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Montréal's urban and transportation planning reflect a deep-rooted auto addiction

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Justin Cozart

I often read troubling reports about the world's unfolding climate catastrophe while working at McGill, but, ironically, steps from the university library I am reminded of Montréal's unwillingness to make the changes required to avoid civilizational collapse.

During recent construction on Sherbrooke Street police have been stationed on corners near the university to direct traffic. Since three of the streets don't continue north most of what the police do is hold up pedestrians seeking to cross Sherbrooke while cars roll slowly by. Why not close the street to vehicle traffic? It would save on police costs while speeding construction and pedestrian travel. But of course, closing part of Sherbrooke to cars during construction would further inconvenience the drivers of private automobiles, who seem to believe they have a "right" to travel around the city spewing greenhouse gases, damn the planetary consequences.

The reality is our municipal, provincial and federal governments remain enthralled to private automobility regardless of the climate consequences.

The evidence, large and small, is so ubiquitous we no longer notice:

  • Across from Complexe Guy-Favreau a metal barrier was recently installed over two blocks on René Lévesque. The presumed objective of this "highway-ization" of downtown is to stop pesky pedestrians from crossing halfway down the street.
  • In 2014 the various levels of government coughed up over 150 million dollars to host 10 years of Grand Prix car celebrations.
  • A recent directive from the Health Ministry substantially expands free parking at Quebec hospitals.
  • Last month Premier Philippe Couillard announced plans to extend Highway 19 north of the city and to widen Highway 50 from Gatineau to Montreal.
  • Last month's provincial budget included $5 billion over two years in road repairs.
  • The provincial government is also ploughing over $3 billion into the Turcot Interchange.

Last year the Trudeau government axed the planned toll on the Champlain Bridge, which the federal government is rebuilding at a projected cost of over $4 billion. According to a government supposedly concerned about climate change, people have a "God-given right" to take their 3,000 pounds of metal 10, 30, 50, or 100 km a day (often solo) into the city without paying any direct road costs.

As climate science warns us of impending disaster, the Montréal region gained 200,000 new cars over the past five years. With 3.4 million people of driving age, greater Montreal's car stock is on pace to reach 3 million next year.

The truth is automobiles are a major source of Canada's extremely high per capita carbon emissions. Transport represents 40 percent of Montréal's Greenhouse Gas Emissions and it is growing while emissions from other sectors decline. Between 1990 and 2013 GHG's from the city's road network increased 16-per-cent while emissions from homes dropped 45 per cent.

Our city is a microcosm of the continent and increasingly much of the world. Last year North American gasoline consumption reached its highest level ever and countries around the world are adopting North-American-style auto infrastructure.

Montréal's unwillingness to save money, while speeding construction and pedestrian travel near McGill may be a relatively insignificant matter, but it reflects the continued dominance of automobility. In the current political culture many find it easier to imagine the collapse of civilization than the replacement of a transportation and urban planning system based on private cars.

What will our children and grandchildren think of us?

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Justin Cozart

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