One balmy summer night last month, I walked down the middle of Mont Royal Avenue, unmolested by Montreal’s notoriously crazy drivers. The avenue, closed for a street fair, was cool, peaceful and fun. So why can’t we keep the cars out of the street all the time?
Mont Royal is just under three kilometres long, running from Mount Royal in the west to the CPR tracks in the east. It’s one of the three main arteries of the Plateau Mont-Royal, a bustling area home to over 100,000 people. The Plateau has the highest population density of any of Montreal’s boroughs, so it’s not surprising that most of its inhabitants live in walk-up apartments and get around by bike, foot and public transit. Only half of the residents even own cars. Despite this, the Plateau is inundated with traffic. Road widenings, one-way streets and other gifts from traffic engineers have turned many roads into traffic conduits for suburban commuters. Mont Royal itself is particularly clogged; in fact, its bus line is reputed to be the slowest in the city.
Two years ago, fed up with dodging cars and inhaling exhaust fumes, a group of Plateau residents founded the Comité de Citoyens Mont-Royal Avenue Verte and set out to reclaim their main street. In its current state, sighs Owen Rose, one of the group’s founders, Mont Royal is “a parking lot full of noxious chemicals.” In June 2002, Rose and his colleagues circulated a petition requesting a public hearing to discuss turning Mont Royal into a pedestrian street with effective public transportation and dedicated space for cyclists. Over eighteen thousand people signed the petition that Avenue Verte submitted to the Plateau’s borough council in December 2002.
There still hasn’t been a hearing.
Here’s why: While the Plateau’s residents were receptive and supportive of the pedestrian project, Avenue Verte’s activities met with an icy reception from the street’s business community. Of the hundreds of merchants along Mont Royal Avenue, only twelve support the committee. Michel Depatie, the head of the Société de développement de l’Avenue du Mont-Royal, the street’s business association, doesn’t think too highly of Avenue Verte’s plans. “It’s a dream,” he told La Presse several months ago, “we have to wake up.” Depatie insists that taking cars away from the avenue will kill business, especially in winter. Last year, he told Le Devoir that if the street closed, merchants would lose more than $50 million.
Depatie also claims that 20 percent of Plateau residents do their shopping by car, but that seems a rather dubious figure given that it’s quicker to walk to a commercial street from any point in the Plateau than it is to get in a car, navigate the one-way streets and find a place to park. Besides, most of Mont Royal’s shoppers live within walking distance of the street. One study, commissioned by the city of Montreal, shows that 55 percent of the avenue’s customers come from the surrounding neighbourhood; another 35 percent come from other parts of Montreal. Only 4 percent drive in from the suburbs. With its abundance of cafés, supermarkets and fruiteries, Mont Royal Avenue is quite literally the bread and butter for thousands of Plateau dwellers.
So far, the borough council appears to favour the merchants. “They’re giving us the runaround,” complains Rose. Pointing out that a majority of property and business owners along Mont Royal do not actually live on the Plateau, he wonders why the council, which is supposed to represent those who elected it, “is listening to non-residents instead.”
What Rose finds even more insulting is that the borough and the business association recently commissioned a $60,000 study that recommended allowing restaurants to put outdoor seating along Mont Royal. “It was basically a way of rubber-stamping cafés on the sidewalk without widening [the sidewalks],” says Rose. Beyond the profit-reaping terrasses, the study also suggested adding six hundred new bicycle racks, also without widening the sidewalks. Despite this, the borough—at the behest of the merchants—recently replaced dozens of parking metres along the avenue with new designs that prevent cyclists from locking their bikes to them. Depatie says that pedestrian congestion isn’t severe enough to justify widening the sidewalks, but anyone who has walked down the street on a warm afternoon can tell you otherwise.
If supporters of Avenue Verte should feel themselves succumbing to despair, they need only look down the 401 for inspiration: earlier this month, Toronto’s Kensington Market began going car-free one day a week. On the inaugural Pedestrian Sunday Kensington, Torontonians danced in the street, merchants took over the sidewalks and one guy even hauled his living room sofa into the middle of an intersection.
A tight thatch of streets just west of Chinatown, Kensington was once Toronto’s Jewish market, where residents sold fruit, veggies and other goods from stalls in their front yards. Today, it’s a polyglot assortment of groceries, delis, cafés and clothing stores, home to a multicultural mix of immigrants and a fair number of hipsters.
“What an abysmal waste of space a car is!” exclaims Shamez Amlani, owner of La Palette, a little French bistro on Kensington’s Augusta Avenue. Amlani is a founder of Streets Are for People and one of the organizers of Pedestrian Sunday Kensington. On a normal day, Kensington’s narrow streets are filled with people, delivery trucks and illegally parked cars. “We have a parking lot instead of a real public space,” he clucks. Two years ago, fed up with the congestion, Amlani and friends started working to get cars out of their neighbourhood. They conducted a survey and discovered that 80 percent of the market’s users came by foot and 63 percent of those who drove were favourable to the idea of closing streets to cars. To convince local merchants that going car-free wouldn’t hurt their businesses, Amlani helped organize several street festivals. Most of the merchants were won over, and the first Pedestrian Sunday was held July 4. “Dinosaur thinking” is what Amlani calls opposition to making streets more pedestrian-friendly. “We have a lot of work to do correcting the mistakes our parents made.”
Amlani and Rose both point to Copenhagen as a model for what they are trying to achieve. In the 1960s, the Danish capital turned its main street into a pedestrian thoroughfare. Since then, it has developed a comprehensive network of both pedestrian-only streets and pedestrian-priority streets (walkers and cyclists have right-of-way but cars are allowed to proceed slowly), bolstered by a bicycle program that has expanded the number of bike lanes and allows people to borrow bikes from various racks around the city for a small deposit. The number of cars in Copenhagen has remained steady for the past twenty-five years.
Copenhagen’s gradual prioritization of pedestrians and cyclists is what Avenue Verte seeks for Montreal. “We’re citizens, not experts,” says Rose. His group’s mission, he continues, is not to propose a concrete and inflexible plan for the avenue, but to provoke a discussion on making it a safer and healthier street. If Mont Royal is to go car-free, says Rose, it must be done as part of an overall strategy for reducing car use in the Plateau and in all of Montreal. To further that goal, Avenue Verte regularly organizes lectures and meetings on urban sustainability and pedestrianization in a global context.
Baby steps are what’s needed now. During the summer, practically every main street in Montreal, including Mont Royal, is closed at one time or another for a street fair. Last year, a downtown stretch of St. Catherine Street was closed for Car Free Day. The merchants were chagrined, but that day the number of cars downtown decreased significantly, the amount of pollutants in the downtown air was cut by 40 percent and the streets were packed with revellers and happy office workers. There’s obviously an appetite for car-free streets, so why not experiment a little bit by closing Mont Royal to cars on Sundays while still allowing buses and bikes?
Some critics fear that a car-free Mont Royal would turn into another Prince Arthur, a pleasant pedestrian street on the Plateau that has become infested with tourists and bad restaurants. But such an outcome would be impossible for Mont Royal because of both its length and a recent borough law prohibiting new restaurants within twenty-five metres of each other.
Some naysayers and critics seem irrationally opposed to any sort of pro-pedestrian improvement on Mont Royal, but what’s to lose by engaging in a positive dialogue between citizens, business owners and government? The Plateau’s politicians and Mont Royal’s business community snipe at the suggestion of pedestrianization and provide no positive input, but the worst possible situation would be killing discussion and maintaining the status quo. Mont Royal can’t remain car-choked and polluted forever.
At the very least, those who want to see a more pedestrian-friendly Montreal can take heart in this: they always say it can’t be done, but they’re usually wrong.