Part of the New Street, Birmingham, England, pedestrian mall photographed on November 11, 2011.

Published in the Montreal Gazette op-ed page on November 9, 2011.

BIRMINGHAM, England

Trekking regularly through Montreal’s vibrant and colourful downtown, many aspects of the frenzied contemporary urban street and automobile culture are easily observed. For instance, despite the fact that motorists, cyclists, and walkers basically tolerate one another in their daily encounters, it is equally easily noted that there is no love lost amongst them at all. So it is that as an ever increasing number of drivers (both of the two wheeled and four wheeled  variety) ignore yellow, and even red lights, those on foot scurry anxiously about their pedestrian very unfriendly city looking for succour. There must be a better, safer, and more agreeable way to enjoy the shared public spaces of our beautiful metropolis.

During a recent visit to the English cities of London and Birmingham, I was struck by a number of differences found in the streets of those two British towns as compared to every day life on the thoroughfares of the City of Montreal. Most of those dissimilarities are, unfortunately, much to the detriment of our own fair town.

There is no denying that Greater London is an extremely hectic place. Both automobiles and pedestrians move at a furious clip as people go about their hurried business in the very fast-moving streets of the U.K. metropolis. Despite this, however, a couple of discrepancies are clearly evident between their city and ours.

Firstly, unlike Montreal, pedestrian crosswalks are universally respected by motorists and cyclists alike. Clearly identified with flashing yellow lamp standards on each side of the brightly – illuminated road to be traversed, even the most rushed of motorized vehicles (including taxis) come to a complete stop in deference to those on foot.

In contrast, in our city, crosswalks (where they do exist) are basically clandestine. The few that are found in the city centre, like the one on Peel Street opposite Dominion Square, are entirely ignored by drivers. Even the police advise that people on foot  be certain that they have ‘caught the eye’ of the motorist before venturing across them. Paradoxically then, in the present context, their very existence presents a serious danger to those foolish enough to try and use them.

Another significant difference between Montreal and London is the almost complete absence of horn honking in the British capital, or at least in its very central core. There, generally speaking, the car horn is used only in situations of absolute emergency.

Other countries as well discourage its use. In Italy, for example, at the entrance to towns and villages, pictogram road signs instruct drivers not to sound their horn within the confines of the municipality. Taken as a whole, this regulation is widely  respected.

Of course, in Montreal such is not the case. Indeed, the highly intrusive and frequently frightening sound is aggressively used to express petty annoyance with practically any circumstance causing a delay to the often high strung motorist.

Montreal’s situation is further aggravated by the virtual absence of any genuine car – free areas within the city centre. There is, in fact, no where on our downtown streets for those on foot to escape motorized vehicles.

Contrast that sad fact with, for example, London where many roads in the West End Theatre District in and around Leicester Square are off limits to the ubiquitous automobile. Further north in the country, the City of Birmingham has reconfigured most of its central core into a modern and permanent pedestrian mall.

In that context, Montreal’s annual so-called car free day is essentially an empty ritual devoid of any real significance. Eliminating automobiles once a year from a very limited area of the city centre – a senseless activity   which, in fact, so as not to inconvenience motorists, starts only after the morning rush hour and ends before the evening one begins – is simply an exercise in public relations, and a very poor one at that.

It is long overdue that our municipal authorities get serious with the issue of making our streets friendly and safe for those brave enough to walk them. The best way to do that is to expand and enforce the crosswalk system, eliminate unnecessary honking, and establish, like so many other progressive metropolises throughout the world, a far-reaching network of permanent inner city pedestrian malls. And, yes, that would mean closing some downtown arteries to vehicular traffic.

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