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By Brent Bellamy, Creative Director and Architect
Republished with permission courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press.

For 40 years, we have been arguing over adding 18 seconds in the morning and 54 seconds in the afternoon to a daily Winnipeg commute that averages 24 minutes each way. 


Image: Brent Bellamy
The cost to complete long-overdue repairs to the barriers at Portage and Main could rival the cost to make the intersection accessible to pedestrians.

The idea of letting people cross the street at Portage and Main has long evoked images of gridlocked cars lined to the Perimeter Highway, but with a public referendum now foisted upon us, it is time to investigate the facts.
Last year, the respected engineering firm Dillon Consulting completed the Portage and Main Transportation Study, a comprehensive 95-page document which looked at the effects of introducing pedestrians at each corner, during both the morning and afternoon rush hours. Dillon compiled extensive, real-world data and used it to create precise computer simulation models, with cutting-edge software that is considered a global leader in accuracy and precision.

The study found that the greatest impacts to traffic will be experienced in the peak of afternoon rush hour, when the average time it will take for cars to get through the intersection will be 33 seconds longer than today. When the impact of this is telegraphed across downtown, the average time of an overall commute will increase by a total of 54 seconds (cumulative delay for all cars/number of cars).

The two largest routes, Main Street northbound and southbound through traffic, representing 50 per cent of all cars entering the intersection, will experience no change from current travel times, because pedestrians will cross parallel with drivers. Eastbound traffic on Portage Avenue, representing 25 per cent of all vehicles, will experience the most notable increases, adding an average of about 2½ minutes to a total commute in afternoon peak hours.

The conclusion for the morning rush hour states that "the overall experience for drivers will not be significantly different." Cars will take an average of only 10 seconds longer to get through the intersection, and the average overall commute across downtown will increase by just 18 seconds.

The minimal impact that introducing pedestrians at Portage and Main has on car traffic can be explained by the fact the intersection doesn’t exist in isolation. As an example, there are 10 pedestrian crossings on the one kilometre of Portage Avenue between Memorial Boulevard and Main Street. The study shows that adding one more does not significantly change average vehicle commuting times across downtown. 

Of 20 transit routes studied, one saw a delay of more than two minutes, and six were delayed by more than a minute. These time delays seem insignificant, but because every bus carries so many people, there would be a compound effect on transit capacity, so further study of transit times and routing would be needed to address the issue. It should be noted that the study did not examine opportunities to look at managing the effects on traffic through downtown more holistically, including signal-timing co-ordination, transit routing or changes in driver habits as conditions evolve.

Interestingly, the model uses adjacent crosswalk volumes to predict the number of pedestrians that will use Portage and Main, revealing a reasonable balance, with 6,000 cars and 2,000 pedestrian crossings per hour at peak times.

The Dillon study also addresses the cost of reopening the intersection by providing a detailed breakdown of work required to remove the barricades and restore the corner to a level typical of other city intersections. A $3.8-million construction cost has been identified, with a significant contingency of $2.3 million to cover any cost overruns or unknowns that could be found when digging up 40-year-old infrastructure. If the purchase of new buses is to be contemplated, a cost of $5.5 million was included as a separate line item in the budget.

To put the $6.1-million overall construction cost into perspective, the city currently has 82 capital projects underway that each cost more than $5 million. The study did not look at the cost of repairing the barricades and stairwells that are currently crumbling, with rusting steel rebar exposed in many locations. The cost of these long-overdue repairs, if the barricades were to remain, might begin to rival the expense of removing the walls completely.

The study addresses pedestrian safety by proposing the use of signal timing that allows pedestrians to get a head start into the intersection, a technique currently proving effective at Broadway and Main Street. The study states that "while the risks of a collision with pedestrians will undoubtedly increase from zero, they will not be any greater than at other major intersections in Winnipeg." Portage Avenue at Memorial Boulevard and Main Street at Broadway are intersections with similar ranges of vehicle traffic volumes and significant pedestrian numbers.

The Dillon study touches on accessibility by indicating people who use wheelchairs or have limited mobility can currently take more than nine minutes to cross the street through the underground, and when the private office towers close after the workday, it is not accessible to people who are unable to navigate stairs. This requires an above-ground crossing, which for two of the four directions is a journey of about 400 metres.

The Dillon report provides an important resource of factual information to help inform the debate as we move toward a public vote.

The study alleviates fears of significant traffic congestion by demonstrating that most expected commuter delays will be minimal.

It also makes some other important conclusions, stating that reconfiguring Portage and Main will improve the pedestrian experience, encourage a shift from single-occupant vehicles, ensure wheelchair accessibility exists at all times, improve area safety by bringing more people to the sidewalks and make urban living more attractive.

Brent Bellamy is chairman of CentreVenture’s board and the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.

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