Can you imagine not being able to walk across the street at the corner of Yonge and Bloor in Toronto or at the intersection of Burrard and Georgia in Vancouver?

Of course you can’t.

Pedestrian traffic in the heart of a city is a huge part of what gives the downtown its pulse. The more people are popping in and out of shops, visiting restaurants and jumping on public transit in the central business district, the more the city is seen as vibrant, alive, safe and fun.

Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman is hoping to channel some of that energy by fulfilling one of his biggest campaign promises during his successful run for office two years ago: removing the pedestrian barriers at the historic corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street.

The city’s most famous intersection has been devoid of passenger traffic for almost 40 years since a deal was struck between city hall and developers to spearhead the construction of an underground concourse and the Shops of Winnipeg Square shopping mall. Concrete barriers were then erected at all four corners to drive people underground. Anybody who dares to jump over one of those barriers to cross the street faces a fine if caught.

Bowman hopes to have the intersection opened up in time for next summer’s 2017 Canada Summer Games. There is almost no grey area here. Winnipeggers either are strongly in favour of tearing down the barriers or vehemently opposed to it.

A report will be going to council in the next couple of months that outlines all of the associated costs, including refurbishing the underground concourse.

Those opposed to removing the barriers say the addition of people crossing the intersection not only will lead to more collisions and injuries, but also make the daily commute for thousands of Winnipeggers longer.

Despite being the highest-profile intersection in town, however, Portage and Main is not the busiest. About 200,000 vehicles pass through each day, but other intersections have more traffic – and nobody is calling for pedestrian barriers at any of those intersections.

The issue is a tricky one for the mayor because the more that people congregate above ground, the less they’ll be patronizing the concourse’s retailers. Bowman will never make everybody happy, no matter what he does, but he’s right when he says the greater good will be served by opening things up.

He even went so far as to bring Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance in New York City – essentially the equivalent of a business-improvement agency – to town earlier this year. Back in 2009, New York’s Broadway Avenue, which runs through Times Square, was closed to cars. The resulting change in overall atmosphere has been staggering. The walkways have been spruced up with planters, food kiosks and small-scale arts and entertainment. Now, people spend more time in the plazas, advertisers’ signs are seen more and retailers’ cashiers are stuffed. Notes Tompkins: “The pie is getting bigger.” IE

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