Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bus depot belongs downtown

In the absence of the quality passenger rail service that once linked Canadian towns and cities, inter-urban bus lines serve travellers without the means or desire to go by airline or automobile.
As a teenager growing up in Portage la Prairie in the late ‘90s, attracted to nearby Winnipeg’s cultural amenities and dusty urban charms, the Greyhound bus was my conveyance. For the hour-and-some ride, I would sit with my walkmen and read, or simply stare out the window and watch farmland turn into suburb, and suburb to city, until the bus finally arrived at the terminal at Portage and Balmoral. For the occasional passengers destined for the airport, the bus would detour to Winnipeg International. It would do the same if anyone wanted off at Polo Park. The rest of us were headed downtown.
In Winnipeg, like in any other city, the bus terminal was a dreary and underwhelming place, devoid of the jet-setting sleekness of an airport concourse, or the soaring grandiosity of a train station. It was cavernous and dull, thanks to neon lights and low ceilings--two characteristics of ‘60s-era design. The bathrooms were perpetually dirty, and the news stand clerks usually ornery.
But it was from this terminal that Winnipeg was at my fingertips. Coming from a small city where the tallest building was a grain elevator, it was always with a sense of wonder that I stepped out onto the street and walked down the canyonesque Portage Avenue. A ten-minute walk would take me to Osborne Village, the Exchange District, or Music Baron on Portage--a popular rendezvous point which to my friends and I what the Eaton’s clock was to past generations. If my destination was beyond downtown, every major transit route stopped at The Bay.
Now, as a new airport terminal is constructed, and the University of Winnipeg announces a flurry of campus expansion projects, the Greyhound’s downtown location is being questioned. While buses aren’t as loud as jet engines, or need a runway for take off, there is talk of moving all the way out to the newly-christened James A. Richardson International Airport.
Not surprisingly, bus passengers are dismayed by this speculatory move. The airport is too far from much more than industrial warehouses, trucking lots and snow drifts. Visitors to Winnipeg--or with a few hours of layover to kill--searching for a hotel, a pub, a coffee shop, or anything remotely interesting, would be in for a disappointment.
It seems the only people that do favour the terminal’s move likely never take the bus themselves. Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin, for one, seems happy the Greyhound terminal, along with its jobs and visitors, may soon be leaving his riding. Its current location is “a nuisance, a headache, an absolute disaster,” and “so inappropriate”, he told reporters. Clearly, any pretenses of social justice are lost on the NDP MP of one of Canada’s poorest federal ridings, as Mr. Martin--who travels by air at taxpayer’s expense--seems indifferent to the concerns of financially limited travellers.
For people who actually travel by Greyhound, the current location offers convenience. Downtown has the highest concentration of hotels and attractions, and is equal distance from everywhere else; no matter where in the city you’re headed from the terminal, transit service will be good, and cab fares will be low.
But this is an era of big press conferences, flashy conceptual drawings, and exciting ribbon-cuttings, and pragmatics sometimes get left out in the rapture. Dreary as the bus terminal is, it works fine. It isn’t great, but neither is travelling by bus. What matters is that fares are reasonably priced, and the terminal is central. A facelift would certainly be in order, or perhaps a new downtown location, but it should always remain in the centre of the city.
Recognizing the inconvenience a move to the airport would be for travellers, a shuttle service to downtown is also being pondered. While this may seem like an exercize in redundancy--the shuttle would just take everyone where the bus used to take them at no extra hassle, wait time, or expense--unveiling the new service would make for a great press conference.
Airports, because of their noise and demand for space, have every reason to be at the edge of a city. Bus terminals, like train stations, have every reason to be at the centre.


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