Jasper Ave Blues: The Pedway Trap

You take the skyway, high above the busy little one-way
In my stupid hat and gloves, at night I lie awake
Wonderin’ if I’ll sleep
Wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street

Skyway, by The Replacements

The other night, I saw a story about the skyways in the winter city of Minneapolis, once hailed as a saviour for downtown, and now posing problems as the city attempts to create more street-level activity in the area. This seems to mirror the on-going debate in Edmonton, where it’s many pedways, connecting buildings through above or below ground indoor tunnels, are a god-send on -30 days like last week, but also serve to divert pedestrian traffic indoors.

I’m far from the first person to flag this. Scott McKeen, when he was a columnist at the Edmonton Journal, wrote a handful of columns arguing that they have a detrimental effect on downtown activity.

View from Pedestrian Overpass
Photo by mjb84, using a CC BY 2.0 license.

Scott’s points, and those of the critics in the article, are well found. Pedways/skyways/plus 15s (for Calgary readers) turn downtowns inward, keeping activity inside, away from the streets. Sometimes, you’re thankful for this (on -30 days, I love being able to use the pedways), but the ultimate cost to downtown activity has to be weighed against the days when using the pedways is more than just a simple convenience. The number of days it’s uncomfortably cold (even in Edmonton) are small, and designing an urban environment around extenuating circumstances can yield poor results (think of how parking minimums are designed for peak periods of use, which happen very rarely throughout the year).

Ultimately, one of the advantages of a downtown is the way it brings people together, in formal and informal ways. There’s a serendipity that happens when people conglomerate in dense, highly used spaces. Connections are made and nurtured, leading to greater intellectual, social, and business activity. Life is centred around activity, particularly on the street. Anything that competes with that makes it harder for a downtown to realize its potential.

Coming back to Skyway, how does the song end? With a paean to a missed connection, and the segmentation caused by the pedway/skyway system:

Oh, then one day, I saw you walkin’ down that little one-way
Where, the place I’d catch my ride most everyday
There wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say
Up in the skyway

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3 Responses

  1. You make an excellent point about ‘peak activity’ and the surrounding mythology (which has also been used to argue against a downtown arena), however what if the City retained pedways as public space? I believe (as a daily traveller of the pedways) that there is definitely the opportunity to do more there in most cases (farmers’ market, art walk, works, more Metropolis, store fronts, popup shops, the list goes on) and take back some of the ostensibly private space (which really isn’t) and fill it with activity which, hopefully, would help re-energize downtown and keep enough people there to make street-fronts more viable as well.

    Whyte ave does fine during the summer, but in the winter, I’m not sure. The pedway system (especially with a new arena) might provide an opportunity to really invigorate the night life and culture downtown.

    • There definitely is, and there are some activities that would definitely be better suited to an indoor space. I worry, though, that there’s a zero sum aspect of activity (until you increase the number of consumers to support more). In other words, every activity (for the most part) that you move indoors to the pedways, you’re potentially taking away from the street.

      But I do agree, as I inferred at the start of my reply, that we could make better use of the pedways overall. I just think the focus should be on the street to the extent that it can.

      • That’s the real question, isn’t it? How to get people to come downtown. I believe the secret is making downtown a desirable place to live and if tax abatements and rent reduction strategies (such as property tax credits to tenants) can help (as I think they might) we could start talking about more than a zero-sum calculation, but I think you’re right, the key is being more, not shifting bits around.

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