Register Tuesday | December 10 | 2019

Our Way or the Autoroute

A love letter to Montreal street traffic

The Lonely Planet guide to Montreal warns tourists, “Driving in Montréal is for crazy people, not for those on vacation.” We who live here take it as a compliment.

In making the decision to get behind a wheel or set foot on Montreal pavement, one must be unequivocal. Here, circulation through the city is an end in itself, an undertaking of the intellect and of the soul. The French term conduite, as in conduct or human behaviour, is similar at root to the verb conduire, to drive. Etymologically, the measure of a man or woman is related to his or her driving habits.

The road rules of Montreal remind us that this is a city poised between the new world and the old, between the narrow, frenetically circular streets of the arrondissements of Paris and the wide open thoroughfares of provincial Edmonton or Vancouver. Though I have never seen a car in Montreal actually drive or park on the sidewalk (which is de rigueur in Paris), people do not drive their cars around as though they were shepherding livestock either.

You’ll notice most other drivers, while not apt to communicate with turn signals, will intrepidly seek congress with you through some form of eye contact in the rear-view and side mirrors, windshield and windows. You may wonder at the intentions of these stares. Are they merely attempting to keep a dialogue open with surrounding drivers and thus maintain a defensive awareness of their surroundings? Or do they want to have sex with you? Both, possibly … seduction is a part of the city’s street life. Driving is no exception.

But all’s fair in love and war; thus, we believe in driving defensively, as well as offensively, at all times. In one of the few belle province triumphs of the classic liberal project, traffic flow truly makes each individual responsible for his or her own vehicle and/or person. People and traffic are not predictable. Why should they be? Here, it is considered bad form in body and soul to drive like Ontario soccer moms in Durangos, who imagine themselves in sealed-off, padded spaceships attached to streetcar tracks, invincible and elevated. No. To drive or walk in Montreal is to be one of the Fraternity of Man. An esteemed brother may pull a U-turn into our blind spot or accelerate into an amber, or even a red, light. Best to keep our eyes peeled.

Visitors often misinterpret the heightened rapport between drivers and pedestrians as disrespect: actually, it is an elevated form of appreciation. You will often see a car nudging through a group of pedestrians on St. Catherine Street. Don’t accuse this motorist of attempting to plough through human bodies—he is merely treating pedestrians as he might a line of vehicular traffic in a particularly busy intersection. Often, it’s the only way to soldier on in a bottleneck. Pedestrians, for their part, habitually perform something called the “Montreal drift”—leaving the curb while they wait, inching their way closer to traffic. Don’t try this in Vancouver, where the mere intimation of a sneaker in the gutter against the light elicits wild beeping and unsafe brake-stomping from ten metres away. A recent Université de Montréal study showed that 71% of Montreal pedestrians do not stop and wait for the light to change before crossing. Why would we? It’s perfectly possible to see vehicles approaching and dodge them accordingly.

I’ll reiterate: driving and walking in Montreal is a specific, intentional, chosen activity, which means that we pay attention to what we are doing. Our reflexes are as honed as fighter pilots’. And we defy cliché: our accident rate is high, but not unreasonably so; though most people assume it is the peril and frustration of extremely bad weather that causes the most discord and twisted metal, it is not so. In 2001, August was the month in which the most fatalities occurred.

One amusing and commonly cited fact of Montreal driving is the anachronistic no-right-turn-on-red rule. We are the only North American city, besides Manhattan, where this privilege is still not legal. Many, including this author, believe the status quo to be best. With all the freedoms we allow ourselves on the road, it seems unnecessary to add any more situations in which Montreal drivers are permitted to use their discretionary judgement. That would be suicide.