Housekeeper ads illustrated insecurity of pre-Sixties life

A few evenings ago, following a casual discussion at a social event, I went looking for archival newspaper articles about “Rooster Town”, a neighbourhood of shacks on the south side of Winnipeg that was cleared away in the Fifties to make way for Grant Park High School, the adjacent athletic grounds, and eventually Pan Am Pool.

As fascinating as the story was, my eye was soon caught by another story, accompanied by a picture of a young woman in hospital with a bandage around her head. Above the photo, a caption: “Why Was She Shot?” Below it, the headline: “Just Like Dream, Says Gun Victim”.

The gun victim was 23-year-old Analise Zahn, who arrived in Canada in October, 1951 after escaping from East Germany to West Berlin, and then emigrating to Canada where she found work as a housekeeper in the Averbach household on Bredin Drive in East Kildonan.

On the evening of Dec. 17, barely two months after arriving in Canada and knowing few people here, a .22-calibre bullet entered the house through a basement window and struck the side of her head while she was doing the ironing. Not knowing the source of her injury, it wasn’t until she was eventually taken to St. Boniface Hospital that she realized that she had been shot.

The only hints as to how she might have come to be shot: her own recollection of a dark sedan driving slowly past the home about 20 minutes before the incident, and unconfirmed reports that two rifle shells were found in the back lane.

After those initial reports were published, the story went dead. Neither the newspapers nor Google yield any information into Analise’s fate.

A newspaper search for the address, though, yields something a little more interesting. The Averbachs regularly advertised in the Winnipeg Free Press for a domestic: at least twice during 1950, twice more in 1951, regularly every subsequent year through 1955, and for one last time in 1957.

One of those ads was placed on Jan. 21, 1952, just a month after Analise was shot: “Reliable girl for housework in lovely new home, all electric appliances, private room and radio, no cooking, liberal free time. Ph. 501 842, 330 Bredin Dr.”

Clearly, Analise had moved on.

Looking through the same classified ads, there was obviously an active market in 1952 for domestics.

Some advertisers only needed part-time help, such as one River Heights resident who was looking for a “reliable woman to take charge of evening meal, 3 to 7 Mon. through Fri.”

Others wanted someone who would be present around the clock, such as this advertiser: “Young married couple. Both working, living in new modern home, 1 child, need preferably middle aged woman to live in.” Another ad reads, “Reliable girl for light housework, 1 child, small home, must sleep in [employer’s residence].”

To some degree, would-be employers competed with each other to make their homes seem more attractive than others, using terms like “liberal free time”, “no waxing”, “no cooking” or “top wages” to differentiate themselves.

A surprising number of advertisers also added conditions such as “must be plain cook”, which speaks volumes to Canadians’ love for flavourless food in those days. Others promoted themselves as providing “a good home”, suggesting in some cases that the employers intended to take on a semi-parental role.

By the early Fifties, addresses, where given, tended to be in the suburbs. In earlier years, however, housekeepers were common even in what would now be considered as more modest parts of town, illustrating the changes in Winnipeg neighbourhoods over the decades.

“Wanted. General Servant,” read one ad published in June 1917, directing applicants to a neighbourhood that now has a sketchy reputation. “One willing to go to Winnipeg Beach. Apply 228 Spence.”

Another, the same day, directed applicants to a thoroughly middle class St. Boniface neighbourhood: “Girl wanted. Small family. $20 month. 68 Monk [sic] Ave., Norwood.”

Even after a century of inflation, this wage would still only be equivalent to $335 per month in 2018.

Some employers had unique needs. One advertiser in April 1920 sought a “refined woman in small home as companion, and for light housekeeping” for a family of two on Rosedale Ave. in Fort Rouge, promising “Sundays and most evenings free.” A year before, another advertiser claiming to be a widower was specifically looking for a “homely housekeeper, about 34”.

Some advertisements highlighted the city’s social tensions. One blunt advertisement published in March 1917 read, “Wanted, woman to wash every Monday; no foreigners need apply. 34 Middlegate, Armstrong’s Point.”

Yet others perhaps accidentally highlighted the vulnerability of the young women who took these jobs. “Schoolgirl will give services in return for board, room and slight remuneration,” reads one published in August 1929. “Danish housekeeper with baby, wants position, home more than wages,” read another slightly desperate advertisement placed in August 1916. “Elderly widow wishes a situation as housekeeper to widower or bachelor,” reads a third ad placed in April 1922.

These advertisements reveal a truth about the past: many of the women who worked as domestics in Winnipeg did so for lack of better options.

Some were teenagers living apart from their families for the first time, and needed some way — even if a risky way — of avoiding homelessness. Others were single mothers or elderly women with little to nothing in terms of a social safety net to resort to.

Once a stronger social safety net reduced the kind of desperation that pushed women toward domestic service, cheaper household appliances rendered human servants uneconomically expensive, and Canadians became accustomed to low-density suburban living and the additional privacy it offered, the era of keeping a servant around the house came to an end for all but the wealthiest of families.

Below, you can read some of the ads that appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in Nov. 1920. These offer rich insights into the insecurity that many women faced in the era as well as into the ethnic and religious hierarchies of the time.

To attract tourists, a good narrative matters

Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy had a rather fascinating piece in today’s Winnipeg Free Press about the branding of what has been traditionally called the city’s Exchange District as “the Design Quarter”, along with nearby areas of Downtown and The Forks. He wrote:

The world is becoming smaller, travel is becoming easier and globalization is making cities more homogenous. As a result, tourists have begun to look more often for unique stories and authentic, local experiences in non-traditional destinations.

In recognition of this changing trend, last Friday a new initiative was launched to further attract this evolving tourist market as well as provide Winnipeggers with a new experience in their own city.

Design Quarter Winnipeg is an organically organized, grassroots initiative hoping to position downtown Winnipeg’s artistic community as a design and cultural tourism destination.

The idea hopes to bring together local, independent, design-focused events, shops, services and organizations under a single marketing umbrella, empowering them by establishing a broader collaborative network. It’s modelled after existing programs in similarly isolated winter cities Reykjavik, Iceland and Helsinki, Finland, where the design district concept has strengthened their civic image as design centres and tapped into new opportunities in the growing trend of cultural tourism.

Indeed, long-haul international travel has never been as affordable to both Canadians and to many foreigners as it is today, or as easy to plan online, offering opportunities for places considered “flyover country” to develop small but lucrative niches.

Tourism is like a library. Just as probably 99 percent of the books in the library are of absolutely no interest to 99 percent of the population, so too are 99 percent of places in the world likely of absolutely no interest to 99 percent of the world’s population.

But that one percent or even less who are attracted for some reason to that book on the shelf, or that place on the map — that’s what matters. One percent of Canada’s population, for example, is a still-substantial 350,000 people. Not that they’re all going to descend on Winnipeg all at once, or even visit at all. But if the narrative is right, they might consider the possibility.

Which brings me back to the “similarly isolated winter cities Reykjavik, Iceland and Helsinki, Finland” noted above.

In recent days, I actually seriously looked at the possibility of taking a trip to Helsinki this summer. Helsinki ticked a lot of the right boxes: the airfare-plus-accommodations price of a visit was competitive; the summer weather isn’t too bad; the seaside setting was appealing; the fact that many Finns speak English would have made communication easy; Finland is a safe country with a strong culture of trust; and Helsinki is considered by some visitors to be an underrated city that could become the next “hot” city to visit for a weekend city-break.

There was also something appealing about visiting a more normal and serene European city like Helsinki, not being in the mood just now for the Disneyland-for-Adults environment that can characterize A-List cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. And I just plain like the Nordic countries, having been to Denmark and Sweden on two previous holidays. They’re not the cheapest places, but the Nordic countries are “Order People” (as opposed to “Chaos People”) cultures who like to keep things running smoothly, and you can afford to relax a bit more.

Helsinki didn’t quite make the cut, however, having decided on cozy Edinburgh instead. There was enough of a narrative there to justify spending two or three days in Helsinki in conjunction with somewhere else; but not enough of a narrative to justify spending a week there.*

Or, when I asked myself, “Why spend a week in Helsinki and not somewhere else?”, I couldn’t answer that question to my complete satisfaction, despite plenty of help from the Visit Helsinki web site and their Twitter feed, both of which are as good as any other tourism agency’s. (If you’re reading this, Visit Helsinki, cheer up: One year’s runner-up is often a future year’s winner.)

If it had been easier to pair Helsinki with somewhere or something else — nearby Tallinn, Estonia is apparently a great city, but suffering from weak air links for visitors from North America — the narrative might have been complete.

So too it might have been if the city offered a wider array of thematic walking tours, which is an area where Helsinki has a weak selection on a walk-up-pay-and-go basis. Cities that don’t have a good offering here are less competitive for the burgeoning solo-tourist market. These are people for whom spending an afternoon walking around town, conversing with fellow Canadians, Australians, Americans, Brits and other nationalities who share their interests, is far more fun than visiting yet another (*yawn*) famous museum.

Winnipeg faces those same challenges as Helsinki in attracting tourists. Tourists will come here if there is a good supporting narrative.

“I’m on a business trip” or “I’m visiting family” are perfectly good narratives that attract many people to this city every year. So too are “I’m 20 years old and I can’t legally drink at home in North Dakota,” or “Winnipeg has a hell of a lot more nightlife than Minot,” or even “Winnipeg is the back-of-beyond from where I live, and I just wanted to see what’s there.” (That, above all else, was what attracted me to the otherwise nice-but-not-spectacular Perth, Western Australia in 2006.)

Some people come from further afield because there are similarly strong narratives supporting their visit. These include, “We can’t do the kind of fishing and hunting we can do in Northern Manitoba back home in Germany,” or “I’ve been cooped up on this train from Toronto for 36 hours; let me off before I lose my goddamn mind!” That last one might be a bit crude, but it’s a fantastic rationale for spending a few hours being a tourist in Winnipeg.

The supporting narrative matters. Give people a convincing answer as to “Why should I spend a [day, weekend, week] in Winnipeg and not in [insert place name here]?” and their odds of actually paying a visit soar. It’s possible that 99 percent or more of the world’s population will never have a good answer to that, no matter what.

But, so what? Like that seemingly untouched book in the library, to someone somewhere, for the most complicated of personal reasons, that’s exactly what they’re looking for. The key is to find that person.


* – Indeed, Finland’s main tourist sources seem to be its immediate neighbours including Russia, for whom Finland is an easy weekend getaway; and the Japanese, for whom Helsinki is a logical gateway to other places in Europe thanks to the curvature of the Earth and Finnair’s use of Helsinki as a hub for connecting Europe and Asia. (There might also be some interesting underlying cultural reasons, discussed here, for the Japanese interest in Finland.)

Think of the CMHR not as a destination, but as an add-on

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the "Everything Churchill" web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Images depicting the Northern Lights, as shown on the “Everything Churchill” web site. The Northern Lights are a fascinating part of the Canadian experience for visitors from Europe to Australia. (Click for source.)

Since before the building even started to go up, there has been widespread confusion about the role that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) would play in Manitoba’s tourism industry. This was exemplified by a 2013 news release suggesting that the city would “welcome [a] surge of visitors” once the Museum opened — and by the disappointed tone of the news this week that a “measly” and “mere” one percent of visitors last month were international tourists from countries other than the U.S.

In fact, this one percent figure is entirely unsurprising, not least because only one-third as many foreign visitors enter Canada on a typical March day as arrive on a normal day during the July-August peak. Travel Manitoba’s latest annual report shows that non-U.S. international visitors made up one percent of tourists in Manitoba in 2012, so international visitors to the Museum are at the level one would expect.

By flipping through that report, it is not difficult to guess what draws many of those international visitors who, at $772 per person-visit, spent twice as much money here as interprovincial and U.S. visitors, and nearly eight times as much as intra-provincial tourists.

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

Visitors to Manitoba by source, and how much they spent. (Source: Travel Manitoba annual report)

As many of the images in the report illustrate, Manitoba’s wilderness is the province’s number-one tourism advantage.

Let’s say you’re Derek and Laura, a fictional couple of empty-nesters in their late fifties from Nottingham, England, who have decided to finally splurge to take a Canadian rail holiday. Or Stefan, a 25-year-old German from Stuttgart, completing his first year of full-time office work and looking to take a holiday with his buddies that will really impress their friends following them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Offhand, Winnipeg is to them what Nottingham and Stuttgart, two cities similar to Winnipeg in size, are to us. Sure, there are some nice things to see and do in each, such as Wollaton Hall and the Robin Hood Town Tour in Nottingham, or Palace Square and the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. But unless you have a compelling reason as a Canadian tourist to go to these places, you’re probably not going to take time away from Europe’s much bigger draws to visit these medium-sized cities.

But if you’re Derek and Laura, taking a wobbly old train into the wild Canadian frontier to see polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights might just sound like the adventure of a lifetime. And for Stefan, being a young avid angler with money to spend, the idea of a week at a middle-of-nowhere fishing lodge angling for northern pike and walleye might sound like a fantastisch idea that could never be replicated in Germany.

And that’s where the CMHR could make sense for international visitors to Manitoba. Naturally, no one will visit Winnipeg just to see a museum any more than anyone would visit London just to see the Imperial War Museum.

But if you happen to be in Winnipeg anyway, it makes sense to go see the CMHR for a mere $15 more. If you’re Derek and Laura, you’ll want to allow the train at least a twelve-hour margin of error on the return trip — this isn’t Europe, where a 15-minute delay is considered “severe” — which might mean having a couple of days in Winnipeg during which to see a few sights.

And for Stefan and his buddies, Winnipeg would be a logical jumping-off point to the North, again allowing for a short stay in the city.

Now might be a good time to mention, however, that while the CMHR might have made it on to TripAdvisor’s list of Winnipeg attractions (at #19 as of April 28), the Museum gets no top-level mention on Frommer’s listing of Winnipeg attractions, and is similarly obscure on Virtual Tourist’s site. And as far as Fodor’s is concerned, Winnipeg doesn’t even exist. With the summer high season rapidly approaching, the marketers might want to get on the case, pronto.

Too many beds, too few bums?

The former Carlton Inn, with the Winnipeg Convention Centre visible in the background. (Source: Google Maps)

The former Carlton Inn, with the Winnipeg Convention Centre visible in the background. (Source: Google Maps)

When CentreVenture Development Corp. bought out the Carlton Inn in downtown Winnipeg in 2013, it was expected that the lacklustre property would be demolished and replaced by a “signature hotel” of up to 300 rooms around the end of 2016.

As 2015 gets under way, there is little more than a vacant lot where the Carlton Inn once stood, adjacent to the RBC Convention Centre Winnipeg, which is in the midst of a major expansion — and no specific plans for what should be built on that lot.

As the Winnipeg Free Press noted Saturday, construction of such a hotel would be expected to take two and a half years, meaning that the original target of a late-2016 opening will be overshot by at least a year.

Yet, as political pressure increases to “get the job done”, care must also be taken to step back and consider what the effect of adding, say, a 300-room hotel to the Winnipeg market might mean to the overall health of the local hospitality industry.

In a 2014-15 industry outlook released last September by PKF Consulting Canada, which specializes in analysis of the hospitality and tourism industries, it was noted that the Winnipeg market is expected to have the lowest average per-night guestroom revenues in 2015 among the 13 major Canadian markets examined: $76 per room-night, 20 percent lower than the Western Canada forecast of $95 per room-night.

This calculation, known in the hotel industry as revenue per available room, or RevPAR, is based on dividing the total revenues extracted from the renting out of a hotel’s rooms on a given (or average) night by the number of rooms available for rental, regardless of whether or not those rooms were occupied. It is a basic measurement of a property’s health and productivity, but it does not include revenues from out-of-room services such as restaurants.

With occupancy rates expected to average out to about 60 percent, Winnipeg is also expected to have the lowest percentage of occupied rooms over the course of 2015 among the 13 markets examined in the report.

This news sends a signal to hoteliers that, compared to other large Canadian cities, Winnipeg is not hungering for new hotel capacity.

Indeed, the expansion of the Convention Centre could be seen as justification for the hotel industry to sit on its hands instead of adding additional rooms, hoping that more visitors will push occupancy rates up five or ten percentage points, bringing fatter profits for all and putting smaller players like The Marlborough in a better position to invest in upgrades. Then, if Winnipeg’s average occupancy rates start to hit 70 percent or revenues exceed $100 per room-night, then the industry could start questioning whether there’s a shortage of rooms at peak times.

Alternately, we could go ahead and build a large hotel next to the Convention Centre, adding perhaps 100,000 annual room-nights to the Winnipeg hotel market. The construction would be good for some: for the Convention Centre certainly, as well as for the tradespeople needed to undertake such a grand project. But if new visitors don’t come to Winnipeg with the same alacrity, there is a risk that adding so many hotel rooms could cause occupancy rates and average revenues per room-night to fall even further. That could leave Winnipeg’s hotel market looking downright sickly.

No city for old men

Normally, Saturday night is this blogger’s Dinner at the Pub night, but the city’s extreme-cold warning — an air temperature of -28°C, with a northwest wind producing a wind chill of -38°C (-36°F) at 8 p.m. — and the beeping of snow-clearing vehicles in the dark outside can destroy the resolution of even the hardiest Winnipegger to venture outdoors if you’ve got all that you need indoors.

Naturally, one’s thoughts venture toward such things as “Whatever possessed humans to live in such a place?” and “If we were truly free to choose where we live — no employment considerations, no family considerations — would this be the place?”

So, with time on my hands, I decided to do a bit of sleuthing to figure out how Winnipeg compares to other cities in terms of holding on to its 55-to-69 year olds: people who are old enough to retire (or take early retirement) and move elsewhere without being hindered too much by employment, family or health limitations.

The chart below, based on Statistics Canada population data, shows the net number of 55-to-69 year old interprovincial migrants in 2012-13 for every 1,000 55-to-69 year olds living in each metropolitan area as of July 1, 2012. Indeed, the hideously cold prairie cities saw the highest rate of outmigration to other provinces: Winnipeg’s rate of -2.8 per thousand was slightly higher than Saskatoon’s -2.5 per 1,000 but somewhat lower than Regina’s -4.5 per thousand. (Saint John, New Brunswick, once ignominiously listed as one of the Top 8 worst places to move to in Canada, also had a fairly high defection rate despite its more coastal setting.)

Many Ontario and Quebec cities also finish on the negative side of the chart, with outmigration rates to other provinces of -0.1 to -1.4 per thousand. Perhaps surprisingly, Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières, Que. drew in slightly more 55-to-69 year olds from other provinces than they lost. Though Moncton, Calgary and Edmonton attracted more people than they lost from this age group, Victoria and Kelowna remain the strongest draws for retirement-aged Canadians, with net inflows of +3.7 and +6.9 per thousand respectively.

No city for old men

Source: Statistics Canada CANSIM tables 051-0056 and 051-0057. Click to enlarge.


But don’t feel too bad for Winnipeg. A net outflow of Winnipeggers aged 55 to 69 years could have some perverse benefits for Manitoba’s health care system. As British prime minister David Cameron made a recent pledge to crack down on Europeans migrating to the U.K. allegedly to take advantage of British health care and social services, Spain was reported to have its own problems with British retirees, which they have some obligation to provide care for under the terms of the European Union, placing a burden on their health care system. Like those British pensioners who have traded in life in Old Blighty for one on the Costa Blanca, migrating Winnipeg retirees could also take a bit of pressure off of Manitoba’s hospitals and nursing homes — but at a cost to our western neighbours.

Time to make Winnipeg’s walking tours more visitor-friendly

Winnipeg might not be known for being one of North America’s leading or even Top 50 mass-market holiday destinations, but this city does attract some tourism nevertheless through several narrow but lucrative feeds:

Business and convention traffic: Though busy during the day, many of these visitors are looking for something to do after 6 p.m. rather than spending the evening watching TV in their hotel rooms.

Rural and small-town visitors: If you live in small-town Manitoba or northwestern Ontario, or even parts of North Dakota and Minnesota, Winnipeg is the closest largish city to go to for the weekend for something a little more diverse than the limited small-town shopping and entertainment options. For many Manitobans, Winnipeg is also the nearest place to go to for appointments with professionals and specialists.

People in transit: Winnipeg’s position on the Trans-Canada Highway, on VIA Rail’s transcontinental rail route and as the transfer point for hunters, anglers and whale/polar bear-watchers heading north allows it to sell some of its attractions as ways to fill the time during stopovers.

People visiting friends and relatives: As the city’s immigrant communities continue to grow by leaps and bounds, this will continue to generate tourist traffic in the form of friends and relatives coming to visit.

One activity that tends to sell well to all of these groups, as well as to locals, is the urban walking tour. As those who have been on walking tours in other cities might attest, a well-done tour not only gives a city a little more character, but is also a good way for visitors to meet other travelers from around the country and the world; some can even take on a flirty edge. (“What happens in Vegas…” doesn’t necessarily have to apply to only Vegas.)

Too bad, then, that Winnipeg’s walking tour scene leaves much to be desired. While there is an array of walking tours offered, it’s a rather scattershot affair.

The West Exchange District tour sounds good if you’re interested in architecture or in hearing more about the stories behind this funky central Winnipeg neighbourhood. But when does it run? The tour’s web site notes that the “first” tour leaves 133 Albert St. at 9 a.m., and the “last” departs at 4:30 p.m. But what about the tours in between? Since it’s a 90-minute tour, do they depart at 90-minute intervals? Who knows? (And if this sounds like a good thing to do on a Sunday, sorry: the tours only run Monday to Saturday.)

I’ve heard great things about the Hermetic Code tour at the Manitoba Legislature. Sounds like an interesting weekend thing to do for locals and visitors alike. The weekend, you say? Sorry, it’s a once-a-week tour, starting on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. Weekend visitors and many locals are out of luck.

The Old St. Boniface Tour seems like a good way of exploring the history of Winnipeg’s French-speaking community. It runs twice a day, seven days a week, which is good (though it’s curious that Tourisme Riel, which runs the tour, doesn’t seem to promote it on their own web site). Instead of starting the tour from the Old St. Boniface City Hall on Provencher Boulevard, however, it might make more sense to start from The Forks: this is where one will find the city’s highest concentration of tourists, and that would make it easier to sell the tour as an “impulse purchase” to people with time to kill. Just a suggestion.

And why is the West End BIZ’s Mural Walking Tour alternately shown as departing from 581 Portage Avenue and from Bannatyne Ave., many blocks away? (And the requirement that participants in the Food Tour book “no less than two days prior to the day of the tour” would quite frankly turn me off as a tourist as being annoyingly bureaucratic.)

Aside from a listing on the Tourism Winnipeg web site, many of Winnipeg’s walking tours are otherwise organized and marketed individually. This is a tourism activity, though, which could benefit from common branding.

For example, many of New York’s best walking tours are under the Big Onion Walking Tours umbrella. In London, London Walks offers one-stop shopping for walking tours. In Berlin, the market is split between Original Berlin Walks and New Berlin Tours.

The benefit of having a city’s walking tours organized and marketed under one or two organizations as opposed to Winnipeg’s scattershot arrangement is that many of the tours end up feeding customers into one another: all of the information is in one place, and people who are satisfied with one tour are tempted to try another one of the company’s tours. Getting this aspect of the local tourism industry into better shape would go far to giving visitors a better experience in this city.

LRT or BRT, Rapid Transit must be Frequent Transit

My first day on Winnipeg’s Rapid Transit system back in April 2012 was memorable, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

On the northbound leg from South River Heights toward Downtown, the passengers included a young woman loudly and gleefully discussing her criminal record, as if it were something to be proud of, and a man who unceremoniously marked the occasion with a loud burp.

Later that day, I arrived at Osborne Station just in time to see the Grant Ave. bus pull away. Since that particular route ran at 24-minute intervals on a Sunday back in the old “slow transit” days, surely the arrival of Rapid Transit would mean a shorter wait, if even by just a few minutes. Or so I thought.

When I looked up at the indicator board, that was when I got a rude shock: since the bus I had just missed was slightly ahead of schedule, the next bus to my destination would be arriving . . . in half an hour!

And the next bus after that, another 29 minutes later.

The reality sunk in that the introduction of Rapid Transit would mean a service reduction, and that I might as well walk four kilometres home — thankfully, an effortless and relaxing experience in fine weather — because it would scarcely take any longer and be vastly more interesting than hanging around Osborne Station for half an hour.

That strange first day of Winnipeg’s Rapid Transit system seemed to underline the point that, even as they built the system, the city’s administrators didn’t “get” the concept of rapid transit — that you should be able to navigate the city without a timetable and without any maps, aside from those posted at the stops themselves, much as one can do in European cities.

Indeed, the people whom we hired with our ballots to oversee the city’s affairs — I’d be curious to know how many have ever used a European public transportation system, or have even been across either the Atlantic or the Pacific — still might not get it as illustrated by a new City Hall squabble over whether Rapid Transit should consist of buses or railcars.

Those who follow this debate have their own opinions. Some favour using buses because of lower construction and start-up costs; others favour the rail option because of lower per-passenger-trip costs and, as expressed by rail proponent Coun. Russ Wyatt, a higher glamour factor.

But nobody is talking about the all-important matter of frequency. This in a city where the major traffic arteries running past some of the city’s largest shopping centres still enjoy the same twice-an-hour Sunday service they enjoyed 30 years ago when the malls were closed on what is now a busy shopping day.

If you want to encourage people to use public transport as an alternative to the congestion and wear-and-tear on the roads caused by North America’s high rate of private automobile use, frequency matters, as explained (starting from PDF page 53) by Graham Currie and Alexa Delbosc of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia:

The results collectively support the case for high service levels [i.e., more buses/trains/streetcars per day, and longer hours of service at a given stop] as a driver of ridership regardless of the transit mode [i.e., light rail, bus rapid transit or streetcar] adopted . . . This is particularly interesting in this context where boardings per vehicle kilometer was used as the outcome variable, as BVK controls for service level. This suggests that routes with higher service levels are more efficient and attract more ridership than low-service routes, all other things being equal.

Thus, it is time to start talking about service levels, not just along Winnipeg’s existing and proposed rapid transit lines, but city-wide, with the goal of designing a transit system where, as in Europe, one can just “show up and go” with a minimum of advance planning. Rapid transit corridors would play a helpful role here, naturally, as might better deployment of Transit’s existing fleet. (Does Route 95 really need a nine-minute layover at each end of its 21-minute route? Why not just a five-minute layover, and squeeze in a couple of extra trips per bus, using existing resources?)

If service levels don’t become part of the discussion this year — an election year, no less — we could end up with a Rapid Transit system designed as if by image-conscious politicians who have no intention of ever using the system; and finding out the hard (and expensive) way that a Rapid Transit-branded train that runs every half-hour is as much a bad joke on Winnipeggers as a bus that does the same thing.