Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

I Agree with Gail Asper

Dear Winnipeg,

I’ve been hearing quite a bit of hubbub over a motion before the Public Works committee yesterday, or rather, over the public presentations made in respect of that motion.

So what was all the hurly-burly about? What caused all the fracas, the hullabaloo, the cacophony? Why all the brouhaha? [I do have more, but I’ll spare you for now… I wouldn’t want to cause my own ballyhoo.]

[Hehe. Sorry.]

In short, it seems Councillor Orlikow has been receiving a lot of pressure from some folks in his ward who live on or around Wellington Crescent, who don’t like that their street has been included in the Enhanced Summer/Holiday Bicycle Routes program. And so Councillor Orlikow presented a motion to change the relevant by-law in order to give the Director of Public Works, in consultation with the area Councillor, the power to make unilateral changes to the Bicycle Routes program without having to seek any further by-law amendments from Council.

As a quick reminder, these are the streets that have been colloquially called “Open Streets”, although in their current form, there’s really nothing open about them: we’ve just changed a few rules on them to make them slightly better for cycling. That’s it.

Some have also called them “Closed Streets”, but that’s grossly inaccurate as well: cars are absolutely still allowed to drive on them. They are simply limited to one block of travel.

As unsexy as it sounds, “Enhanced Summer/Holiday Bicycle Routes” is as accurate as it gets. These are routes that have been slightly enhanced to make bicycle travel a tiny bit easier for the summer and/or some holidays/weekends.

There are 13 of them throughout the city, and a portion of Wellington Crescent is one of them. And like I said, there are some people who live there who Do. Not. Like. It.

Which was the cause of the williwaw at the Public Works committee meeting. [Sorry, last one, I promise.]

You see, the people who made oral presentations and written submissions for this agenda item were a veritable who’s-who of influential Winnipeggers. The chair of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, a former City Councillor, a former Mayoral Candidate, local business magnates, and many doctors, lawyers and real estate developers.

But my personal favourite of these submissions was from Order of Canada recipient, Order of Manitoba recipient, successful businessperson and lifelong philanthropist, Humanitarian of the Year Award-winner, yes, none other than the illustrious Gail Asper!

And having read her submission, along with all the others, I’m here to say, on the record: I agree with Gail.

You see, once you get past all the rhetoric, these residents’ objections to including their street in the Enhanced Summer/Holiday Bicycle Routes can be distilled down to only two main points. Here’s the first:

  1. Having vehicle traffic restricted to one block only on the street where you live is REALLY inconvenient. It forces you to adapt the route you drive to/from home every single time. Receiving deliveries for online purchases and restaurant orders is made more complicated. And it potentially lengthens routes for emergency vehicles (although I’m sure an ambulance with sirens wailing would be forgiven for ignoring the one-block rule).

Let me state it plainly: I agree with Gail.

Because let’s not forget the point of all of this: we’re trying to get more people to switch from driving to other modes of transportation. It’s an explicit goal of our City’s Climate Action Plan. And while Gail’s submission points out (accurately) that our streets have been shared by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians “for over 100 years”, the reality is that the proportions of each mode that we have ended up with have everything to do with the current transportation setup. If we want to change the proportions of these modes, we will have to change the transportation setup.

And unfortunately, limiting motor vehicle traffic to one block, while annoying to drivers who live on this street, doesn’t really do much to make walking and cycling safer, easier and more attractive. I know, because I’ve tried riding several times on one of these streets (Scotia St) to get to Kildonan Park with my children, and my parents. Yes, the restriction does make things mildly better, but it really does nothing to prevent the real issue: cars passing too close, too fast.

If we want our interventions to scale to get the amount of mode-shift we actually need, a much better solution would simply be to reduce the speed limit to 30 km/h, with physical traffic calming features installed to make it “self-enforcing”. That is, after all, the World Health Organization recommendation for wherever motor vehicles mix with vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians (which is a LOT of places in a city, like residential neighbourhoods and business districts).

Plus, if Gail is trying to really soak in the beauty of a leisurely drive down Wellington Crescent, that’s also better at 30 km/h!

  1. Residents in a neighbourhood should have more say in how people travel through their neighbourhood, especially if it negatively impacts them. Almost all of the delegates stressed their connection to the neighbourhood and the street, the length of time they’ve lived there, etc. And they were upset that their voices are not being heard.

Let there be no mistake here either: I agree with Gail.

My stomping ground of Elmwood is no stranger to having our neighbourhood shaped by the will of those simply travelling through imposed on us.

A coalition group of 11 neighbourhood groups (supported by our elected officials on every level of government, from School Trustee, to City Councillor, to Provincial MLA, to Federal MP) has recently been working to make changes to some of the most troublesome streets in our neighbourhood, only to face stiff opposition from people who don’t even live here. [Full disclosure: I volunteer with this group.]

But that isn’t even new. Here’s a Free Press article from 1987 describing prior efforts to make the stretch of Henderson Hwy that is our neighbourhood “high street”, safer and more pleasant for residents and local businesses:

Elmwood residents and business owners demanded a lower speed limit and an additional traffic light, in addition to 9 other safety improvements, on Henderson Hwy, following the horrific traffic death of Dr. Richard Bird. Although, according to the article, the issue of pedestrian safety “has concerned Elmwood residents for the last 20 years”. That’s the 1960s for those of you keeping track at home.

What we got instead? The so-called “death curve” was straightened and banked, and a barrier installed in the median to prevent crossing. People travelling through Elmwood were more important than those who live, work and go to school here, I guess.

But it’s not just Elmwood. In the neighbourhood of West Alexander, IRCOM had been lobbying for pedestrian safety improvements on Isabel Street since at least 2016. They also asked for multiple improvements, like a reduced speed limit, raised crosswalks, and new signals.

It took the death of a five-year-old girl years later, and permanent life-altering injuries to her mother, for the City to do the bare minimum: they installed some flashing lights!

People travelling through West Alexander were more important than those who live, work and go to school there, I guess.

And let’s not forget this recent egregious example of people travelling through a neighbourhood taking precedence over the people who live there:

People living downtown: we’d like to be allowed to cross the street in our own neighbourood.
People driving through downtown: Request denied.

So it’s probably understating it to say we’re ecstatic to welcome Gail Asper to our fight! Maybe now that such an influential figure has joined our side, no longer will we have to accept being told to just move somewhere else if we don’t like how people travel through our neighbourhood.

One of our City Councillors on Twitter.

But why should we care? The overwhelming majority of Winnipeggers drive, so why shouldn’t we be catering to their needs over the needs of people using other modes?

Well, apart from the aforementioned issue of climate change, there’s the issue of money. We’ve talked about this before: we cannot afford the city we have built.

Quick example: a 2018 city report tells us we have $15-billion worth of roads and bridges, which all need to be replaced periodically. We budgeted $152.2 million for that in 2021, a never-before-seen record amount.

I asked my 11-year-old how long it would take to maintain and replace each of our roads at that rate. He answered about 100 years.

So I asked my 8-year-old whether she thought that was enough. She answered that she wasn’t an engineer, and she wasn’t too familiar with things like how the freeze-thaw cycle affected the expected useful life of pavement, but that she was very confident that it was woefully inadequate.

As you can see, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that at an average 25-year replacement cycle, the rate used by every developer’s cost-benefit-analysis, we need almost an extra half a billion dollars PER YEAR more money, just to keep up with the roads we have already built. Add in the fact that we have been overspending by an average of about $100 million annually for the past decade, and we’re short about $600 million per year.

So let me spell this out: continuing to be a city where 80% of trips are taken in a car requires an extra $600 million per year. What are our options?

Well, we could double our property taxes. That would do it.

Or, some people think we can get there by “cutting waste”. Well, to get there this way, we’d need to scrap the entire police budget (without redirecting the funding elsewhere). But that will only get us halfway there. So, we’ll also have to eliminate the fire and paramedic department… hope you are willing to sign up as a volunteer firefighter! Oh, yeah, that still leaves us about $100 million short. Oh well, nothing a further 15% property tax increase can’t fix!

And, as we’ve seen, the status quo will bankrupt the city eventually. Not good.

So mode shift is not a choice to be made based on personal preference. It’s a choice between mode shift and doubling our property taxes. Or a choice between mode shift and zero police or alternative community supports, relying on volunteer firefighters and still accepting a 15% tax increase. Or a choice between mode shift or eventually facing municipal bankruptcy.

And like Gail has said before:

I have never heard anyone once say, ‘I live in my city because, goshdarnit, the roads are so great!’. Of course we need good roads, but where is the vision? There’s no point in having roads if there are no museums, galleries, theatres and concerts to travel to.

— Gail Asper, in a presentation to a Council committee on March 13, 2020

And as should be obvious, a bankrupt city can’t afford to invest in arts. A bankrupt city can’t afford to invest in libraries, parks, recreation, or any of the other things that make a city worth living in. A bankrupt city can’t even afford to pick up garbage, or maintain the most basic of its infrastructure, roads.

Our City already meets the technical definition of insolvency. If we continue down this path, we will end up as the kind of city Gail does not want. We will go bankrupt.

That’s why we need to do everything we can to change how people move about our city.

For climate change, yes. But maybe you don’t believe in that. Fine.

And maybe you don’t believe in financial sustainability either. Maybe you don’t believe in money.

But here’s the thing about money. Money is like the honey badger.

You don’t need to believe in the honey badger. The honey badger believes in you. If you act in a financially unsustainable manner, the honey badger will eventually bankrupt you.

Honey badger don’t care.

So let’s keep our eye on the ball, Winnipeg! Everything we do with respect to transportation in this city has to be with the following in mind: the future of our city depends, in great part, on how successful we will be at getting MORE people to switch their trips to walking, biking or taking transit.

Regular people, like me, my wife, my parents, my neighbours, and regular, run-of-the-mill Order of Canada recipients.

I’m not an “avid cyclist”.

I’m just a fat, middle-aged, dad of 3 trying to get to the places I need to, like the grocery store, the dentist, the coffee shop and the local arena. And I’m trying to do it without leaving my kids a poisoned planet and a bankrupt city.

I think that’s a laudable goal.

And I’m certain Gail would agree with me.

Love,

Elmwood Guy