*Path to car-free living challenging, rewarding *
JUST a few years ago, Sharee Hochman wouldn’t have called herself an advocate for making car culture a thing of the past in Winnipeg.
The 23-year-old lifelong Winnipegger used a vehicle to get around and only cycled recreationally for years, but found herself slowly drawn to use her bike more and more.
Eventually, she realized even when she felt forced to drive, she didn’t enjoy it. She got rid of her car in January, and picked up a winter-use bicycle.
“When I began to understand the different benefits cycling for transportation had on me, the environment, the community, even for businesses and my mental health, I began to prioritize it,” said Hochman. “And then I began to just really fall into it.”
She’s part of a growing community of Winnipeggers who have foregone personal vehicles for bikes, buses and car co-ops. Some have adapted their lives around sustainable transport. Hochman moved to River Heights, a more central area with better access to bus routes and bike lanes, from Garden City, and found herself investing in warm clothing for winter bike travels.
Hochman found the benefits so meaningful she ended up becoming the Green Action Centre’s sustainable transport program co-ordinator in August. She now works to shift mindsets away from car culture and toward other options.
It hasn’t always been an easy sell. The hardest push-back, she said, hasn’t been winter winds while cycling home with groceries — it’s been from other people.
“I think a lot of people don’t expect my answer to be that the most hard thing has just been the resistance from folks who can’t imagine a city without having to rely on a vehicle,” she said. “And with that comes hostility and even some harassment, sometimes.”
Kyle Cavell, too, is taking the leap. Last week, he changed his vehicle insurance to leisure coverage, and has decided to give winter cycling a shot.
“I spent over a decade living in the north suburbs of the city, and when I moved to West Broadway (in 2019), I realized that this was the lifestyle that I wanted,” he said. “I don’t want to spend hours a day in traffic and in a vehicle, I’d like to commute by bike or walk, just live in a more walkable, dense neighbourhood.”
It even influenced his decision to purchase a condo in Osborne Village with no parking spot but three Peg City Car Co-Op vehicles available nearby.
Peg City carsharing service began in 2011 with just three cars, but now has 90 vehicles and more than 2,500 members. In the 2 1/2 years Ian Walker has sat on its board, the co-op doubled its number of vehicles to meet a growing need after an explosion of interest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every month, I see our usage numbers are higher than we’ve expected, so it’s allowing us to keep thinking forward to how we’re going to grow,” Walker said.
Walker and his wife accessed the service before he got involved with the board. They plan to sell their car in the spring to become full-time users.
Walker said he’s heard of growing exhaustion among car owners, both in using and maintaining vehicles and what it would take to switch to more sustainable options.
“Winnipeg tries really, really, really hard to be good at moving people around in cars, but what we end up with is a city where nobody can really get around with any mode,” he said.
Meantime, Cavell is excited to get biking this winter but not sure how it’ll go. It’s a short ride, but his experience with the city’s piecemeal cycling infrastructure has left him concerned about snow clearing and accessibility.
“I think that Winnipeg has got a lot of good cycling infrastructure, just the connections are missing,” he said.
Hochman called it an issue of citywide inequity.
“It’s really challenging and difficult to watch, because from my perspective, I know how an increase of infrastructure in certain areas of the city would help alleviate a lot of different other issues for many different identities,” she said.
Bridging that gap through building more compact communities with easy access to public transit and resources is the challenge, urban planner Jason Syvixay said.
City planners often have grand aspirations of walkable, connected cities that will inspire people to ditch their cars overnight, but on the flip side, the equity issue means car ownership and use is a must for many families, especially from lower-income neighbourhoods, to be able to maintain day-to-day operations.
“We have these big aspirations, but how do you implement them in a way that doesn’t unintentionally create these impacts to these other marginalized groups who might use it?” Syvixay said.
He pointed to the “15-minute city” initiative popularized in Paris during the pandemic as an example of how cities can use zoning and planning to create a more equitable transport solution. The residential urban concept reworks cities with the goal of having as many of its residents’ daily activities — groceries, recreation, gathering spaces — be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride away.
In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has promised to implement this vision by converting main roads into communal spaces blocked off to cars, installing bike lanes on every street by 2024, and using schools as community gathering spots on holidays and weekends.
“It seems like such a simple concept, right? This idea that you should be able to live in a neighbourhood that gives you the things that you need,” Syvixay said.
“But we know that, historically, the way that we’ve planned our city with zoning and our policies, they’ve actually deterred those things.”
Syvixay said getting Winnipeg on board would require sweeping changes to zoning rules and mindsets.
“Things like the suburbs, for example, the zoning was built in a way that wouldn’t allow for mixing of a grocery store or for a school to be built in the residential neighbourhoods. So you start to see over time, because of zoning, these neighbourhoods only being allowed… to build single-family homes,” he said.
Syvixay was born and raised in Winnipeg, and has worked with Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone and as an urban planner in the private sector. He moved to Edmonton in 2018, in part because there were more opportunities for city planning and development.
Winnipeg is behind its Prairie peer in investing in progressive city development, he said. Along with changes such as abolishing single-family zoning in Edmonton, the Alberta capital has invested in walking people through these changes and making it apparent how they benefit everyone.
“Change and community support takes a lot of time, and we need to be, I think, compassionate and empathetic that people have staked their lives and their future and their money in communities,” Syvixay said.
“We need to work through the change with them so that they know what’s happening, what’s coming.”
Syvixay remains optimistic. Interest is growing in Winnipeg, he said, and it’s a matter of when municipal leadership decides to get on board.
“It might take some public infrastructure or investments or catalyst projects that can sort of show the development industry where the city wants to go, and the city can make statements in their investments, and what they put in the infrastructure, and the development industry might follow,” he said.
“It could be symbolic gestures like that, or funding gestures like that, that can see some cascading impacts.”