Clogged and congested, drivers suck back exhaust during their commute
to and from Montréal’s gridlocked island.
Photo: ©iStockphoto.com/Tony Tremblay
Beat the street
Avenue Verte Mont-Royal pushes the pedestrian envelope in Montréal
By Katie Wallace
To the rest of Canada, Quebec — and especially Montréal — often appear
as a laissez-faire New World enclave of Old World living; a cosmopolitan bastion where
a European-style existence lies no further than the nearest pâtisserie.
Owen Rose, an architecture intern who has lived in Montréal’s central Plateau
neighbourhood for almost five years, says he savours the fact that, within a three or four
minute stroll from his door, he passes two bakeries, three fruit and veggie stalls, a well-known
butcher and fish market, not to mention a gaggle of cafés, a pharmacy and a hardware
store. But, says Rose, there is still one element that tarnishes Montréal’s continental
joie de vivre: unlike many European cities that have been limiting automobile access to their
urban cores, in Montréal, the car is still king.
In Montréal, the car is still king.
Just under four years ago, Rose and a group of fellow citizens united to take back the street
in their neighbourhood which, with more than 100,000 denizens, is one of the most densely populated
regions in the country. Within six months, Avenue Verte Mont-Royal had collected more than
18,000 signatures from other pedestrian-minded residents in support of the group’s proposal
to ban cars on Avenue Mont-Royal, the Plateau’s central artery and commercial hub. The
plan allowed for access by emergency vehicles, delivery trucks and public transit with car
crossings at all major intersections.
The petition was presented to the Bureau Council and the group has since lobbied the Plateau’s
local council to adopt their plan but, to date, Mount Royal is as congested as ever - the
avenue’s regular bus, the 97, is rumoured to be the slowest in the city.
When the project first launched, Rose says he and his colleagues were not surprised that
there was considerable resistance from Plateau shopkeepers and merchants, who feared a loss
of business from car-driving customers. Now, Rose says, after considerable consultation with
area businesspeople, there is a three-way split between merchants who are for, against, and
don’t care about the plan.
And, as Rose points out, pedestrian traffic already accounts for the lion’s share
of business along Mont Royal with approximately 80 percent of customers walking or biking
to do their shopping.
He points to Copenhagen, a city that began creating car-free zones over
40 years ago. Rose says Danish merchants initially showed the same sort of resistance that
Plateau shopkeepers have demonstrated. But, he says, it wasn’t long before merchants
on car-free streets reported significant boosts in their business, so much so that businesspeople
on auto-accessible streets cited the ban as an unfair business subsidy.
"You know that old expression, ’you can’t
fight city hall?’ When you live the experience, it’s a smack in the face."
—Owen Rose, member of Avenue Verte
In Montréal, the main barrier to putting the plan into action, Rose says, is at the
political level. He scratches his head over this especially since the director of public
works for the Plateau explained to him that Avenue Mont-Royal prevented no major barriers
to going car-free. But the group has seen no movement on their file at the municipal level. "You
know that old expression, ‘you can’t fight city hall?’ When you live the
experience, it’s a smack in the face," says Rose.
Conversely, an unexpected side effect of Rose’s group’s work has been a rise
in social activism on the Plateau. "Our activities have given a functional vocabulary
to other groups," he says, pointing to citizen coalitions pushing for affordable housing
or cleaner streets, groups that formed in the wake of Avenue Verte Mont-Royal’s inception.
These causes mesh with Avenue Verte Mont-Royal’s aim to improve life in its backyard
by actively promoting the potential ease and healthiness, both physical and social, of urban
life, and, Rose says, to reinvent the way people live in downtown neighbourhoods in Montréal. "It’s
a question of what it is to live in the city, to create a convivial public space," he
On International Car-Free Day in 2004 and during the summer festivals that see Avenue Mont-Royal
temporarily closed to vehicles, Rose and his foot soldiers catch a fleeting glimpse of their
vision brought to life — the public space Rose speaks of teeming with bikes and strolling
But for now, that space includes thousands of cars.