Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why cars rule roads

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Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the cost of parking in downtown Winnipeg is the third lowest among Canada's 12 major cities?

I've been trying to decide and I fear my travelling comfort is winning out over my best efforts to be eco-friendly and civic-minded.

First, it may well be that downtown parking in Winnipeg is cheap in relative Canadian terms and, in comparison with London, England, is a total steal, but really cheap? Well, no. Not really.

I pay $190 to park in an unheated parkade less than 100 yards from my building. In summer, it has the advantage of keeping my car out of the sunlight and consequently relatively cool. In the winter, it's out of the notorious wind of Portage and Main -- a stone's throw from our offices -- and it has block heaters.

Were I to take the bus, however, the cost of a monthly pass would be only $74 and that's total cost: no gas, no insurance, no servicing. What's more, taking the bus is simple and quick. There are two buses within a maximum five-minute walk of our building on Wellington Crescent; one leaves from Corydon and the other leaves from across the street. Both trips get me to work in less than 30 minutes.

Why don't I take the bus? Why don't other people like me take the bus?

Here's where it gets complicated. I know one of the major problems with Winnipeg is that the car remains king and public transit is a poor second. Sure, my trip to my office by bus is relatively quick and simple, but most other trips I would make are not.

So, I own a car. As it is, that car gets very little use. I've had it for more than three years and it still has only 16,000 kilometres on the odometer. People travel farther than that in three months. So, I have this very expensive, depreciating asset sitting in my garage day after day. Economically, what I should do is get rid of the car.

Hah! Easier said than done. If there were taxis to hail on the street, if there were an easily available car-sharing service, if there were (in the summer) even a bike-sharing service it might be possible. I know I am pampering myself but, really, I'm not sure how I would do food shopping without a car.

So, when I debate with myself about why I am spending $190 a month to park my car downtown when I could take the bus for less than half the price, one of the arguments I use is that I am paying for my car anyway so I might as well make use of it to drive to work.

Even though it is an easy bus trip, the convenience of the car is enormous. If I have business trips to make during the day, I can just leap in the car. Sure, I could wait for buses or order a taxi, but the time and trouble is significant. If it sounds to you that I am trying really hard to justify the unjustifiable, I think you are right.

The real question is at what point would the cost of parking make me think twice about driving to work? Because, while the cost is very significant at $190 or $2,280 a year, it doesn't feel like too much for the convenience it brings. I might get a week's holiday for the same cost, but the real saving would be to get rid of the car altogether and that's not going to happen, at least not without real alternatives.

I am sure others who drive similar distances feel the same and make the same kind of calculations. We drive to work because we can and because the cost doesn't outweigh the convenience.

The result is, however, that Winnipeg remains a city dominated by making the streets convenient for cars. The barriers at Portage and Main remain so thousands of cars can pass through the intersection every day without interference from pedestrians. Arguments rage over building rapid-transit systems because most Winnipeggers own and prefer to use their cars. The downtown is dotted with surface parking lots because people take their cars to work.

How can this cycle be broken? Tough to say. Raising the cost of parking may cause a revolt. Improving the transit system would help, but it's going to be tough to persuade people such as me to take it. It's difficult to admit it, but personal convenience has a nasty habit of beating public good most of the time. There is a tipping point between the cost of car usage and convenience but I'm not sure where it is. I'm not proud of my selfish use of a car, but I can always use the climate as an excuse.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 22, 2010 A13

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