Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

The Chicken or the Egg

The snow clearing on these sidewalks is egg-regious, repre-hen-sible, a complete yolk!
Good thing I can just hop in my chicken coupe instead!

Dear Winnipeg,

It’s winter. [I can tell because there are no mosquitoes!]

So is now a good time to talk about your snow clearing policy? Also, your Climate Action Plan? And can we throw in the Transportation Master Plan while we’re at it?

Cool, thanks.

So it’s winter. It’s cold. It’s snowy. Nobody’s leaving the house until spring, right?

Puh-lease. People stills gots jobs, yo! [Gotta build that nest egg!]

And the kids have activities, and we’re almost out of milk, and we need some wine for book club, and there’s that dentist appointment to get to, plus we should probably pick up a get-well card for aunt Irma. Grandma says she broke her wrist playing pickleball.

[Actually, I hope that’s not just an old-people euphemism for sex… my parents say they play pickleball a couple times a week.]

[Oh phew! I looked it up. It’s actually a real sport.]

Anyways, my point is, just because it’s winter doesn’t mean that life grinds to a halt. People still need to get places.

And most people drive in this city (82% of daily trips actually). So it’s obvious we need to clear the snow from the roads. And it makes sense to prioritize it… we’ll have the greatest effect catering to the majority, rather than wasting resources on the 18% minority.

But, wait. Do we have it backwards? [Spoiler alert: Yes.]

Which came first? We prioritize snow clearing on the streets because most people drive. But is it actually that most people drive because we prioritize snow clearing on the streets? [Again, yes.]

Do the policies we implement, from Master Plan down to snow clearing, determine the transportation choices people make? [Say it with me: Yes!]

I’ve written about this before, actually more than once even, so I’ll spare you the details this time and just give you the Coles Notes:

  • If there’s no road, people won’t drive there, like we see on the non-existent Chief Peguis between Main and Route 90.
  • If parking costs $30, a lot of people will take the bus, like we see at a Bomber game.
  • If an intersection has concrete barriers on every corner, pedestrians will not cross there, like we see at, um, well, I can’t think of an example.

How people travel is a function of hundreds of thousands of individual decisions based on a variety of different factors, but none more important than what options are made available to them. And city policies determine what options are available (or desirable).

Therefore, to put it simply: city policies determine how people travel. Not the other way around.

Except not exactly. Because there’s city policy (what we say we do) and there’s city “policy” (what we actually do).

Let’s look at an example:

Here are the six key strategic goals of the Transportation Master Plan we implemented in 2011. Let’s see how well we’re doing:

  1. A transportation system that is dynamically integrated with land use.
    This is a whole discussion for another time, so let’s just give it a soft pass for now. ✅
  2. A transportation system that supports active, accessible and healthy lifestyle options.
    82% of daily trips in the city are made by car. That’s a fail. ❌
  3. A safe, efficient and equitable transportation system for people, goods and services.
    13 pedestrians and 2 cyclists were killed in 2019, just a bit worse than an average year. Fail. ❌
  4. Transportation infrastructure that is well maintained.
    You’re kidding, right? ❌
  5. A transportation system that is financially sustainable.
    Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! I’m gonna go with no. ❌
  6. A transportation system that reduces its greenhouse gas emissions footprint and meets or surpasses climate change and emissions reduction goals set by the City and the Province.
    Wait, am I being Punk’d? Did someone replace the real Transportation Master Plan on the City website with a joke version? ❌

In addition, here are some of the transportation goals of the Climate Action Plan, that we’re aiming to achieve by 2030:

  1. Trip mode share of 50% car, 21% passenger, 15% transit, 14% walk/bike.
    Starting from a baseline of 64% car, 18% passenger, 8% transit, 10% walk/bike.
  2. An Active Transportation Network of 800 km.
    Currently, we are at 200 km.

So in the next 10 years, according to official City policy, we’re going to almost double transit use, increase walking/biking trips by 40%, and build 600 km of AT network. Sounds great!

But there’s a problem. What we’re actually doing is stuff like this: proposing cuts to the Transit budget, proposing cuts to the AT budget, proposing record spending on roads, clearing snow from all streets quickly but not from all sidewalks.

Is it any wonder most people are choosing to drive? Everything we’re doing as a city is encouraging them to.

But, we can’t afford a city where everyone drives. So if we want our city to avoid eventual bankruptcy, we need more people to switch from cars to another mode, at least for some trips.

Some will say, “But no one wants to walk or bike in the snow!” And they’re probably right. But no one wants to drive in the snow either, that’s why we plow the streets. And that’s why we need to clear the sidewalks and bike lanes as well.

To achieve our mode shift goals, for the climate and for our financial solvency, we need to make sure our actions match our words, with the budget to back them up, but we also need to make sure our actions are tailored to the results we want to get.

In that sense, we need to realize that a snow clearing policy developed with cars in mind, one that treats most sidewalks and AT infrastructure “on the same priority as the adjacent street” won’t work.

Cars are the great equalizer. If a car can get through a certain stretch of road, it doesn’t matter if it’s carrying an able-bodied adult, a wheelchair user, a toddler or an 85-year-old pickleball enthusiast. If the main arterial is cleared, but the street in front of your house isn’t, you can probably still get to where you’re going if you’re in a car, regardless of age or ability. And our snow-clearing policy reflects that reality.

But sidewalks are different. They must cater to the lowest common denominator in order to work well for everyone.

On top of that, sidewalks are also transit infrastructure. Transit riders don’t just magically appear at a bus stop out of thin air, Star Trek-style. They walked there. On a sidewalk. From their house.

So for a person to take the bus, it’s not enough for the bus stop to be cleared of snow. They also need the sidewalk cleared of snow, from the bus stop all the way to their house. And at the end of their trip from that bus stop to their place of work, or the grocery store, or wherever they’re headed. And it’s especially necessary if they’re a wheelchair user, or a parent with a stroller, or an elderly person with reduced mobility, or a child with tiny legs, or someone travelling with any of them.

And if even a small portion of that entire path is not cleared consistently, then that transit trip won’t happen at all. If they have the choice, they’ll probably take the car instead. Hard to double ridership that way.

That’s why an entirely different snow-clearing strategy is needed for sidewalks. Gone is “on the same priority as the adjacent street”. In its place is “on the same priority as the transit network”. We might even consider having it done BY the transit department.

Because transit doesn’t work if the bus can get to the stop but the rider can’t.

If you clear snow for people using the same principles and priorities as you do for cars, you should expect to get people travelling in cars. It’s that simple.

There is no car culture. Only car policy.

The sooner we come to grips with that, the sooner we can start meeting the goals we’ve set.

Hugs and kisses,

Elmwood Guy

P.S. No chickens were harmed during the writing of this letter. But I did eat a delicious pot pie immediately after.