‘It’s obviously very high’: Winnipeg traffic levels remain steady during pandemic

City traffic counters show that while vehicle levels on Winnipeg streets saw a brief drop at the beginning of the pandemic, they bounced back quickly. An expert in green commuting says this is indicative of a larger problem in our city.

The City of Winnipeg monitors how many vehicles drive on our roads through a series of traffic counting stations installed in high-traffic areas around the city since December 2019.

The numbers show that while traffic levels did dip during the first few months of the pandemic, they quickly returned to current levels.

Just before the beginning of the pandemic – in February 2020 – traffic counters show an average of 19,466 vehicles on Winnipeg streets. That number jumps in February 2021 to 21,495 traffic counts, and remained steady at 21,409 counts last month.

Mel Marginet, part of the sustainable action team at the Green Action Centre (GAC), said she’s not surprised by those traffic numbers. “In the early phases obviously everything in the world shut down, so we experienced this massive change where we sort of noticed how much space we were giving to personal vehicles on our streets,” she said.

Marginet said the drop in vehicle traffic didn’t last long because people in Winnipeg don’t have a lot of options when it comes to getting around town. “Because we had cut transit service, we hadn’t offered practical solutions for people to get from A to B … we just very quickly saw this ballooning of our traffic volumes.”

She said Winnipeg’s traffic levels remained high even at a time when many businesses were still closed.

Marginet said Winnipeggers feel that they have no other choice as far as personal transportation goes. “That’s what we hear over and over again,” she said. “Whether we do a transportation survey with an organization in the suburbs or in the city … a question we always ask is how people are currently travelling, and it’s obviously very high for personal vehicles.”

She said more than 80 per cent of trips within Winnipeg are made by personal vehicles, a very high number compared to other cities.

However, Marginet said that driving is not everyone’s favourite way of getting around. “You ask that follow up question of ‘what’s your preferred way to get around?’ and we see travelling by personal vehicle just falls sharply. People would rather bike, take the bus, carpool, those sorts of things.”

She said the current state of Winnipeg Transit is part of the problem. “Open comments like ‘I’d love to take the bus, but it’s going to take me three times as long, I have to transfer two times, I tried taking the bus but then I just got passed up all the time, or I was squished in there like a sardine,’” said Marginet.

“It’s such a shame because we just have this really low hanging fruit of people that really don’t want to make all of their trips all the time in a personal vehicle, but they have no choice,” she added.

Rising fuel costs and inflation has led to more interest in the GAC’s Go Manitoba program, which helps people find carpool partners, bus and bike routes, and other green commuting options. “As soon as those gas prices were rising, we really started to see an increase of people coming to Go Manitoba,” said Marginet.

She said it is going to take a lot to change people’s transportation habits, starting with better city planning in general. “It really is going to take a push I think for the public to start to demand better,” Marginet said.

She added that the City of Winnipeg already has some plans that have yet to be executed. “We have amazing transportation plans in this city and strategies, and things that have been developed with so much community consultation.

“Public officials need to start following the evidence.” 

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