On April 24th, 2020, the Government of Manitoba announced a plan to gradually reopen the province after weeks of stay at home orders to help flatten the curve.
The impacts of COVID-19 have taught us many lessons about our emergency preparedness and the resiliency of our cities. Most notably, it has taught us that we cannot go back to the way things were, we must strive to create something much better.
Now is the time to rethink our investments, policies, and infrastructure in order to put us on a path towards a better city, which entails a happier, healthier, wealthier, and more resilient city for all citizens.
COVID-19 has had devastating impacts on the economy, with all levels of government struggling to maintain services and provide support to constituents. This crisis will undoubtedly leave cities with immense debt and will force budgets to be re-evaluated almost entirely.
When this comes, we cannot allow further austerity measures. We must demand restructuring and reprioritization of our budgets to ensure that we are making better investments, particularly, ones with a better return on our investments.
In early March, the City of Winnipeg passed a 4-year budget with 32% going to the Winnipeg Police Service and 29% going towards road renewal. This budget was passed without consideration for the mounting evidence that indicates that these are not sound investments, strictly based on return on investment (among many other problems).
As consistently outlined by the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, every $1 invested in road renewal will result in $1.30 of increased GDP (Gross Domestic Product). While this may seem like good bang for your buck, this statistic leaves out the fact that cities recoup the smallest proportion of their investment in the GDP. As outlined by our friend, Elmwood Guy, Winnipeg’s income comes out to be just under 4% of our total GDP, which means “on average, every $1 invested will result in $1.30 of increased GDP, of which we, as a City, can expect to reap about 4% as income. That comes out to $0.05. So, we are losing $0.95 for every loonie we put in” to road investments.
Alternatively, there are many investments that would provide us with much better returns on those investments (numbers provided by Elmwood Guy).
- Transit: A 2010 study by the CUTA showed a return of $3.37 for each $1 spent on public transportation and a 2014 study by the APTA showed a return of $3.70.
- Trees: New York City has calculated that every $1 they spend on tree planting and care provides them $5.60 in benefits. The City of Halifax found that every $1 they spend on trees returns them $8.00.
- Pedestrian and Cycling Programs: A 2012 study of over 50 U.S. cities reported a return on investment of $11.80 for each $1 spent on walking and cycling projects. And that same study estimated that twice as many jobs are created with active transportation projects as opposed to road projects.
A recent announcement by the Federal Government on May 12th, 2020, committed to prioritizing return on investment, as stated by Catherine McKenna, “We need to get the most value for our money, which is not just shovel-ready projects, but shovel-worthy projects”. Which is why the Federal Government is putting a focus on projects that help people find ways to get outside safely, such as new or better paths, bike lanes, and nature trails.
Making better investments would not only provide us with better returns, but they would also help us to address many of our existing social, economic, and environmental issues.
While the prioritization of private vehicles in our urban landscape has been abundantly clear for decades, the need for physical distancing has made it an issue that can no longer be ignored.
Physical distancing guidelines call for 2+ metres of space between people, but the average sidewalk is only 1.5 metres wide. This poses serious concerns for pedestrians having to step into the way of fast-moving traffic to maintain distance and especially for people with mobility challenges.
Private vehicles have gobbled up the majority of the available space in cities, through excessive demand for valuable street space and the many surface parking lots that have plagued much of our downtown core (a staggering 40% of land in Downtown Winnipeg is allocated to parking). This has forced individuals walking and cycling into the gaps that vehicles have left available, with much of this space being insufficient for proper physical distancing and does not provide the food, fresh air, and social interactions that are so desperately needed.
In response, we are seeing cities around the world open up more space for people to maintain physical distance. This is being accomplished through limiting motor vehicle traffic, implementing shared slow streets, sidewalk extensions, pop-up bike/slow lanes, and much more. Like other cities, we can develop our infrastructure right now without spending much money. We can use paint, pylons, and concrete curbs to widen our walkways, create slow streets, and make new public spaces where people can congregate without crowding.
When economic stimulus packages come, this new infrastructure will be tried-and-tested, ready to lead our economic recovery.
When it comes to connections, we need both physical and social connectivity, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. A key component of connectivity is transportation, which helps to give people access to employment, education, commerce, and leisure activities. As mobility has changed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more important now that our walking, cycling, and transit networks are made safe and seamless for users.
Many of the transportation connectivity issues in Winnipeg have solutions, which are outlined in the Pedestrian & Cycling Strategies and Transportation Master Plan. These strategies propose 80 kilometres of protected bike lanes, a 13-lane downtown grid, along with hundreds of kilometres of new sidewalks, upgraded sidewalks, and multi-use pathways. Other notable plans include the building of several active transportation bridges, with costs being 80 to 90 percent less than it costs to build vehicle bridges, as outlined by Brent Bellamy. The addition of active transportation bridges throughout Winnipeg would play a key role in connecting neighbourhoods and filling in the gaps in our existing networks.
Completing our network for pedestrians and cyclists would not only be a sound investment for our city to make, it would also help to stimulate the local economy. Providing connectivity for all users, whether they have a private vehicle or not, is essential to encouraging additional support for local businesses.
Investing in our transportation network will help connect people with businesses and other people, both of which are essential in our economic and social recovery.
Part of developing a better city post-COVID-19 is developing better policies. Green Action Centre has spent years calling for policy changes to improve sustainable transportation options throughout the city, all of which would help contribute to a more sustainable and resilient Winnipeg.
A few of our policies include, but are not limited to:
- Implementing a default speed limit of 30 km/hr on residential streets
- The removal of Parking Minimums on new developments
- Implementing Parking Benefit Districts
- Implementing Fare Free Public Transit
- Providing Infill Incentives
- Increased and extended payment of Impact Fees on new developments
- Implementing Commuter Fees for Ex-Urban Commuters
- Implementing Community Gardening and Public Produce Incentives
While building a ‘better’ city may be subjective, building a city that brings happiness to its citizens is not. Cities have incredible power in shaping the lives and attitudes of citizens, as demonstrated by Bogota, Columbia. When Enrique Penalosa became the mayor, his first actions were to throw away the highway expansion plan and instead, invest in hundreds of miles of cycle paths, a vast chain of public parks and pedestrian plazas, schools, libraries, and launch the city’s first rapid transit system.
In the third year of Penalosa’s term, he introduced the now world-renowned event, Ciclovia. On this day, all vehicles were restricted from specific streets, inviting Bogotans to walk, run, bike, rollerskate, play, and truly enjoy their streets. This was the first day in four years that no one was killed in traffic, hospital admissions fell by almost a third, and the thick haze of smog over the city thinned. Opening streets to people not only helped with health, safety, and the environment, but it made Bogotans happier.
The effect that open streets have played in Bogota and in cities around the world are also being experienced in Winnipeg. In response to COVID-19, the City of Winnipeg has limited motor vehicle traffic on nine streets (Lyndale Dr., Wellington Cres., Scotia St., Wolseley Ave., Assiniboine Ave., Churchill Dr., Egerton Rd., Kildonan Dr., and Kilkenny Dr.). These streets have welcomed Winnipeg citizens to get much needed fresh air and exercise, while maintaining safe physical distancing. It has empowered citizens to enjoy their streets as public spaces and their lives are much better off for it.
The reclaiming of public space is essential for mobility, but also for relaxing. As inspired by the annual ‘PARKing Day’, citizens around the world are reclaiming parking spaces as outdoor seating areas and parklets. Cities like Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, are turning city streets and plazas into a vast network of open-air cafes, to allow businesses to operate while observing physical distancing regulations.
Building better cities takes bold action and the conviction to do what is best for everyone, not just those in private vehicles. As the following cities have:
- The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo recently announced 650 kilometres of post-lockdown cycleways, coming at the expense of 72% of the available on-street car parking spaces.
- The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan recently announced plans to transform central parts of the city into one of the largest car-free zones in the world.
- The Mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaaf recently announced that the city would close up 74 miles of streets to passing vehicles (10% of total streets) to make it easier for residents to walk, bike, and play.
- The Mayor of Montreal, Valerie Plante recently announced that the city would offer an extensive network of Safe Active Pathways, which included 112 km of active safety lanes, 88 km of streets redesigned for the benefit of pedestrians and cyclists, among other infrastructure plans.
Cities around the world are taking action to ensure that they come out of this pandemic better off than before, and so can Winnipeg. It is time to reimagine our investments, infrastructure, and policies so that we can all fully enjoy Winnipeg, but better.