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Column: City must go beyond status quo

My column in today’s The StarPhoenix

I would love to shut the door on 2013 and move on, but there are always loose threads as you move into a new year.

Some things just never get dealt with and can linger for years, such as replacing our maligned Traffic Bridge that’s been sitting idle since 2010, slowly falling apart. Actually, it has been falling apart for longer than that, but we ran out of cheap repair options in 2010 and had to close it. The bridge’s collapse was said to be imminent.

It didn’t collapse as predicted, and the decision was taken in 2012 to remove an eastern span, which would have been a far more useful tourist draw if Evel Knievel were still around. Eventually city council tried to pressure the provincial government into paying for both a replacement Traffic Bridge and the north commuter bridge.

The province looked at the cost of two bridges and its shrinking bank account, and declined. The result is that we enter 2014 in the same position as we were in back in 2010, dreaming of bridges that no one else cares about.

Even as a public we have stopped caring. The intense rage we had at being stuck in traffic for 10 minutes each day because both the Idylwyld Bridge and the Traffic Bridge were out of commission has passed. We quickly moved back to our default mode of not acknowledging failed projects, hoping they will just go away or resolve themselves.

Chances are that the Traffic Bridge issue will not resolve itself, and we will have to go it alone. The thought so far is that we replace the old bridge with a wider version of it. The status quo wins again.

If we were to look around, we would see that other options have been very successful elsewhere. We could build an iconic pedestrian bridge on the existing piers to connect downtown and River Landing to the east side of the Meewasin Trail system and, more importantly, to the Broadway Business District.

Pedestrian bridges aren’t unique. Minneapolis has them. Calgary has the Peace Bridge. Montreal has a great one connected to its flood-control gates. Even the town of Outlook has one.

The Peace Bridge was controversial when it was installed but has since become a landmark in Calgary. It draws people from all over, and joins together two of Calgary’s vibrant communities. You could realistically see the same thing happening here with the South Downtown and Broadway Avenue.

Critics of a pedestrian bridge point out that there are sidewalks on the bridges. However, if you have ever tried to walk or ride on our bridges, it is less than a pleasant experience. These walkways are rarely swept, they are full of gravel, and they place you right up against traffic. Other cities have bridge sidewalks as well, but people flock to their pedestrian bridges.

There is a reason for it.

People are drawn to a space that is scaled and built for them.

Research from other cities has shown there are business reasons for a pedestrian bridge. Pedestrians and cyclists spend more money when out and about, especially at stores that provide bike racks. Whether it is stopping into a shop or grabbing a coffee for the walk home, the money spent locally is good for all of us.

Creating a pedestrian bridge on the old Traffic Bridge piers also would give Saskatoon an amazing prairie plaza.

Anyone who has been down in River Landing or across the river when the fireworks festival takes place understands how exciting it is to have a place where thousands of us can gather. There are the fireworks, water taxis, concerts and the buzz of tens of thousands of people coming together. Linking those two areas would allow for more events, but more importantly, it would be an important link across the river for more than just motor vehicles.

Instead of settling for the status quo, Saskatoon must think outside the box. Hold a design competition for a pedestrian replacement for the Traffic Bridge and see what happens. Put a $15 million price tag on it. Local design group OPEN has already drawn up a pedestrian bridge idea that features separate access points for bikes and pedestrians, a public space, a community garden and a zip line.

I think we would be amazed at the ideas that would come forward.

We talk about wanting to be a world-class city. Worldclass cities are not that by population size alone. They are cities with great dreams for themselves, which are expressed by great public spaces. Building a great pedestrian bridge downtown would be a good way to start.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

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