City & Politics, Transportation

The Winnipeg pedestrian’s winter experience

Walking home from my bus stop down a St. Vital side street, a 20-something man slowed down his truck, stretched toward the passenger window and shouted.

“Get off the road, walk on the sidewalk!”

I looked around, feigning confusion, as if I was unsure of whom he was speaking to. Of course, I knew full well he was addressing me – there were no other cars or pedestrians in sight, which made his outburst a little more puzzling.

He drove on before I spoke back and I continued walking home, heart racing and on edge, frustrated at this guy’s logic and bravado, and by my inability to come up with a biting rebuttal to yell back.

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I wondered how someone who lives in the same neighbourhood as me (presumably) and was educated by the same schools could be so ignorant and intolerant of a fellow citizen trying to get around in winter.

In my defense (not that I feel I need any for walking on the edge of the road), the city has not cleared the sidewalk in weeks. The packed down snow, combined with the reduced walking space from piled up snow removed from the street, makes it really difficult to navigate the sidewalk.

Beyond the obvious problem of this guy’s attitude toward pedestrians and his misdirected and puzzling anger at me is the City of Winnipeg’s idleness on clearing sidewalks.

I see it all the time throughout the winter: people climbing over steep snowbanks to reach the sidewalk, stepping off buses and in to deep snow dangerously close to street traffic and pedestrians generally being stripped of their dignity while walking on city property because it’s so hard to get around.

Making active transportation viable is most important in the winter, when people with limited mobility are most affected by their environments. This begins with accessible sidewalks. Relegating pedestrians to the road due to too much snow on the sidewalk creates a feeling of abandonment and ambivalence for citizens who do not drive cars, whether due to age, financial or medical reasons or because they simply choose not to.

A city’s attitude toward sidewalks, and pedestrians in general, says a lot about its public policy and commitment to active transportation. In Tom Hanson’s article for Maclean’s in 2011, he remarks how “[a] city that refuses to clean its own sidewalks makes a mockery of such commitments.”

The City of Winnipeg’s Active Transportation website reads “[r]esidents who can walk to work, the grocery store and entertainment are happier, healthier and more invested in their city.”

Conversely, residents who are forced to walk on the roads, due to the city’s delay on sidewalk clearing, will be cursed out by their fellow citizens who are inexplicably ignorant of the aforementioned policies.

This guy may be an exception to the average motorist, but I fear his attitude is a symptom of a larger underlying consensus in Winnipeg – contempt for people who don’t drive cars.

The City of Winnipeg must take responsibility for our sidewalks and support its citizens who use them, especially through cold weather like this. Putting an effort into making the city safely walkable in winter reminds citizens that their city is sticking it out this season alongside them. It’s discouraging and hypocritical to make “Active Transportation” pledges and then ignore the most basic components of what that entails.

Palmer Fritschy works in communications and recently bought a new watch. Follow him on Twitter: @palmerfritschy .

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