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Winnipeg’s famous Portage Avenue is a tidy microcosm of Canadian transportation history.

The name evokes a time when long Prairie journeys were best made by canoe, with frequent portages between bodies of water.

The 19th century saw Portage linked with Main Street, creating what would become known as the “crossroads of Canada.” During Winnipeg’s turn-of-the-last-century heyday, electric streetcars clattered through the intersection.

By 1979, though, the car was king. That year, the city closed Portage and Main to pedestrians, erecting concrete barriers at the corners and directing foot traffic to an underground concourse and mall.

Today, cities across North America are reckoning with the deadening effects of autocentric planning, and Winnipeg has joined the trend. After years of local advocacy for reopening the intersection to pedestrians, city council last week approved a referendum on the subject for its October ballot.

Victory is far from assured. Holding the plebiscite, rather than just making the change, is seen by some as a sop to motorists. They and their supporters argue that crosswalks will slow down the roughly 75,000 vehicles that pass through the intersection every day.

They’re right. But the effect on cars isn’t the only relevant question. The safety and comfort of pedestrians should also be considered. Some now jaywalk to avoid the depressing subterranean passage that is their only legal alternative.

That’s a bleak choice to force on people trying to navigate their city’s main hub. Many simply avoid the choice and steer clear of the intersection altogether, leaving it bereft of the foot traffic that gives life to urban streets.

In the 1970s, plowing cars through Portage and Main was supposed to revitalize Winnipeg’s ailing downtown, but the scheme has had the opposite effect. As a general rule, putting cars first in central areas has proven to be a recipe for grim, unsafe, hollowed-out cities.

This October, Winnipeg voters should write a new chapter in the history of their famous intersection and allow foot traffic at Portage and Main again. The first pedestrian to make the crossing might consider carrying a symbolic canoe over her head.