Let’s Rescue St. Catherine Street from Automobiles

Published in the Montreal Gazette on July 21, 2017

Those who regularly argue against the idea of the permanent pedestrianisation of sizeable segments of Ste-Catherine Street were handed a significant setback this past weekend. The overwhelming success of the three-day sidewalk sale that saw the celebrated artery closed for the occasion to all vehicle traffic between Guy and Aylmer Streets is surely something for city officials – including a seemingly reluctant mayor – to think about. (“Ste-Catherine St. festival brings back that summer feeling,” Gazette, Monday, July 17, 2017, A-5)

It will be recalled that the argument most frequently presented by those who oppose the barring of motorized traffic from the east-west thoroughfare is the imagined nefarious effect it would have on harried merchants. Potential consumers, the reasoning goes, will not travel to the city centre if they are unable to bring their automobile along with them, and perhaps even park it on Ste- Catherine Street.

But last weekend’s commercial street festival proved the naysayers all wrong. Given the opportunity to participate in a   vehicle-free street happening, 300,000 people (according to the borough of Ville Marie’s own estimates) enthusiastically showed up, despite the on-off weather conditions. “It is amazing that they can close the street off for three days. The atmosphere is great,” said one ebullient reveller.

Indeed, it is amazing that this could be done, given Montreal’s historically entrenched car-culture approach to most everything in this city.

The overwhelming popularity of the three-day occasion (including a work day Friday) begs the question: how did all those individuals get there, even though they were not permitted to bring their personal vehicle onto the street? Clearly, when all is said and done, when presented with the rare opportunity to be in a peaceful and safe setting, where there are no motorized conveyances of any sort, most people can find a way to participate.  It’s a formula that is working in many, if not most, cities of the industrialized world.

And yet notwithstanding any of the above, municipal government after municipal government that Montreal chooses for itself have all fallen significantly short of the goal line when it comes to restricting vehicle access to certain parts of the city centre. Progress, if there is any, is at the proverbial snail’s pace.

The recent creation of the ‘River to Mountain Walkway’ is just one case in point. While the original plan for the now over-budget urban promenade called for the pedestrianisation of one complete side of McGill College Avenue, City Hall yet again deferred to an automobile lobby (including perhaps the Fire Department) and announced that only ½ of the west side of the artery would be off limits to motorized traffic – and this on a seasonal basis only.

In the densely crowded city centre, events have clearly demonstrated that vehicles, walkers and cyclists do not mix – or at least not well. Yet, part and parcel of the universally acclaimed ‘Vision Zero’ method (which Mayor Coderre ostensibly supports) is to limit access to motorized transport to the urban core of any metropolis as much as humanly possible.

This city’s conflictual relationship with the automobile goes back a long way. On August 14, 1909, a Letter to the Editor appeared in the now defunct Montreal Star in which the writer, describing himself only as a ‘Pedestrian’, lamented his daily experiences and close calls with death in the streets of the burgeoning municipality. Unbelievable as it may seem, 108 years ago, the prescient penman argued for the complete elimination of automobiles from the downtown district.

In the case of Montreal, with so many more cars than a century ago, what better place to pursue that goal than on Ste-Catherine Street itself? Last weekend’s sidewalk sale proved the potential benefits of just such an approach.

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Below, Birmingham, England’s, New Street, successfully and popularly pedestrianized all year round for well over a decade. By all accounts, business and citizens are loving it! 

NewStreetBirminghamNov.6,2015 

 Photo: Robert N. Wilkins, November 6, 2015