A letter I sent to the members of the Executive Policy Committee, who will be voting on enacting Winnipeg’s new speed limit by-law at tomorrow’s meeting.
Good morning, Mayor Bowman and members of Executive Policy Committee
I’m unable to attend the EPC meeting as a delegation tomorrow morning, but I wanted to submit my feedback to you on the vitally important issue of Winnipeg’s new speed limit by-law.
You will be hearing from many smart, passionate people at tomorrow’s meeting, many there because of the Safe Speeds Wpg campaign, which is advocating for 30km/h residential speeds. I know they will be providing you with solid evidence on why adopting lower speed limits is the only acceptable path for Winnipeg. I add my voice to theirs to urge you to do the right thing, even when you think you have no support and fear the backlash from your constituents.
I know you are all parents, like I am. Although your kids are almost all out of car seats, I want you to think about those days. Chances are good that you can remember at least one time when your child did not want to sit down and be buckled into their car seat. (Or, if you had a child like one of mine, it was a struggle every single time!)
Think back to what you did in those instances (sorry, I know they’re not exactly rosy memories!!). Your child was screaming, contorting, fighting back – anything to resist being strapped into the safety of his or her car seat. In those moments, did you consider for even half a second that you might just not worry about the car seat this time? No. You took a deep breath, and you gave yourself and your kid a pep talk, and you did up those buckles. Because you were the parent and you knew that safety was YOUR job and NOT OPTIONAL.
I know you’re already facing loud opposition to reduced speeds and that when you enact safe speeds you’ll get a lot of pushback. But this is your job. We’re one year into your terms and by 2022, people will have adapted to our new reality and possibly even come to realize that safe speeds are better for everyone.
Please don’t let the loud, angry voices of the drivers who are opposed to safe speeds drown out the voices of the people who can see that 30km/h speed limits will make a better, safer city for people of all ages, abilities and modes of transportation. We don’t need public consultation or pilot projects or further investigation. The evidence might not be popular, but it is clear and not up for debate: slower speeds save lives and make healthier cities.
When you discuss and vote on this issue tomorrow, please remember the child who is kicking and screaming about being put in the carseat, and whether you gave in or held your ground.
Winnipeg needs leaders who care as much about the lives of its citizens as they care about the safety of their own children.
Please make the right choice.
Given the choice, what kind of person would willingly spend 17 hours of their Friday at City Hall?
A recent Appeal Committee meeting lasted from 9:30am until well after midnight, with many folks there to speak to multiple agenda items. As I learned, the answer to that question is “people who care a lot about where they live”.
Also, to some extent, a person like me, who for some strange reason tuned into the livestream off and on all day and then once the kids were in bed, made popcorn and drank homebrew and watched the meeting as it stretched on into the wee hours, until Friday was actually Saturday.
Partly I was keen to see self-proclaimed urbanist Coun. Matt Allard in action, and to see what Coun. Browaty would do with a proposed lot split on Kildonan Drive facing huge opposition, and to see whether Coun. Santos would bring some fresh new Point Douglas perspective to the table.
But given that the agenda was packed with infill-related issues and multi-family developments and there looked to be a huge number of delegations, I was also on a mission to hear, straight from people’s mouths, their objections to these projects. I was hoping that by better listening and understanding the common objections, I might be better placed to counter them.
Yep: I’m in camp YIMBY. And it’s easy to think of folks who turn out against development as NIMBYs, but I think that kind of dehumanizes them–turns them into “the other”, which isn’t going to get us anywhere. So lately I’ve been trying to remind myself to think of behaviours and attitudes, not people, as NIMBY.
As I mentioned earlier, it quickly became apparent that the kind of people who are willing to give up an entire day, or more than a day, to have their 10 minutes to voice their opposition, are the kind of people who care a lot about where they live. Even if I can’t for the life of me understand what the big problem is, or what they are really afraid of, I have no doubt they care a lot about their neighbourhoods. I found a perfect summation of this paradox here (emphasis mine):
“even though hypervigilant neighbours can too often overreact and be toxically afraid of change and difference, they are also very often an indicator species of a great community. Because many of the same impulses that lead someone to (wrong-headedly) kick up a fuss about a homeless shelter or a set of stacked townhouses will also lead them to organize community meetings or set up swap meets and farmer’s markets in their local parks, or lobby politicians for better amenities in their area.
Obviously, some perceived threats are toxic, some are silly and some are real. But what those calling the newspapers and going to the mattresses about those perceived threats have in common is a sense of ownership over their community, and an impulse to vigilantly stand up to try to make it a better place to live. And a big population of people like that is actually among the most valuable resources a neighbourhood can have.”
That’s why I feel so personally…conflicted isn’t the right word, but tending towards empathetic, maybe? Because even though I don’t agree with the things they are fighting, I can sort of understand where they are coming from. They love their neighbourhood and see infill or new developments as a threat to what they love about it.
During the course of the delegations against the various proposed developments, there were lots of different arguments. Sometimes they were things I really can appreciate–like how hard it would be to lose your sunlight, or the prospect of losing healthy, mature elms that have survived DED thus far.
Many people talked about how parking would be impacted, which I think is an understandable worry in the context of Winnipeg, where few neighbourhoods have functional transit service or comfortable, convenient, low-stress AT infrastructure. (Don’t get me wrong: foregoing density-increasing development because of parking is the wrong move. That’s treating the symptom, not the disease.)
But I often found myself losing my willingness to be empathetic and look for common ground when so many of the arguments sounded suspiciously like “some of my best friends are gay!”
There was lots along the lines of “I do support infill. I’m not against density. Just not here.”
Folks were often quick to point to other areas in their neighbourhood or beyond that would be more suitable. One person even said something along the lines of, “I understand that Winnipeg needs infill, and I support it. But I mean, this is a nice neighbourhood.” Ouch.
So that’s where I really struggle. How can we find common ground and begin to convince these folks that a) this has to happen, b) every neighbourhood will have its turn, and c) I promise you, the world won’t end.
What’s extra aggravating is that people think they should have final say over every aspect of an infill house, while seemingly overlooking the fact that they’d have zero say over someone who bought the same lot, didn’t split it, tore down the existing house and built something new, which would be undoubtedly bigger and less in keeping with the other houses. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but should neighbours get a say in how some dwellings look, but not others?
And don’t get me started on the assumption that everyone wants a backyard, and the conflation of reduced grass on private property with a loss of public greenspace.
It’s hard to be empathetic, when the outcry is so sensational. I’ve read lots of letters submitted to the city clerk in opposition to these projects, and some of them leave me shaking my head. I know folks love their area just the way it is and hate the idea of it changing in any way. But the idea that adding one additional single family house on a vacant lot will somehow erode the fabric of their community? It just doesn’t compute. I don’t know what could convince them otherwise.
What also smarts is something personal. My own neighbourhood of Glenelm (not to be confused with Glenwood, where much of the opposition to infill is taking place) was built over several decades and is basically a hodgepodge of styles, sizes, and ages of housing. We’re all on small lots, most 30ft, with little room between houses –side yard? What’s a side yard? I know this look and feel is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it.
What I love more than the aesthetic, though, is the mix of neighbours it allows for, because there’s something for everyone here, all stages of life. Neighbours in their 20s, neighbours in their 80s. Families with little kids and not-quite-retired empty-nesters. Homeowners and tenants, singles and couples, young and old alike. I know folks whose kids grew up, moved out, then moved back to buy their first home here. And I know folks who love it so much they convinced their parents to buy their last home here, so they could be close to their children and grandchildren. That’s what kind of neighbourhood is possible when you have diverse housing options.
Glenelm is, as I mentioned on Twitter, marvelously eclectic, and my life is so much richer for it. So when I see people talking about how infill will destroy the character of their neighbourhood, it feels like they are horrified at the prospect of theirs becoming like mine.
I want to tell them that a neighbourhood is so much more than its houses. It’s the people that live there that make it a place worth living, at least in my experience.
All neighbourhoods are going to have to change if we want our city not to go bankrupt (more about that on my husband’s new blog, Dear Winnipeg) and our planet to stand a chance against climate change. In my neighbourhood, where lot splits aren’t on the table, “change” will probably look like single-family houses adding one or more extra suites, adding laneway housing, and maybe combining lots to build small apartment buildings. I welcome it all. I think it’s exciting.
To me, “Yes in my backyard” means more that just increasing density and productivity and making better use of our infrastructure. It means more neighbours to get to know, more front-yard pancake parties and porch-to-porch greetings, more impromptu back-lane chats, more people watching out for and helping each other out.
It would be a shame to let “less parking” get in the way of all that.
When I was a young adult, and still living in Alberta, I visited Vancouver with my mum and sister, where we stayed with old friends of my parents’ at their beautiful home in Kits. One afternoon, we were getting ready to go out shopping when I was caught off-guard by our friend saying we’d take the bus.
I don’t remember if there was any context given to this fact–whether it was to avoid parking, or something?– but I do remember feeling a tiny bit surprised and maybe even a bit annoyed. Public transit? Really? Why wouldn’t we drive?
Whatever that little flicker of surprise was, it soon passed. We walked a block or two, hopped on a trolleybus [Stop the presses. Turns out there’s a TransLink store where you can buy t-shirts, etc., with retro trolleybuses and system maps on them. Merry Christmas to me!] and minutes later, hopped off on W4th where we found an amazing stretch of little shops, restaurants, and general loveliness. When we were ready to come home we did the reverse. It was fun, and kind of novel, and uncomplicated.
I share this anecdote because I recently realized that this was the moment I came to understand that people in Vancouver didn’t use public transit because they were forced into it or because they had no other option. They used it because it was easy and it worked!
Our friends were not millionaires or anything, but they were comfortable and employed and owned at least one car. Clearly, they could afford to drive and park whenever they wanted. But they chose transit a lot of the time because, I subconsciously got the impression, that’s what people in big cities do.
This memory came to me a while ago, when I was turning a particular phrase over and over in my head, when thinking about Winnipeg and the forces that conspire to keep our city broke and sprawling and regressive and uninspired. The phase was this: “Let’s pretend we’re a big city”.
Because we actually are a big city, but in so many ways, we don’t act like one. OK, so we have an Ikea and an NHL team–those might be one barometer. We have the only national museum outside of the Capital Region–another measure. We’re the biggest city in our province, by quite a lot.
But do we act like other cities our size? Do we lead in any particular way? Do other cities look to emulate us? That’s what I’m wondering.
I look at Calgary and admire the cycle track they installed so quickly and effectively. I admire Montreal’s green lanes, Saskatoon’s progress towards relocating the rail lines outside the city, and Edmonton’s kick-ass waste management system.
On what basis could Winnipeg become the object of envy? Here’s one idea that I’m passionate about.
Our elm tree canopy is the largest urban elm forest in North America. That’s a stellar superlative. Mature trees are beautiful, to be sure, but they have a multitude of tangible benefits beyond the aesthetic, all of which are ultimately beneficial to the economy, the environment, and human health. Trees:
- Serve as a visual cue to calm traffic
- Ease the burden on stormwater systems
- Improve property values
- Remove carbon dioxide and pollutants from the air
- Lower air temperatures
- Improve health and mental wellness
Last year council approved some extra funding to provide more resources to fight Dutch Elm Disease (DED) — but it’s still not enough. Our Urban Forestry Department is doing an exceptional job at keeping the elm deaths at bay, and I recently learned that the fight is really only limited by resources, i.e., money. What if we decided to give our tree program as much as it needs so that our city foresters can honestly say “We did everything possible to preserve this important city asset”?
That’s just one idea. I don’t think it’s that crazy.
As a city and province, we’re moving up in the collective esteem of travelers, and that’s kind of exciting. But I’m not sure anyone travels to see a city-wide “World’s Largest Urban Elm Forest” just like (almost) no one travels to see “A Public Transportation System That Works Really Well” or “Look Ma! No Rails!”. These things may never draw the attention of travel and tourism writers, but they sure do make life a lot better for locals.
So while I reluctantly admit that doing things because they’ll make other cities envious isn’t a good strategy in and of itself, I think if we do the right things, that’ll be the natural outcome.
On the other hand, Winnipeg seems so averse to anything bold and efficient that maybe we should be asking ourselves, “Is this something that would make people in other places jealous?” when making decisions about the direction of our city. That might be a better plan than a knee-jerk reaction that we can’t do certain things because (wait for it…) “we’re not Paris/Montreal/Amsterdam/Copenhagen, etc.”
Winnipeg’s a big city. Let’s start acting like one.
p.s. After my opening anecdote, you could be forgiven for thinking this post would be about public transit in Winnipeg. That post is coming. I have many, many thoughts!
When I moved to Winnipeg by choice 10 years ago, I thought it was just angry grumps that hated this city. But naturally, within a few years, I admitted the bloom was off the rose, having come to terms that Winnipeg does indeed, have major problems.
I spent a few years in the blur of baby days, thinking less about Winnipeg and more about navigating the unpredictable/exhausting waters of parenting tiny people, and noticing the ways the world makes life harder for people with young children, and feeling helpless and jaded about how women and children and families are often treated.
When I thought critically about Winnipeg, it was often with a vague sense of disappointment that we couldn’t get certain things right, or with a deep sense of shame that we were getting others horribly, horribly wrong. And of course, sometimes with conscious feeling of things being not too bad, because they could be much worse (looking at you, USA). These feelings were simply there, but I didn’t know what to do about them, other than write about them every now and then.
But then: I had the opportunity to serve a 3-year term on a WRHA Local Health Involvement Group, which offers citizens a voice and a chance to shape our local health region’s strategies and priorities. The experience taught me so much about equity and made me more conscious of the relative privilege I have in my life, and really made me start to look at the world in a much different way.
And then in 2016, I discovered that I have some of the best neighbours anyone could ask for when we united to keep a pawn shop out of Glenelm. Arising from that pawn shop fight was the re-establishment of a neighbourhood association; though it’s been a ton of work, being involved in that has been one of the most meaningful and exciting things I’ve done in my adult life.
Throughout this election, I’ve not been particularly encouraged about Winnipeg’s ability to evolve. So many conversations I think we need to be having are not happening (stupid pothole monopoly). It’s been easy to feel bummed out and discouraged when reality is such a far cry from how you imagine it could and should be.
Which leads me to this: what I’ve learned in the time since my Winnipeg love-fest honeymoon ended, and what I’ve been reminded of frequently during this dreadfully soul-sucking municipal election, is that doing something really helps. Or at least takes the edge off.
In the past few weeks, for me that’s been supporting the groups like Functional Transit Winnipeg and Vote Open Winnipeg. Volunteering reminds me that I’m doing something tangible–even if it’s simply putting up posters and delivering flyers. The folks running the show in these groups are doing the heavy lifting, but it feels good to know that I can lighten the load even just a bit.
Usually about once a year I have a big old irrational cry, feeling that no matter what I do I’ll never really feel at home either here or in Alberta, or really be part of any particular community, or some other existential mini-crisis. I bet I probably always will, no matter how long I live here or anywhere for that matter.
But joining forces with others in pursuit of a common goal–whether that’s a more connected neighbourhood, a functional transit system, or an intersection at the heart of the city that is accessible and welcoming to all–does make me feel like I am making a difference.
I’m still spending more time than is probably healthy agonizing about the big systemic problems in our city, and individual problems like Portage and Main and our needs-a-lot-of-improvement public transit system. And I’m constantly reminding myself that tweeting doesn’t equal action, and sometimes makes me more anxious than I probably would have been otherwise.
The other day I saw some photos of the awesome Team Open buttons, and <cheese alert> I could actually envision, decades from now, coming across one of those buttons and telling my kids or grandkids about how it used to be that you couldn’t even cross Portage and Main on foot–can you imagine?! And then thinking to myself, I was part of changing that. I was part of something that made this city better.
Of course I worry that the referendum won’t go the way we want. But I almost think it doesn’t matter, because I’m choosing to think positively and believe that it’s only a matter of time before the city does the right thing. (Sure, the candidates are all saying they’ll honour the outcome… but it turns out that politicians break promises all the time.)
The election is less than two weeks away. There’s probably something about our city that you value, or want to see change, and there’s probably a group out there that’s working really, really hard this election to make those things election issues.
If there is something that matters to you, that you feel strongly about, and you can support through your time or effort or dollars, please do! I’m telling you: it feels really good.
This past week, my family embarked on something of a new adventure. We sold our car! Yes, I put an exclamation mark there. (I think I mean it.)
Why would we, a family of five who can easily afford a car, and who used to use their car regularly, do such a thing? Well, it’s been a bit of a journey. The short answer is that I stopped driving, and then everything just sort of fell into place.
I stopped driving (our own car, not driving period) because when we bought our last vehicle, we bought a stick-shift, and I assumed I’d eventually learn and be comfortable with driving it. That didn’t happen. My husband, who’d driven a standard regularly in his younger days, was comfortable with our new car (“it’s like riding a bike! it comes right back to you!”), but for a variety of reasons, it was not a great season of life for me to be learning a skill that made me a nervous wreck just thinking about going out to practice. And so, as I have written about before, I found myself negotiating daily life using my feet, my bus pass, and occasionally a borrowed car.
After about a year of this — during which time I had a third child and discovered that Save-On grocery delivery is one of the best things since sliced bread — I joked to my husband that for Mother’s Day I’d love one of the beautiful used Dutch bikes that were coming over to Winnipeg via the Plain Bicycle Project. Imagine my delight when he signed me up for one right then and there! So last July I got my trusty, kinda rusty, but gorgeous second-hand (or third- or fourth-hand? No one knows!) bike and rediscovered the sheer joy of bike riding. At that point I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a teenager, and as I rode my new bike home from The Forks, a familiar and comfortable feeling washed over me. The breeze in my face, that sense of autonomy and independence, and the pleasure of a leisurely ride on a warm summer evening.
There were new experiences as well: the thrill of taking an entirely new-to-me route to get to a familiar location, and an unexpected sense of camaraderie (a fellow plain bike recipient zipped by me and told me, “you might need to get your back wheel trued!” — had to look that one up when I got home!). I crossed paths with three other Plain Bicycle Project folks in the coming week, and each time the recognition provided a little zing of happiness. I soon discovered that I could get to the Superstore on Gateway and McLeod by taking the smooth and scenic Northern Pioneers Greenway most of the way. The Forks was a straightforward and pleasant ride as well. Getting to the Henderson Library and the Northdale Sobeys/Liquor Mart/Rexall was also pretty simple, a leisurely 20-minute ride. Once I figured out which streets offered the most pleasant and safe biking conditions, I actually looked forward to running errands by bike. The setting sun was generally the only limiting factor.
Watching me get so much use and enjoyment out of my new bike inspired my husband to start riding his more. He’d bought his mountain bike as a young adult, for recreational purposes, but in nine years we’d been together I think I’d only seen him ride it once. Soon we were both taking our bikes our for leisure rides and errands, often being jealous while one went out while the other stayed home with the kids, or yearning to be able to go for a ride together!
After a great summer of biking–we adults taking turns, and our older kids both riding two-wheelers–our bikes went into storage for the winter. With a stunning lack of prescience, we built a garage in the fall and bought a special shed for our bikes. We got through the winter with our one driver, our bus passes, and our feet for walking, and as soon as the sidewalks were clear enough for the kids to get their bikes out, we were out there every day, chipping away at the ice that had sealed our bike shed shut. We bought a Chariot bike trailer off Kijiji so that we could ride together as a family (and as a bonus, in stroller mode, we could finally navigate those awful in-between partly-bare, partly-slushy spring sidewalks that are a nightmare for both regular strollers AND sleds).
So. From November to May we’d only done 1500km in the car. At this point we started seriously thinking about whether we really needed a car. What would life look like? Well, for me, not much different – I already wasn’t driving it! We ran the numbers and found that, for roughly the cost of just insuring a car for one year, we could rent a car one day a week (which realistically, was probably more than we’d need).
I heard my mum refer to retired friends of hers who always did their errands on a particular day of the week. That gave me the idea that it would probably be pretty feasible to mindfully consolidate various errands and social engagements that really necessitated a car into one day, while using the bus, bike, or walking the rest of the time. In fact, it would even be better for me that way, since when we had a car, it would be one that I actually felt comfortable driving. (We love the idea of joining Peg City Car Co-Op — I loved using Zipcar when I lived in Vancouver — but there are no coop cars in walking distance of our house. There is, however, a car rental place in very close proximity!)
I know our lives look a little different than a lot of families’: we both work part-time from home (therefore we don’t have daycare to get to and from), our closest family members all live in the neighbourhood, and over the last couple of years, we’ve been fairly consciously trying to live more local lives by choosing to use services and activities within walking distance of our home. (I wrote about those things in more detail here.) Our kids are bussed to school in St. B, which makes for long weekdays; we decided when our first kid started kindergarten that we would try not to schedule any activities on weeknights for at least the first few years of school, while bedtime was still early, and the time we had together on weekdays was so scarce. On Saturdays, the kids each have one activity within walking distance (Elmwood Curling Club and Aspire Dance Studios), and on Sundays we hang around the neighbourhood because we typically spend a lot of the day with extended family.
So during the week, our family transportation needs are actually pretty minimal. The biggest impact that not driving had on my life was social – I do have a few friends and family members who live in areas where transit service isn’t great, and I definitely have not seen them as much during the time I haven’t been driving. That’s a loss to me and something that is important to me to find a way to solve. Another challenge is accessing French-language activities and services in St. Boniface, which is a priority for us as a bilingual family. Transit service in St. B is atrocious. We would go to the St. B library as much if not more than the Henderson branch if transit was higher frequency.
Anyway, when we took our car for its pre-summer road trip checkup this past June, we wanted to get some strange squeaks checked out. After taking a look, our mechanic told us we were actually not driving enough – that parts were not working properly because of disuse. He actually suggested maybe we shouldn’t own a car. And that sort of sealed the deal… when our summer travels were done, we’d get the car safetied, put it up for sale, and see if we could make life work without owning a car. A couple weeks later, the perfect buyers came along, and we said farewell to our Mazda 5.
If the car hadn’t felt like a bit of a burden to me from the start, I might have gotten sentimental. Oh, the car we brought our third child home from the birth centre in! Instead I felt a combination of nothing and of an albatross being peeled from my neck. We haven’t set any goal or timeline for this “not owning a car” experiment. If we discover that we do need to own a car, we’ll get one (and it will be an automatic, FO SHO).
It’s now been a week. So far, so good. Mostly it’s been a pretty normal week, but we had one really awesome family bike adventure. We knew from a few previous rides that the kids (age 8 and 5) could handle a distance of about 5km per direction, with stops for rests and water. So when we heard that there was an arborists’ tree climbing championship event at Kildonan Park on the weekend, we thought it sounded like a great destination! We left our neighbourhood via the Redwood (sorry – Lazarenko) Bridge, headed behind the Redwood Centre complex, through St. John’s Park, and then took the amazing Scotia Street route (a Sunday/Holiday bike route) all the way to Kildonan Park! I couldn’t believe how beautiful a ride it was, how little traffic, and how straightforward a route. It was a beautiful morning, and we had a great time riding together as a family in an environment that was calm enough that we could actually hear each other talking, there were lots of people outside walking and biking to greet as we passed by, and man – did we ever get a lot of smiles!
I also was thrilled to realize that finding this bike route opens up access to so much on Main St as well — it would be my last resort to ride on Main itself, but I could see myself taking Scotia Street and then heading west on a side street to access any number of places on Main (Baraka Pita, A l’épi de blé, Pollock’s Hardware, etc.).
Summer is drawing to an end, and I’m definitely not at the point where I feel prepared to bike in the winter (I’d need a different bike for that, to boot), so we will see how long I can ride in the fall before it’s time to put my bike into hibernation. For now I feel like this is a good thing, not a hardship, but just enough of a challenge to keep life interesting and testing our comfort zones just a tiny, healthy bit.
If you’ve read my last couple blog posts, or if you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I’ve become pretty passionate about the idea that cities are for people, and that cities that have succumbed to designing themselves for cars, not people, are bad news. Bad news for human health, safety, and quality of life; bad news for cities struggling to keep up with maintaining existing infrastructure; bad news for our one and only planet Earth.
Our decision to try out a life not owning a car represents kind of a combination of our values: to be the change we wish to see in the world (we would like to see a world where people didn’t HAVE to own cars to experience true freedom and mobility in their own city), to offer one small sacrifice in the name of the environment (by simply not defaulting to taking the car every time we go somewhere), and to live a life that values people and relationships and (cheese alert!) enjoying the journey, not just the destination.
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that it’s because of our relative privilege that we can “choose” this. For many people, walking, biking, and taking transit are their only options, no matter how much a car would make their life easier. I’m sure there are folks who would roll their eyes at my lengthy explanation of our “lifestyle choice”. In fact I feel like a bit of an idiot having spent so much time pondering it, worrying what our friends and family will make of this puzzling, unconventional choice. But I think the fact is that for most middle-class families in cities like Winnipeg, owning at least one car is a given. And I’m encouraged that the response of some people has been, “Cool! I wish we could do that too!” (Pssst… you probably could!)
A tweet I saw a few months ago has been turning over in my head pretty constantly:
I notice people get polarized by car/no car debate. “Suite of options” both more inclusive and more effective!
— Morgan Toane (@MorganToane) June 6, 2018
And it’s that idea–a “suite of options” for transportation–that has been my encouragement and inspiration in attempting this new way of living. If you’re still here, thanks for reading. I’m excited to share more about this experience in the coming weeks.
Warning: stream of consciousness ahead. I will eventually get to something related to a point.
For what feels like many years, I kept a LiveJournal. One of the original blogging social networks, I guess. I started it in college and wrote there regularly solidly for four years before moving on to my first “real” blog, where I wrote about library stuff. It was a regular part of my life, the place where I vented about coursework and Calgary and then about work life and Vancouver. I wrote about music I was discovering and loving, exposed my laziest tendencies and poor money management, waxed nostalgic (36-year old me finds it hilarious that a 23-year old could have much to wax nostalgic about, but there you go), and of course participated in those old list-format memes and posted web comics that I thought were hilarious.
In retrospect it seems like it was a simpler, easier time to be participating online. My LiveJournal friends were a mishmash of people I knew in real life, people I had “met” previously online (I was an avid Tripod-er… heh heh), and random people I connected with on LiveJournal. As far as I can remember, I felt pretty safe to just write honestly and openly. I don’t remember a lot of what I can only describe as negative “sub-tweet”-type posts. (Although looking back at some points, I notice the conspicuous absence of/careful curation of commentary related to particular boyfriends who I knew or suspected would be reading. Too bad about that.) And it was before the early days of Facebook where I’d find myself at parties where all the conversation revolved around Facebook drama that I, as a non-adopter, was not privy to.
It was just me and a blank text input box, a field for noting what music I was listening to, ten o’clock at night, and a quiet house with a roommate the next room over on her computer. If there was a sinkful of dirty dishes, it didn’t particularly threaten the next morning’s routines like it would now during my present day breakfast-and-making-school-lunch frenzy. (OK, back then I rarely ate breakfast at home, or packed a lunch. Dirty dishes were nothing more than an eyesore.) There was abundant space in life, in all senses of the word, to write every night.
When I go back and re-read my old entries, I feel simultaneously comforted and saddened. I’m always taken a bit aback at how it still sounds completely like me, like something I could have written right now. When I feel adrift in a sea of uncertain identity (which is basically always), this feeling is comforting. Oh, I’m still exactly the same person I was. Just the circumstances of life have changed. But it also makes me feel a little sad and I can never really determine why. Maybe just the passing of time. The feeling of not really appreciating that time of my life when I was living it. But I was pretty happy then. I think I knew full well that life was great and carefree and freedom was mine, and I savoured it.
These days, deep in the trenches of family life with young kids, the on-and-on-ness of parenting (and the apparent impossibility of having a complete and uninterrupted adult conversation, and the feeling like there is never enough time or energy left for other important relationships, and the eternal quest to keep my house at a remotely passable level of tidyness, and man…these people need to eat again? etc.) often have me feeling discouraged, or bored stiff, or like, Whose life is this that I’m living? And how is this box of wine empty again? And sometimes I find myself thinking, Exactly what I need to do right now is write.
Yet I don’t. Because I’m not sure where to write. I am infinitely more comfortable typing than handwriting these days, but to just keep a Word document journal seems strange and oddly unsatisfying. But the stuff I want to write about isn’t always fitting for this blog, or even for a public audience. But I’m guessing a part of me inexplicably wants this public element. Maybe it just comes down to wanting to feel like someone is listening and hearing me. Oral communication is not and has never been my strength; I’ve always been a million times better at writing out ideas and feelings than talking about them.
There are so many big picture things I feel compelled to write about and truly have been meaning to write about. Some of them — many of them, even — are actually Winnipeg-related.
I would love to write about the enlightening experience I’ve had for the better part of three years serving on the WRHA River East-Transcona Local Health Involvement Group. I would love to write about how powerful it was to be part of a group of citizens who managed to keep a pawn shop out of our neighbourhood. And about subsequently helping to re-establish a neighbourhood association, and the wonderful people I’ve met and the cool things I’ve been a part of because of that. As my driving-lite life becomes more normal to me, I feel myself becoming so much more concerned with and passionate about cities being built (or more to the point, not being built) for people.
My husband and I have these long conversations/rants (perhaps the marital version of the “angry browser rants” I used to have with my dear friend/former co-blogger Laurel?) that reflect our earnest attempts at understanding urban planning issues — speed limits, zoning, winter sidewalk conditions, parking and transit rates, etc. We cry as we read about about people being killed by cars in our city, at crosswalks where they should be safe, and despair at how these incidents never lead to effective, human-oriented, and evidence-based action.
I head to Twitter and find comfort and inspiration in the bubble of progressive ideas from planners, architects, and advocates who value density, diversity, human and environmental health. I retweet all the great ideas I see back into what I assume is essentially an echo chamber of people who feel the same way. In this endeavour — building healthier, happier cities — I doubt anything I say or share has any effect on changing other people’s ideas or perspectives. Which makes me think, why bother spending more time really writing about any of it here?
But I don’t know. Maybe I should. My regard for our city has been seriously lowered since those fun and lighthearted first days of co-blogging about meat shoulder, spongee, honey dill sauce, and the term “dainties”. And while I feel connected to, proud of, and rooted in my neighbourhood, I definitely feel more uneasy, uncomfortable, and upset with other aspects of our civic culture, the broader issues that affect us as a whole city.
As I look back at nine years of blogging here (holy Toledo, this July will be my 10-year Pegiversary), of course, my views have changed. I still think all those quirky/mostly inconsequential things are fun and funny and worth celebrating. Throughout this blog’s “Peak Winnipeg” phase we had our share of negative comments. People who “were born here, what’s your excuse?”. People who were sure that given enough time we’d come to hate this awful, POS city too. But I get the feeling that the things I don’t like about Winnipeg are not necessarily the same things those comment trolls had a problem with.
If I had to guess I’d say those trolls are the same people who think a photo radar ticket is an unconstitutional money grab because breaking the law doesn’t count if it’s not a human who catches you. Or who think Sobey’s is obviously trying to rip you off because haven’t you noticed how much cheaper Walmart’s prices are? You know the type of people I mean. The ones who look for any opportunity to exercise their entitlement and (maybe worst of all?) don’t even know that’s what they’re doing. People who would be miserable no matter where they lived. (I just realized my last post was heavy on “people who” ranting too. Sheesh.)
I feel a swell of hope and positivity discovering and participating in “let’s not just complain, let’s do something about it” initiatives like On the Docks and the Plain Bicycle Project. I send letters here and there to my elected officials (but probably not as many as I could or should) about things I care about. I try my best to show our kids, by example, how to be a good citizen and a good neighbour. But I know it’s not enough. Some problems with our city can’t be changed without significant effort. And this is where I struggle to know what I can even do. What really makes a difference? What are the catalysts for the massive change and progress I dream of seeing in Winnipeg? Do any of them even stand a chance? Can a blog post written by an armchair urbanist event begin to make a dent?
Heavy thoughts for a Friday night.
This morning I made a mistake.
When the kids spotted the “snow” on the ground, they were euphoric with excitement and insisted on suiting up to go play. By the time they were dressed for outdoors, the snow had basically melted, but no matter – such is the magic of the first snowfall, right?
The baby was napping so I pulled out my phone. My mum’s been visiting from Alberta for the last few days so I’ve not looked at Twitter much, but this morning I had a few minutes so I fired up the app and started scrolling. Big mistake, because Portage & Main is being discussed again, and now it’s Saturday morning, the house is peaceful and quiet, I am actually drinking a cup of hot coffee, and I’m in a horrible mood because people.
People who think opening Portage and Main to pedestrians will be a disaster. People who claim the cost of doing so will be human life. People for whom an additional wait of one or two minutes at the intersection is unacceptable. People who I’m guessing never set foot on the street in downtown Winnipeg, but who would hold the intersection hostage with their car-centric values and fearmongering.
When we started this blog, some people ribbed us about our Pollyanna positivity (read: ability to see anything good about Winnipeg). It took a few years, but I did start to harden (see The Bloom is Off the Rose).
Well, now I’m gonna say it. Here is what I HATE about Winnipeg. I hate that save for a few small parts of the city, walking is SO unpleasant. Biking is dangerous. Being in a car has somehow become the most pleasant and often, logical mode of transport. I know what people are going to say: I’m a car hater and think everyone should ride their bikes in the winter. Not so. Not even close. I just think people should actually have a real choice.
I live a block off of Henderson Highway and the little stretch between the Disraeli and say, Roxy Park, is experiencing a slow but sure revitalization. New businesses, gorgeous murals, and soon, some awesome “Welcome to Glenelm” signs will be popping up, and for me this represents a growing number of services I can walk to in my own neighbourhood. I can walk to my massage therapist, my optometrist, a bakery, a meat shop, a hair dresser, a couple of restaurants, a drug store, and a yoga class. There is room to grow but I’m thrilled that I can at least do these things on foot, and support the truly local businesses that are such an important part of the fabric of my neighbourhood.
Have you recently walked along a major street like Henderson (Highway, I remind you)? It is downright unpleasant. And when you are walking with children, it is downright terrifying. Not being able to hold a conversation because it’s so loud, cars whipping at 60km/h less than a foot from where you are walking, having to walk four blocks between intersections so that you can safely cross, and even then, cars careening through their turns without giving the possibility of pedestrians trying to cross a second thought? No wonder “everyone” drives in Winnipeg.
It is so awful that I often walk along the back lane that runs parallel to Henderson to get to where I’m going, especially if I’m with my kids. What is wrong with the picture when an alley feels saner and safer than a “high street”?
As we braved the noise and racing traffic on Henderson yesterday on our walk to Sam’s Place, I told my mum that my husband and I had a dream that someday the speed on this stretch of Henderson would be reduced to 30km/h. We daydream that it could look something like Corydon Village, with lighted archways and a beautiful canopy of trees, and streetfront patios, and crossovers every block or two so that people could safely cross on foot. It was the wrong time to get into the idea, because my mum could barely hear me, and was too busy making sure that cars would stop for us as we tried to cross at the lights with a stroller and 4-year old in tow. We waited for five cars to make their right turns from Hespeler onto Henderson before someone finally yielded to us and let us cross.
So there it is. I am sick and tired of this city allowing cars to take priority over people.
I’m going to hit publish on this now because if I don’t, it will sit in draft mode like the 10 other posts I’ve tried to write over the last year or two. And before the baby wakes up, and the kids bring their soggy outwear back in, I’m going to spend some QT on the Love30 website, because I need to remind myself that I’m not the only person who feels this way, and that there is hope for change.
Okay, resume Pollyanna.
Last year our ’99 Ford Escort finally kicked the bucket. Yep, we’d been happily driving a practically vintage vehicle, maintaining it diligently so as to squeeze out every last possible kilometre, until finally we got a $2000 transmission repair estimate that we couldn’t justify – that was worth way more than the value of the car itself, so off to Teen Challenge it went, and we got a nice tax receipt as a souvenir.
And so we embarked on a quest for a new-to-us vehicle. Anticipating another addition to our family, we knew we’d need a slightly bigger vehicle, and armed with the wisdom of Mr. Money Mustache and his concept of automotive inventory, we knew we’d be buying used. The only thing that was a tough decision was whether we’d get an automatic or a standard. Mr. Money Mustache makes a pretty good case for going standard, and we discovered that apples to apples, going with a car with standard transmission would save us about $1000. So we got exactly the car we wanted, and at a great price. Only trouble was I didn’t know how to drive it. I was willing to learn to drive stick, but it didn’t turn out to be so easy.
I’m still not sure whether I was smart or crazy. It is almost a year later and I still am barely driving (in fact, I haven’t driven our car at all since the snow came last fall). There are a few reasons for this. One, we don’t drive a lot, so I don’t get a lot of opportunities for practice. Both my husband and I work from home. Most of our family lives in the neighbourhood. Our older child takes the bus to school and the kids don’t have a lot of “activities”. We often carpool with family members to our various shared commitments like yoga, baseball and curling. Much of this is intentional, and we are glad it works this way. Over the past many months my generous in-laws have been very accommodating with me borrowing their automatic whenever I need it, which is wonderful, especially on cold, slippery days like today. And since Save-On-Foods arrived in town it’s been grocery delivery for me almost exclusively!
Also, I find it basically terrifying driving in Winnipeg traffic. As I’ve written about before, I take driving extremely seriously. I don’t need driving to be pleasurable or fun or enjoyable, I just need it to get me to where I’m going, preferably with some good music I can sing badly to. I actually don’t dislike driving at all. I don’t mind running errands and love going on road trips. But I’m totally one of those nervous passengers who is silently freaked out that you are tailing someone too closely or bracing myself because you are braking way too last minute. I can’t help it. Driving is a necessity but we should never forget that lives are at stake around us.
A few people have asked me what it is about driving standard that makes me so nervous. And honestly, it’s not really my own driving abilities. It’s drivers around me. They ignore the rules of the road (which I thought applied to everyone?) and common sense. They text. I fear not knowing the combination of motions needed to make a quick manoeuver if required. Now, I know that this is muscle memory, and it will come with time. I also remember feeling very nervous when I first began driving as a teenager, and that was in an automatic. I know practice makes perfect. But I can only get so much “comfortable” practice in the safe and relatively slow side streets of my neighbourhood before getting out onto major streets is required. And others’ impatience and unpredictability is not making it more enticing.
So, what of all this? The unexpected upside for me has been that I walk and take the bus a lot more often that I used to! There are a couple of things that make this so easy. One, our neighbourhood of Glenelm is extremely well serviced by transit. A #11 goes down Henderson every 10 minutes, so getting downtown is a cinch. (Transferring on to other destinations is another story.) If my husband or I has a downtown appointment, we almost exclusively take the bus. No parking to find and pay for – woo! (Some people’s bus dread is my parking dread.)
And happily, the introduction of Peggo electronic fare cards coincided nicely with my limited driving phase. I used to buy bus tickets, but have found the Peggo card so much more useful since there’s no need to keep returning to the store to buy more tickets. And since they upped the auto-reload threshold from $7 to $12, the system works really well for me as a occasional rider.
Another little bonus of taking the bus: I actually like the “me time”. I read or listen to podcasts and enjoy the fact that someone else is behind the wheel and no small voices are demanding “that song on repeat!”. Sometimes I wind up chatting with a stranger or an acquaintance I happen to run into, which often feels like a nice little bonus.
Sure, taking the bus is less pleasant in the winter if you have to wait around for a bus or a transfer. Not all the stops have shelters, and those that do aren’t always heated (and don’t always smell great). Though, honestly, I despise being behind the wheel in a cold car, and to me the unpleasantness of waiting outside for a bus is about on par with that. No big loss.
On a more practical level, not necessarily being able to jump in the car at the drop of the hat has caused me to be much more deliberate with choosing to spend time on the road and the purpose of the trips I do take. Given that nothing about car travel (in and of itself, aside from the end destination of the trip) is good for human health, this is good thing, even when it does feel inconvenient. There’s no downside to walking and standing a little more, and sitting a little less.
And from a financial standpoint, being less spontaneous and more mindful about impulse outings is an excellent thing. Not gonna lie, I love a good “just to look around” Ikea trip. I love just browsing (with a coffee shop drink in hand, even more) almost anywhere. Late night ice cream run? Yes, please! But, as I’ve discovered, it’s a lot easier to resist the urge to use shopping/consuming as entertainment when the logistics of getting there need to be planned in advance. And when I do get out for this type of trip, I savour and enjoy it that much more.
To me the biggest disincentive and barrier to taking the bus is when all the possible trip plans clearly take much longer than just driving. And that is something that probably won’t improve until system-wide increased frequency becomes a priority (I’m especially looking at you, any route that serves St. Boniface!).
I’m now approaching my 9-year Pegiversary and my time in Vancouver — during which I never had a car and relied fully on transit and walking, with the occasional cab, car co-op booking, or traditional rental — seems further and further away. But one thing that I still really do miss about that time of my life was the ease of getting around without a vehicle. Between the excellent public transit system and the mild weather, in most ways, it was easier not to have a vehicle in Vancouver.
Of course, I rode my fair share of overcrowded busses, my high-heeled feet in aching as I stood wedged and clinging to a small section of handrail after a long day of work. I cursed as the Skytrain shut down after a light dusting of snow, causing crushes of frustrated, backlogged riders at every station. But most of the time, transit was was so functional and easy that it was basically invisible. That is what Winnipeg should be aiming for. Making transit easier than taking a vehicle.
It drives me crazy to see the city investing in more road infrastructure when we can’t even afford to maintain what we have. And I noticed a while back that they’re now reporting gas prices along with morning traffic conditions. Why? Like it even matters. No one is going to stop buying gas if they need it, and for most people (not talking people who drive for a living), it’s a matter of a few dollars’ difference. All it does it make drivers feel hard-done by. I’m not anti-car by any stretch. I’m glad we have one, for when we need it. But I am okay with paying for what it costs: not simply to operate it, but also for associated costs to the environment and the road – if I were ever asked to.
If we want to ever move away from being a car-reliant city, we need to making driving LESS appealing and pleasant, not more. And for that reason, I have found an unexpected gratitude for my “no driving year”.
Hello, dear readers! I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post. And that I only posted a couple times in all of 2016. And that I have so many important things to share about my Winnipeg life, but alas, they are all contained in half-composed drafts that I never seem to be able to finish. Plus I am expecting baby #3 in the next little while, so realistically, my time is going to be even more scarce. Well, c’est la vie, I suppose!
In the meantime I just wanted to highlight a local blog series that I’ve been loving. Local realtor Carl Seier has undertaken a project called “The Stranger Connection Winnipeg“. The premise is pretty simple: he asks strangers about their lives, shares a drink or meal and conversation with them, and then writes about that person’s life and the experience (with remarkable introspection and candour). He recently wrote about Stranger #44 and though I haven’t gotten through all his entries yet, I haven’t read a single one that I didn’t find moving, or fascinating, or inspiring in some way. He’s been working on the project for just over a year.
Carl’s inspiration for the project came in part from “the Maclean’s article” (you know the one I’m talking about) and noticing people’s reactions to it. It made him realize that he was quite isolated in his south Winnipeg community and didn’t have a lot of diversity in his social circles — and specifically, not a single Indigenous person. Read more about the story behind his project here.
If you haven’t been reading The Stranger Connection Winnipeg, I highly recommend it. This series perfectly captures how every one of us has a story — so many of us have had hardships in our lives — and yet we are all just trying to do the best we can in our lives, for our families, our friends, and our communities. For example, Stranger #38, Lexa Rae, has found incredible meaning and importance in volunteering with the Mama Bear Clan. Carl writes,
“I was quite surprised at how important helping others is in her life. I mean she has next to nothing herself. She is raising four children on her own (with help from her mother who has been clean for over 10 years now). Lexa Rae barely has enough to get by herself. I asked her why helping others is so important to her. She paused for a moment and she began to cry. After a moment to compose herself she explained that when she was at her lowest, living on the street and deep into addiction, nobody helped her. She was all alone. She told me she wants to make sure nobody has to go through what she went through.”
You can follow The Stranger Connection Winnipeg on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TheStrangerProjectWpg/) – where he also posts updates on the strangers he’s met in the past and kept in touch with, and on his blog, http://www.carlseier.ca/category/strangerconnectionwpg/.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
p.s. In what is basically the norm for me now, shortly after I discovered this project, I had an “all road lead to Portage and Main”/Winnipeg moment — it turns out that our realtor and our next-door neighbour both work with Carl at the same brokerage!
To anyone who knows me, it’s no secret that one of my lamest pleasures is reality TV. Specifically, shows in the Bachelor franchise. When they announced that after two seasons of Bachelor Canada, they’d be doing Bachelorette Canada for the first time, I was cautiously optimistic. Let’s face it: the two seasons of Bachelor Canada were kind of lame – little travel, everything looked so “budget”, and despite what I’m sure were the production company’s best efforts, the show just felt so “Canadian trying to be American” and naturally, failing.
Well, with this inaugural installation of Bachelorette Canada, I have been pleasantly surprised – the season is fantastic! As good, if not better, than its American counterpart. The lead, Jasmine, is a delight to watch, and I think that has made all the difference. The gang has done a significant amount of world travelling, and are now back to Canada for “hometowns”, where they visited Newmarket and Waterloo, ON and, drumroll please… our very own Winnipeg, home of fan favourite, firefighter Mike Ogilvie.
Spoiler alert: despite an amazing meeting with his family, Jasmine sent Mike home this past week. Their relationship was just moving too slow and he hadn’t opened up as much as he needed to for the process to work (read: things were developing at a normal pace for the real world, but doomed in this context). Poor Mike. When the season started, I didn’t quite understand the fan bases’s Mike-mania, but as the weeks went by, he kind of grew on me. Mike for Bachelor Canada 3? I’d be happy with that.
Anyway, I am going somewhere Winnipegy with all this. Did anyone else find that it was almost Winnipeg itself that was the contestant in this season, rather than Mike? As someone who at one point was intensely curious about Winnipeg’s inferiority complex and love/hate civic relationship, I found it fascinating that Winnipeg became such a plot point.
Could Jasmine, a travelling free spirit now currently based in BC, see herself in Winnipeg? (Mike didn’t see himself leaving his firefighting career here – but I always wonder how much of those “where would we live?” discussions make it to air. I was under the impression that firefighting is a profession in most places.) I don’t think the words “a boring old podunk town like” were ever uttered before “Winnipeg” but you can read between the lines. (Of course, all this took place before that Vogue thing happened… we’ll never know if that could have swayed things in favour of our hero.)
Well, it turns out that Jasmine grew up in Kenora, and so living in Winnipeg would feel like coming home in a way: familiar, comforting, known….but still. There was just something unspoken about the city that clearly was a roadblock. Settling. A step backwards.
Winnipeg was cast as the unfortunate underbelly of a seemingly all-star contestant. In all the years I’ve been watching this franchise, I don’t think a contestant’s place of residence has played such a prominent role in the lead’s assessment, except of course for Iowa in Chris’s season.
In the same way that most Canadians are hyper-aware of any references to Canada in the US television, when you live in Winnipeg, your ears really perk up when our city is mentioned or represented anywhere (except if it’s to name us the murder capital of Canada or the Slurpee capital of the world. That’s yesterday’s news.). And so, I just found it really interesting how there was never any real debate (spoken or implied) over whether Jasmine would want to live in some random part of Ontario, but Winnipeg? Come on. Without question, that would fall into the “things the we do for love” category, and maybe not even then.
Poor Winnipeg just can’t catch a break. (Although now that I think of it, Drew didn’t do Toronto any favours either.)
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for production during this season. Was the “Winnipeg Factor” really such a huge thing, or did it get a little help from the editing department to make it play out as a bigger issue than it really was? And if so, whose idea was it to cast Winnipeg as this insurmountable obstacle – all biased and oblivious producers from Vancouver and Toronto? Is it possible a Winnipeg producer could have exploited his or her understanding of the local inferiority complex to betray us in this way? I know it was an obvious choice—everyone knows Winnipeg makes a great butt for jokes—but it did feel a little tired and predictable. And considering how great this season was, that was a bit of a letdown.
So — did you watch this season? Am I overreacting to/overanalysing the Winnipeg issue? Would love to know your thoughts.