Winnipeg family abandons car-free lifestyle due to challenges with public transit

    A Winnipeg couple who had previously announced that they had given up their vehicle last summer are now returning to car ownership due to issues with Winnipeg Transit. Ryan Palmquist and his wife Megan Waters initially wanted to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and show that car dependence is not necessary in Winnipeg. However, unreliable schedules and safety concerns, especially during winter, made taking the bus with their three small children difficult and risky.

    According to Waters, buses would often arrive late or not at all, leaving them waiting with their kids for up to 40 minutes. This led to restlessness among their four- and eight-year-old boys, who would start playing on the frozen sidewalks near a busy road. The constant vigilance required to keep them safe became overwhelming for the couple, especially after the birth of their baby girl.

    Furthermore, the lack of safe bus shelters added to their concerns. Many shelters were occupied by homeless people, with evidence of drug use present. This further diminished their confidence in relying on public transit.

    The couple also experienced security issues while onboard buses. Waters recalled a distressing encounter with a person in a mental health crisis, which left her deeply shaken. She expressed fear for her and her children’s safety in such situations.

    Despite their desire to reduce their carbon footprint and reliance on personal vehicles, Palmquist and Waters made the difficult decision to purchase a new minivan. They acknowledged that not all Winnipeggers have the financial means to afford a private vehicle and recognize that many rely on Winnipeg Transit due to their limited options.

    Statistics Canada’s 2021 long-form census data revealed that Winnipeg Transit users have lower average incomes compared to the city’s overall population. The average total annual income for Winnipeg Transit users in 2020 was $36,360, nearly $14,000 less than the citywide average. This suggests that higher earners in Winnipeg are more likely to opt for private vehicles rather than relying on public transit.

    Waters, who recently visited Toronto, was impressed with the city’s frequent and reliable transit service. She believes that Winnipeg’s lower-income transit users might be why the city has not prioritized improving service quality. She feels that the city sees these users as a captive market, assuming that they have no other options and disregarding their needs.

    Janice Lukes, the city councillor for Waverley West and chair of Winnipeg’s Transit Advisory Committee, dismissed the notion that income levels influence city hall’s decisions regarding transit service. However, she admitted that transit service in Winnipeg is not ideal, leading people to choose their own vehicles instead. Lukes attributed the service issues to a bus driver shortage, which is causing service to operate at a reduced capacity.

    In an effort to improve public transit, Winnipeg plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in route overhauls, increased frequency, enhanced safety measures, and the addition of new zero-emissions buses. Lukes stated that public consultations are scheduled for January and February, with significant changes to the transit network expected by June 2025. She remains optimistic that these improvements will encourage more people to choose public transit.

    Jino Distasio, an urban studies professor at the University of Winnipeg, believes that Winnipeg’s transit system has lagged behind due to a lack of political will and alignment between different levels of government. He compares the city to Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary, which have more advanced and comprehensive transportation systems that prioritize the overall experience. Distasio emphasizes the need for a cultural shift and greater investment in transit infrastructure to catch up with other Canadian cities.

    Overall, the Winnipeg couple’s decision to return to car ownership highlights the challenges faced by Winnipeg Transit users, including unreliable schedules, safety concerns, and the lack of infrastructure investment. While efforts are being made to improve the transit system, there is a realization that significant changes and increased funding are required to provide a reliable and convenient transportation option for all Winnipeggers.

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