Traffic Deaths Aren’t “Meant to Be”


Dear Winnipeg,

I know I’ve been writing a lot about transportation lately, so I’m going to ask you to just indulge me once more, and then I promise I’ll go back to picking on the planners.

(Note to self: “Picking on the planners” would make a great title for a bluegrass album.)

One thing that comes up a lot whenever there’s discussion about making any changes to an arterial that runs through a neighborhood is: “We can’t do that… It’s an arterial. It’s meant to move traffic.”

This, just like my idea to start a bluegrass band, might seem reasonable at first glance. But is it?

(Additional note to self: Google banjo lessons.)

It’s easy to look at a roadway the way it is today and assume that it’s always been that way. And therefore, that it always will be. Forever and ever, amen.

(Yaaaassss! That’s totally going on the album!)

But let’s take a little historical journey together to examine whether that is really true, using my own neighborhood high street as a case study.

What is known today as the southernmost stretch of Henderson Highway was actually called Kelvin Street around the time when Elmwood first joined the City of Winnipeg, back in 1906. Back then, the corner of Kelvin and Hespeler was one of two relatively concentrated nodes of development happening here.

Described in an October 30, 1905, Free Press article as an “enterprising cosmopolitan district rapidly growing in population,” the area was home to nearly 4,000 people (up from only 40 just ten years earlier), as well as “many fine places of business.”

“At present, the ward is a complete community with every suburban convenience from a newspaper and a street car [sic] line to a barbershop and shoe shining stand. The ward has its own schools, churches, societies and industries. (…) Among the principal employers of labor are (a) pork packing establishment, (…) brick yards, (…) tannery, (…) brewery and (…) iron works. There are fifteen grocery stores, two drug stores, one blacksmith shop, one carriage builder, four butchers and one hardware store. Two doctors are practising in the ward and three new hotels are seeking licenses.”

— Manitoba Free Press, March 6th, 1906

The Northeast Winnipeg Historical Society found that by 1915, there were 23 businesses located just on the one stretch of Kelvin Street from the river to Harbison Avenue West (the city limits at the time). Streetcar service here ran every five minutes from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, with peak periods seeing service every three minutes, according to a 1913 by-law. Ten years later, you could count nearly three dozen small businesses operating on Elmwood’s main street, growing to 56 in 1935, to 66 in 1945, and even to a whopping 86 different businesses in 1955!

Even though there were plenty of cars around in 1955, getting them to move quickly through here wasn’t the goal. This was obviously a place you traveled to, not through.

Then in 1959, the Disraeli bridge was built, and the City started to make different choices for Kelvin Street.

Almost immediately, there were calls to increase the speed limit (a January 11, 1962, Winnipeg Tribune article shows a Highway Traffic Board recommendation of up to 40 mph, or about 65 km/h, on Kelvin Street!). And only three years later, Kelvin Street was renamed Henderson Highway, a strong foreshadowing of the many choices yet to be made.

“As you know, our neighborhood was pretty well destroyed in the early 60s when Henderson Highway went right down the center of our little village.

Since then, a lot of the businesses have folded and gone. I’ve been here 45 years; I’ve seen the businesses go one after another. It’s just a downhill climb.”

— Longtime Elmwood resident at an April 28, 2016, Appeal Committee public hearing

One such choice happened in the summer of 1982. Eight-year-old Jody Dyck was killed while crossing at the Larsen Avenue pedestrian corridor beside Elmwood (Roxy) Park. Residents were angry. In a letter from Community Committee, they asked the public service to install traffic lights at nearby Martin Avenue W in order to slow traffic.

The public service declined since “the present traffic characteristics” didn’t warrant it. In response, the community asked the public service to identify a location for traffic lights anywhere between Munroe Avenue and Johnson Avenue. I didn’t find a response to that, but the fact that no traffic lights exist there today tells us what their answer was.

A child died, residents were angry, and we shaped Henderson to prioritize traffic. It wasn’t pre-ordained. It was a choice.

Only 5 years later, local dentist Dr. Richard Bird was killed while crossing Henderson at Martin, in front of his own office.

Again, Elmwood residents got organized to demand changes. Hundreds signed a petition circulated by local businesspeople. A September 27th, 1987, Free Press article relates residents presenting an 11-point plan to Council to increase safety at the “Death Curve,” which included reducing the speed limit to 40 km/h and (again) adding traffic lights at Martin Avenue West, along with several other items meant to “control the flow of traffic.” The article also states that the issue of pedestrian safety here “has concerned Elmwood residents for the last 20 years.” You know, like since the 1960s.

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