“The city needs more roads, more parking, more cars, we need to drill holes in the mountains for new autobahns … we need our traffic moving at breakneck speed because the faster they get there, the more gets done.”
That’s Kristian Gravenor in a July 31, 2003, column in the Montreal Mirror. Cheeky irreverence is to be expected from Gravenor, the news editor of the alt-weekly and the co-author of the funny and fascinating Montreal: The Unknown City. But his paean to the automobile struck me as unusual for so brazenly flying in the face of the increasingly accepted notion that what we need is fewer cars, not more.
Gravenor’s column came just two months before Montreal’s first official celebration of Car Free Day on September 22, 2003. After hemming and hawing, the city finally closed several blocks of downtown St. Catherine Street for the weekday bash. The street closure was something of a test. For weeks before, downtown business owners and local motorists had complained that closing St. Catherine, even for just a day, would harm business and clog traffic. Their fears proved unfounded: Afternoon crowds packed the street, downtown traffic was lighter than usual and a study later showed that air pollution in the city’s heart had been reduced almost by half.
Fast forward to 2004. This past Wednesday, for the second time, Montreal joined more than a thousand other cities in closing some of its streets to cars. This time around, there was much less worrying about the possible harm of a five-hour street closure and more calls for action to combat the increasing number of cars in the city. This week, the daily paper La Presse revealed that congestion is shifting from Montreal’s bridges and suburban highways to its inner-city arteries. Half of all car trips on the island are now made by suburbanites, yet city dwellers are forced to deal with the cost of congestion, which is estimated at $1 billion per year.
La Presse declares that it is now agreed public transport is the only long-lasting and viable way to escape a tidal wave of cars, but so far it’s a “consensus without a leader.” There needs to be a plan, the paper writes. “Priorities. Coordination. Coherence. Things that, as we celebrate the ways to replace automobiles, the city is sorely lacking.”
That’s where Richard Bergeron hopes to step in. This summer, Bergeron, an urban planner, consultant and author of Le livre noir de l’automobile, founded Projet Montréal, a new municipal political party that takes aim at cars and promotes sustainable, transit-oriented urban development. Bergeron points out that Montreal loses an average of 20,000 people per year to the outer suburbs. In fact, the only reason the city is still growing is because of immigration. He blames this exodus on a decline in the quality of life in the city, due in no small part to the increase in traffic. As more cars make neighbourhoods noisier, dirtier and less safe, more people flee to la banlieue, where, inevitably, they buy a car and contribute to the problem. His party’s solution: Invest in public transit by taxing parking lots and building new light-rail lines, lower the speed limit on city streets and establish a new housing program, following the example of a 1970s-era operation that oversaw the construction of tens of thousands of new housing units in the city. While many of the homes built then were suburban in nature, Projet Montréal would place future development near transit lines and metro stations, as Toronto and Vancouver have done for decades.
Still, many aren’t convinced. While La Presse might declare a consensus on the issue, plenty of people find reason to doubt the transit-focused agenda. Gravenor, for one, is particularly skeptical. “I grew up with my dad owning a parking lot, [so] I think I have a much deeper understanding of the lengths people will go to be able to drive their cars. I find it almost inconceivable that people sit on a bridge for forty-five minutes twice a day. It just seems weird to me, but they do it.” If you make it even harder for people to drive in the city, he adds, they’ll pack up shop and head to the suburbs, taking business and vitality with them. “You can’t have a dynamic city without people zooming around.”
Bergeron snorts. “I’ve heard that for the past thirty years. ‘Les Québécois aiment leurs chars,’” he says sarcastically. In Europe, “they love their cars so much they won’t even accept automatic transmission!” Nonetheless, many European cities have embraced alternative transportation. Munich, a city of three million nestled in the land of the autobahn and BMW, has invested heavily in public transit, despite a car ownership rate nearly the same as that of Montreal. Its metro system, inaugurated in 1972, now spans 137 kilometres, more than twice the length of Montreal’s 64-kilometre system, which is five years older and serves a city even more spread out than Munich. Bergeron blames Montreal’s hesitation to aggressively invest in public transit on an almost religious embrace of the automobile: The Catholic Church has been replaced by the cult of the car, he says only half-jokingly.
On Wednesday, thousands enjoyed a car-free day on portions of St. Catherine Street and Mont Royal Avenue. Slowly, Montrealers are embracing the agenda of alternative transportation. Bergeron is certain that he will win over Montrealers with his bold, no-holds-barred platform, but he faces an uphill battle in convincing car owners like Gravenor that limiting their ability to drive will make for a better city. Nonetheless, many of Projet Montréal’s policies make sense. “Cars are not really a problem in cities until you accommodate them too extravagantly,” a friend recently pointed out to me. He’s right: Cars have a role to play in our cities, but not at the expense of more sustainable modes of transportation like public transit. We’ve spent half a century dismantling streetcars, widening roads and underfunding transit. It’s time to reverse the trend. Let’s tax those parking lots, hike up gas prices and invest in sustainable development. Our cities can’t afford anything else.