Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Friendly Manitoba: A Daytripper’s Guide to Roads, COVID and Other Pecksniffery

Dear Winnipeg,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about who we think we are as Winnipeggers, versus who we actually are, and how in certain important respects, those aren’t the same at all.

By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “Flatten the curve”, and this graph:

And you certainly already know what this graph means. [Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or say, in the White House.]

But please, bear with me.

The key takeaway of this graph is that, faced with the threat of the COVID pandemic, we had two options: increase capacity to fit the curve, OR flatten the curve to fit capacity.

Increasing our healthcare capacity by building hundreds more hospitals, buying huge quantities of ambulances and respirators, and hiring thousands of doctors, nurses and healthcare aids would have been an incredibly expensive undertaking. Not to mention the ongoing cost of maintaining all those empty hospitals, and paying all those idle healthcare workers, in the down periods between global pandemics (or between multiple waves of a single pandemic), seems like an awfully huge waste of valuable resources.

Which is probably why we, and the rest of the world, chose the second option: flattening the curve.

Plus, it aligns perfectly with our small-town, fiscal conservative roots. As Winnipeggers, there are only two things we can’t stand, and one of them is government being wasteful with our dollars.

[The other is when restaurants run out of Honey Dill.]

So why do we continue to choose the opposite with our transportation system?

[Seriously, plum sauce on a chicken finger? Are you hard of tasting?]

When faced with two hours of peak vehicle traffic per day, instead of taking steps to flatten that curve to fit capacity, we choose to continually increase capacity to fit that ever-growing peak, by widening roads, building overpasses, and prioritizing traffic movement over everything else.

And not only is that extremely expensive to build in the first place, but the ongoing costs incurred to maintain it all, including for the 22 hours/day in between peaks when we don’t even need it, is bankrupting our City.

Here’s the same math we’ve talked about over and over and over: the $15 Billion of roads and bridges we currently own need replacing periodically. The $130.3 million we will spend on road renewal this year, the “highest annual level of investment in our city’s history”, puts us on track to replacing each road once every 115 years.

Getting that to a 25-year replacement cycle would mean spending $600 million every year. For reference, we collected just over $607 million in property taxes last year (page 45). Yeah.

That’s why we can’t have anything nice. [Including roads that don’t resemble the surface of the moon.]

Nevertheless we persist.

We push our elected representatives to build more, wider, faster roads to increase capacity. Every year, wanting “record spending” to “reduce congestion”, rarely batting an eye at borrowing money to do so, money that our children and grandchildren will have to pay back.

If it all seems pretty spendy, that’s because it is. Irresponsibly so, even.

Not exactly on-brand for a city of people that consider themselves notoriously frugal.

[Where’s that conservative outrage I’ve heard so much about?]

And on top of that, we will fight against anything that could help flatten that curve: bike lanes, opening Portage & Main to pedestrians, survivable vehicle speeds, transit investment, you name it, we’re against it.

And often, violently so.

As I mentioned in a previous letter, I’ve been volunteering for an initiative in my neighbourhood to reimagine a portion of south Henderson Highway.

The project started two years ago when the Chalmers neighbourhood surveyed residents for the renewal of their 5-year neighbourhood plan. Over 1,500 people participated in the consultations, and one of the priorities raised was addressing how difficult it was just to move about the neighbourhood (86% of seniors and 70% of youth reported experiencing recurring difficulty getting around).

In response, nine community groups, along with many local residents and businesses, partnered together to do a one-day trial of various ideas to see if any of them might ultimately be helpful.

A neighbourhood project by the neighbourhood, for the neighbourhood.

But that didn’t stop several Winnipeggers whose only connection to the area is that they like to speed through it as fast as possible, from sending dozens and dozens of abusive emails to the organizers.

Words like ‘insane’, ‘stupid’ and more than a few f-bombs were popular in emails that didn’t even say what, specifically, they were against. Here’s a real email:

Name
XXX XXXXX

Email
XXXXXXX@XXXXXXX.com

Message
This is the most idiotic thing ever, even stupider than lowering the speed limit on Marion. Who ever suggested this should be shot in the face with a birdshot.

Now, from my experience, Winnipeggers are the friendliest people I know, always willing to give you the shirt off their back. Our province has the highest rate of charitable donations in the country, and the second highest rate of volunteerism. Plus, we basically invented paying for a stranger’s coffee.

Weird, right?

Last Friday, I was walking home when I came to the intersection of Henderson and Johnson, only a few steps from where our neighbourhood trial project took place. That’s when I saw her.

A woman in her 80s with a combination walker-shopping basket, trying to cross all 7 lanes of Henderson in the 30 seconds allotted her by the crosswalk signal.

She only made it halfway before the lights changed and she was left standing in the middle of the street with three remaining green-lit lanes of oncoming rush-hour traffic.

I immediately rushed out to help her safely cross the rest of the way. She told me she was on her way to the pharmacy. She thanked me for my help and continued on her way. I didn’t even get her name.

While she was a bit flustered, she didn’t seem nearly as alarmed about the whole situation as I was. That’s when I realized that this wasn’t out-of-the-ordinary for her, this was just another day.

She was one of the 86% of seniors experiencing recurring mobility issues in our neighbourhood.

She was one of the 86% of seniors who asked via surveys, open houses and focus groups two years ago, if it wasn’t too much trouble, could anything be done that would allow her to get to the pharmacy safely, and with dignity?

And for having the audacity to suggest that, she, apparently, deserves to be shot.

In the face.

With a birdshot.

Someone’s grandma. Someone’s baba, oma, mémère, kokum. Maybe yours.

Setting aside the fact that this woman has been paying taxes for longer than most of us have been alive, setting aside the fact that her taxes actually cover all the costs of her mode of transportation, I have to ask:

Is this who we are?

Friendly, frugal Manitobans who are willing to bankrupt their own municipal government and shoot a grandma in the face for daring to cross the street, because it might inconvenience them in the slightest bit.

Even on a temporary basis. For a few hours. On a Saturday. In July. In the middle of a global pandemic.

If so, then fine. This is, after all, a democracy. But then let’s drop the hypocrisy: we are neither “friendly”, nor “frugal”. And we are giving up the right to complain about “wasteful spending at City Hall”, because we’re the ones saying to build capacity to match a 2-hour traffic peak, instead of the much cheaper option of flattening the curve.

If, on the other hand, we think we can and should hope for better, that we can BE better, then it’s time for a chat in this city. Go ahead, call or email your Councillor, and start talking to your friends and family about this.

As our Councillor said last Saturday when he visited the Henderson pilot:

This project is the beginning of a conversation, a conversation we need to be having city-wide. And I am so proud that Elmwood is one of the neighbourhoods leading that conversation.

— Councillor Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan)

I completely agree.

Word to your grandma,

Elmwood Guy