Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Henderson Highway Blues

[Editor’s note: This is an adaptation of a piece Glenelm Gal wrote a few years ago for Write to Move, an anthology on the broad topic of mobility rights put together by the Winnipeg Arts Council and the Winnipeg Trails Association. For me, it’s the story behind the statistic that 86% of seniors and 70% of youth in our neighbourhood report finding it difficult to get around. It also gets to the core of why more people don’t walk in our city, as well as why we’ve personally gotten involved with the ReimagineElmwood initiative. More on that soon! — Love, Elmwood Guy.]

Dear Winnipeg,

On Henderson, I can’t hear my children speak. I hear the high notes of their voices, I see their mouths moving and their young faces tilted upwards towards me, but I can’t understand what they’re saying. The noise from the traffic is too loud. We just keep going until we reach our destination, and exchange our words when we arrive.

It is our neighbourhood high street, the place we come to visit the optometrist or massage therapist, to buy stamps or grab a burger, get a hair cut or go to dance class. There could always be more, but really, there’s a decent number of useful, everyday stores and services on our little stretch of south Henderson Hwy. It’s a remarkable feat when you consider that this highway is configured for driving through, not coming to, this place.

Often when we’re on Henderson it’s because we are waiting to catch a bus. We do this more often now that our family doesn’t own a car anymore. It’s a long story why, but for a variety of reasons we found ourselves driving less and less and living more and more locally, to the point where we decided we would try living without owning a vehicle.

Our family of five (three kids, nine and under) has lived a “car-lite” life for more than a year now, survived one Winnipeg winter and find ourselves in the midst of another. It can be done. Obviously. We are doing this by choice; the only other person in our circle of family and friends who doesn’t own a car is my great-grandma who is well into her 80s. She recently retired her Smart car and is tickled that we have car-free status in common.

For the most part, living without car ownership has been pretty straightforward. Logistically, it sometimes presents challenges, most of which could be significantly mitigated by having access to a co-op car. There isn’t one in our neighbourhood (yet), so we sometimes get a car from the rental place up the street, and that works out pretty well.

On the balance of things, not owning a car has been a positive, or at least, just the new normal in our lives. It’s made me more mindful of my shopping and consumer habits, and helps me value my time more. We’re saving a not-insignificant amount of money. We do a lot more walking, biking and public transit, which is good for our health and good for the planet.

The biggest downside to this whole open-ended experiment is not actually anything to do with the car, it’s that my eyes are now wide-open to the built environment and all the ways it discourages those who move throughout the city outside of a vehicle. Now that I’ve seen the city through that lens, I can’t unsee it. I can’t go back. And the place that it feels the worst, like the biggest betrayal, is a place I spend a lot of time: Henderson Hwy.

Walking along the tree-lined residential streets inside our little neighbourhood, it’s hard not to be in a good mood. We’ve lived here for a little over a decade and know a lot of people here now; it’s rare not to bump into someone we know, or at least recognize a familiar face while on the way to the park or to a friend or family member’s house. We’re not dog people, but I’m grateful for the multitude of neighbours who are: their routine walks bring more eyes on the street, and more opportunities for those mood-boosting chance encounters. Deep boulevards separate small front yards from the road and our children play with the neighbour kids and grandkids, floating from one front yard to another, building giant snow slides in winter and having bike and scooter races in the summer.

The rhythms of the neighbourhood are comforting, too: steady streams of people heading towards or away from Henderson at the start or end of the day. Packs of kids walking to and from school morning, noon and afternoon, the student patrols and the adult crossing guard at Hespeler Ave. Even the inevitable street parking pinch on Thursday nights when folks come from around the city to the coffeehouse music night at the church. The predictability of all these waves of movement remind me of all the people that live in and come to this place, and how we notice each other, how we’re each other’s keepers.

Inside the neighbourhood, it is so pleasurable to be out and about on foot or on bicycle. In the shady windbreak of the elm canopy, hearing the bells from the cathedral from across the river, the happy chance to run into a friend or acquaintance and pause for a conversation—often the mundane act of walking becomes something interesting and uplifting.

But to venture to the edge, to Henderson, all of that pleasure is instantly stripped away. Often on the way to the bus I’ll listen to a podcast, and the second I round the corner off my street and onto the highway, I have to turn the volume in my earbuds to 100%–and I’ll still struggle to hear. The kids and I once happened to cross paths with my brother-in-law and his family on Henderson. We stopped to say hello, the young cousins delighted at the surprise encounter. But once we’d shouted our initial greetings, we realized conversation was futile. We mimed exaggerated shrugs – “what can you do??“—and continued on our way. No place for a conversation—or for restless children.

On Henderson, it’s every man for himself.

We hear it all the time:

Sitting is the new smoking.

Kids don’t get enough physical activity or time outdoors.

Just get up and go for a walk!

Get on that bike!

If you won’t do it for the environment, do it for your health.

And here we are, doing just that. But if these things are supposed to be so good—for our bodies and our wallets and the city and the planet—why don’t they feel better than they do?

If we want more people walking and biking and taking transit, which we say we do, if these are desirable behaviours in the midst of public health, climate and municipal finance crises, then why isn’t the City doing anything to make its built environment less hostile, less dangerous and less unpleasant?

When tempted by the idea of owning a car again, I remind myself that the places that bother me most are so close to home that I would never drive to them. Getting a car doesn’t solve the problem.

We cross Henderson at Johnson, seven lanes wide. First we wait for what feels like an eternity for our walk signal, then get our 20 seconds of opportunity to cross. Even though we have the green light and walk signal, I check the lanes frequently, making sure approaching vehicles are actually going to stop at the red. Then I have to watch the cars turning against us to make sure they see us and yield to us. I know I must look like a lunatic, keeping exaggerated tabs on our surroundings, but I can’t not. “Let’s go! Come on! Hurry up!” I bark at the kids, hating myself for it, but that countdown goes so quickly. My two-year-old would love to be walking on her own instead of strapped into a stroller, but there’s not a chance I’m going to let that happen on Henderson for a good while yet.

Sometimes rather than waiting at the intersection, we walk a block over and cross on demand at a pedestrian corridor. Hit the button and try to confirm that it has triggered the flashing lights. We can’t really see the flashing lights from our position and angle at the curb, especially when the sun is glaring down at them, and we often can’t hear the rapid beeping either; the traffic is that loud. We wait on the corner to make sure the cars in the first two lanes stop, then carefully make our way into the intersection. Reach the median, then repeat to get to the other side. Breathe.

Just yesterday a pickup truck barrelled through the flashing lights in the third lane, closest to the median. My husband and kids were already crossing and would have been hit if they weren’t watching that lane carefully. We witnessed the same thing happen last summer, a car that didn’t stop at the flashing lights, despite having ample warning. The driver slammed on the brakes as he nearly hit a kid on a bike, just meters from us on the sidewalk.

I see vehicles blow through activated pedestrian corridors on Henderson regularly. I don’t know whether the drivers aren’t paying attention, or just don’t care. I have no idea how old my kids will be before I am comfortable letting them cross there on their own.

I’m thinking constantly of Surafiel and Galila, two children who were killed in crosswalks here in Winnipeg over the last two years. I didn’t know them, I’ve never met their families, but their stories haunt me. If them, why not my children? Why not me?

You really don’t understand how safe or unsafe a street feels until you walk alongside it with young children.

We wait for the bus as cars and trucks whip past us at 60km/h. The kids know not to go onto the street, but still, I’m always telling them to step back. In winter, when piled up snow and ice are utterly irresistible for climbing, I’m especially nervous. I worry constantly that someone will slip and fall onto the roadway. Even looking at the schedule mounted on the bus stop sign feels too close to traffic.

We are sandwiched in the clear zone, the designated “recovery area” for cars to regain control if they must leave the roadway, an area in which ideally there are no fixed objects. If this road was being designed today, the buildings would probably be set further back to allow a sufficient clear zone, but grandfathered in, the sidewalk with humans on it takes its place. No wonder I’m always on edge.

Although we’re crammed, we’re also exposed. If we’re lucky, there’s a crumbling bench to sit on while we wait for the bus, or a doorway in which to get a little shelter from the sun or wind. There are a few trees left in the centre median, but none lining the sidewalks. An urban forester told me that it’s almost impossible to get new trees to grow alongside major streets because the de-icing salt is so harsh.

Why don’t more people take the bus?

The sidewalks on Henderson are an okay width, and have a sort of line running down the middle of them. Instinctively I make the kids walk between the line and the buildings, rather than the line and the road. In commiserating about how awful Henderson is with other neighbourhood parents, I discover they do the same thing.

If we’re going more than a block or two, often we’ll just take the alley that runs parallel, rather than walk on Henderson. It’s quieter, that’s the main thing. The kids are always finding gross treasures in drifts of litter. We have to stay in a tight pack; no stragglers allowed. Cars deke out of the back lanes too quickly and I find myself giving lectures on blind corners. What a childhood we are giving them.


Is it better than a childhood being shuttled everywhere inside a vehicle, which is statistically one of the most dangerous place for children to be? Spewing carbon into the environment they come home from school in tears about?

That’s the question I wrestle with every time we venture onto Henderson on foot. Are we foolishly brave for choosing a life on foot? Or bravely foolish? Is it rich, precious, martyr-y to be writing an essay about the trials and tribulations of living car-free by choice when for so many families it isn’t a choice, it’s a financial reality?

We are walking to dance class on Henderson, a quick 5-minute stroll from home, and the kids are asking questions, wanting to continue the conversation we started before we got to the highway. For the umpteenth time, I lean down and say as loudly as I can, “Love, I can’t hear you. I’m sorry. Just wait until we get inside.” I find myself thinking, “This is insane. Why are we doing this? Who are we doing this for? Who in their right mind signs up for this?” Do the parents who park in the lot behind the studio have these thoughts?

But of course, it’s this, or drive somewhere else. We would never drive two blocks away for dance class. So it’s this reality, these conditions I can’t un-experience, this bleak and hostile high street that we’re trying to support, trying to keep businesses alive on, desperately trying to embrace. So why do I feel like a glutton for punishment?

When you have a car, you can go anywhere. And so usually, you do.

South Henderson has so much potential. It’s got amazing bones: lots of modestly-sized storefronts close to the street, relatively few surface lots, parks and buildings both historic and new. It wouldn’t take much to make it a great street; that’s what is so discouraging.

Albert Street in the Exchange District

Once while admiring the new protected bike lanes in the Exchange, my son looked around and remarked wistfully, “I wish our neighbourhood was like this.” I asked him what he liked about it. He noted that there were not that many cars, and the streets weren’t so noisy and they were short to cross. Lots of trees. And of course, the bike lanes.

I do too,” I told him, “I really do.


Glenelm Gal