Winnipeg Subway: Part 2

 In Part 1, I introduced the Norman D. Wilson Subway system designed in 1959 for the city of Winnipeg. Now, let’s look at it in more detail: 

Norman D. Wilson Subway

Norman D. Wilson Subway

On the left is the drawing provided by TRU Winnipeg, the advocates for the Wilson Subway. The subway system was designed in 1959 to service the city of Wininpeg. If it had been built then, the city would certainly have developped differently, with more density in the core, greater cost efficiencies, healthier people and communities, and better able to handle the current oil price shock and potential future consequences of peak oil.

But, the city instead chose to dismantle its trolley system and replace it with the buses we know and love today. Even the train to Grand Beach was dismantled. Such were the heady days of cheap oil before their were any ecological and other physical constraints to human growth on the horizon. (Some did see future limits to growth.)

However, whether or not Wilson’s plan was good for Winnipeg 50 years ago is a moot historical point. What is being advocated for is not that we go back in time, but that we build the same plan today. So, I thought that I’d take that subway map and draw on it…(click to enlarge)


 What you see above is the Wilson Subway Map with circles of radius 750m around each stop. Every building, every residence, every business, everything in the blue area is within less than 10 minutes walk from a station. If this system were built and you were travelling from blue space to blue space, it would be very convenient to ride the subway.

What about a larger walking window? Below are circles of radius 1.5km, or the walking distance for a brisk 20 minutes:

 Now, if you were on the edge of the green zone, it would be a solid walk to get to a subway. I’m going to make a judgement call that if people need to walk 20 minutes then they are more likely not to walk to subway. For them, they would need to drive, ride a bus, or bike to get most places. They may also choose to take one of those options to the nearest station. This 20 minute walk is particularily tough at -40C.

Now, let’s combine those…


Now, look at all those colours! You can get almost anywhere!<p>Well, hold on. In reality, Winnipeg is bigger, much bigger…

Winnipeg, circa 2008, or so

Winnipeg, circa 2008, or so

Put in that perspective, how much of the city’s population would be within walking distance of the subway? Would all the important destinations in the city be on the subway? Would all of 2008 Winnipeg’s major population dense centers be on the system?

You, dear reader, much like myself can probably answer these questions. Places like the University of Manitoba, the airport, and Assiniboine Park are not on the grid. Large population centers such as the apartments at Bishop and Pembina and the apartments in the north of Henderson Highway are not included. Fort Gary, Charleswood, St. James, Transcona, North Kildonan, The Maples, are persona no grata and St. Boniface is underserviced.

But why would Norman D. Wilson design a subway system that didn’t service most of Winnipeg? Maybe because “Winnipeg” means something different to me and Norm.

Norman D. designed a subway for the city of Winnipeg, not the city of Transcona, nor the city of St. Boniface. This was pre-Unicity Winnipeg. This was Winnipeg 50 years ago.

Since I think that dialogue should be constructive, I will end on a positive. I think that Winnipeg will eventually need to build a major public transportation system and a subway is easily the best option to improve density, handle the cold, deal with large snowstorms, rely on locally-produced energy, and speed up travel times. Concern for the environment, desire for better quality of life, and resource depletion will be factors in contributing to demand for these services. Moreover, costs for such projects only go up and once built they last a heck of a long time.

So my challenge to TRU Winnipeg is this: I will support your subway plan if you:


  1. Collect current information: survey population density both at home and during the day, review current car traffic patterns and bus ridership patters, survey the population who will pay for the thing to find out what locations they would like to see included on the grid
  2. Analyse the new information to develop a plan that will service Winnipeg 2008
  3. Produce a Cost-Benefit Analysis and new estimate of the cost of building the new subway.
  4. Re-do 1 to 3 all over again for an above-ground rail network and show that this network is not as efficient in terms of service, reliability, climate, building costs, operating costs, and energy use.

If you can produce a thorough, well-researched, engineer-approved, current proposal, I will support you. If you continue to use a 50-year-old plan – no matter how wonderful that plan was for 1959 – I can’t support your proposal.


17 responses to “Winnipeg Subway: Part 2

  1. Let me just add that new research done today as per steps one through three could in fact show that the Wilson Subway is the way to go. But the burden of proof is on those who would advocate for the subway.

  2. Your post really piqued my interest so I headed over to the TruWinnipeg website for a closer look at what is being proposed. First, I think that while the idea of a subway for Winnipeg might sound strange at first glance, this idea shouldn’t be dismissed from the rapid transit debate. I do agree with your comments about the plan being outdated, though. The absence of connecting to the airport, the UofM and several major neighbourhoods is a huge gap.

    I must admit that I didn’t have time to read through the entire TruWinnipeg website, but I’m confused whether they are advocating for the Norman Wilson subway for Winnipeg or just any subway for Winnipeg. Either way, more analysis needs to be done… perhaps by some engineers and city planners who are actually alive.

    I was also confused by TruWinnipeg’s strong opposition to bus rapid transit. From my perspective, Winnipeg is in need of some sort of rapid transit, whether that be bus, light rail or subway. I’m no expert in these matters, but by their own admission, neither is TruWinnipeg. I would really like to see a detailed comparison of all three (and other) forms of rapid transit. Has such a study ever been done for Winnipeg? If so, where can I find it?

    Finally, it would strike me as much more constructive for all groups and individuals who are concerned about rapid transit in Winnipeg to work together to determine the best option available.

  3. The built-up areas beyond the green zones are lower density suburbs that would be better serviced by buses that would feed into the nearest subway stations—did you forget? We have also opined that the Portage line ought to be expanded westward to Overdale (Assiniboine Park) and the Pembina line to U of M. When you attended our meeting you offered your opinion that the green (Chalmers Ave) line ought to be expanded down Narin right to your hometown of Transcona.

    The city’s geographical expansion has gone in the directions Wilson predicted, albeit at a slower pace. I encourage you to read the Wilson report, Future Development of the Greater Winnipeg Transit System, in its entirety before arriving at such premature conclusions.

    We are opposed to bus rapid transit because it involves large vehicles moving at high speeds along slippery winter surfaces—never a good idea in an urban setting.

    Contrary to what you stated, we do claim to be experts on rapid transit—which must be how I was paid to write about it ad nauseam for years.

    In a mode-by-mode comparison, however, the Wilson plan would best the BRT plan and any possible LRT plan simply by virtue of its being winter-proof and grade-separated. TRU Winnipeg welcomes a detailed comparison and believes the

  4. Wilson plan will prove to be as relevant and rational today as it has been since it was first drafted—which is to say superlatively.

  5. Dallas: “Wilson plan will prove to be as relevant and rational today as it has been since it was first drafted”

    Good to hear, if by proof you mean that some new research is to be conducted that will support you contention then I welcome that research. Again, I support the idea of a subway in theory, just as I suport any improvement to public transportation in theory. I just need to see a concrete study that demonstrates conclusively that your plan is the best plan for today.

  6. Another suggestion is found here. LRT is not itself a bad idea in principle, but feasibility studies need to be conducted. People like me can doodle on maps very quickly, but that does not a plan make.

  7. Again, where’s this LRT going to go? If you use rail rights-of-way, you’re going to be servicing rail rights-of-way—which is to say, not the urban intersections that the subway would. If it runs on the street, it’s a streetcar, and even with its own right-of-way along the centre of the street it has to deal with perpendicular traffic (see St. Clair Av streetcar right-of-way in Toronto). That’s not rapid transit.

    Rapid transit can’t go EVERYWHERE but the Wilson plan does a splendid job of servicing the built-up areas within a 5-mile radius of Portage & Main. These gridded areas have the greatest potential for regeneration and density-building—especially since the inner city has lost roughly 1/3 its population since the plan was released. Again, as I have mentioned, city and suburban bus routes would feed into terminus stations so that even those who live far beyond the subway’s reach will still benefit from premium-quality transit service to the many important points within the subway service zone.

    Again, a “concrete study,” while welcome, would hardly provide a definitive answer to the question of the Wilson plan’s continued validity, since the conclusions of such studies are typically drawn before the research commences. Where population densities in the inner city have dropped they will rebound with the completion of the subway—things here have not changed in any way Wilson did not predict. As you mentioned when I met you, “the grid is still here,” and the reasons for building remain constant yet more urgent than ever.

  8. Elmwood Liberal wrote:

    “Technically, Light Rail Transit uses light rails, freight trains use heavy rails capable of supporting 40 ton train cars. Cars designated “LRT” also use rails spaced closer together. This proposal uses some new rail, but also shares rail lines on low traffic freight tracks, so the cars have to use heavy rails. We can use light rails for dedicated transit lines but spaced the same as heavy rails. Cars that use this rail spacing are “metro”, so an accurate name for this system would be Winnipeg Metro.”

    Wrong. The track gauge is identical for both an LRT and heavy rail. The difference is in the PPH (passengers per hour) carrying capacity of the rapid transit line. See this discussion over at

    Also Elmwood Liberal’s routing doesn’t serve Kildonan Park. Sure enough it does come near it.

    The routing doesn’t serve the West End at all. What was your reason for avoiding that area?

  9. Dallas wrote:

    “Again, a “concrete study,” while welcome, would hardly provide a definitive answer to the question of the Wilson plan’s continued validity, since the conclusions of such studies are typically drawn before the research commences.”

    And there is where we disagree. I would imagine that there are many serious researchers out there who would disagree with the notion that conclusions are drawn in advance. Hypotheses are made in advance and tested. Sometimes the hypothesis is shown as true, sometimes false, and sometimes the test fails to give a verdict on the hypothesis. That hypothesis-testing is at the heart of the research I suggest needs to be done on all transit proposals, including yours.

    Since you clearly disagree with the scientific method, I don’t see that we have much room for discussion at this time.

    I should let my wife know that she can simply stop her research into her thesis and just make a conclusion in advance. Think of the time she’ll save!

  10. I don’t see how Winnipeg has changed in the last 49 years–other than a marked decline of the central city’s population and economic viability. Portage and Main (where NDW recommended the first subway line be built) are still the busiest streets in the city. And if one compares maps of both public transit use and population densities from the 2001 census, to maps of the NDW subway routes, its clear that his plan is remarkably relevant to the Winnipeg of 2008.

  11. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    If Winnipeg traffic patterns and its distribution of populations has not changed in 50 years, then this is something that can be shown by research.

    For now, I think that there is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that Winnipeg has changed significantly enough to warrant a new study.

    As you say, there is “a marked decline of the central city’s population and economic viability.” How marked? A new study would be able to answer such questions and would lay an empirical foundation for designing a new system.

    I think that the old plan has the potential to be relevant to Winnipeg in 2008, but that is something that is yet to be demonstrated.

  12. Hilarious, Mr. Moreau. Science is what’s required to dig tunnels and manufacture & operate high speed trains, but the field of urban planning lies more beneath the umbrella of art. Unless you’re willing to advance the notion of Russ Wyatt as chief scientist, I think you might want to ask yourself whether you place too much blind faith in institutions, organizations, and academia.

    More dithering about this is exactly what’s not needed. Your sophomoric analysis amounting to “this plan really covers the inner city but its old and doesn’t reach distant suburbs, therefore must be reexamined for another 20 years” is a disservice to a cause you have claimed to support. Look at the total built-up area of any city with a metro service and you’ll see that the Wilson plan, even as is with no extensions, covers a nice proportion of ours. Three crosstown lines intersecting to form a hub with six spokes extending along the top traffic arteries emanating from downtown—what more do you want? Please read the Wilson report in its entirety before spouting off your next opinion.

  13. I have a feeling if Winnipeg were to build a subway system, the population would increase very quickly.

  14. I think the existing plan is fine, even if it doesn’t cover the current city size. It covers the dense areas, therefore it will be more cost-efficient. It will reduce vehicular traffic in the dense areas where traffic is heaviest. Bus links to the nodes can serve the rest of the city. As the subway becomes more popular, it can be expanded, see similar prairie cities Calgary and Edmonton.

    The wait-and-see attitude prevails in Winnipeg and has led to the “good enough” situation that has stagnated the city.

  15. The existing plans could be modified to take advantage of Winnipeg’s interesting infrastructure. Extend the system in the following ways:
    -there are logical locations NSEW that are ideal “suburb feeders”. Polo Park, the old Unicity Mall, Regent’s Kildonan Place, Garden City, St Vital and all down Pembina all have one thing in common – a huge amount of open parking that is underused in the workday. Along those directions, too, lie typical Winnipeg destinations – colleges and hospitals – Seven Oaks, Victoria, Miserecordia, etc. . Add a line along Notre Dame to HSC, RR college then the airport, or down fr the college and airport to Polo Park and follow the arc from RRC down toairport and Polo Park, and beyond to Bishop Grandin, UofM, St. Vital… Better than bus feeders, is the Park-n-Ride convenience of major malls. Plus, Transit delivers customers to the malls after work.

    The big problem between bus transit and rail, is BRT encourages cheap; it’s not cheaper because it’s cheaper, it’s cheaper because the builders cut corners and use traffic lights and streets where rail needs non-stop right of way. Do zero construction in the downtown where traffic is slowest, wait for lights to cross Main or loop around the university on Portage and Memorial – guess what? It saves a huge amount compared to tunnelled rail, but it sure as heck does not qualify as “Rapid”.

  16. Steven Simpson

    It appears part of Winnipeg’s history has literally been buried and erased and that cover up also hidden. See my comment in part one. I rode it several times and was sorry to see it killed by small minded politicians serving their own adgenda.

  17. Bill Nikolaus

    Having read through the comments here, there’s one idea I have not seen expressed for the advocacy of a lrt/subway system in Winnipeg. Trenching the medians on major city routes. Most of the early subway systems in the world started being constructed this way. Underground stations could then be placed at strategic, high density, areas, such as shopping malls, mts center, universities, stadiums and various park and ride sites for capital region commuters. This could also be done in stages, like brt, but would involve much less planning and expropriation, as most of the infrastructure would be located underground, beneath public domain. Any rail system would be much more desirable and expandable, from a rider volume perspective, than any kind of brt system.

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