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“When people think of Winnipeg, they think of Portage and Main,” city councillor Jenny Gerbasi says. “It is the soul of the city.”

It’s also a place where you can’t walk across the street. For 40 years, concrete barriers have steered pedestrians out of the way of cars, giving this crossroads the feeling of a highway interchange.

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The intersection of Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue and Main Street is sometimes called the crossroads of Canada. But if you’re a pedestrian trying to cross it above ground, forget about it.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

This is crazy. And on Oct. 24, Winnipeggers can fix that with a referendum on whether the barriers should come down. But it seems likely that they’ll vote to keep them up − sending a giant signal that the city is moving backward.

The city can do better. And it should.

The reasons to open up the intersection are absolutely clear.

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For pedestrians, Portage and Main is a no-go zone. Over the decades, several efforts to open it to pedestrian traffic have failed.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

One: “It’s a human-rights issue,” Ms. Gerbasi says. In the current situation, people who want to cross the intersection are herded underground and then back up again. There are elevators. But if one of those is out of service − and that happens; it was the case when I last visited in the spring − people with physical disabilities are stuck. Ordinary street crossings would make it accessible. This should be the end of the discussion.

Two: Pedestrian activity would be good for the social and commercial life of the city. This is the most important intersection in the downtown, which Winnipeg is working hard to revitalize. The adjacent Exchange District is an incredible neighbourhood of century-old lofts, which has been adding people and businesses, but slowly. Right around the corner, the True North Square complex opened this week, an office and retail complex based around a new public square. Meanwhile, at Portage and Main: walls.

In the 1970s, downtown was under threat from the suburbs, and planners were floating genius ideas about separating cars and pedestrians. Creating and boosting an underground mall seemed to be a good defensive move. Today, such concepts are the bell-bottoms of urbanism.

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The Portage and Main intersection is the heart of the city – if you’re in a car, that is.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

As cities across North America have been finding, when you make a place more walkable, the payoffs for retail, for tourism, and for a city’s spirit are huge. Imagine the wave of good news stories about the city opening up its historic crossroads and bringing its heart back to life. Imagine the festivals, markets, post-Jets-game celebrations, the waves of visitors.

This is why Winnipeg business is taking a progressive position: Every major business association and the owners of nearby properties are all backing the tear-down.

But, as Ms. Gerbasi acknowledges, the Team Open campaign is struggling. “We’re in tough,” says Ms. Gerbasi, a long-time advocate of removing the barriers.

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The warren of pedestrian tunnels under Portage and Main includes a concrete sculpture wall by Bruce Head.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

So what’s on the other side? Well, there’s some talk about the costs, which are too small to be worth discussing. (Most of the money is going into the mall.) There is also a myth, specifically the idea that Portage and Main is the coldest place in Canada and somehow inhospitable to people. This is, frankly, dumb − why is the weather any different a block or three away? − but it’s persistent. “It’s like arguing against the existence of Bigfoot,” says local architect and writer Brent Bellamy, a passionate Team Open campaigner. “There’s no evidence, but people can’t let go of the idea.”

But in the end, it’s all about cars.

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Pedestrians and traffic don't mix at this historic intersection of Portage and Main, Sept. 24, 2017.JOHN WOODS

Blame the car-centric worldview that places an absolute priority on drivers’ time, and is willing to trade just about anything to fight congestion and help people get around. This is not so much a policy view as an entrenched mindset.

At Portage and Main, the promised benefits to drivers are extraordinarily small. Adding ordinary traffic lights and pedestrian crossings would, according to a traffic study (PDF) done for the city, slow down drivers. About half of them would experience a delay of 60 seconds or more. That’s half of 6,240 drivers in rush hour. One minute, for 3000-odd people, in a city of 700,000.

If you commute by car, ask yourself: Would you notice an additional minute? If you left work one minute earlier, or arrived home one minute later, would that have a real impact on your life? There are marginal cases, sure, the scramble for the last-minute daycare pickup, but most of us would be unaffected by such a delay. (Transit riders deal with such holdups daily and consistently.)

And the costs of bowing down to the car are enormous. We know this in Toronto, where the city is spending an extra billlon dollars − at least − to rebuild part of the downtown Gardiner Expressway, saving 3 per cent of downtown commuters roughly two minutes a day. Small cities such as Winnipeg don’t have a monopoly on such bad decisions.

But can Winnipeg afford to mess this up? Can the city afford to tell the world that it’s abandoning its soul?

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Pedestrians are herded underground and then back up again. There are elevators. But if one of those is out of service, people with physical disabilities are stuck.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

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