A Moving Target

The journey to a post-car society in Montreal

By Ender McDuff, Sports Editor

Heading down Stanley for a second time, you are peering out of the window from the driver’s seat of your 2003 Honda Civic. Class starts in five minutes, and yet it remains elusive: The parking spot. The source of these parking troubles could be the endless Montreal construction or the heaps of plowed snow. However, Kevin Manaugh, a professor in the Department of Geography and the McGill School of Environment, insists that this lack of space is intentional: McGill has, over the past decade, purposefully reduced parking spaces on campus.

In the heart of the crowded Downtown core, parking in Montreal is already hard to come by. Choosing to prioritize open walking spaces and bike racks might seem to be making things worse for drivers, yet policymakers across Montreal are increasingly deciding to favour transit alternatives such as bicycles, buses, trains, and the metro. These decisions are rooted in Montreal's history as a culturally distinct North American city with strong European ties, as well as present day concerns about equity, safety, and sustainability.

Montreal has long been caught somewhere between its North American location and its obvious European-influenced design. This duality has been instrumental in creating a dense and unique transportation system. Montreal’s first trolleys were implemented in 1861 by the original iteration of the Société de transport de Montréal (STM). The initial prominence of these first horse-drawn and then electric streetcars kept car ownership low. However, with changes to automotive laws and the physical design of the city, the number of cars on the streets. rose over time. Nevertheless, Montreal would also introduce its uniquely designed metro system in 1966 in anticipation of Expo ‘67, which has served as the basis for the development of a dense and highly used public transportation network.

Over 50 years later, the Montreal metro has now surpassed 10 billion total riders since its launch and is considered—along with buses and trains—to comprise one of the best public transit systems in North America. It carries 74 per cent of the Downtown core’s morning rush hour traffic, and also boasts one of the lowest carbon footprints of any metro service in the world. These transportation alternatives mean that Montrealers continue to use cars less than those in other North American cities.

“There’s no [...] innate human nature to want to drive,” Manaugh said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “Look at places where the rates of cars are lower and rates of public transport are higher […] It isn’t some sort of mystery. The [public transit] systems are simply better and more convenient.”

While perhaps not innate, the car has become culturally central to the North American lifestyle over the last century. But, for the car to reign supreme in such a fashion, it first meant that a physical and legal reordering of society had to occur.

“If you look [at when] cars were being brought out as commercially viable, the first reaction [was to] treat the car as the intruder,” Manaugh explained. “There were none of the legal and social norms we have today.”

This hesitance stems from the fact that, for all of human history prior, the street had been a place of commerce and play filled by pedestrians. Then, laws like jaywalking were conceived of by automotive companies to claim the street for the car; a network of roads and highways spread across the continent, displacing other transit alternatives; and, in the context of the Cold War , the car became a coveted symbol of freedom.

“It’s literally upside down [now] that the pedestrians are intruding on [the car’s] space,” Manaugh said. “No one 100 years ago would have any concept […] that we would one day wake up in a society where […] the public space would be for these dangerous, inefficient, polluting boxes.”

Montreal never fully subscribed to North America’s car-centric vision. Most recently, Sainte Catherine, Verdun, and Outremont have all increased the prices of, or removed, parking to make way for pedestrians and bike lanes. But, still, a century of automobile history and culture affects the transportation structure of the city. This disconnect has resulted in inconsistency in the city’s policy and infrastructure choices—particularly some of the most massive and costly projects. For instance, the city poured billions of dollars into the Turcot interchange construction project , an effort to rebuild a multi-level hub for road traffic that connects three major highways and links the airport to downtown.

“Here was an opportunity to do something not focussed on cars, but instead [the city] went with this big project that still prioritizes hundreds of thousands of vehicles circulating,” Manaugh said.

The transportation sector is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, with gas-fueled vehicles ranking as the second largest emitter behind only planes (cycling, walking, metro, and trains all rank among the most environmentally friendly). Personal vehicles also contribute other pollutants like particulate matters from the degradation of tires and brake pads, which can cause health issues by contaminating drinking water and ending up in people’s lungs. As a result, projects like the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) rapid transit expansion are expressly designed to get drivers out from behind the wheel.

“[Public transit projects are] essentially low-hanging fruit […to] have massive impacts on greenhouse gas emissions [compared to other options],” Manaugh said. “People are healthier, happier, and there’s more social well-being and social inclusion in communities that have less driving.”

For Manaugh, even the REM expansion comes with its concerns. The project, currently under construction and scheduled to begin service in 2023, will cost a reported $6.3 billion. Meanwhile, the Pink Line metro expansion, proposed by Mayor Valérie Plante in her 2017 campaign, has languished.

“The REM is really serving wealthy people on the West Island and the Pink Line is—if you map out the socioeconomic status of the people who actually live around the stations—serving lower income people, more immigrants, more people who use transportation,” Manaugh explained. “It’s environmental versus equity issues. It’s this kind of trade-off.”

For instance, the pink line expansion would greatly benefit many McGill students who live in Montréal-Nord, and help to alleviate congestion on other metro lines. Currently, those living along the proposed pink line take buses, which are less reliable due to traffic and construction. While this particular opportunity has confronted Montreal with a difficult choice, there exist several transit projects that address environmental and equity concerns simultaneously.

Another significant reason behind the push for reduced automotive transportation is safety concerns. In Canada alone, there are close to 2,000 deaths and more than 10,000 injuries from automotive accidents every year. Manaugh stressed that this risk is a systemic issue brought about by individual behaviours, car companies, laws, and city design.

“You’ve got this whole system that leads to millions of injuries and deaths every year around the world, and this is somehow considered business as usual,” Manaugh said. “We even have this language that says it’s an accident [as opposed to a crash], but we made all of these choices to say driving is the only or best option to get around […] and we somehow call this an accident as if it isn’t preventable.”

Safety concerns are especially pertinent in Montreal, where cycling is enormously popular. As the first North American city to implement protected bike lanes and a hub of bike-sharing, Montreal has—somewhat ironically, given the weather and construction—cemented itself as one of North America’s top cycling cities. Grant McKenzie, a professor at McGill in the Department of Geography, notes the bicycle’s importance to the city.

“[Montreal is] one of the cities that has adopted [its] bike-share system in a way that most other cities have not,” McKenzie said. “Culturally, Montreal is a very European city. It’s a much more laid-back lifestyle in some sense, of being able to get to and from work or the grocery store by jumping on a bike.”

This robust network of transit options has endowed Montreal with a transportation sector distinct from that of most other North American cities. This can benefit students especially, most of whom do not have cars. The growing student interest in alternative modes of transportation as well as the pursuit of many outcomes—whether they be happiness, health, or sustainability—has given rise to a growing community of transportation enthusiasts. Online, a community of millennials and members of generation Z who are disillusioned with the car-centric culture in which they were raised discuss urban planning and public transportation concerns through a mixture of humour and erudite conversation. The movement takes the form of the Facebook meme page “New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens,” or NUMTOT, which is also the name assigned to the young transport enthusiasts who populate the page.

“Over time, I’ve realized that North American cities suck in terms of liveability,” Matthew McLaughlin, a U2 Arts student and proud NUMTOT, wrote to the Tribune. “Any dense, liveable city [must] have a robust public transportation system, and NUMTOTS fully understand this. The group stands as a counterbalance to the deeply ingrained car-centrism in North American society.”

NUMTOT was co-founded by Juliet Eldred and Emily Orenstein, two friends at the University of Chicago, along with Jonathan Marty of New York University,. Eldred, now a transportation planner, believes that NUMTOT has helped convey technical and traditionally boring subject matter to a wider audience.

“When my friend Emily and I started NUMTOT, it was essentially just a throwaway group for us to shitpost about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, but, as it started to grow, we began to see that it had really struck a nerve with people,” Eldred wrote in a message to the Tribune. “It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of young people who are fed up with the status quo and know that our cities can do so much better, especially in the face of catastrophic climate change, and spaces like NUMTOT have been a great way for people to learn and meet others with similar interests.”

McKenzie, also a NUMTOT, has seen this movement grow within his own classroom, where students have begun to push back against the single-occupancy, gas-fueled automobile.

“The newer generation is coming in and realizing cars are super expensive, they don’t really need to […] drive to where they need to go, there’s a whole enjoyment around actually interacting with the city, and the transportation modes that exist are great,” McKenzie said. “Your tax dollars are paying for these services, [so] why shouldn’t we adopt and enjoy them?”

McKenzie believes that this shift in attitudes marks a generational change. Whereas previous generations shunned public transit as something meant for the poor, younger people are realizing that, even if they can afford a car, they may be better off without one. Because of this shift, McKenzie is optimistic that public transit will continue to develop worldwide.

“The younger generation is […] hyper-aware of the future that we’re going to have to live in,” McKenzie said. “I think that’s going to lead to policy changes [as] younger voters […] say, ‘we want more public transportation […] [and this is] where we want our tax dollars to go.’ [There will be] less [focus] on the infrastructure of actual roads and more toward public transit and other things that reduce our carbon footprint.”

Despite growing youth involvement, the future of non-car transportation remains uncertain. Most North American cities still feature lackluster transit services, and a rapidly changing transit ecosystem is challenging policymakers’ ability to keep up. Micro-mobility e-services such as Lime scooters and Jump bikes are beginning to overtake the system due to their affordability and convenience.

While other cities were overrun with supply of these services and lacked the regulations in place to handle them, the Montreal government prepared by limiting the number of products within the city. However, efforts to ensure that helmets are worn and dock-less products left in sanctioned areas have struggled.

“The city estimated a number [of parking areas], and right before Lime came out, they doubled it because they realized people are going to leave them everywhere,” McKenzie said. “I think [it’s because] people are unused to this restriction on being able to park them.”

McKenzie remains hopeful for the future of micro-mobility. For students, these services can provide a fun, affordable, easy way to navigate the city in short trips, and those same benefits may extend to the general population.

“We’ve seen some anecdotal evidence […] that people tend to use these to get to and from the metro station,” McKenzie said. “We already have a tight transportation landscape in Montreal [though], […] so we have to squeeze a new mode of travel into an already difficult situation.”

In this way, McKenzie is hoping that micro-mobility options, along with shared services such as BIXI, can continue to help supplement Montreal’s current transportation system.

Beyond regulating new services, the biggest obstacle to a car-free culture is figuring out how to implement the transit alternatives we already have in a system that was designed to keep them out. Manaugh believes what is now needed is the political will to implement these solutions.

“Our entire system is built around this incredibly inefficient, wasteful, dangerous mode of transport, and I think once you […] take the red pill and see how it became that way, it’s very easy [to change your opinion],” Manaugh said. “[The issue is] it’s not an individual choice. The whole point is that it’s systemic [...] it’s our laws, our design [...] and we’re stuck. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world where the automobile isn’t at the top of the food chain.”