Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What's been lost, in color - part one

An electric streetcar makes its way up Portage Avenue, between Carlton and Hargrave streets, circa 1953. For a few decades of the early 20th century, it was possible to ride street railway from the University of Manitoba in Fort Garry, up to Stonewall MB. In the North End alone, streetcars ran down Main and McGregor streets, and Bannerman, Mountain, Selkirk, Euclid, Dufferin, and Sutherland avenues. By 1955, however, car service had dwindled down to Portage, Main, and Osborne, as service on other routes was "modernized" by switching them to trolley and diesel buses. On September 18th of that year, regular service was discontinued. The next day, a ceremonial car rolled down Portage from Polo Park, then up Main to the transit garages at Carruthers, never to be seen on city streets again.

The process of replacing light rail (essentially what streetcars were) with buses began gradually in Winnipeg in the 1930s, particularly inter-urban service. Immediately after World War II, Winnipeg Electric Co., which controlled the transit system until 1953, set to work removing streetcars at a rapid pace. In doing so, they misinvested huge sums of money paving roads such as Corydon and Academy so that the buses could travel on them more quickly and smoothly. While this was done with funds generated by, and intended for, transit riders, it quite obviously made for smoother, faster rides in private automobiles, thus causing further decline in transit ridership. This possibility may not have been thought of at the time by transit officials who felt this would save public transit, or by the public at-large who simply shrugged their shoulders at what they were told was progress. But the ever-powerful cabal of traffic engineers, they knew all along that getting rid of the streetcars for buses was not for one second about improvements to transit, but about enabling private cars to get in and out of downtown as fast as possible.

From the research I've done, I can see no conspiracy to eliminate the Winnipeg streetcar systems, like GM, Firestone, Standard Oil, etc. did throughout the U.S. at mid-century--it was instead simply a matter of the pseudo-scienctific "needs" of traffic engineering trumping the real needs of people and commerce; and Winnipeg doing things because other cities were doing them therefore it must be a good thing.

Today, it would be of tremendous expense to re-build even a fraction of the tracks that covered Winnipeg streets. In true Modernist fashion, not only was service discontinued and the old cars scrapped in 1955, but the tracks were ripped up entirely.


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