"WE'VE HAD IT"
Looking up Portage Ave from Main, 1921
"Where would this city be without this concentration of high tax values? That is the question we must ask when we consider where this city would be without public transit. The future of transit is the same as the future of downtown Winnipeg--neither one has any future apart from the other... In the coming struggle between downtown business and the suburban shopping areas, a modern and efficient transit service will be the key to downtown's survival."
-Winnipeg Transit official, to the Winnipeg Tribune, September 17, 1955
Fifty-one years ago today, Winnipeg's last electric streetcar rolled down the tracks, ceremoniously rounding Portage and Main for the last time. Many politicians and transit officials called it progress (and traffic engineers squealed in delight at having more lanes for cars to drive faster on), but the ding-ding-woosh sound the car made as it left its stops that day, proved to be a death knell for downtown. Overall, transit ridership declined for the next half-century, and it didn't take long for a stigma to attatch itself to riding the bus. And we all know what has happened to downtown since 1955.
Winnipeg, 1915. Blue lines indicate electric streetcars lines
Winnipeg owes every ounce of it's urbanity to the streetcars. Great physical legacies survive today: hundreds of storefronts and walk-up apartments (often sharing the same building) stand along the former lines. These streets (Portage, Main, Notre Dame, Osborne, Sargent, Selkirk, West Broadway, Corydon, etc.) and the neighborhoods that surround them, will be unable to reach their true potential without an effective and attractive transit system. Without one, we'll spend the next 50 years wondering "when's someone going to do something with the Avenue Building," parking lots will remain a neccessarily dominant feature of downtown's landscape; our supply of heritage buildings will be gradually wittled away; strip malls will be the prefered building typology on Portage, single-use and storey buildings on Osborne, weed lots on Selkirk.
Gresham's Law has been at work over the last 51 years: bad transit ideas have gradually driven out the good ones. Winnipeg has gone from planning a subway, to a mono-rail, to surface light-rail, to "bus rapid transit", and finally to "quality corridors". It's time (and was time years ago) to build a transit system that builds the city again, as the electric streetcars did. It's time to start building transit for urbanity, not for sub-urbanity. It's time to start building to restore sidewalk commerce downtown, not in a Waverly West that exists in the imagination of the naive. We'll go nowhere--like the old rail right-of-ways eyed for "BRT" do--without good transit again.