Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance
7 Reasons Why Cars Are the Best Mode of Transportation

7 Reasons Why Cars Are the Best Mode of Transportation

Dear Winnipeg,

I realize it’s been a while since I last wrote. What can I say? I’ve been busy! I promise I’ll tell you all about it, but it’ll have to be for another time.

For now, I want to talk about car use in this city. Every day, more than 80% of all personal trips taken are made in a car. Despite being responsible for over 1/3 of carbon emissions in our city, despite being unsustainably expensive, not only for the user but also for the municipal corporation we all co-own together, and despite their use being the cause of death for dozens of our neighbours every year, not to mention the serious injury of hundreds more, people still choose the automobile in overwhelming numbers.

Does that make us crazy, or irrational? Of course not. People choose to drive because cars are the best mode of transportation. There are many reasons why that’s true. Here are just seven of them.

Parking regulations

There are very few places you can go to in a car in this city that don’t have ample, and usually free, parking for you when you get there. Of course, that’s by design, as it’s written into our Zoning By-law that every development must provide more than enough parking to meet peak demand. Repeat that over entire neighbourhoods over decades, and not only have you made driving better due to ample free parking everywhere, you’ve also made walking worse, since everything is now much further apart.

But it’s more than just the sheer quantity of parking. There are some more subtle parking regulations that also contribute to making driving the best, and everything else the worst.

I think everyone can relate to arriving somewhere by car, and then driving around the parking lot a few times looking for the closest parking spot to the entrance. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t, but basically never are you forced to park in the one spot that is mathematically the furthest away from the door.

That is, unless you arrive on foot or by transit, where you get dropped off just a little bit further than that, and are forced to walk clear across the entire parking lot. Every. Single. Time.

That’s not an accident.

Section 172 (3) (d) (i) of our Zoning By-law requires parking spots to be located within view of the building’s entrance (no such requirement for bike parking though — only that it have “convenient access” to the entrance, whatever that means…).

Other planning policies, like the Henderson Hwy Corridor Secondary Plan, spell out that “commercial buildings should only be located at the rear of the site with parking orientated to the front of the site”.

That’s how we end up with this all-too-familiar parking layout.

Arriving somewhere by car will always get you closer to the door than walking or taking transit there. Not by the invisible forces of free market choice, but by codified parking regulations.

Cars for the win!

Zoning regulations

We may love our cars, but if there’s one thing that we hate, it’s other people’s cars. Luckily, there’s more than the parking section of our Zoning By-law that can help us out here. From limiting what can be developed on most of the land in the city to single-family homes only, to prescribing minimum setbacks, minimum side yard sizes, maximum lot coverages, minimum lot sizes and more, these serve to do one thing: limit how many people you’ll get in a particular place.

Now, these density-limiting rules may have had different goals originally, some positive, like fire suppression, and some bad, like class segregation and institutionalized racism, but you can’t argue with their success at limiting how many of other people’s cars you have to deal with. Which makes driving better.

But as a double-whammy bonus, it also makes other modes of transportation worse too!

Same as with the parking regulations, these policies spread development further apart, adding extra distance to trips made on foot and on bike.

Take the seemingly innocent side yard. Mandating a minimum 4 ft of empty yard on either side of a building doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the impact over a single 400m block can be an added 100m of unnecessary walking distance.

Who wants to walk 25% further for nothing? Not me, not anyone. Go cars!

Speed limits

One of the greatest features of cars is their ability to go fast. Really fast. But low speed limits, with streets designed to enforce it, run counter to that, because all that ability means nothing if we’re not allowed to use it. So traffic speeds need to be kept as high as possible.

And, aren’t we lucky, the City’s Transportation Standards Manual mandates that the design speed of our streets should be “10 km/h higher than the posted speed limit of the road”, ensuring that all drivers can safely exceed the speed limit without even noticing!

Never mind that the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority conducted an evidence review on lowered vehicle speeds in cities and found that:

  • for every 1 km/h reduction in average speed, fatalities and injuries were reduced by 4% (Sun et al, 2018)
  • lower vehicle speeds promote more walking and biking (Anderson et al, 1997)
  • faster traffic acts as a barrier to people travelling on foot or bike (Lawton et al, 2012)
  • reducing vehicle speeds by 10 km/h reduces noise levels by 40% (Mitchell, 2009)
  • lower speeds have the potential to alter the transportation choices of whole communities (Milton et al, 2018)
  • and so much more!

Maybe you already knew how designing streets for high traffic speeds is deadly to people on foot and on bike, but fast traffic doesn’t even have to kill anyone to make life worse for those outside of a car. I’ve never scientifically measured the traffic noise on Henderson Hwy, but I know that I often can’t hear my music over the traffic when walking there, even with my earbuds set to max (which is approximately 105-110 dB). At that level, the CDC estimates that hearing loss is possible in less than 5 minutes.

So you could wait for a bus here and risk permanent hearing damage, at best, or death, at worst.

Or you could hop in a car!

Convoluted crossings

Another thing that makes cars awesome is forcing pedestrians to follow long, convoluted routes to cross the street, in order to avoid them getting in the way of, and slowing down, people in cars.

We started in 1936 by restricting crossings to intersections only, but in the decades since, we’ve totally amped up that game by making crossings even more difficult for pedestrians.

Winnipeg Free Press, November 11, 1936 — “It was the thin edge of the wedge, intimated Ald. John Blumberg, to further restrict liberties of the man on foot.”

Here’s a “pedestrian” bridge on Disraeli near Main Street. But you can forget about crossing here if you’re in a wheelchair, are pushing a stroller, or have any mobility issues that would make climbing two flights of stairs impossible. But whether people actually use the bridge or are discouraged from crossing at all, is irrelevant, since the only real goal is to keep cars moving.

Yes, that building on the right is a high school!

Here’s another example that’s common around the city. Want to get from the NW corner of Provencher & Taché to the SW one? You’ll have to go the long way. We want to avoid slowing the cars.

Why cross once when you can cross 4 times?

And of course, who can forget the dumpster fire that is Portage & Main? For the past 45 years, we’ve sent all pedestrians there into a labyrinthine underground concourse that’s half public, half private property, not open 24/7 and not universally accessible just so they can cross the street without disrupting people travelling in cars.

Luckily, people on foot haven’t caught on that pedestrian infrastructure is really just car infrastructure meant to artificially keep driving bearable compared to the alternatives!

Budget capacity

When a bus is too full to allow any additional passengers on board, people waiting at the stop are “passed-up” and left to wait for the (hopefully) next bus. When know exactly when, where, and on which route this happens because when it does, the driver pushes a button to log it in the bus’s on-board computer.

Pass-ups are a tangible sign that demand for transit is exceeding the system’s available capacity. If we wanted to increase transit ridership, we would respond by expanding capacity with extra buses on the routes that demand it, like routes 11, 75, 47, 60 and the BLUE line, which passed up waiting passengers a combined total of 6,847 times last year.

But that would mean increasing the amount budgeted for transit. And so we leave capacity as is.

It’s interesting to see the result of that choice. Pass-ups are at their highest in the first few weeks of September, especially as students begin classes, following new schedules, often at new schools and universities. We see a similar, but less pronounced, spike in January. This lasts until, as Transit puts it, everyone “learns their new routines and figures out the best way to get to class”.

In other words, when faced with delays from pass-ups due to insufficient capacity, people quickly adjust their travel choices, either by opting to travel at a different time, take a different route, or switch to a different mode (like driving!).

Luckily for drivers, we don’t do this for cars. When faced with delays from congestion due to insufficient capacity, we’ll dump hundreds of millions of (borrowed) budget dollars into adding more lanes for cars, to make sure no one is ever faced with opting to travel at a different time, take a different route, or (gasp!) switch to a different mode (like transit!).

Simply put, we’ll bankrupt ourselves making sure people “figure out the best way to get to class” is cars!

Sidewalks and bike lanes that end abruptly

Ever try to drive somewhere only to find the road doesn’t quite go all the way to your destination? Of course not! Not only have we made sure cars can get to every destination, but like we saw in the parking section, you’ll be able to drive right up to the door.

Want to do the same on a bike? Well, you can’t get there from here, because bike lanes are a disjointed patchwork of isolated segments.

It’s also not uncommon for sidewalks to suddenly end. There are even entire neighbourhoods without sidewalks. And since every transit trip begins and ends with a walk, this makes transit worse too.

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to wonder why anyone would ever choose not to take a car 100% of the time.

Snow clearing

I’ve talked about snow clearing before. More than once even. So you already know that poor snow clearing has an oversized impact on those walking, biking and taking transit. And even though we hear in the media every year that we’ve blown through our overall snow clearing budget, drilling down into the numbers tells an interesting story.

Snow clearingBudgetActual+/-
2018 – Local streets$15.6 M$16.8 M+$1.2 M (+8%)
2018 – Sidewalks & bike lanes$3.9 M$2.8 M-$1.1 M (-28%)
2019 – Local streets$15.7 M$20.8 M+$5.1 M (+32%)
2019 – Sidewalks & bike lanes$4.4 M$3.8 M-$0.6 M (-14%)
2020 – Local streets$15.7 M$18.0 M+$2.3 M (+15%)
2020 – Sidewalks & bike lanes$4.7 M$4.0 M-$0.7 M (-15%)
2021 – Local streets$15.7 M$25.0 M+$9.3 M (+59%)
2021 – Sidewalks & bike lanes$4.7 M$3.9 M-$0.8 M (-17%)

Every year, we’ve underspent the sidewalk clearing budget by 14 to 28%, while overspending on local streets by sometimes almost 60%.

Yes, that makes getting around in a car awfully reliable, while making the alternatives reliably awful.


I could go on listing at least a dozen more reasons why cars are better than other types of transportation. But by now, I think you get my point: car travel in our city is the best not because of anything inherently superior about cars themselves, but because we continually prioritize them through policy and budgets. And this has been going on for so long, that most of these things have become invisible to us. We point out that most people drive because cars are the best choice, while ignoring that cars are the best choice only because we’ve enforced it through generations of legislation and borrowed money.

We may think we’ve been freely choosing to drive all this time, but just like a magician will “force” the card he wants on you, the primacy of the car has been forced on us, the result of policies shaped by decades of lobbying by the oil, automobile and heavy construction industries.

The reality is the “best” mode of transportation will always be the one that is enabled by our own municipal rules and budgets. And if it was just that we democratically decided that we “preferred” that mode to be cars, for everyone, for every trip, for every time, then there’s not much anyone can argue with there.

But financial constraints have made it that we can’t continue in that direction. Our city is unable to maintain what it has built. People are driving to food banks, being forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars every year on transportation while struggling to put food on the table. Then there are all those who can’t afford a car, which we’ve made the minimum ante to participate in our society.

For all those reasons, we have to change our approach to transportation to one that generates more economic prosperity than it consumes.

It won’t happen all at once, and it won’t happen everywhere equally. But it has to happen. Sometimes cars will still be the best for some trips. And that’s great. And if your life is such that every trip will continue to be in a car, that’s fine too. Rest assured that cars will still be useable for every trip you need it for.

Getting more people to walk, bike and take transit for more trips is easy: just prioritize it. Or at least, stop prioritizing the opposite.


Elmwood Guy