Published in the Montreal Gazette on June 17, 2014

While I intuitively agree with much of what Josh Freed wrote in his Saturday column (“Don’t mess with the Grande Dame of streets”, Montreal Gazette, Saturday, June 14, 2014, A-2), I do take exception with at least one major line of reasoning.

Certainly, the City of Montreal seems to take an inordinate amount of time to start and rapidly complete the most elementary of municipal tasks. Like Freed, we are all very aware of the painfully protracted work on both Park Avenue and St. Lawrence Boulevard during the last few years. Digging up a street and then having another utility break it open once again a year later (as was the case with Boulevard St-Laurent) reflects extremely poor planning on someone’s part.

In my city centre neighbourhood, we were witness a number of years to the notorious sluggishness of the Roads Department when it took them the entire work season to re-asphalt the area encircling about twenty sewer lids. The job started in April and ended in the autumn, much to the astonishment and inconvenience of most residents.

Truthfully, the only time in the fifteen years I have lived in my community that I saw the municipality move quickly was the occasion when the OQLF haughtily promulgated that the name of our street contained imprecise French and, consequently, the road signs would each have to be changed. It was all done within a week or two!

Where I disagree with Freed, however, is his assertion that St. Catherine Street should be left just as it is after the city’s extensive infrastructure work. Surely there is no better time to contemplate the rearrangement of a street than when it is being completely torn apart.

Also dismissed lightly, I find, is the notion that more of the famous thoroughfare should be made into a car – free zone. Not even wider sidewalks appear to be in the realm of Freed’s foresight.

Arguably the most popular and successful part of the ‘Grande Dame of streets’ (to use Freed’s own expression) today is that which passes through the Quartier des spectacles. Configured not that long ago, the section running from Bleury to St. Dominique Street actually looks like a pedestrian precinct and is one in fact for almost six months of the year. Yes, it took an unacceptably long time to finalise but the result is magnificent. Indeed, it is currently a major tourist attraction.

Now is definitely the time to extend this work further along St. Catherine Street.

At the risk of sounding like John Lennon, just imagine how beautiful Montreal’s principal artery could be without automobiles. As for the argument that a pedestrian mall is what destroyed Prince Arthur Street, I would say that a car – free Prince Arthur Street worked extremely well for about a third of a century so critics will have to look elsewhere to explain its present demise.

Wherever car – free zones have been established in European cities, they have later proved flourishing business districts. People usually manage to find a way to come into town without a motorized vehicle, if they truly want to.

Most agree that there are now too many automobiles in Montreal’s city centre. Many people, especially the young, bring their car downtown so they, and it, can be seen. Racing on the streets is not a rare occurrence and the police seem indifferent to it. Grand Prix weekend is perhaps the zenith of this phenomenon when speedsters from a little bit everywhere use St. Catherine Street to showoff their driving prowess, much to the consternation of most others.

Mayor Coderre is to be encouraged to pursue his dream, and that of many other Montrealers, and take advantage of this far-reaching roadwork to convert much of this street into an environmentally welcoming green spot. There are nine Metro stations one block north of St. Catherine between Atwater and Papineau. They are there for a purpose – to bring Montrealers to the city centre without their automobile. More people should use them, and join us in making St. Catherine Street a pedestrian – friendly locale.

Below, an aerial view of the 16th Avenue Mall in Denver, Colorado. The city’s main commercial artery, it has been a car – free area since 1982.