Henderson Highway Blues

henderson blues

Walking along the tree-lined residential streets inside our little neighborhood, it’s hard not to be in a good mood. We’ve lived here for a little over a decade and know a lot of people here now. It’s rare not to bump into someone we know, or at least recognize a familiar face while on the way to the park or to a friend or family member’s house. We’re not dog people, but I’m grateful for the multitude of neighbors who are: their routine walks bring more eyes on the street, and more opportunities for those mood-boosting chance encounters. Deep boulevards separate small front yards from the road and our children play with the neighbor kids and grandkids, floating from one front yard to another, building giant snow slides in winter and having bike and scooter races in the summer.

The rhythms of the neighborhood are comforting, too: steady streams of people heading toward or away from Henderson at the start or end of the day. Packs of kids walking to and from school morning, noon and afternoon, the student patrols and the adult crossing guard at Hespeler Avenue. Even the inevitable street parking pinch on Thursday nights when folks come from around the city to the coffeehouse music night at the church. The predictability of all these waves of movement remind me of all the people that live in and come to this place, and how we notice each other, how we’re each other’s keepers.

Inside the neighborhood, it is so pleasurable to be out and about on foot or on bicycle. In the shady windbreak of the elm canopy, hearing the bells from the cathedral from across the river, the happy chance to run into a friend or acquaintance and pause for a conversation—often the mundane act of walking becomes something interesting and uplifting.

But to venture to the edge, to Henderson, all of that pleasure is instantly stripped away. Often on the way to the bus I’ll listen to a podcast, and the second I round the corner off my street and onto the highway, I have to turn the volume in my earbuds to 100%—and I’ll still struggle to hear. The kids and I once happened to cross paths with my brother-in-law and his family on Henderson. We stopped to say hello, the young cousins delighted at the surprise encounter. But once we’d shouted our initial greetings, we realized conversation was futile. We mimed exaggerated shrugs—“What can you do??“—and continued on our way. No place for a conversation, or for restless children.

On Henderson, it’s every man for himself.

We hear it all the time:

Sitting is the new smoking.

Kids don’t get enough physical activity or time outdoors.

Just get up and go for a walk!

Get on that bike!

If you won’t do it for the environment, do it for your health.

And here we are, doing just that. But if these things are supposed to be so good—for our bodies and our wallets and the city and the planet—why don’t they feel better than they do?

If we want more people walking and biking and taking transit, which we say we do, if these are desirable behaviors in the midst of public health, climate, and municipal finance crises, then why isn’t the City doing anything to make its built environment less hostile, less dangerous, and less unpleasant?

When tempted by the idea of owning a car again, I remind myself that the places that bother me most are so close to home that I would never drive to them. Getting a car doesn’t solve the problem.

We cross Henderson at Johnson, seven lanes wide. First we wait for what feels like an eternity for our walk signal, then get our 20 seconds of opportunity to cross. Even though we have the green light and walk signal, I check the lanes frequently, making sure approaching vehicles are actually going to stop at the red. Then I have to watch the cars turning against us to make sure they see us and yield to us. I know I must look like a lunatic, keeping exaggerated tabs on our surroundings, but I can’t not. “Let’s go! Come on! Hurry up!” I bark at the kids, hating myself for it, but that countdown goes so quickly. My two-year-old would love to be walking on her own instead of strapped into a stroller, but there’s not a chance I’m going to let that happen on Henderson for a good while yet.

Sometimes rather than waiting at the intersection, we walk a block over and cross on demand at a pedestrian corridor. Hit the button and try to confirm that it has triggered the flashing lights. We can’t really see the lights from our position and angle at the curb, especially when the sun is glaring down at them, and we often can’t hear the rapid beeping, either—the traffic is that loud. We wait on the corner to make sure the cars in the first two lanes stop, then carefully make our way into the intersection. Reach the median, then repeat to get to the other side. Breathe.

Just yesterday a pickup truck barreled through the flashing lights in the third lane, closest to the median. My husband and kids were already crossing and would have been hit if they weren’t watching that lane carefully. We witnessed the same thing happen last summer: a car that didn’t stop at the flashing lights, despite having ample warning. The driver slammed on the brakes as he nearly hit a kid on a bike, just meters from us on the sidewalk.

I see vehicles blow through activated pedestrian corridors on Henderson regularly. I don’t know whether the drivers aren’t paying attention, or just don’t care. I have no idea how old my kids will be before I am comfortable letting them cross there on their own.

I’m thinking constantly of Surafiel and Galila, two children who were killed in crosswalks here in Winnipeg over the last two years. I didn’t know them, I’ve never met their families, but their stories haunt me. If them, why not my children? Why not me?

You really don’t understand how safe or unsafe a street feels until you walk alongside it with young children.

We wait for the bus as cars and trucks whip past us at 60 km/h. The kids know not to go onto the street, but still, I’m always telling them to step back. In winter, when piled-up snow and ice are utterly irresistible for climbing, I’m especially nervous. I worry constantly that someone will slip and fall onto the roadway. Even looking at the schedule mounted on the bus stop sign feels too close to traffic.

We are sandwiched in the clear zone, the designated “recovery area” for cars to regain control if they must leave the roadway, an area in which ideally there are no fixed objects. If this road was being designed today, the buildings would probably be set further back to allow a sufficient clear zone, but grandfathered in, the sidewalk with humans on it takes its place. No wonder I’m always on edge.

Although we’re crammed, we’re also exposed. If we’re lucky, there’s a crumbling bench to sit on while we wait for the bus, or a doorway in which to get a little shelter from the sun or wind. There are a few trees left in the center median, but none lining the sidewalks. An urban forester told me that it’s almost impossible to get new trees to grow alongside major streets because the de-icing salt is so harsh.

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