New Winnipeg Transit plan leaves no route untouched in effort to make network more efficient, accessible

Transit planners in Winnipeg have proposed an entirely new network that would alter nearly every existing route, with the goal of improving the frequency and reliability of service. 

Over the next 25 years, the City of Winnipeg aims to nearly triple the number of households living within a 500-metre walk of a frequent bus route — meaning a bus coming every 15 minutes — from the current 21 per cent to 58 per cent. 

To design the new system, city planners conducted interviews with Transit users and operators, compiled Winnipeg Transit data, and purchased anonymized mobile phone data from a third-party provider showing how people were moving.

“What became obvious because of that is that people don’t just want to go downtown, which is how our current system is focused,” said Bjorn Radstrom, manager of transit service development for the City of Winnipeg.

“People really want to go from everywhere to everywhere. They want to travel throughout the entire city.”

Under the new network, the number of households within an 800-metre walk of a frequent route would go from 32 per cent to 73 per cent. 

The Winnipeg Transit Master Plan would increase the number of households living within a 500-metre walk of a frequent bus route from 21 per cent to 58 per cent. (City of Winnipeg)

The system can be made more efficient and meet its minimum service commitments without any additional service hours or buses, Radstrom said. He said it would do this by eliminating “complex” routes that meander through neighbourhoods before turning onto major roadways in favour of simpler routes that run straight through communities, and separating them from major high-traffic routes.

However, the plan calls for an additional 12 per cent increase in service hours and related operating costs to improve service on weekends. 

Many of the details of the new network, including the precise design of the routes and location of stops, remain to be determined.

One consequence of the new network configuration may be that more people will need to transfer buses to get where they’re going, but Radstrom says it will improve the system overall by making it easier for more people to access transit. 

Benefits of plan wouldn’t be felt immediately

As the city starts to emerge from restrictions brought in during the COVID-19 pandemic, people will be looking to get out and spend money, and public transit is the best way to do that, said Kyle Owens, vice-president of the board of Functional Transit Winnipeg.

The 25-year timeline for the report, however, means that the benefits of the system improvements won’t be felt for some time.

“So it is perhaps not the opportunity today that it might have been to improve life in the city, to reduce poverty, to address climate change, but this is still a big plan that would really improve the quality and accessibility of service to Winnipeg,” he said.

The proposed Winnipeg Transit Master Plan recommends six projects that the city would apply for federal funding to implement:

  • Bus radio and intelligent transportation system project.
  • North transit garage replacement.
  • Transition to zero-emission buses.
  • Preliminary design of rapid transit network downtown corridors.
  • Primary transit network infrastructure.
  • Wheelchair securements retrofit.

The estimated total cost of these projects is $538.9 million. This is in addition to the $588 million to $1.1 billion the city estimates it will cost to complete three-line bus rapid transit network, which is also laid out in the master plan.

St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes said he has seen a number of rapid transit plans over the decades, including in 2005 and 2011. 

“Almost none of these have been done, so I guess I’m a bit skeptical about it,” he said.

Mayes supports some proposals — like electrifying the bus fleet and simplifying transit routes — but he questions some of the cost estimates in the rapid transit plan. 

Winnipeg Transit faced many challenges before the coronavirus pandemic hit due to a growing population, said Radstrom.

“We were having troubles with challenges with the frequency of our service, the overall reliability of our service, high passenger loads and the potential for passups — where buses were too full for people to get on,” he said.

Other improvements the city hopes to make include better integrating Transit Plus service into the overall network, and a mobile app that would provide real-time location data of all buses on the roads. 

The plan will go before the standing policy committee on infrastructure renewal and public works on March 11.