Published in the Montreal Gazette on February 28, 2015

No one will ever accuse the City of Montreal of acting boldly, least of all me.

While the actual thought of an urban path from the river to the very slopes of Mount Royal is an encouraging step in the right direction, one cannot help but sense the hesitation on the part of the municipal authorities that are proposing the undertaking.

Indeed, in today’s column “City to create urban path to mark 375th birthday,” Gazette writer René Bruemmer cites opposition party Projet Montréal’s “concern that the city did not yet have a clear plan in place with only a year and a half to go to its birthday party.”

Although unstated, the perennial issue is, of course, motorized traffic, and how this pedestrian trail might affect it. That concern is certainly a valid point.

Montreal is perhaps one of the few remaining cities in the developed world that gives so much more importance to those in automobiles over those who are walking. This bias is even more aggravating in the cold of winter when so many drivers, comfortably seated in their heated vehicle, vent their anger and frustration on those poor individuals on foot who get in their way.

The intersection of Notre Dame and de la Montagne illustrates the point precisely, especially at rush hour. On the east side of the crossing, southbound cars and trucks that are turning left onto Notre Dame are given a priority light over pedestrians who must remain on the sidewalk awaiting their turn. When walkers are finally provided their chance, the traffic light becomes a shared green, requiring those on foot to venture into a steady stream of vehicles still turning left. Believe me, you are constantly looking over your shoulder as you proceed into the menacing traffic.

The issue then for the urban path project is who will be given priority over whom when the proposed corridor intersects city roads. Will walkers yield to motorized vehicles, as is usually the case, or will City Hall do something daring and implement the opposite approach, where strollers are given clear precedence?

The Coderre Administration’s inability to decide, even at this late date, if it will use one or both lanes on the east side of McGill College for the urban pathway project doesn’t bode well for the question of giving priority to pedestrians in this scheme. If any city avenue cries out for an easy and rapid conversion into a full-fledged pedestrian mall, it is McGill College. Still the municipal authorities hesitate, despite the success of other seasonal pedestrians precincts in the downtown area.

In putting together this scheme, City Hall should once and for all give a clear right of way to walkers over motorized transport. Where the projected urban trail crosses city streets, clearly announced, marked, and raised pedestrian crosswalks should be put in place. They should also be richly   illuminated for nighttime visibility, as I have seen on many occasions in London, England.

On August 14, 1909, in a letter to the editor of the Montreal Star, a deeply frustrated resident suggested, because of his appalling personal experiences with Edwardian vehicles, that automobiles be banned from the centre of the city altogether. “As a citizen and in the interest of the lives of others, I want to put up the strongest possible protest against this kind of thing, even to interdicting automobiles altogether, if need be.”

While I cannot imagine that we will ever apply the Edwardian letter writer’s suggestion in the twenty-first century, it is now more than ever vital that our elected officials begin to think further in terms of prioritizing our downtown for the benefit of those who walk over those who drive. The proposed urban path would be a very good place to start.

Below, Prince Arthur Street, 1976PrinceArthurHoteldeVille1976