Published in the Montreal Gazette on Friday, March 20, 2015

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read Stephen Leopold’s implausible comment about Montreal’s “war on cars” in a recent Gazette article. (“Ste-Catherine needs a painless overhaul”, March 11, 2015, C-5) “We like our cars and will use them and find a convenient way to use them,” Leopold continued.

War on cars! While I must confess to employing the odd hyperbole in some of my newspaper texts, nothing I have written comes close to this one for sheer exaggeration.

Where does Mr. Leopold see this ‘war’ taking place? In downtown Montreal where motorized vehicles still rule the roost on all but a handful of city centre roads? In the data that clearly shows an increasing number of walkers and cyclists being killed by irresponsible, aggressive driving? If it is indeed a war, it is clearly one that pedestrians are losing.

His claim that the pedestrianization of Prince Arthur Street in 1981 essentially ruined that avenue is preposterous. Like me, Leopold is old enough to remember that the car-free recipe worked extraordinarily well for nearly a quarter of century before other factors did the street in.

In Chinatown, the tiny walkers’ precinct on Lagauchetière Street seems to be crowded with people during all four seasons. Should we reopen it to automobiles because some people are just too lazy to stroll on foot, or not inclined to use public transportation?

Seasonal summer malls (a compromise only Montreal could come up with) seem to be extremely popular as well. Both the one on Ste – Catherine East and the one in the Quartier des spectacles are always vibrant with happy, relaxed urban amblers.

In the course of re-doing infrastructure along our beloved Ste – Catherine Street, the city authorities should seriously consider establishing a pedestrian option for the stretch between Bleury and Mansfield. If that seems too much for those in power, perhaps the area around Phillips Square and Christ Church Cathedral could be declared off limits to automobiles. It would be a welcome oasis for pedestrians who find themselves constantly looking over their shoulder as the next angry driver burns a red light.

One item Mr. Leopold does not appear to have touched upon in his presentation to the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal is the question of the sheer quantity of automobiles present on the streets of downtown Montreal. While the city did not get physically larger, it is now accommodating more motorized vehicles than ever before. Is there not a maximum number of cars that our avenues and roads can handle? Is it because we are approaching, or have reached, that figure that there are seemingly so many hostile and irritated drivers present on our city centre streets?

Between 1978 and 2010, the number of registered vehicles on the thoroughfares of the province doubled. By 2013, the integer reaches an astonishing 7,842,759 vehicles, more or less one for every Quebecer, regardless of age.

As far back as 1972 when there were only about 2,500,000 vehicles on the province’s roads, questions were already being asked with regard to the sustainability of the automobile phenomenon. A lead editorial in the Montreal Star on December 18, 1972, argued prophetically that something had to be done to help the city deal with the problem of congestion and pollution. “If downtown areas are to be reclaimed as pleasant and habitable, it is clear that the restrictions on private automobile circulation must become stricter. Car engines will get cleaner but so long as more and more cars head for the inner city looking for less and less parking space, we shall not be much further ahead.”

That was 42 years ago, and essentially nothing has been done to deal with the issue, despite Mr. Leopold’s war metaphor. It is indeed time for Montreal to wake up and smell the coffee.

Below, Decarie Expressway looking north, circa. 1970 – just a few less cars!