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The intersection of Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg exists today in reality – there are 16 lanes of car traffic and zero crosswalks – but the name, Portage and Main, as a celebrated place at the heart of the city, exists only in memory.

It used to be a place for people. Not far from the Red River, the name Portage Avenue harkens to a past when the canoe, not the car, was king. A century ago, Portage and Main was an economic centre of a young country, the crossroads of Canada. It was all bustle, people on foot, streetcars, life. During the 1919 General Strike, Portage and Main was a locus of protest.

After the Panama Canal opened in 1914 and routes of trade shifted, Winnipeg’s status as a hub faded. By the 1970s, Winnipeg’s downtown was in trouble. A desperate city council latched on to a deal with a developer. It included an underground mall, beneath the intersection. But the deal banned pedestrians crossing on the surface. Concrete barricades have stood sentinel ever since.

Such stories played out over and over after the Second World War in cities across the world and especially in North America. Cheap oil fuelled the sprawl of suburbs and moving cars as fast as possible from A to B became a central pillar of urban planning.

In more recent years, there has been a shift back to what once was, where people on foot, not cars, shape cities. Places such as Boston and Seattle – but not Toronto – demolished elevated highways that severed the city from the waterfront. The pandemic accelerated change, with experiments in sidewalk patios, street parkettes, more bike lanes. When changes are made, they become instantly popular – cities such as Paris and New York are leaders in shifting scarce street space to people from cars – but change remains slow. The primacy of the car is still strong.

The City of Winnipeg is in the process of reimagining Portage and Main. The subsurface membrane that keeps water out of the underground concourse needs to be replaced. Ideas include a “sky garden” elevated walkway. What’s not on the table? People actually crossing the street. As one advocate quipped, crosswalks would be a simpler first step than a sky garden.

In 2014, Winnipeggers elected a mayor who promised to bring pedestrians back to Portage and Main. But he wavered and instead held a non-binding plebiscite. It failed. A map of the 2018 result is telling. Anyone who lived in or near downtown voted in favour of people on foot. The farther away people lived, the likelier they were to vote for the barricades.

It’s a lost opportunity. And it goes decidedly against the direction many cities are moving.

New York in the 2010s overhauled part of Broadway, one of the most famous streets in the world. Cars were barred from stretches in and around Times Square. The plazas today are havens for people. Mayor Eric Adams in March launched more such changes on Broadway – a “culture shift” to “minimize” the use of cars in Manhattan.

European cities are cited as being at the fore and opponents of change in North America often say it cannot be emulated. “We’re not Amsterdam,” goes the refrain. But Amsterdam, a half-century ago, was choked with cars. Brussels, the seat of the EU in Belgium, was turned into an American-like car-dominated city after the Second World War. That has been rapidly reversed. Car trips are down to 49 per cent of all travel in the city from 64 per cent five years earlier. Paris, led by Mayor Anne Hidalgo, is also transforming, including plans for the Champs-Élysées.

Canadian cities need to be more ambitious. Toronto is set to rebuild Yonge Street downtown. Four lanes of traffic will become two and narrow sidewalks will be widened. There had been a bigger idea, to create a city park along University Avenue. Former mayor John Tory was a backer.

But during the current campaign to replace Mr. Tory, no one’s talking about such things. One candidate, former police chief Mark Saunders, wants to tear out bike lanes and block new ones. Never mind data that show cars have barely been slowed and research in 2019 that indicates protected bike lanes make streets safer for everyone – pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

Back in Winnipeg, the future of a once-iconic intersection can be found in its past. People on foot breathe life into cities. Slow down cars. Bring pedestrians back to Portage and Main, and let the city’s heart beat once more.