Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Does Winnipeg Have a Car Culture? Spoiler Alert: No.

Dear Winnipeg,

I can tell you’ve been struggling lately. You want to stop building new infrastructure, and start using existing infrastructure more efficiently in order to avoid the same fate as your cousin Detroit. And you understand that means making more efficient use of land. And that in turn means moving fewer people around by car, and more of them by bus, bike and foot.

But how can you even start to make any kind of progress when people in this city have such a deeply ingrained car culture?

Well, here’s the thing: they don’t.

Well, ok, maybe SOME people love their cars so much they wanna marry them, and they will refuse to even consider any other mode of transportation for as long as they are able to sit upright without drooling, and you’ll only be able to take their car away when you pry the leather-wrapped steering wheel from their cold, dead hands. [Side note: I feel the exact same way about cheeseburger taquitos!]

But that’s a very small minority.

The overwhelming majority of people are simply making rational transportation choices based on the options provided to them. [Great. Now I can’t stop thinking about cheeseburger taquitos…]

What, you don’t believe me? Here, let me prove it to you.

[Listen, if you hate math so much, why don’t you just run and get me a trio of cheeseburger taquitos while we do this part?]

Let’s say I live in Elmwood. [Because I do.]

And let’s say I want to bring my youngest child to French story-time at the St.Boniface Library on a Thursday morning. [Because I also do.]

What are my options?

  • I can walk. Google Maps tells me it will take approximately 48 minutes to trek the 3.9 kms. Cost to me: $0.00
  • I can bike. Much faster, even if a little longer at 18 minutes for 4.7 km. Also, the AT bridge and the riverfront trail through Stephen Juba Park make for a lovely ride. Cost to me: $0.00.
  • I can take the bus. The Navigo app tells me it will be a 29-minute trip including 1 transfer. Not too bad, except that due to infrequent service on the St.B route of the itinerary, I have to leave much earlier than that to make the connection. Total trip time is therefore 43 minutes. Cost to me: $2.60 (using Peggo Card, $2.95 if paying cash).
  • I can drive. Owning a car typically costs Canadians between $8,600 and $13,000 per year when all costs are considered, but we can use CRA’s accepted automobile allowance rate of $0.58 per km to keep things simple. That means a cost to me of $2.49 for a 9-minute, 4.3 km climate-controlled, door-to-door trip.

So taking the bus is the most expensive choice here. It’s also not really any faster than walking, so it easily takes the cake as the worst of the options.

The two best options seem to be biking (the cheapest, tied with walking) and driving (not as cheap, but definitely fastest). Whether I choose one over the other may come down to a few factors, such as the weather, and whether I’m in enough of a rush to want to spend a little money to halve my trip time.

Let’s also note that the bike route to this particular destination from my house has the advantage of being completely segregated from the lethality of fast-moving traffic. But that is not often the case. I wouldn’t dream of white-knuckling it down Regent Ave with my toddler in tow, like say if I wanted to get to Kildonan Place Mall.

What does this look like when applied to a variety of destinations?

DestinationCarBikeBusWalk
St.Boniface Library9 min
$2.49
18 min
$0.00
43 min
$2.60
48 min
$0.00
Kildonan Place Mall11 min
$3.13
22 min
$0.00
43 min
$2.60
65 min
$0.00
Elmwood Kildonans Pool8 min
$2.32
15 min
$0.00
45 min
$2.60
49 min
$0.00

Hmm… not that hard to decide, is it?

The thing is, this isn’t all an absolute, eternal truth to be taken down from the mountain and written on stone tablets. [Like the “get busy living” speech in Shawshank… epic.]

How we shape, zone and build our city, which policy choices we make, and which modes we choose to prioritize all help to determine which transportation options will become the “best”.

How do we do it? So many ways. We can make biking a better alternative by providing protected bike lanes. We can improve transit by providing more frequent service. We can make walking more attractive by building things closer together.

And we can make driving a less interesting choice pretty easily too. All it takes is changing a single variable, the cost of parking.

How many people take the bus to a Bombers game because they don’t want to pony up $30 for parking? Thousands. We see the same thing for Jets games… hordes of self-respecting car lovers freely choosing to take the bus to avoid having to pay for parking. And that’s without even improving transit at all. [Starting to sound more like “cheap culture” to me.]

No one is being forced to give up their cars. Everyone is acting out of free will, and choosing the best transportation option in their own self-interest. It’s just that we’ve tweaked the variables so that their own self-interest aligns with the greater interest, rather than competing against it.

Look, I’m under no illusions that people are actually doing all this mental math before every trip they take. The sad reality is we’ve built a city where driving is the best choice in so many cases, that people now just automatically assume it’s the best choice all the time. But that’s not cultural, it’s just math. [Unless you’re an ethnomathematician. It’s real. Look it up.]

As transit expert Jarrett Walker has said:

When you define the problem as cultural, you make it sound impossible.

Trying to change someone’s culture is hard. [And I think we should have learned by now that it’s most definitely unethical.]

Luckily, changing someone’s transportation options is easy. [As easy as charging them $30 for parking. Cha-ching!]

So let’s stop talking about car culture as if it’s a thing. [Because it’s not.]

Let’s start talking about changing transportation options. [I’ll know we’ve succeeded when Transit’s own Navigo app stops suggesting I walk to St.Boniface rather than wait for a bus.]

Hugs and kisses,

Elmwood Guy