Beyond Portage & Main: Winnipeg Transit Connects to its Future

Tania Wegwitz   July 12, 2016   Comments Off on Beyond Portage & Main: Winnipeg Transit Connects to its Future
Winnipeg Transit Bjorn Radstrom

Winnipeg Transit’s Manager of Service Development Björn Rådström.

There is no greater gift than having a deep connection to the work you do all day.

And it’s exactly that kind of connection that I heard from Winnipeg Transit’s Manager of Service Development’s Björn Rådström when I asked him about his job recently: “I don’t believe in the importance of transit because I work at a transit system,” said Björn. “I work at a transit system because I believe in the importance of transit.”

That theme of right livelihood and a larger calling resonates through most of the conversations that I have with people involved in transit and other aspects of mobility and cities.  Yet I don’t know if the passengers and public that see the end result of city services and infrastructure ever realize this.

I thought it might be fun to profile some of those people and places here over the coming months.  And fittingly, I thought I’d jump in and start our armchair tour at the centre of it all (or at least near the centre of Canada) in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The Skinny on Winnipeg

For those who’ve never been, the City of Winnipeg and its surrounding areas are home to about  730,000 people and the city is located just south of the massive Lake Winnipeg that gives it its name.  Arising out of its advantageous placement where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, the themes of transportation and connection run through the city’s history.  For thousands of years the area has acted as a trading point for Aboriginal peoples and then over the past two centuries evolved as a  central hub for rail and other transport moving across Canada.

Canada Day event at Winnipeg's The Forks (Source: Tourism Winnipeg)

Canada Day event at Winnipeg’s The Forks where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. (Source: Tourism Winnipeg)

For many Canadians, I think the word “Winnipeg” might conjure up images of cold winters, hot summers and it’s iconic “Portage and Main” downtown intersection.  When I ask Björn about what he most wants people to know about the place he calls home, he says the best parts of Winnipeg are its sense of tight knit community, thriving arts scene, great restaurants, many colleges/universities (five of ’em!!), and its interesting history and architecture. (For more on that architecture, check out the video below or head to Randy Turner’s piece City Beautiful – How Architecture Shaped Winnipeg’s DNA.)

For myself, I’ve only been to the city once but the things that struck me as a planner are the amazing extent of its street trees and the fact that the city has stayed relatively true to its grid pattern as it has expanded.  Toodling around at ground level on a bike in early summer, the impression I had was of a place where you were never far away from water, as the banks and curves of the serpentine rivers meandered their way through the community.

Making the Connections Happen: Winnipeg Transit

The start of transit in Winnipeg: horse drawn street car on Main Street in front of the city's old (and now demolished) city hall. (Source: BACKTRACKS The Story of Winnipeg's Streetcars, http://edgelandfilms.com/backtracks-the-story-of-winnipegs-streetcars/)

The start of transit in Winnipeg: horse drawn street car on Main Street in front of the city’s old (and now demolished) city hall. (Source: BACKTRACKS The Story of Winnipeg’s Streetcars, http://edgelandfilms.com/backtracks-the-story-of-winnipegs-streetcars/)

If the city itself has a longstanding history as a connection point within its region and country, Winnipeg Transit has been a key part of making connections happen within the city since 1882 when it got its start as a horse-drawn street railway system.  It later converted to electric streetcars in 1892 and then began adding buses in 1918.  Today the system has just over 600 vehicles and gets about 130,000 people to where they need to go each day.

winnipegsystemmap

Starting as the system’s Transit Planner in 2007 and now its Manager of Service Development, Björn and the folks who work directly with him as part of his team cover planning, scheduling, marketing, communications and passenger information for the system.  Or, as he puts it “My group looks after where the buses go, what infrastructure supports them, when and how they get there and then communicating all of that to passengers.”

Like most of the medium-sized communities that I’ve spoken to or worked with, a relatively small number of staff behind the scenes makes all of this happen. Besides Björn, Winnipeg Transit’s Planning team includes a Planner and Planning Assistant (who look after a range of planning activities) and a Market Researcher and Research Assistant (who oversee ridership and revenue data analysis and maintain mapping info).

Four Schedulers and a Scheduling Technician see the system through its four schedule changes per year and five people in the Marketing and Communications group get the message out, whether that be updates to signage and materials on street or online, promotions and the like.

From a Solid Base to… the Future

A large focus for the system over the past 10 years has been on strengthening its foundations.  From 2006 to 2011 the system mainly concentrated on improving customer information and the flow of transit.    All of Winnipeg’s buses are now equipped with Automated Vehicle Location (AVL) that offers real time schedule info to passengers via web, phone and text, as well as next trip information at key stops and stations.  Recent investments also created a series of transit priority measures like queue jump lanes, a transit mall and the first phase of a bus way network to keep transit vehicles moving.

Winnipeg's Southwest Transitway (Source: Winnipeg Transit Southwest Transitway open house boards, May 2015)

Winnipeg’s Southwest Transitway (Source: Winnipeg Transit Southwest Transitway open house boards, May 2015)

That 3.6km long first phase of bus way (known as the “Southwest Transitway”) opened in April 2014 and enabled transit to more easily flow between downtown (where the University of Winnipeg is located) and Jubliee Station (a midway construction terminus point).  That first phase of operation has already been spurring a number of larger developments around stations, including a fairly extensive new Transit Oriented Development called The Yards at Fort Rouge going in beside Jubilee Station.

Winnipeg Southwest Transitway (Photo source: Plenary Group)

Winnipeg Southwest Transitway (Photo source: Plenary Group)

When I spoke with Björn, Winnipeg Transit had just announced the successful bidder for the second phase of construction to extend the Transitway another 7.6 km to its terminus at the University of Manitoba.  All going well, construction will start on the Phase 2 Transitway this summer and go into operation in April 2020.  Like its first phase, this second phase of the Transitway is integrated with a network of cycling and walking paths.

Service expansion has been somewhat static over the past few years but that is changing.  A U-Pass program implements this fall for the 35,000 students attending the city’s University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg.  Winnipeg’s City Council has approved a 20% increase to route frequency to meet the anticipated demand.

Beyond these short term changes, there is also renewed focus on how the system can keep evolving over the longer term.  In November the system received $1.7 million in provincial funding towards the second phase of its Transitway. It is also in the first request for proposal stages of a process that will determine route and conceptual design for the next rapid transit corridor from downtown to eastern Winnipeg.

Winnipeg Transit is also in the midst of an electric bus demonstration project in collaboration with New Flyer Industries and partners the City of Winnipeg, the Province of Manitoba, Manitoba Hydro, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Red River College, and Sustainable Development Technology Canada. (See video about the project below).

With all of this going on, the transit system is gearing up for an even longer look into the future.  “In the months ahead we’re planning on starting on our first strategic and long range transit planning process in a while,” says Björn.

“We’re looking forward to doing a substantial amount of public engagement as part of this to see what people want long term and what they want improved most over the shorter term to get there.”

Changing the Conversation

Moving sustainable mobility forward in any community takes a number of different efforts all pulling together in the same direction.  When I ask Björn about what he most wants to help change, his answer intrigues me because he says he wants to change the conversation.

Photo source: Plenary Group (www.plenarygorup.com)

Photo source: Plenary Group (www.plenarygorup.com)

“I would like to change the public perception that taking transit or building more density in our communities needs to be ‘all or nothing.’  When you speak with people about increasing the density in neighbourhoods, there’s often a fear that it means ‘forcing people into apartment towers,’ when actually the single family houses will still be there.”

He continues: “But what we are talking about is adding to that mix with row houses and condos and that modest densification leads to better options for communities and how people get around. We need a broader spectrum of densities and housing types that can accommodate people through all stages of life.”

Björn also relates this approach to the messages we give people when it comes to changing their transportation behaviours.  “We’re not trying to say to people ‘use only transit all the time.’  It doesn’t always work and if you have to drop off kids at daycare or need a car for a work trip, that’s fine.  But don’t write transit off completely.  There may be a lot of instances where it might work for you.  We need to change these conversations.”

PortageWinnipeg3And changing the conversation is definitely something that Björn is doing on a personal level.  “I own a car and I also take the bus each day to work.  It doesn’t work all the time and so sometimes if I’ve got particular meetings that would be hard to make happen throughout the day by bus, I drive.  But I’m being a part of that larger change.

“I love urban life and city life and I choose to live in almost the very centre of our community and in a neighbourhood that also happens to be one of the lowest income urban areas in the country.  Every day I see the importance of transit for my neighbours in terms of the access it provides and the ability for them to get to where they need to go. And that’s why I’m passionate about my job.”

And from the centre of our country comes those very central themes: that mobility and community matter and that those of us involved in making them happen often gratefully see ourselves as part of that larger picture.


Much thanks to Björn for the time he took to speak to me and recognition to those noted as photo sources in this article. All going well, look for more stories in the months ahead from people behind the scenes in transportation: from operating ferries on the east coast,  to promoting bikes and walking on the west, and maybe a pit stop in our nation’s capital in between, I hope you’ll come along for the ride.