Pedestrian – friendly Chamberlain Square and New Street, Birmingham, England.

Published on the op-ed pages of the Montreal Gazette on September 15, 2010.

It’s that period of the year again. In just a few days time, the City of Montreal will start to roll back the seasonal pedestrian malls, effectively turning automobiles loose once more on St. Catherine Street East as well as St. Paul Street in Old Montreal. One has to wonder – why the rush?

One of the many enduring benefits to travel is observing how other metropolises manage their urban environment. And, as Gazette reporter Michelle Lalonde suggested in a recent article, Montreal may have a lot to learn in that regard. (“No cars roar past”, September 6, 2010, A17).

When, as a young man, I first undertook my own modest version of the ‘grand tour’ of European countries, I could not help but notice the number of towns which had established car-free zones in significant parts of their city centre.

The year was 1972. Upon leaving Montreal that memorable summer, I left behind an entrenched culture in which the automobile was king, and its many needs overriding all other considerations.

While in Europe that same year, I was astounded by the number of cities that saw public transportation issues entirely differently. After the Second World War, for example, numerous towns in the Netherlands, reconfigured many of their municipal roads into permanent pedestrian malls and public precincts. On the other hand, certain Scandinavian countries, with similar winter climates to our own, deliberately planned the directional flow of their streets in such a way as to create a quasi-labyrinth grid so as to discourage drivers from bringing their automobiles into the city core. As a replacement for getting around, people were actively   encouraged to walk, bicycle, or take public transportation.

In actual fact, this ‘green’ approach to urban planning has grown even more popular in the last few years in many large cities on both sides of the Atlantic. For instance, in the last decade or so, virtually the entire central part of Birmingham, England has become a car-free area, much to the delight of pedestrians and cyclists alike. The beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic also has closed off sizeable sections of its innermost portion to vehicular traffic.

In short, towns as dissimilar as Copenhagen, London, Bologna, and Melbourne have managed, through creative thinking and political will, to reduce the number of vehicles in the city centre without compromising on the quality or character of their urban environment. If anything, the charm of all of these locations has only been enhanced. In truth, even New York City is experimenting with a pedestrian mall in the Theatre District.

In stark contrast, the City of Montreal seems quite timid. Granted we have come a long way with bicycle paths since 1972, but what of pedestrian malls of the permanent variety? In 1981, a very short stretch of Prince Arthur Street running from Boulevard St. Laurent to St. Louis Square was converted into an automobile-free precinct as was, somewhat later, parts of Lagauchétiere running through Chinatown. Neither qualifies as a major roadway in the city, however, and little of any significance has been done elsewhere since.

Surely even our civic leaders do not think that closing, for a three month period, a five block section of St. Paul Street in Old Montreal from 11:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., Monday to Friday, constitutes a pedestrian mall? And if ever there were a road in this city that should be converted permanently into a car-free zone, it is St. Paul Street. With pedestrians precariously clinging to some very narrow sidewalks, vehicles frequently whiz by, often at the exaggerated speed with which most Montrealers are painfully familiar.

Then there is St. Catherine Street West. Currently undergoing extensive (and expensive) infrastructure work in and around Le Quartier des spectacles, what better time could there have been to have factored in a kilometre stretch or so of a permanent vehicle-free sector on this city’s most famous avenue?

Decidedly, doing so may have upset some who like to use it as a cruising venue on a Grand Prix weekend or a hot August night (I have even seen off duty fire trucks checking out the summer sights), but if we are serious about creating a greener environment, some compromises will have to be made at one point or another. Further consultation and studies would be redundant, both of which have served only as delaying tactics in the past. All that is lacking is the political will.

Eventually Montreal will have a city centre that is pedestrian friendly and off-limits to most motorized vehicles; a tremendous number of progressive municipalities already do. For the time being, however, Montrealers can only envy those towns that made the alteration long ago and that, by so doing, have come to realize the tremendous advantages that have come to all.