Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

You’re Richer Than You Think

Dear Winnipeg,

My family just passed a significant milestone this week: it’s been one year since we sold our car! [Gasp! That’s witchcraft, surely!]

Yup, the five of us (my wife, our three kids under the age of 9, and myself) have been a zero-car family for a whole year… in Winnipeg no less.

I have to admit, we have a lot going for us that makes this possible. [Like a lifetime supply of eye of newt.]

First, my wife and I both work from home. [In a house made entirely of candy.]

Second, my parents and both my brothers live in the same neighbourhood as we do, so visiting is really easy! [Extended witch families tend to stick together.]

Third, we get our groceries delivered from Save-On. [What’s got two thumbs and NEVER finds himself in a grocery store with a screaming toddler? This guy!]

Fourth, as I’ve described before, we live in a neighbourhood that has a LOT of amenities within a 5-minute walk.

And fifth, one of those amenities is a car rental place, for the rare occasions where we do still need a car (or van, or truck!).

[Well, will you look at that… not witches, just a regular, run of the mill, green-skinned family.]

There were a lot of small changes in our lives that we noticed after the switch, such as a rediscovery of our own city, a newfound commitment to local merchants, and a renewed sense of connection to our neighbourhood. [I may even talk to you more in depth about those another time.]

But the big thing we noticed was the mad money we were saving!!

Non-witches can have money cauldrons too.

Even after taking into account the cost of the occasional bus fares, taxis, and yes, even car rentals, we have saved thousands of dollars in the year since we sold our car. According to CAA, the average family in Manitoba spends over $10,000 per year to own and operate a single vehicle. That’s after tax. Can you imagine a life where you don’t have to pay for that?

So when I hear politicians talking about the “struggling middle class”, and wanting to put money back in our pockets, I can’t help but feel they could be doing a much better job at it.

A $35 discount on car insurance? Yeah, that sounds pretty good, I guess… but what could a government do to help families get rid of one car? Not necessarily going car-free, but maybe at least making it feasible to go from 2 cars to 1? [Or from 3 to 2…]

I mean, if you’re going to invest in infrastructure anyways, why not invest that money in something that will let families save thousands of dollars per year?

And the savings don’t stop with families… cities can benefit too!

As we’ve seen time and time (and time) again, a city where everyone needs a car to get around is a city headed for bankruptcy. It just costs too much money to maintain and replace all that expensive infrastructure. We’ve done the math. It doesn’t add up.

But what’s done is done. We can’t just sit here and whine about all the past bad decisions you’ve made. [*cough, cough* Waverley Underpass *cough*]

We can, however, look to the future to correct mistakes not yet made! [Which requires no witchcraft, just basic math!]

A recent city report tells us that the Kenaston widening would cost $500 million to build, and that the Chief Peguis Extension would cost $471 million. A total of nearly $1 Billion.

Let’s say by magic you find the money to build these two projects that are at the top of your infrastructure priorities. [It’s not actually magic, it would be through old-fashioned bond-fueled debt. Who’s practicing the black arts now?]

That same report says that just to service the new debt on these two projects would cost $38.6 million + $38.7 million = $77.3 million every year.

So here’s an idea: don’t build them.

Instead of spending $1 Billion dollars on two projects that make driving easier (and so WON’T help families lose one vehicle), just don’t.

Then, take the $77.3 million in annual savings and invest them in infrastructure that WILL help families live life with n-1 cars.

When I was Mayor, I was often asked by colleagues around the world: ‘How have you been able to afford it in Copenhagen?’, and my reply always was: ‘How have you been able not to?’

Copenhagen, 25 years ago, was a few days away from going bankrupt. And therefore, the city invested in the cheapest infrastructure: bicycle infrastructure.

— Morten Kabell, former Copenhagen Mayor

People like to point out that you’re not Copenhagen. But we need to remember, a few decades ago, neither was Copenhagen.

Then they realized they were broke, and they started acting like it. And now 74% of Copenhageners get around by foot, bike and transit. But mostly bike (41%). And, oh yeah, they expect to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city, in about 6 years from now.

With your newly found $77.3 million per year, you could build out your ENTIRE 25-year Pedestrian and Cycling Strategy in about 4 years. Boom, stealing Copenhagen’s thunder!

And look, making travel by foot, bike and transit safer, easier and more pleasant for people doesn’t even need to cost much money… it just requires a commitment to doing it.

Take this bus stop on Stadacona St, for example, which could be exponentially improved for all of $0:

Three words: Move. The. Dumpster.

Changing your zoning by-laws to remove mandatory parking minimums, mandate more walkable neighbourhood forms, and allow/encourage more mixed-use land development, also costs nothing.

Other stuff, like planting street trees, even pays for itself.

And all of this is good for health, good for social equity, good for the climate, good for public finances, and it’s (really!) good for our own personal pocketbooks.

But this isn’t something that should fall on individual families to “make the right choice”.

If your family can’t easily get around without needing to own 1 (or 2 or 3!) cars, if you can’t walk from your house to get a coffee, a loaf of bread, a prescription filled, or your teeth cleaned, then your city has failed you. Heck, your province and your country have failed you too.

If you’re serious about fighting climate change, serious about fixing our public finances, serious about “putting money back in the pockets of hard-working Manitobans”… then you really need to let each of us ditch at least one car.

Middle-class Winnipeggers make more money than 93.7% of the humans on the planet. If we can’t make a go of it, then who even stands a chance?

Obviously, it’s time to make better use of the money we have, both public and private. And it’s up to the government, all three levels, to make it happen.

And the clock is ticking on multiple fronts.

On the one hand, our current course of action could abruptly end with municipal bankruptcy at any time. That’s bad.

Climate-wise, we have until 2030 to drastically cut our carbon emissions, or else face a very bleak future. That may sound far off, but it’s only 2 elections away. We have this election and the next one to select a government that will act immediately and decisively to avert crisis. After that, it will be too late to do anything.

That’s also bad.

So let’s consider the alternative: making the government save the planet can save us thousands of dollars per year. And that’s really, really good.

Love,

Elmwood Guy