Is It Meant to Be?
I know I’ve been writing a lot about transportation lately, so I’m going to ask you to just indulge me once more, and then I promise I’ll go back to picking on the planners.
[Note to self: “Picking on the planners” would make a great title for a bluegrass album.]
One thing that comes up a lot whenever there’s discussion about making any changes to an arterial that runs through a neighbourhood is “We can’t do that… it’s an arterial. It’s meant to move traffic.”
This, just like my idea to start a bluegrass band, might seem reasonable at first glance. But is it?
[Additional note to self: google banjo lessons.]
It’s easy to look at a roadway the way it is today and assume that it’s always been that way. And therefore, that it always will. Forever and ever, amen.
[Yaaaassss! That’s totally going on the album!]
But let’s take a little historical journey together to examine whether that is really true, using my own neighbourhood high street as a case study.
What is known today as the southernmost stretch of Henderson Hwy was actually called Kelvin Street around the time when Elmwood first joined the City of Winnipeg, back in 1906. Back then, the corner of Kelvin and Hespeler was one of two relatively concentrated nodes of development happening here.
Described in an October 30, 1905 Free Press article as an “enterprising cosmopolitan district rapidly growing in population”, the area was home to nearly 4,000 people (up from only 40 just ten years earlier), as well as “many fine places of business”.
“At present, the ward is a complete community with every suburban convenience from a newspaper and a street car line to a barbershop and shoe shining stand. The ward has its own schools, churches, societies and industries. […] Among the principal employers of labor are [a] pork packing establishment, […] brick yards, […] tannery, […] brewery and […] iron works. There are fifteen grocery stores, two drug stores, one blacksmith shop, one carriage builder, four butchers and one hardware store. Two doctors are practising in the ward and three new hotels are seeking licenses.”— Manitoba Free Press, March 6th, 1906
The Northeast Winnipeg Historical Society found that by 1915, there were 23 businesses located just on the one stretch of Kelvin St from the river to Harbison Ave W (the city limits at the time). Streetcar service here ran every 5 minutes from 6AM to 2AM daily, with peak periods seeing service every 3 minutes, according to a 1913 by-law. Ten years later, you could count nearly 3 dozen small businesses operating on Elmwood’s main street, growing to 56 in 1935, to 66 in 1945 and even to a whopping 86 different businesses in 1955!
Even though there were plenty of cars around in 1955, getting them to move quickly through here wasn’t the goal. This was obviously a place you travelled to, not through.
Then in 1959, the Disraeli bridge was built, and the City started to make different choices for Kelvin Street.
Almost immediately, there were calls to increase the speed limit (a January 11, 1962 Winnipeg Tribune article shows a Highway Traffic Board recommendation of up to 40mph, or about 65km/h, on Kelvin St!). And only three years later, Kelvin Street was renamed Henderson Hwy, a strong foreshadowing of the many choices yet to be made.
“As you know, our neighbourhood was pretty well destroyed in the early 60s when Henderson Hwy went right down the centre of our little village.
Since then, a lot of the businesses have folded and gone. I’ve been here 45 years, I’ve seen the businesses go one after another. It’s just a downhill climb.”— Longtime Elmwood resident at an April 28, 2016 Appeal Committee public hearing
One such choice happened in the summer of 1982. Eight-year-old Jody Dyck was killed while crossing at the Larsen Ave pedestrian corridor beside Elmwood (Roxy) Park. Residents were angry. In a letter from Community Committee, they asked the public service to install traffic lights at nearby Martin Ave W in order to slow traffic.
The public service declined since “the present traffic characteristics” didn’t warrant it. In response, the community asked the public service to identify a location for traffic lights anywhere between Munroe Ave and Johnson Ave. I didn’t find a response to that, but the fact that no traffic lights exist there today tells us what their answer was.
A child died, residents were angry, and we shaped Henderson to prioritize traffic. It wasn’t pre-ordained. It was a choice.
Only 5 years later, local dentist Dr. Richard Bird was killed while crossing Henderson at Martin, in front of his own office.
Again, Elmwood residents got organized to demand changes. Hundreds signed a petition circulated by local businesspeople. A September 27th, 1987 Free Press article relates residents presenting an 11-point plan to Council to increase safety at the “Death Curve”, which included reducing the speed limit to 40 km/h and (again) adding traffic lights at Martin Ave W, along with several other items meant to “control the flow of traffic”. The article also states that the issue of pedestrian safety here “has concerned Elmwood residents for the last 20 years”. You know, like since the 1960s.
Instead, the City straightened and flattened the curve so traffic didn’t have to slow down, and put up a barricade in the median to prevent pedestrians from crossing there.
A well-respected member of the community died, residents were angry, and we shaped Henderson to prioritize traffic. It wasn’t providence. It was a choice.
Then in 1996, 12-year-old Amanda Peters was hit while crossing Henderson at a pedestrian corridor in front of her school at MBCI. She survived and used her experience to ask the city to make the crossing safer. “Just two hours after her younger sister urged city hall to make Henderson Highway safer for pedestrians, [15-year-old] Connie Peters was hit by a car on that road” read the December 5th, 1996 issue of the Free Press.
Since reducing traffic speeds was never on the table, the sisters had to settle for moving the pedestrian corridor and bus stop to a more “visible” location.
If you’ve ever wondered why there’s a pedestrian crossing and a bus stop in the middle of nowhere by the cemetery, instead of a more useful location by the school, this is why.
Two sisters survived their walks to school by luck alone. But once again, we shaped Henderson to prioritize traffic. It wasn’t destiny. It was a choice.
I’m not writing this to lament the past, or to cast blame. Rather, I’m writing this to show that none of it was “meant to be”. It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to continue to be. It’s simply a result of policy choices. And while fighting the will of God might seem as ill-advised as naming your bluegrass band the Rag Baskets, making different policy choices isn’t.
We can make this area safe and pleasant for residents again. We just have to choose that over traffic.
We can make this area good for local businesses again. We just have to choose that over traffic.
We can make this a place you travel to, instead of through, again. We just have to choose that over traffic.
Now I know what you’re thinking… the majority has spoken, we’ve made Henderson in your neighbourhood an arterial whose sole purpose is moving traffic, and that’s that. Deal with it. If you don’t like it, just move.
And that’s precisely my point.
A place can’t be good at moving cars quickly, and also a nice neighbourhood to live and work in. If you insist on moving cars quickly as a priority, inevitably, people have to move away. It has to stop being a neighbourhood.
You’ll remember these maps from my last letter:
Now tell me if you see a correlation with this map of all the “stuff” in my neighbourhood:
That’s right. Collisions happen where the stuff is. Traffic engineers may call them “pedestrians” and “cyclists”, but to the people of Elmwood, they’re just our neighbours trying to get to school, or the dentist, or the park. Just living life in our neighbourhood.
And that’s completely at odds with moving traffic quickly. What’s good for one is necessarily bad for the other.
Worse yet, despite the decades of effort, Henderson isn’t even very good at moving traffic quickly. There isn’t a single driver who comes through here that doesn’t have something negative to say about the congestion on Henderson.
But until you’ve removed the entire neighbourhood, Henderson will continue to suck at moving cars quickly.
We can’t have both. We either remove the neighbourhood so we can move cars quickly, or we accept that slow-moving traffic is the price we pay for having nice things. It’s not any more complicated than that.
And the reality is, this isn’t unique to Elmwood. If you live in a neighbourhood that existed before the 1950s, your high street likely has a similar history. And, like my street, it likely still has its good “bones” intact. I’m thinking not only of Osborne and Corydon of course, but of places like Selkirk Ave, Provencher Blvd, and Regent Ave in downtown Transcona.
Making these streets productive again so that they generate more property taxes than they require in infrastructure servicing can be done.
Making these streets pleasant and safe for the people who live in the surrounding neighbourhoods can be done.
Making these streets good for small businesses again can be done.
We just have to stop blaming fate and choose it.
P.S. I bought 3 copies of Charles Marohn’s Confessions of a Recovering Engineer to give away. I even got them autographed for you! If you want one, send me an email and on October 5th, 2021, I’ll draw the 3 lucky winners.
P.P.S. A huge thank you to the staff from the City Clerk’s office who helped me search the old Council minutes, as well as to both the Northeast Winnipeg Historical Society and local historian Chris Cassidy, whose prior research I relied upon heavily for this post.