City & Politics, Planning, Transportation

Winning the war on the car – by losing it

In late September, the Winnipeg Design Festival hosted a PARKing Day, a worldwide, annual event that began a number of years ago in San Francisco. The idea behind PARKing Day is to transform metered, on-parking spaces into public parks, with the intention of helping the public re-imagine public space as being less dominated by cars. In Winnipeg, eight downtown parking spaces were used for this purpose.

I get what PARKing Day is trying to demonstrate: decades of traffic engineering have rendered the main streets of our cities places not particularly enjoyable to walk or cycle along. Taking a small piece of the city and showing better ways of doing things might cause them to become aware of this.

Still, the idea of occupying on-street parking spaces to protest car-centred planning is in some ways like protesting the ravages of global capitalism by occupying a locally-owned corner store. As far as the effects of traffic planning and transportation policies on public space in cities go, on-street parking is one of the least damaging.

On-street parking is actually one way to mitigate the effects of cars on the urban environment. The row of parked or standing vehicles in the curb lanes—taxis, delivery trucks, parked cars—not only help nearby businesses, but help create a buffer between pedestrians on the sidewalk, and moving cars on the roadway. As cars pull in and out of these parking spaces, they slow down traffic a little.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the movement of motor vehicles in and out of Winnipeg’s central business district was no more essential to the life of the roadway as streetcars, cyclists, horse-drawn delivery wagons, parking spaces, and the countless jaywalkers from which Winnipeg developed a reputation as the “jaywalking capital of Canada.”

Slowly, through the 1940s and ‘50s, new sets of traffic regulations and infrastructure came in that would encourage downtown workers to commute by car, restrict on-street parking in some times and places, and discourage slow moving vehicles everywhere. Eventually, the streets of the city functioned purely as conduits for suburban commuters, with all the intricate complexity of a vacuum cleaner hose.

Not by coincidence, downtown quickly declined as a dynamic and finely-scaled centre for commerce and streets life.

“Living in Toronto, I would bike all the time,” a friend told me as we stood on the corner of Portage a few blocks west of downtown recently. “But this…” she said, gesturing to Portage Avenue, “this is basically a highway.”

Strangely, most of the recent grassroots energy toward calming traffic downtown has been focused on turning Albert Street, already one of the most pedestrian-friendly streets downtown, into a pedestrian mall. The idea first gained traction in 2010, when one block of the street was closed for market stalls and performance space during Fringe Fest. This, added to the street’s scale, architectural texture, terminal vistas, and relatively few surface parking lots, made it easy to see why many want to contain this busy dynamism year ‘round.

This kind of thing often happens in Winnipeg, where real change is often so incremental that it seems non-existent, and daydreaming about the fantastic seems more enjoyable. Europe has pedestrian streets and plazas, the thinking goes. We should, too.

Pedestrian-only streets do usually work in Europe, but have almost always failed in North America. This is because in Europe, they are part of a deeply-held and understood tradition. In North America, they are an urban renewal fad from the 1960s—the same era that cities thought whole neighbourhoods should be demolished for expressways and convention centres.

At their best, North American pedestrian malls function today as neat and tidy daytime shopping malls for the nearby office population, such as Minneapolis’ Nicollet Avenue, or Calgary’s Stephen Avenue. At their worst, they become total failures that are eventually re-opened to car traffic, such as Chicago’s State Street and St. Louis’ 14th Street.

On Albert Street, the density of storefronts is not strong enough to support an intensive cluster of commerce. The density of office workers and residents on and around Albert would not be enough to sustain them anyway.

Somewhere between blue-sky idealism and pragmatic realism are more practical ways to improve streets. Converting one-way streets with lower traffic volumes back to two-way traffic, or allowing more on-street parking, are quick and easy steps to do this.

Angled parking spaces—still seen on some small town main streets in Saskatchewan—could also be used, particularly on less busy streets. In 2009, there was a push by the Winnipeg Parking Authority to take one block of Arthur Street in the West Exchange, and convert parallel parking to angle parking there. This was supported by various City Council committees, but after a regime change at the Parking Authority, the idea eventually died.

It should be resurrected. Not just on Arthur, but on Albert and other smaller streets in the Exchange, Chinatown, and south of Portage Avenue.

Winnipeg’s own Corydon Avenue demonstrates how the absence of traffic planning schemes can work. Corydon succeeds not only because of its density of small storefronts, but because it’s a slow-moving, two-way street where on-street parking is a paramount consideration. Car traffic moves slower, which (douchebag motorcyclists notwithstanding) makes it enjoyable to walk along.

Cars are not going to go away in Winnipeg, but harmful, car-centric traffic planning can. It is possible to reform Winnipeg’s streets, within the framework of traditional Midwest urbanism, so that they are more humane and enjoyable places. The calm congestion of busy streets, of different users doing different things in the same shared spaces, is a way that pedestrians can win against cars without having to declare all-out war against them.

Robert Galston likes to write about Winnipeg, urbanism, and other very, very exciting topics. Follow him on Twitter @riseandsprawl