Published in the Montreal Gazette on May 29, 2015
Virtually every morning, weather permitting, I walk from my row house near the Bell Centre to my rather non-descript office on St. Hubert, near Sherbrooke Street. In all, it’s about a four kilometre jaunt that requires about 45 minutes to complete. It is an outing, and a routine, that I enjoy very much, and that I repeat in the late afternoon in order to return home.
Normally, I alter my route so that I see as much of the city as possible. One day, my trajectory could take me along historic Notre Dame Street through Old Montreal while on another I might choose de Maisonneuve Boulevard to arrive at my destination.
Not always, however. During the fine weather months, I always choose the pedestrianized portion of St – Catherine Street that runs from Bleury Street to Boulevard St – Laurent, and through the Quartier des spectacles. As a strong advocate of such urban phenomena, I almost feel an obligation to do so.
From the moment I come to the vehicle-less precinct, I immediately adhere to the centre of road, systematically avoiding the sidewalks at all costs. Understandably, I intend to live the experience totally. I want to be counted in.
While modest in scope (just four city blocks), the sensation is both instantaneous and wonderful. Here, the pedestrian rules while automobilists take a back seat. Here, I no longer have to look over my shoulder as I cross a busy intersection wondering if I am doing it quickly enough for the impatient driver just behind me; no squealing of tires from excessive acceleration or last second, hair-raising breaking; and perhaps above all, no angry, aggressive honking – enough to unnerve us all.
One look around reveals that people are smiling and relaxed in this tiny oasis of tranquility away from motorized traffic. Business seems to be good, as well.
This pleasant happening lasts all of six or seven minutes, unless I choose to stop and enjoy some of the many attractions presented in the Quartier des spectacles. Regardless, however, the street will once again open up to power-driven vehicles at St. Laurent, and I will again start looking over my shoulder to insure my safety.
In a recent article, Gazette columnist Jason Madger interviewed Gil Penalosa, a world – renowned urban planner. (“Q&A: Planner says Montreal is a good city, not a great one, May 23, 2015, A-4) What Penalosa had to say is worthy of considerable thought.
Commenting on our cold winter weather as a frequently employed argument against both bicycle paths and pedestrianized streets, Penalosa cited Copenhagan as a city that has gone considerably further than Montreal on both counts, despite having a similar winter climate. “In Copenhagan, when it snows, they plow the sidewalks, then the bike paths, then they plow the sidewalks again, and then they might plow the roads.” Other Scandinavian municipalities reflect similar progressive attitudes towards both extensive, year-round car-free zones and cycling.
I don’t know what it will take to get the City of Montreal to think outside of the box in this regard but here is a suggestion that might just fit in with its cautious, ‘go slow’ approach.
Customarily, the Quartier des spectacles pedestrian mall along with the one on Ste – Catherine Street East reopen to vehicle traffic on Labour Day. Given the fact that this past winter was a particularly long and difficult one, why do the municipal authorities not consider leaving these two car-free precincts in operation until Thanksgiving? That would provide an additional five weeks to those so many Montrealers who truly enjoy strolling in quiet and peaceful venues.
In addition, as we all know, those 35 days between the two traditional holidays can often see us blessed with magnificent, late summer weather. Let’s at least try it this one year.
Below, Birmingham, England, car-free city centre, on a rainy day