Windsor driven by car for a century

From its beginnings, the car has driven Windsor's economy. And Windsorites have driven cars for almost as long — not always because they want to, but because they have to.

The car drives the economy and the region's residents

From its beginnings, in places like the Walkerville Wagon Works assembly facility, the car has driven Windsor's economy for nearly a century.

And Windsorites have driven cars for almost as long — not always because they want to, but because they have to.

"There are a lot of historical and geographical reasons why Windsor is auto dominated," said John Tofflemire, the city's former head of traffic engineering.

The Windsor region was first settled along the Detroit River and grew east-west, from River Canard in the west to St. Clair Beach in the east.

Tofflemire said railways in late 1800s then "created additional barriers to efficient roadway systems" making it difficult to eventually build roads eastbound and westbound across the region at the time.

Auto industry drawn to Windsor

But it was the river and those rails that made Windsor attractive to manufacturers.

Transporting a City

This is Part 3 in a CBC Windsor series examining transit in Windsor. Susan Pedler and Tony Doucette will host a town hall examining the issue at 7 p.m. on March 7 at the Capitol Theatre. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. You can also join the conversation on Twitter (@CBCWindsor) and on our new Facebook page. We want you to share your thoughts on, questions about and experiences with getting around Windsor.

"Because of our accessibility to the river and the rails, the markets everywhere looked to Windsor for the automotive industry," Tofflemire said. "The automotive plants ended up being located far apart from each other."

That forced people to need a car to get to and from work for a variety of reasons.

"You had large centres of employment located all over the place. It's very difficult to service that type of employment pattern with transit," Tofflemire said.

He said efficient and timely transit happens where there is high density employment.

"That did not happen in Windsor," Tofflemire said, noting white-collar city centres in places like London.

Instead, factories were built along the river and throughout the city. People worked shift work, sometimes ending their shifts at the oddest of hours in relation to the rest of the workforce.

The Dodge Grand Caravan and the Chrysler Town and Country minivans are still driving Windsor today. Approximately 5,000 people are employed at the Windsor Assembly Plant, where the vehicles are made.

Chris Holt is the chair of the Old Walkerville Residents Association and is the editor of the blog, a site dedicated to connecting every Windsorite to their own walkable neighbourhood.

He's also a fourth-generation Ford worker who knows what the car means to Windsor.

Car 'dictated who we are'

Holt believes the auto industry helped shape Windsor's transit system.

"We all dearly love our cars. It has dictated who we are as a community in more ways than one," he said.

Windsor was one of the first cities to have electric street cars but they didn't last long.

"We have had a taste of a whole bunch of modes of transportation but World War II came around and there was a real shift to the automobile and all bets were off," Holt said. "We started building communities around the automobile."

That means urban sprawl began when gas was cheap and cars were affordable to almost everyone. Low-density living areas developed on the outskirts of town. 

Cars became a necessity, not an option.

Driving has become a hard habit to break, even for university students. Several University of Windsor students are pushing back against a plan for the cost of a mandatory universal bus pass to be added to their annual fees.

"Students have had the luxury of having automobile, through their parents' employment at one of the Big 3 or even subsidiary auto parts suppliers," said the university's student president, André Capaldi. "There's never really been a reliance on the transit system."