated rapid transit line paves the way for new kinds of neighbourhoods that will be less dependent on automobiles around the clock, not just on the daily commute. That’s because the existence of the transit line creates new incentives for the development of such neighbourhoods.
When a developer is choosing a location, and deciding what kind of development will go there, a major factor in the decision is access: How long will it take to get back and forth from the city centre, and what means of transportation are available? If accessibility is good and the main means of access is roads, chances are the developer will opt for single-family homes, and, since buyers of such homes usually like quiet neighbourhoods, the area will be exclusively residential, with shopping and jobs located elsewhere. Once settled in those neighbourhoods, the residents are almost totally dependent on their automobiles, because bus service is likely to be poor, and even the smallest daily errands will be run in a car.
Rapid transit opens up possibilities for a more urban style of development, a market that is generally under-served in Winnipeg: A denser neighbourhood consisting of a mix of homes, apartments, local shopping and public facilities, all within walking distance of the transit stop. Planners call such neighbourhoods transit-oriented development. People living there will have no need for two or three cars, because they will be able to do most of their daily business on foot, by transit, or on the bike path that will be developed parallel to the rapid transit line.
The potential benefits of a rapid transit line, therefore, go far beyond the convenience of a quick trip to work and back and the environmental benefits of reduced vehicle emissions on that trip. They also include:
• Reduced land consumption, resulting in less sprawl.
• Life-styles generally less oriented to automobile use – not just on the daily trip to work and back – and therefore less cars on the road and less filth in the air.
• More exercise and healthier bodies.
But those are potential benefits, not a sure thing, because there is an alternative. The land development around rapid transit stations can consist of parking lots instead of neighbourhoods. Political pressure for developing rapid transit this way will come from residents of auto-dependent suburbs who like their cars but would like to avoid some of the congestion on their daily commute.
Political pressure from suburbanites will be abetted by residents of neighbourhoods near transit stops who not only don’t want to live in dense neighbourhoods, but are also fearful of the development of dense neighbourhoods nearby. What’s more, rigid zoning and building code regulations may come down on the side of those who prefer asphalt to neighbourhoods. If asphalt lovers win the day, rapid transit, far from providing a counter to sprawl, may actually give it a boost, by improving the accessibility of ever more distant, auto-dependent suburbs.
Winnipeg is off to a good start in avoiding that fate, because financing for the first rapid transit line depends on revenues from a development next to the line that will presumably be transit-oriented. But that is only one short stretch of the line. There will be many opportunities for development at other points along the line. In a city as auto-dependent as Winnipeg, there are bound to be advocates for asphalt and opponents of density at those points. If we want Winnipeg’s rapid transit system to be a sprawl fighter and a boon to the environment, rather than a gift to the petroleum industry, we had better be ready to make our case.