Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Lessons Learned from the Great Open Streets Goat Rodeo of ’21

Dear Winnipeg,

I don’t know about you, but I’m freaking out about how little climate action we’re taking as a city. Sure, we adopted a unanimously-supported Climate Action Plan in 2018, but here we are in 2021, and well…. what have we actually done since then?

Nationally, transportation is only second to the oil & gas industry as an emissions contributor. In Winnipeg, at 49.7%, vehicles essentially create half of the city’s emissions.  Residential vehicles create 32.1% and commercial vehicles create 17.6%.  (What about all those diesel-guzzling 40-ft limos? Surprisingly, they create less than 1%!)

Recently, we saw Winnipeg’s climate-action efforts ranked against other major Canadian cities’ and it’s pretty dismal.

“Winnipeg ranked last in nearly all of related categories, including kilometres of bike lanes, cyclist and pedestrian safety, number of electric vehicle chargers, number of transit trips, and number of car-share vehicles available to residents.”

Winnipeg’s standing takes hit in annual climate report, Winnipeg Free Press, February 25, 2021.

Anyway: it’s obvious (or should be!) that if we want to take climate action, the number one thing we need to do is get people out of their cars and using lower-emission modes of transportation. After all, of the 20% emissions reduction called for in our Climate Action Plan, 17 of those are expected to come from transportation adaptations.

And so for a city that needs to convert about 1 in 3 car trips to bus, walk, bike or carpool by 2030 to meet our climate goals (which don’t even meet the Paris Agreement targets, BTW), this is a mammoth task.

Given the magnitude of this challenge and the urgency and severity of the climate crisis, it’s worrisome that the city doesn’t really seem to be doing anything to make those other modes more appealing.

Sure, every day we hear a lot of different messages about how we can make greener transportation choices. Take the bus! Ride your bike! Carpool! These things are all better for the environment and as a bonus, better for your wallet and better for your health.

If you asked people why they weren’t doing those things, you’d find a lot of different reasons – some pandemic-specific, but most were already barriers before COVID hit.

  • Taking the bus takes twice as long as driving
  • I can’t afford the bus
  • The bus is too crowded
  • The nearest bus stop is too far away
  • I can’t rely on the bus to get me to work on time
  • Waiting for the bus on a dark and deserted street is scary
  • Waiting for the bus in full sun is awful
  • I can’t even get to the bus stop with a stroller or a mobility aid (and if I do get to a bus, sometimes there’s no room for me)
  • I’m scared of slipping on ice while I’m walking
  • I don’t feel safe riding my bike in traffic
  • There’s nowhere safe to park & lock my bike
  • The bike routes in my neighbourhood don’t take me where I need to go
  • I have no logical carpool partners for my destination or my schedule
  • Carpooling feels ill-advised during a pandemic

These things may not be issues for every person but they’re all very real, valid obstacles.

Thankfully, there are solutions for them.  Here are some ideas off the top of my head.

To make biking more feasible:

  • Add protected bike lanes on all arterials (as a matter of course during every road renewal)
  • Keep bike lanes clear of snow & debris
  • Lower residential speed limits so that every neighbourhood street is automatically bike-friendly
  • Create better bike parking

To make walking easier:

  • Basically everything mentioned above for biking, plus…
  • Prioritize snow clearance on sidewalks over streets
  • Plant street trees everywhere for comfortable, shady, less windy routes
  • Eliminate slip lanes, add raised crossings & other features to create safer streets by design

To make transit better:

  • Basically everything mentioned above for biking and walking, since every transit trip begins and ends with other modes, plus…
  • Make it reliable
  • Make it frequent
  • Make it safe
  • Make it accessible (both physically and financially)

To make carpooling more attractive:

  • Toll roads create a financial incentive to get more people into fewer vehicles.

We absolutely have to address these issues to have any hope of increasing AT and public transportation rates. We must. They are big problems to fix (though maybe not as big and certainly not as costly as you’d think) and we need to start aggressively working on solutions, um, yesterday.

There is one solution, however, that doesn’t work: relying on folks to be virtuous with their transportation choices.

We have to build it, so they will come.

If the Great Open Streets Goat Rodeo of ’21 has taught us anything, it’s that demand is there. While not pitched as climate action, Open Streets are some of the lowest-hanging fruit for making progress on this front: popular with the public and cheap to implement. More importantly, they’re proof of concept that people will walk and bike when conditions are safe and comfortable. We built it; they came.

We should be totally psyched by this proof. It tackles one part of the daunting imperative that is climate action. But we can’t stop there. We need to build on this momentum and unlock the other half of our potential.

But we need to acknowledge that Winnipeg has another pesky barrier when it comes to getting folks out of their cars.

It’s not the weather.

It’s not “car culture”.

It’s distance.

When it comes to transportation, distance is a huge challenge.

We are a long way away from being able to afford a big fancy public transit system like a subway or LRT (and even those aren’t the magic bullet folks seem to think they are).

We can’t magically compress our existing city, which is full of places people want and need to go, into a compact network of distinct areas that folks can seamlessly zip between on bike.

I know many awesome people who are completely undaunted by distance but I have to say, the best bike infrastructure in the world isn’t going to entice me to bike from Elmwood to Charleswood to visit a friend (much less return home by myself in the dark at night).

And we all know how many dirty looks get shot at the parent who dares bring a large stroller on the bus – can you imagine the death glares if you tried to bring, I don’t know, a couple flat pack crates home from Ikea?

Ultimately, people have a natural threshold for how much time they’re willing to spend getting somewhere. As much as people might want to walk, bus or bike more often, they can’t do those things if they take double, triple, or more time than they would by car. (Though the new Transit Master Plan should help a lot on the bus front.)

So, we’re in a bit of a dilemma. We have a geographically big city that we can’t afford to maintain. We are in a climate crisis that demands we shift people into modes of transportation other than private vehicles.

But a car is currently the fastest and most convenient way to get around the city. For folks in huge swaths of the city, the switch to public or active transportation is not a viable option because there are only so many hours in a day.

But auto-orientation (gas, electric, autonomous—take your pick!) is both terrible for the climate and for our city coffers.

It’s easy to say “drive less”, but what if your kids’ daycare, your own workplace, your bestie’s place, and the swimming pool where your family takes lessons on weekends are in totally different parts of the city from where you live?

Only the most committed environmentalist—or the person with the fewest economic resources—would take the path of most resistance here.

AND YET we have to get people to drive less if we want to meet our climate action goals and if we’d like to stop spending the lion’s share of our capital budget on roadwork.

(I don’t know about you but I would much prefer to spend money on trees, parks, libraries, community centres, and updating combined sewers so that raw sewage doesn’t back up onto the river trail than on filling potholes and resurfacing Main St for the umpteenth time.)

So, if we can’t significantly shorten travel time to destinations throughout the city, even with great public transit or AT infrastructure, how do we give people the ability to drive less—even just a little less?

By cutting out the need for a lengthy trip in the first place.

By eliminating the need for emissions-creating transportation.

By making it so that even SOME destinations are a lot closer to home.

By recognizing that city planning is transportation policy, and vice-versa.

Open Streets have proven that people want to walk and bike close to home if the city provides a safe, convenient environment to do so. We just need to figure out the other part of the equation: how to give them amenities and services they normally drive to within walking distance. How do we that? By fostering 15-minutes neighbourhoods. That’s next time…stay tuned for Part II.

Love,

Glenelm Gal