Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Stroad-inger’s Cat

Alive AND dead, at the same time??!?

Dear Winnipeg,

I had coffee with a new friend last week. We had such a fun conversation about so many things: business, city issues, and the difference between a street and a road.

[I know it sounds like a joke, like ‘What’s the difference between jelly and jam?’ But for real, this was an actual topic we discussed.]

And I’ll come back to the road-street thing.

[Ok, I can tell you won’t be able to concentrate until I give you the punch line, so here: Nobody hates being stuck in a traffic jelly.]

[Look, I never said it was a good joke.]

Anyhow, my new friend is a business owner in the Exchange District, so naturally, we got to talking about the pros and cons of running a business there.

Which is why my ears immediately perked up when I heard a radio interview late last week where Councillor Brian Mayes described the Exchange District as the city’s “Golden Goose”.

I’m assuming he was referring to this:

Data sourced from the City of Winnipeg Open Data Portal

Yeah. Despite what is basically decades of neglect, the Exchange District is STILL the 6th highest performing neighbourhood in the entire city, from a property tax perspective. [In case you’re wondering, the top 5 are, in order: Portage & Main, Roslyn, South Portage, Portage-Ellice and Broadway-Assiniboine.]

Golden Goose indeed.

Yet, despite that, even with over 60,000 vehicles driving by every day, many businesses there say they are having a hard time.

In fact, 67 of them have signed a petition asking the city to develop a plan for the area.

So what gives?

Well, the answer is right there in front of us: 60,000 vehicles DRIVE BY every day. And obviously, for a business to thrive, those vehicles need to STOP so their occupants can get out and spend some money.

And that brings us to the difference between a road and a street.

What is a street?

A street is a platform for generating economic activity. It’s a productive place where business happens, where wealth is created.

What is a road?

A road is a high-speed connection between productive places.

Can’t a place be both?

Short answer: no. And here’s why.

If we want a successful street, we need it to be a place that is designed to make people stop.

If we want a successful road, we need it to be a place that is designed to make people go.

Those two goals are obviously incompatible with each other.

That would be like trying to have a cat that is both alive and dead. This might be possible in the world of quantum mechanics. [I can’t be 100% sure because I didn’t read the Wikipedia article to the end. Also, Heisenberg.]

Except this isn’t quantum mechanics. This is a city.

And in a city, you have to choose one, because in trying to be both, you end up with neither.

When you try to have a place that is both good for business, but also moves traffic quickly, you end up with a stroad.

A stroad, a street-road hybrid, is the futon of transportation investments.

Just like a futon is a crappy sofa that doubles as a crappy bed, a stroad is both bad at stimulating business activity, and also bad at moving traffic efficiently.

Think about it. To have a successful street, you need things that encourage people to stop. Things like:

  • Slow-moving traffic, like 30 km/h or less
  • Narrow streets to aid with crossings, even at mid-block
  • Available on-street parking
  • Bike racks
  • Street benches
  • Sidewalks wide enough to accommodate both people walking and lingering
  • Buildings close together, and oriented to the sidewalk/street
  • Awnings to protect you from the elements
  • Trees and planters
  • Human-scaled signs, and other interesting things to look at
  • Heated patios in winter, with cozy blankets for customers [My wife and her sister have called these ‘luppies’ since they were kids, for reasons even they can’t remember.]

In short, things that will make people linger, no matter their mode of transportation, because the more they linger, the more likely they are to spend a bunch of money. Shopping mall designers have been using that trick since the dawn of time. [Or at least since whenever shopping malls were invented.]

It might look something like this stretch of Albert Street:

Thanks to my wife for letting me use this beautiful picture she took. 🙂

Roads, on the other hand, need completely different things to be successful at their job of moving traffic quickly. Things like:

  • Eliminating or reducing intersections and on- and off-ramps. Those only slow traffic and create congestion.
  • Eliminating adjacent land uses (like businesses or homes). These just add turning cars to the mix, which we want to avoid.
  • Separating different directions of traffic into one-ways.
  • High speed limits. Where slower vehicle types are expected to mix (think bikes or pedestrians), they should be on their own completely separate facilities.
  • Limiting distractions, such as signs, or anything that can’t be appreciated at high speeds.

It would look like this:

Except for the intersection at Gateway, Chief Peguis Trail between Henderson and Lagimodiere is a wonderful example of a well-designed road.

Of course, there is a need for both roads and streets in our city. We just have to make sure that we know which is which, and avoid trying to meld the two together.

Because while Exchange District businesses are busy trying to get people to stop, the City is busy trying to get people to drive right on through, with things like:

  • Wide streets (8 lanes of traffic on Main, 4 lanes on Notre Dame and on Princess, 3 lanes on King, Bannatyne and McDermot)
  • One-way streets (Main St, Notre Dame, Princess, King, Bannatyne and McDermot)
  • Fast-moving traffic (50 km/h or more)
  • Badly managed on-street parking supply, meaning parking isn’t always available where and when people want it

That’s when we start to wander into stroad territory.

We need to ask ourselves, are we trying to have streets in the Exchange so businesses can thrive, or are we looking to have roads so traffic can move through quickly?

Having both is impossible. To try means having businesses that are struggling, and traffic that is congested. The worst of both worlds.

So when Exchange business owners are asking for a plan, we should listen to them. Having a plan will mean deciding between having roads or having streets there. I think we know which one they are pushing for.

Once we know WHAT we’re trying to accomplish (street or road), I think we’ll be quite surprised at how low-cost and low-tech most of the solutions will be. And especially how easily they can be implemented on a test basis, to see what works and what doesn’t, as we continue to make tweaks along the way.

And if we can get to work converting all of the other stroads we’ve built everywhere else to EITHER a street or a road, we’ll be well on our way to being a much more financially productive city.

Plus, when I think of all the untapped potential of de-stroading my little stretch of south Henderson, with its 100-year-old bones just screaming to be returned to street status, I start to get a little misty-eyed.

Oh no. Now I’m getting a little verklempt

Talk amongst yourselves.

I’ll give you a topic:

Portage & Main is neither a good sofa nor a good bed. Discuss.

Lots of love,

Elmwood Guy