Twenty Urbanist Observations From a Trip to Winnipeg

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Recently I went to Winnipeg for a weekend to visit a relative. I’m a dual citizen of Canada and the USA and it was fun to go up north and hang out. For the record, Winnipeg is a the capital of the province of Manitoba, and the metro area has a population of around 740K while the city itself is about 680K. The City of Winnipeg dominates that part of Canada, which is a foreign country with like completely different currency with all these crazy coins and colors on their paper money and everything. It’s a seven hour drive from Saint Paul and you have to cross a national border.   

Here’s what I observed:

1. Winnipeg is super-duper flat- flatter than Minneapolis, even

Wow is Winnipeg flat! The highest point in Winnipeg is the landfill.

This city used to be part of glacial lake Agassiz and it’s flatter than flat. It’s one of the reason why the river flows north (!) which when you stop and look at it and think about it is sort of a bizzaro mind-warp situation, like watching water swirl down the drain in Argentina or something.

Which means that single-speed bicycling must be a thing up here! There are no topographical barriers to riding a bike, that’s for sure.

The view from the top of the Brady Road landfill.

2. No freeways in the city is a real thing

I’ve occasionally heard it said that in Canada they did not make the same mistakes that we did here in the USA when it comes to building grade-separated limited access freeways through (instead of around) cities. Apparently this is true! In Winnipeg the freeways become more like boulevards as they enter the city and they stay that way until you again reach the urban boundary. I suspect there are bypass ring roads, but I am also guessing there are more land use controls about how the area near them is used because the low density development seems less widespread here.

“Strategic road network” map. Note the lack of thick lines through the center of town.

3. There are lots of wide boulevards but they have stoplights

The corollary to the “no urban freeways” thing is that, because there are still a ton of people driving all the time, there are a ton of wide medium-speed roads through the city. In Winnipeg streets like Main Street, Broadway, and Portage Avenue, often look and feel a bit like a cross between Phalen Boulevard, Hiawatha Avenue/55, or Olson Memorial Highway.

These roads are barriers, they detract from the sidewalks and public spaces, and getting around on them can be pretty hectic. But at least they have stoplights and crosswalks every few hundred feet, and compared to American urban freeways they seem like a much better situation for walkability and urban design.

An eight-lane Main Street.

4. Skid row is still there

In Minneapolis and Saint Paul they obliterated their old skid rows and short-term hotel parts of the city without much thought. In Winnipeg, so it seems, the old skid row is still there along Main Street in the North End of town. Pawn shop. Hotel. Bar. Pawn shop. Hotel Bar…

The North End has block after block of this and during the day the sidewalks are well peopled with groups of (mostly) men hanging out. It’s kind of interesting to see a real life skid row of the sort that you see in, for example, the Minneapolis’ Down on Skid Row documentary. Of course I’m sure that people living in Winnipeg might feel a bit differently about this part of town but it to me it is historically and socially interesting to see.

Pizza place, SRO hotel, pawn shop. Note the pedestrian barrier.

5. Winnipeg has longest city blocks I have ever seen

Speaking of blocks, Winnipeg has insanely long city blocks.

In her critical planning masterpiece, “Death and Life of Great American Cities”, noted American-Canadian Jane Jacobs has but four key rules for sidewalks and one of them is to keep city block size to a minimum. Small blocks, she writes, encourage spontaneity and flexibility for people on foot because of their, “fabric of intricate cross-use”, whereas long blocks, “in their nature, thwart the potential advantages that cities offer.”

It’s not one of her more important arguments, but she has a great point to make. She uses the long and relatively boring blocks of New York City’s Upper West Side as a whipping boy.

Well, Winnipeg has the longest residential blocks I have ever seen! They are about twice as long as Jacobs’ west side examples. They go on and on without a break, especially in the city’s West End. It’s really quite stunning, and certainly bad for urbanist vitality and walkability.

From left to right: New York City (Upper West Side), Minneapolis (South), Winnipeg (West End). A half-mile block!

6. This place is industrial, holy moly

Like much of Canada, and especially the prairie provinces, Winnipeg is really industrial. Lots of warehouses, rail yards, and other symbols of a resource/extractive economy. Industrial signifiers, like guys having lunch wearing a blazer and jeans and sporting Barry Melrose mullets, are fundamental to the culture. There are a ton of railroads, constantly in motion. Farm fields stretch to the horizon. A huge part of Canada’s economy and society is based simply on making money directly out of the surrounding land. Note that this is true in the US, as well, especially in places like North Dakota. But with the population density so much lower in Canada, the industrial extractive vibe is far more obvious than it is south of the border.

Apparently this was an “industry” somehow, back in the day.

7. They have curb protected bike lanes

Winnipeg has a small system of legit concrete-curb-protected bike lanes, and the curb extensions are particularly apparent at the intersections. (This is the opposite of how they do it in Minneapolis, for example, where the protected bits disappear at the intersections, the places where you most need them.) I am certain they have more snow in Winnipeg than in the Twin Cities, so the whole “but winter!? what about snow plows?” anti-bike-lane argument seems to be proven false up here.

In other words if they can have concrete curb protected bike lanes in Winnipeg, they can have them in Saint Paul.

Three pics of concrete protected bike lanes.

8. They have their version of skyways, and they suck

The main intersection of downtown Winnipeg, their version of Nicollet and 7th, is called Portage and Main. It’s surrounded by the nicest skyscrapers in the city, and you can’t cross the street. That’s right, the main corner has concrete walls between the sidewalk and the street, and people on foot are forced into an underground climate-controlled tunnel system that immediately disorients any newcomer.

It’s like a tiny crap underground skyway, filled with office-y shops that close after 5pm, abandoned escalator strewn hallways, and staffed by a single bored security guard.

9. There is a horrible pedestrian-blocking downtown street mistake

Following the previous point, the city is now contemplating re-opening the intersection to pedestrians, but it would be expensive and likely involve no little tweak to traffic engineering. Here’s a recent article on it:

To make Winnipeg more walkable, Halldorson says the cement barriers need to come down at Portage and Main.

“There’s obviously a line of desire that I’d like to walk through that intersection as a pedestrian, but I can’t,” said Halldorson.

Now a long awaited report and traffic study have been made public on reopening the intersection to pedestrians. The project is one of Mayor Brian Bowman’s key campaign pledges.

“It is in the end a commitment to the heart of our city,” said Bowman.

That commitment comes with a huge price tag.

The study says puts a cost to tear down the barricades, upgrade sidewalks and curbs, do repairs in the underground concourse and maintain the same level of transit service: $11.6 million.

(Psst: that’s not a huge amount of money for the center of your downtown… Minneapolis just spent $25M on a superficial makeover for Nicollet Mall.)

Still it seems like, if Winnnipeg ever wants a walkable downtown (and it’s no given that they do), re-populating the sidewalks at the absolute center of the city would be a good start.

Anyway people are talking about it now. They hired one consultant who did a report, but then hired another consultant. There are some car-only haters blowing smoke. Seems like a game of sidewalk budgetary chicken!

[Seriously check this out, it’s crazy!]

10. Enclosed bus shelters and people

I once saw a study that measured how quickly people walked in different cities around North America. There’s a common assumption that people walk faster in big cities and slower in small towns. Well, at least according to this metric, people walk faster in the coldest cities. Winnipeg was at the top of the list, with the fastest pedestrians on the continent.

The point is that winter in Winnipeg is brutal! It gets colder and windier in Winnipeg then it does in Minneapolis by a significant margin. It’s one of the few places that can legit boast that they have worse winters than we do here and thus the fully enclosed bus shelters make a great deal of sense. Too bad we don’t have many of these and even our “nice” shelters still have room for the wind to whip around your ankles.

Picture a cold day in Minneapolis, only colder and more windy.

11. Much higher bus ridership

By the way, mode share in Winnipeg is something like 14%. That’s the metro area stats, by the way.  

Are those numbers in metric or Canadian dollars or something, because that is far far higher than Minneapolis?

The equivalent numbers for Minneapolis are something like 9% city-wide and 5% metro-wide. In Winnipeg, they are doing something right with the transit planning. I suspect its a complicated series of land use, planning, and financial incentives that create this more transit-friendly environment. Whatever the reason, it makes me jealous!



12. WTH is a “Parkade”?

Certainly the dumbest regional cultural difference in North America is the distinction between parking terminology. As certain coastal journalists are fond of pointing out, the Twin Cities is one of the few places that calls non-surface parking a “parking ramp” (as opposed to “parking garage”, “parking deck”, or “parking structure”).

Well if you think that’s dumb, check out what they do up in Manitoba. That’s right, it’s called a “parkade.”

“Parkade entrance” is this way. “Sorry for asking, but can you direct me to the nearest parkade?” Etc.

Parkade façade.

13. Seemingly ambitious Federal support for cities

Canadian politics is generally outside my ken, but it seems to me that the Federal government is not waging an all-out war on urban funding streams and populations as they are doing in the United States. (Are Provincial governments different? Maybe.)

In Winnipeg, the biggest sign that this might be true is the massive new museum in the middle of downtown, which was made possible by a huge grant from the Federal government. It’s called the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and it’s wildly idealistic, at least viewed from my eyes. This is the kind of liberal utopian project found only in Star Trek narratives, and in the US would be nothing but right-wing talk show fodder. Anyway, it’s an interesting museum and it dominates the new Winnipeg skyline in a very particular way. It’s kind of like if the Vikings stadium had been built, not for football, but for the history of labor struggles and/or modernism or something more noble than concussions, advertising, and death to migratory birds.  

Views from the top of the Human Rights Museum.

14. Their skate park is 10X better than anything in the Twin Cities

As the good folks at City of Skate are fond of pointing out, the Twin Cities suck when it comes to cutting edge skate parks. Lo and behold, in Winnipeg, right in the center of the main tourist destination, and in the shadow of the Museum of Human Rights, there’s a massive excellent skatepark. No fences, just awesome places to [insert skateboard lingo].

It’s a great public space! Our skate parks suck, and its clear that Winnipeggers have figured out how to transcend the the skaters stigma of and short-sightedness of downtown boosters worried about “kids today” or whatever. At least in this regard…

A few views of Winnipeg’s amazing downtown skatepark, a centerpiece of The Forks neighborhood.

15. People appreciate their sunlight

Walking along the river on a nice October day, boy howdy do people really get out and bask in the sun. This time of year, there’s a gloom in the air. People are well aware that their sunny days are numbered, and even when its a bit chilly, you see young and old alike out in the park benches and patios of Winnipeg. 

Canadian sun worshippers.

16. Trees are smaller

It’s only a few hundred miles (XXX kilometers) north, but you can already tell that you’re in a different climate. Light is lower in the sky, and the trees are small. Mostly aspens or poplars, few oaks. The difference in climate and biogeography is subtle, but always in the back of your mind.

17. River access is seemingly everywhere

The Red River is a major river, folks, and it flows north right through the heart of Winnipeg. It’s not nearly as wide as the Minnesota / Mississippi / St. Croix river basins, and it’s creepily flowing backwards like you’re in a David Lynch film set in Australia, but it does make for some lovely urban space at the heart of he center of Winnipeg.

The main tourist attraction in town is called The Forks and it’s the thousand year-old trading site where the Assiniboine River meets the Red River. Indigenous people have been meeting and trading at that place for as long as anyone has records, and today it’s still a park, café, river boat, and trail space where lots of people hang out. Because of the lack of topography the rivers are pretty accessible to people on foot and they seem like a big part of the urban imagery in Winnipeg.

(There’s even a weird suburban-ish neighborhood called Kingston Crescent that’s basically on an oxbow in the middle of the river!)

One of the Red River bridges has this cool historic marker, only visible from the parallel ped-only bridge.

18. People seem more comfortable with diversity

So the Forks and the Human Rights Museum and the diverse places in the North End like the Nishi Market (a Native-owned co-op) are only part of the picture. Walking over the Red River from downtown, you enter the traditional French area of the city, and I was legitimately wandering around there and happened across a funeral being performed in the old Catholic church cemetery where everyone was speaking French. The most famous person in this part of the culture was a guy named Louis Riel, who was a Metis man who got pissed at the British-Canadian government and started a small but failed rebellion in the 1860s.

In one way, he was an equivalent of someone like Little Crow, who was very central to Dakota identity in the mid 1800s, got swept up in the small and failed Dakota conflict of 1862, was exiled, had his remains desecrated, and today is almost completely forgotten in Minnesota. On the other hand, in Winnipeg, Riel has become a central part of the narrative of place and the fact that he fought there is a big part of the identity of Winnipeg in general and the French speaking community in particular.

The point is that it seems to me that Canada is more multicultural than the United States in general, and especially Minnesota in particular. This is true generally, for immigrants, refugees, and different White ethnicities, but it’s especially important when it comes to Native American cultures (“First Nations” in Canadian parlance). There are certainly a great many persisting problems in Canada but one feels like most people are at the very least conscious of them. You notice this in many small ways.

View from the ruins of the St. Boniface Cathedral, in the traditionally French speaking part of Winnipeg.

19. Exurbs disappear

It’s the weirdest thing that there’s this massive ring road/grade-separated highway surrounding Winnipeg but there’s hardly any development along it. Meanwhile, in the center city, you can’t find a freeway.

Yet there are lots of small towns/cities in Manitoba. The Canadian side of the border is more populated than the American side, for example, and there are little town centers you can find scattered around the periphery of the city. 

At any rate, this one graph says it all. Imagine if the Twin Cities metro population was 90% within the borders of the core city. How would that change municipal governance conversations?

20. West Saint Paul / East Saint Paul map makes sense

What the heck? It looks weird to me!

43 thoughts on “Twenty Urbanist Observations From a Trip to Winnipeg

  1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

    Thanks for the article! Out of the places that I’ve visited, Winnipeg has been one that’s stuck out to me as one of the most enjoyable places I’ve ever visited. This article is making me want to plan another visit up there here soon. I do wholeheartedly agree with your verdict on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights; it’s a true gem of the city and a museum everyone should visit in their lifetime.

    Some random side notes: I’ve found that there’s quite a bit of traffic between Manitoba (assuming Winnipeg-area) and the Twin Cities. When I lived in central Minnesota and was driving down regularly on I-94 to the Twin Cities on Friday evenings, after Manitoba plates were far and away the most frequent out-of-town plates. I wonder if some of them could bring their urbanist ideals down here as well? 🙂 Except for the parkade part, that’s just odd.

  2. Lou Miranda

    Great article. “People appreciate their sunlight.” I notice that, too, in lots of photos of Northern Europe: people bundled up, socializing, having coffee or cocoa outside on a bench or cafe. We don’t really see that much in the Cities, do we?

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I’ve often wondered the same. People outside of the US are massively more likely to enjoy eating outside in cooler weather than people in Minnesota. If it’s 55f or 60f & sunny in Stockholm or Amsterdam or London then gobs of people outside. In Minnesota just about zero. Even on a day like today with some clouds and mid 40’s, in Europe there will be people standing around outside a pub drinking a beer or coffee.

      1. Joe

        There is a huge difference between spring and fall. If it’s 55f or 60f in the spring here, there are tons and tons of people outside. Even when it gets to mid 40s in the spring you will see people start to come out. Less so in the fall.

    2. Jason Haremza

      Wasn’t Minnesota largely settled with people from Northern Europe? What happened in four or five generations?

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great article.

    I think Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Edmonton are similar or better on the ped/bike front. 🙂

    2. I can’t think of any European city with freeways/motorways through the city. I think they all stop at the edge, usually with a ring road. I think Canadian cities are more likely than European to have multi-lane surface highways through the city.

    3. Similarly, I can’t think of any place in Europe that allows crossing more than two opposing lanes without a stop signal. I believe any place that has two lanes in the same direction and so the risk of overtaking hits, will always have stop signals at crossings and the crossings will usually be frequent.

    4. I often wonder if skid rows have far more benefit than not. They may not be aesthetically appealing but they generally seem to function well and provide a better life for those who live there than not having such a place and ending up wherever throughout a city. The people who live there often support each other and it makes it much easier for organizations to provide whatever outside support is needed (though it seems a skid row type area actually lessens the amount of support needed).

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I can think of European cities where the freeway gets pretty close to the city center (Belfast, Glasgow) rather than stopping at the edge, but even those do not go through.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Good finds. Glasgow is pretty close in but you’re right that it doesn’t go through the middle like ours do. Belfast appears much worse. I’ve not been there but from sat images that looks pretty divisive.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          I think everything “inside” the V shape of the freeway in Belfast used to be industrial (much still is). The east side of the river’s mouth used to be the massive Harland and Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic (and many other ships) was built.

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    #2/#3 I often wonder which is worse. I think arguably a modestly sized urban freeway (like 4 lanes) is preferable to a sprawling surface street with a similar traffic volume. San Francisco has a similar arrangement, with Van Ness Ave, 19th Ave, and Embarcadero fill in urban gaps in the freeway network — but especially the first two are pretty unpleasant, dangerous streets.

    Copenhagen has a similarly unpleasant street — Åboulevard/HC Andersens Blvd/Amager Blvd — although it has decent treatments in the downtown area.

    On the other hand, I thought some of Stockholm’s wide boulevards were pretty tolerable when I visited there.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Yeah, name that modest urban freeway that’s not so bad… Have you ever seen the BQE in New York City? That’s maybe the best case scenario. Perhaps 35E in Saint Paul? I’d still rather have an at-grade signalized road.

  5. Conrad Peters

    As a Winnipegger, I really appreciated your article. I was struck how different you found our city compared to yours. We have visited your fair city many times and often comment on how much it feels like Winnipeg compared to the many other US cities I have visited. I think the most interesting observation of the many you make is the cultural diversity that exists. In many of the northern US cities, I have been to you have two choices. there are either white people or black people and very few other nationalities otherwise. As I looked around the bus(I’m one of those bus people) I suddenly realized that the only white guy on the bus was me. So many different cultures just on just one bus are awesome. You guys should try it. Anyway loved the article and have shared it with several friends. Come by in winter and go for a skate on the river at the forks. Thanks again

  6. Brenda Stewart

    I found it interesting the writer found it odd that the rivers flow north for someone raised in Manitoba and North Western Ontario it would seem odd to me to have a river flow south. I was also surprised at the perception all the trees all shorter some how it was missed that Winnipeg after over 40 years of fighting the problem of Dutch Elm still has a large portion of the urban forest that are large stately Elms. You really should visit Winnipeg in winter, fly in to Winnipeg in January you’ll leave Minneapolis airport where people flying to southern vacations arrive in winter coats to Winnipeg where no matter how cold outside are arriving and departing the city for points tropical already dressed for their destination. Also find a city that uses a long stretch of the river by the Forks as a skating trail with innovative artistic warming huts even a pop up restaurant on the river. Festival Du Voyageur celebrates not only winter but the french heritage.

    1. Jason Haremza

      I agree. I’m not sure why this misperception persists that most rivers in the northern hemisphere flow south. There are several rivers that flow north, or generally north. The Shenandoah, the Tennessee, the St. John’s River (Florida), the Monongahela, the San Joaquin, and, my own hometown Genesee River in Upstate NY.

      1. Allen

        The St. John’s River is the only other river in North America that flows north. other rivers, like the Tennessee do have some stretches that flow northerly but do not primarily flow north.

        Speaking of rivers, no mention of the Winnipeg floodway. They have a flood bypass that can carry more water than the Red River normally carries.

  7. I. Smith

    If you ask most Winnipeggers about MSP, they will say they dream of having a city as nice as yours.

    I frequently vacation in MSP, and other than winter, always take my bike as your cycling infrastructure is a hundred years ahead of Winnipeg. Those bike protected curbs take you right into standing pedestrians (as they only stand in the cycling part of the path).

    Nutty Club still makes candy at the factory there!

    As there are actual large corporations headquartered in MSP, rich people and corporate donations make a lot of nice things possible. Manitoba has very few corporate headquarters, so most funding comes either directly from government or through Crown Corporations (government run liquor & lottery, car insurance, hydro power).

  8. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Bill, you begin by pointing out that Winnipeg’s metropolitan area is 740K and the city proper 680K. That ratio, compared to ours, might help explain their high percentage of transit users compared to ours.

  9. Bob Roscoe

    Bill – Great informative article made expert with your great insights!

    In the late 1950s as a young boy living in Brainerd, our family spent 25 minutes in downtown Winnipeg. My very practical railroad worker father was talked into a trip to Winnipeg by my mother. As our family hardly ever traveled outside Crow Wing County, trip planning was not considered essential.

    After my dad glided the 1948 Plymouth into a downtown Winnipeg parking place, he put a nickel in the parking meter and told my two younger brothers and I to walk around and come back to the car a half hour later to compare what we saw and determined what we should visit.

    24 minutes later my dad and mother came back to the car. We boys were only interested in buying firecrackers which we did. My dad had a beer in a tavern where the women sat on one side and the men in the other side. My mother went to a JC Penneys store and bought some buttons.

    But none of us saw anything of further interest. My dad told us to get in the car and we’d head back to Brainerd. My mother said to my dad, “Jim – we still have six minutes on the meter.”
    Dad said, “To hell with that. Let’s let the next sonofabitch use those six minutes.”

    The next summer we drove to Superior, Wisconsin and more or less repeated the Winnipeg adventure.

  10. Brent Pistun

    I grew up and lived in Winnipeg for the first 25 years of my life, but have lived around the word for 20 years. I really enjoyed your article and thought that it was right on.
    You missed out on the provincial legislature building. Look it up; it’s really interesting. Also, Duff’s ditch (the floodway) is a major feat of engineering that has saved the city from flooding a number of times. It was the second largest earth moving feat after the Panama canal in it’s day.
    You nailed the roads; it’s a broken city to drive in. Public transport is a controversial issue. They are trying to cope with the mistakes in urban planning and the inefficient roadway system in the city by adding dedicated bus lanes, starting with transit to the U of M. I think they are doing the right thing and need to. continue investing in it and improving key arteries through the city.

  11. Sam

    I love Winnipeg! Got stuck there once trying to get back from Iceland and had a great time. Did you get to check out their new BRT line?

    The long blocks are pretty normal in Canada. I remember reading somewhere that it has to do with how Quebec was subdivided when it was colonized by the French? Their farms are like that too.

  12. the other scott

    Thanks for this, Bill. I have made many short trips up to Winnipeg in the past 4 years since my daughter started school at the University of Manitoba. (Pro tip to Minnesota parents with college age children: Manitoba has a reciprocity agreement with Minnesota, so your child can attend school there for about $5000 a year tuition. That’s right. A year. My daughter is getting a fine education and graduating without tons of debt.) Your observations are spot-on in my experience.

    Winnipeg has really grown on me. The very first thing I noticed when I went up there was that there weren’t gashes cut through the city for freeways. As you pointed out, there are multi-lane higher speed roads, but there are pedestrian crossings that have beg buttons that activate flashing lights that drivers actually stop for. I haven’t used transit to get around town, but the system looks to be really good for a metro much smaller than ours. There are lots of stops with electronic signage to tell you when the next bus is coming. My daughter complains about the system, but that is mostly because the fare lasts for only 75 minutes. If one was to judge diversity by ethnic food options, Winnipeg (at least the south side by the U of M) has a lot of options besides Tim Hortons. South and east Asian restaurants are especially well represented. The Forks is a fun place to hang around, and there is a nice rail museum close to the Human Rights museum.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      It’s an in-joke for people familiar with Saint Paul, where I live. Here, West Saint Paul is actually *south* of Saint Paul, while South Saint Paul is to the East of that. North Saint Paul is vaguely northeast. It’s all very confusing.

  13. Martin

    So the reason the federal government does not disregard cities in Canada, contrasting with the US, is because electoral representation largely follows representation by population. In the US, representation is VERY skewed towards rural areas.

    The province of Manitoba has historically been VERY urban oriented, ad over half the province lives in Winnipeg. The new Conservative government, with a high share of voters from the rural south of Manitoba & suburban Winnipeg, may be less so – but not as much as with American right governments.

  14. Sean

    I’m not sure why you guys find the word “Parkade” so weird. It is a seven letter word just like parking and requires no noun afterward to describe the type of structure. No need for “ramp”, “garage”, or “stucture”. It’s a good catch-all for anything that isn’t just a standard lot.

    The sizes of city blocks goes back to how Winnipeg was settled. If you look at those long blocks, they are mostly near the core area and go back to the French way of dividing land with river frontage. We have those long blocks near where I live running east/west, then a few blocks over they switch to north/south because they become based on the other river. Move into newer areas, you get much smaller blocks.

    Lastly, we have a very extensive raised Skywalk system that weaves throughout much of downtown and is still being expanded. Portage and Main is the exception, going under the street instead of over. I suspect if built today, some traffic would be underground, not the people.

  15. Jason Haremza

    Re: #7 “In other words if they can have concrete curb protected bike lanes in Winnipeg, they can have them in Saint Paul.” Maybe. Liability concerns stifle some right-of-way elements that are used in Europe and Canada, which are both less litigious than the US.

    Re: #11 Much higher bus ridership. In addition to planning, I suspect transit is far better supported, financially, by municipal and provincial (probably not a whole lot of federal support, but I could be wrong) in Canada than municipal and state governments in the US. Despite your observations about the museum, my impression from my time spent in Ontario that the Canadian federal government actually doesn’t do much at all for cities. Which is what saved them in the 1950s and 1960s when the US federal government was giving out boatloads of money for interstate highways and “slum” clearance.

    Re: #19 Exurbs disappear. If Manitoba is anything like Ontario, the province can amalgamate municipalities by fiat. This is unlike many American States, certainly New York, where local “home rule” is supreme and we are stuck with an 18th century system of local government. The other reason is that most, if not all, of Canada strictly regulates on-site waste water treatment (septic) systems. Almost everyone has to hook into municipal sewer systems, and those, in turn, require a reasonably high density to make the infrastructure worth the investment. The restrictions on septic systems put a brake on the exurban, semi-rural, ‘let’s-pretend-we-have-a-farm’ sprawl of 1 to 5 acre lots that ring many American cities.

  16. Jason Haremza

    Also, re: transit usage, gas is the equivalent of $2.87 (US dollars) per gallon in Winnipeg. Historically, it may have been even higher. Again, my experience was in Ontario, but car insurance was MUCH higher in Canada than in the US. All this adds up to make operating a vehicle more expensive.

  17. GlowBoy

    I actually had booked a hotel to visit Winnipeg with my family over Thanksgiving, but we had to cancel due to some other changes in family plans. Looks like we’ll still need to make the trip sometime soon, and get to know our neighbor to the north.

    – Didn’t realize it was that flat. Maybe you’re right about singlespeed biking (though the wind might make it difficult). I actually thought I’d go singlespeed when I moved here, but nope. Not flat enough, especially since I like to ride over to St. Paul to keep myself in shape on hills. I could get by with a 3-speed here, though.

    – Vancouver is also somewhat similar in its lack of freeways, with only a couple them coming near the center, but not going through. And plenty of wide, sometimes unpleasant boulevards.

    – In both Portland and Seattle, where I’ve also lived, “parking garage” is probably the most common term, but “parking ramp” and “parking structure” are also used interchangeably No one would look at you funny for referring to a “parking ramp.” Since it’s a perfectly normal term to use in all the cities I’ve lived in, this is literally the first time I’ve *ever* heard anyone thought it was odd. If “coastal” people think it’s strange, it must be an East Coast thing. Definitely not West Coast.

    – You know what IS weird about Minnesota? Duck duck gray duck. (Grabs a bag of popcorn).

  18. RW

    winnipeg has more transit users because

    – more people live in the city vs. suburbs

    – the jobs are all in the city, not out in the suburbs

    – a lot of areas in the city where people make less than $16,000

    – median salary of the whole city is about 32,000

    – owning and operating a car in manitoba is expensive

  19. Expat in Mpls

    Fellow Winnipegger here! (Actually, St. Paul born, Winnipeg raised and Twin Cities residing.) Enjoyed reading this article and wanted to chime in with a few more comments.

    1. That ring road is called the Perimeter Highway. Yes, Winnipeg urban planners avoided building highways – however, you can spend 40+ minutes driving across town because it’s all city streets and stoplights. The city is also really spread out (with no geographic features to impede it…because of all the flatness). So you end up with low density spread out over a vast area.

    Other traffic trivia: Unless I’m mistaken, Winnipeg has the highest ratio of stop signs and the only U-turn light signal in North America.

    2. I didn’t realize bus ridership was higher there. But unless you live right in the city center, it would be very challenging to be without a car (again, due to the city being so spread out and buses generally being slow and sometimes infrequent. When I lived there, there were no night buses, for example. There still might not be). There are also no trains, meaning buses are your only public transit option, and so far services like Uber are prohibited from operating there. For comparison, I’m car-free and generally have no problems getting around the Twin Cities by bike, foot and transit. I don’t think I’d have the same experience in Winnipeg.

    3. The bike lanes are a newer initiative, and there aren’t too many in place from what I could tell. There are major stretches of busy roads where it would be impractical to install them. Between the long distances and lack of infrastructure, I don’t enjoy biking in Winnipeg, to be honest. Still, I’ve seen an uptick in the number of cyclists on my last couple of visits, so it’s an improvement.

    4. You might enjoy Guy Maddin’s film My Winnipeg for a semi-mythological interpretation of the city. It’s almost as weird as a David Lynch film set in Australia.

    5. Portage and Main is said to be the windiest intersection on the continent.

    6. Winnipeg is the reigning Slurpee capital of the world, despite being nicknamed Winterpeg.

    7. It’s a dry cold.

    1. Martin

      #1 is interesting, in perspective. The lack of freeways doesn’t make Winnipeg Copenhagen or New York, but compared to other midwestern and great plains cities with few natural growth barriers it is fairly dense.

      #2 is debateable. Island Lakes or Waverley West have poor bus service, as do many southside suburbs and if you want to stay out late busing is a challenge. However, Tyndall Park (which is very far from the centre) gets fairly frequent service during the day. The lack of grocery stores and prominence of residential only neighbourhoods does make living completely carless tricky, though.

  20. Xtoval

    Born and raised in Winnipeg but I have lived in Toronto, Mexico City and New York City for the past 25 years. Very interesting to get the perspective of a curious and informed outsider on my hometown.

    A couple of comments. Winnipeg’s downtown has changed a huge amount since the 1980s. When retail started to suffer in the late 1970s, because of competition from suburban malls, the government (city, province, and federal) backed a couple of mega-projects, such as tearing down blocks of small businesses on the north side of Portage Avenue to build a downtown mall. Small minds trying to suburbanize downtown. At the same time, they demolished at least 1/2 of skid row. What you see now is a tiny remnant of the old hotels, bars, pawn shops, diners, cinemas that used to line Main Street south of Higgins. This was supposed to help the poor and indigent who frequented those places. Instead it deprived them of a gritty but functioning neighborhood, including cheap places to live and entertain themselves. Now the poor and unemployed hang out in the shopping mall on Portage intended to lure suburban shoppers back downtown. Unfortunately Winnipeg had no Jane Jacobs in the 1980s. But things are now changing for the better, especially since the NHL returned to the city. Residential redevelopment of old warehouses, new condos along the river, and even glossy residential high rises in the heart of downtown.

    Another aspect of living in Winnipeg. Very antiquated liquor laws. Did you notice that you can only buy a case a beer at a hotel?! They gave hotels a monopoly on beer sales in order to prop up rural hotels in the winter. Now the hotel association is so strong that no government dares to modernize the law.

    I also highly recommend Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg to understand the weird soul of this isolated but cultured northern city.

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