Transportation is a constant point of conversation in Windsor-Essex, whether it is potholes on the roads in Windsor, regional transit attempting to bring the county closer to the city or a new bridge(s) over the river to Detroit.
Local Transportation Issues
Lets face it, the roads in Windsor are bad there is very little disagreement on this issue. With $1 billion deficit in infrastructure in the City the question becomes, how do we pay to repair these services while paying for expansion of transit services or new infrastructure. This discussion quickly brings us to the classic chicken and the egg argument how do we get people out of their cars without a wide variety of public transport options. Yet taxpayers don’t want to pay for additional public transport options based on their experiences with the existing levels of services. To solve this issue, what is needed is a fundamental rethink about how people are transported in Windsor Essex County and how we pay for that transportation.
In 2011, the Windsor CMA (made up of Windsor, Tecumseh, LaSalle, Amherstburg and Lakeshore) labour force was made up of approximately 154,000 (LFS survey estimates put it currently at approximately 179,000) out of a population of 254,000 (currently estimated at 277,100 people). Of that 154,000 members of the workforce in the CMA, Windsor made up 99,100 of the total labour force or approximately 2/3 of the total employment occurs in that portion of the region. The challenge is that a portion of this employment commutes from surrounding communities: 8,005 from LaSalle; 6,700 from Lakeshore; 6,300 from Tecumseh; 4,100 from Amherstburg; 2,800 from Essex; 1,400 from Kingsville and 800 from Leamington. Leaving approximately 58,000 commuting within Windsor proper.
With just over 30,000 out of town commuters entering Windsor on a daily basis it is no wonder our infrastructure is struggling to cope. To be fair not all of them are traveling by car, approximately 5.5% of commuters in the CMA get to work by a car pool or as a vehicle passenger. It is also likely some of those 30,000 commuters also make up 3% who took public transit (after walking or biking to Windsor to catch a bus), 3.7% who just walked or 1.1% who biked into the city. Over 85.9% in the Windsor CMA get to work by car, this means that over those approximate 30,000 commuters each day; approximately 25,770 used a car to get to work.
The geography of our region has been arranged to support the car and to blanket the region with regional transit is not economically viable. In a similar vein, wide spread bicycle transport is also impractical due to the decades of planning around the car. For the Chrysler employee who lives in LaSalle or Tecumseh, the choice between a 10 minute drive down EC Row to work or a 45 minute bike ride is for the vast majority, an easy one.
When I lived in Vancouver, the city and more importantly workplaces catered to the bike culture: lit and supervised bike lock ups, showers in buildings for employees to wash the sweet off when they arrive at work, ability to work from home if the weather is very poor, priority streets for bike traffic. My boss at the time, lived an hour and a half bike ride away from the office yet he biked several days a week.
Currently, Windsor is seriously lacking this culture shift and despite some of the efforts of Councilor Holt and others, broader society doesn’t yet seem ready. Yes there is a percentage of people who will ride their bikes everywhere and for everything. I was one of them… until my bike was cut from a lock up outside the University of Windsor. Fortunately/unfortunately (depending on your point of view) Windsor-Essex County will never have the congestion issues of a major city that force people from their cars. As a result if we truly wish for transit and other alternative modes of transportation to be successful, disincentives for driving need to be put in place.
Although Councillor Payne suggestion of a 1% tax levy to repair the city’s roads could happen, this is s a drop in the bucket of the problem. The levy could be 10% and we would still have issues with the roads. Until we are willing to examine other alternatives: whether a congestion charge for driving into/through the city, some sort of out of town parking fees , the creation of a regional gas tax to subsidize infrastructure, to more subtle planning options like converting secondary streets into bike thoroughfares or strategic street-scaping that narrows but beautifies key roadways making automotive traffic less appealing, there are a wide range of tools available for the city to seize upon, if they are willing.
Regional Public Transportation
The long standing problems with public transit extending beyond the streets of Windsor has been an issue for decades, when the car took over the streets of Windsor and street car tracks and bus routes were removed people have been calling for region transit.
Dozens of politicians and administrators from all levels of government have talked about public transit in Windsor-Essex County for years. So the question becomes what is different this time and do I have confidence that this Council whether in the City or County will be any different? The answer is I’m not sure, the fundamental discussion is that needs to be had is where will the money come from. I am sure that the province or federal government will hand over some but the bulk of the transit funding will have to come from local tax bases.
Councillor Holt’s suggestion for the resurrection of Street Car service in Windsor is intriguing but at the cost figures that were quoted it could be fiscally impractical even over a twenty year period (additional discussion in another post). That being said, street car service would free up city buses to connect to the surrounding region. Unfortunately, the City of Windsor hasn’t increased the budget for Transit Windsor in more than a decade so it will have to be the County that comes forward with money if they want the service. Given the suburban mindsets, the geography that had dictated that living in those areas requires a car and the overall higher income of the suburbs compared to parts of the city, I question if those dollars will ever actually be forthcoming.
From our airport to a cargo hub we have been told that Windsor is the place to be, the facts seem to contradict that statement. Strategically placed on the US boarder our connections were supposed to save us from the horrors of a weak Canadian economy. In reality all it has positioned us to do is watch commerce drive past us, up the 401 towards Toronto or across a bridge and down an interstate. The Herb Grey Parkway and Gordie Howe Bridge are going to dramatically reshape traffic flows into, through and out of Windsor-Essex County. The principle challenge is that from an international perspective there are few other viable options for our community to be an international player other than being a middle man on the economic superhighway.
In recent years, the Port of Windsor has seen major growth in traffic but that growth likely is not going to continue for indefinitely. The challenge is that so much of its cargo capacity and growth over the last few years has been based on construction material (listed as Aggregates- sand, stone, concrete etc.) to build the Herb Grey Parkway. Between 2013 and 2014 there was a 44% decline in traffic of aggregates leading to just under a 10% decline overall in tonnage received.
Even if the Port of Windsor continued to grow, the challenge becomes how do we get the materials out of the Port. The Essex Terminal Railway that services the port operates on a single line that runs through low income residential neighbourhoods before connecting with the rail yard off of Tecumseh road. This line really can’t be expanding without displacing families and property from low income neighbourhoods in the west end of the city, which bottlenecks a majority of the ports facilities.
Running on a line near the Essex Terminal Railway is the CP Rail Windsor-Detroit Rail Tunnel. Although plans have been shelved for now, by 2035 some sort of twinning of the tunnel will likely come by then. This tunnel could play a vital role in any eventual high speed raid connection between Windsor to Toronto and beyond as the ability for trains to directly travel through a tunnel to the US and onto Detroit or Chicago would be valuable. Without the tunnel any high speed connection would not only be forced to be slow, before making the crossing, that is assuming that the existing tunnel can handle passenger rail service.
Then there is the Ambassador Bridge. In my opinion it is just a matter of time before a new crossing is built. In the September issue of BizX Magazine an interview with Mathew Moroun (son of Matty) outlined their vision for the new crossing. As work on the existing bridge began over 88 years ( August 16, 1927) ago, we have to recognize that everything has a shelf life, even a bridge. The big question becomes are they going to twin the bridge or build and replace the existing structure.
Regardless of the outcome there are opportunities for Windsor with a new bridge. The Gordie Howe Bridge will not have pedestrian/bike lanes, why can this new bridge? Walking/Biking to Mexican town or Cork town in Detroit would be great. Yes there are plans for a ferry (which have been rumoured/planned for years) but that would only be seasonal and not necessarily available 24 hours per day.
Local transit issues seems to be the third rail of Windsor politics, few things get people more riled up than suggesting that we are going to make them pay for parking, suggesting that bikes get an equal share on the road or that they get out of their cars and take a bus. As for the rest of the region, heaven forbid that the City of Windsor try and come up with a way for commuters to pay the costs to drive the city’s roads, or not be willing to foot the bill for a regional transit system that will bleed money.
Fundamentally, transportation connections are the foundation of a productive economy. Despite Windsor positioning next to the border, that geographic advantage does not guarantee us prosperity. We need roadways, bikeways and walkways to connect people with economic opportunities in our region. As our region continues to struggle with attracting jobs and employing those people who are available locally, maybe we have to look at ourselves and examine how we move people around our region. Past councils and governments have made decisions to put us in our current position with the width of a road here, adding of stop light there, building up overtime to the point where change is not perceived to be a viable option.
Our image will grow from the kind of city we create…
But we need to be willing to work to create a city we want to see!