It looks as if there’s a rapid transit line in Winnipeg’s future. Problem solved, right? Wrong. The choice facing us now is whether or not we succeed in building a viable system, one that provides a better service than the buses on Pembina Highway do, and one that creates new economic opportunities while fighting sprawl and improving the environment.

The question hinges on the accessibility of the stations, and on land use regulations adjacent to them. If the stations are readily accessible, rapid transit can create new development opportunities, contribute to the clean-up of our environment, and provide a much-needed transportation option to all those who do not have access to an automobile, or prefer convenient public transportation. To the extent that they are not, users of rapid transit will have experiences similar to those I had in Miami last summer, and Winnipeg’s development will suffer accordingly. As I write this, the prognosis is not good.

Last summer, on my way home from Belize, I entered the United States at the Miami airport. My flight home the next morning departed from Ft. Lauderdale. No problem. There’s a commuter rail line connecting the two cites, with a stop not far from the hotel room I had booked in Ft. Lauderdale. Isn’t rapid transit great?

It turns out that, if you’re travelling from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, not so much. It was about 8 pm by the time I cleared the draconian U.S. customs in Miami. I hauled my bag off the carrousel, and turned around, expecting to see a sign pointing to the commuter rail stop. No sign, but luckily I speak English, unlike many who arrive in Miami in need of affordable transportation. After asking several people for directions, I was able to identify one of several bus stops in an obscure corner of the airport, where, if I waited while numerous other buses came and went, I could catch the 38, a shuttle to the transit stop.

Arriving at my stop in Ft. Lauderdale, I emerged to find myself alone in an empty station. A road passed in front of the station, an expressway buzzed in the distance, but otherwise there was nothing to be seen but an expanse of grass. There was a pay phone, but no phone directory, and I didn’t know the names or numbers of any taxi companies. The pay phone didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have enough American change to make a call.

I dithered for awhile: Should I try hiking? I didn’t see anything to hike toward. Should I call my wife on our 800 number and get her to call Miami directory information? Would she be able to call me back on the pay phone? As I considered my options, the next train pulled into the station and a single passenger got off. Salvation! She changed a dollar for me and gave me the name of a cab company.

I haven’t studied rail transit in the Miami area, but if my experience is indicative of what has been done there, the commuter rail line is a veritable symphony of missed opportunities. Easy access to the rail line from the arrivals area of the airport would have guaranteed a steady stream of passengers, and of money into the fare box, to help build the viability of the rail line, and of any future extensions of it.

At the station in Ft. Lauderdale, planning authorities could have zoned the expanse of green grass that confronted me for the development of a large amount of compact housing, which, in turn, would have created new opportunities for commerce, perhaps along the lines of Mockingbird Station in Dallas.

So will Winnipeg follow Miami’s example or that of Dallas and many other cities? The first leg of our bus rapid transit system is still in the process of being planned, so there’s time for changes, but, on the strength of the information available, it doesn’t look good. Of the four stations now being planned, two – Morley and Jubilee – appear to be inaccessible to adjacent residential neighbourhoods on the west side of Pembina highway. There are also serious concerns regarding the accessibility of the bicycle trail that is to be developed in conjunction with the rapid transit line, and accessibility for persons with disabilities.

If city government wishes to make the most of this opportunity, and ensure that the investment in rapid transit becomes the asset it can be, it had better ensure that the planning of the line proceed carefully and with the benefit of advice from area residents, cyclists, developers and any citizens who can provide relevant information.

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