An Edmonton street that has been opened to pedestrians in the summer.
An Edmonton street that has been opened to pedestrians in the summer. Credit: Mack Male / Flickr Credit: Mack Male / Flickr

A snappy 51.5-minute video,  I visited the best* city in North America, is the latest episode from the Netherlands-based “Not Just Bikes” YouTube series on urban planning and walkable cities.

The video praises Montreal for its summer street closures, bike lanes, rail transit, borough system of local governance, and multiplex housing. Montreal has fewer areas of detached single houses interspersed with high-rises that leave a “missing middle” and impede walkability, local retail, and public transit.

The video then provides some healthy criticism of Montreal’s “stroads”. To paraphrase the Scottish poet Robert Burns, it is a gift “to see ourselves as others see us.”

Stroads – urban streets designed not for people but for the higher speeds of roads – are ugly, more expensive to maintain, hostile to mass transit, prone to traffic jams, and dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians. Deaths on Ottawa’s Bank St. have become all too frequent after it leaves downtown, crosses the Rideau River, and transforms into a four-lane stroad.

Making things worse, the heavily marketed SUVs and pickups with blunt, squared-off front ends are far more likely to kill pedestrians. And a disturbing statistic is that in the US, 50 children are backed over every week because a driver could not see them.  Most of these “backovers” take place in driveways or parking lots, and involve a larger vehicle (a truck, van, or SUV).

David Suzuki calls for a ban on ads showing people in SUVs and trucks “escaping the noise and chaos of the city to explore pristine wilderness”. These ads seem to be effective, even though purchasing an over-powered vehicle contributes to the disappearance of the snow-covered winter scenes shown in them.

The contentious debate on removal of a 1.7-km stretch of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway did not cease when former mayor John Tory won a 2015 vote approving a so-called “hybrid option”. Maintenance of the crumbling expressway has long been a political and economic liability. Ontario Premier Mike Harris offloaded it to the city in 1997, creating a huge burden for Toronto taxpayers. This past November, Premier Doug Ford reversed this, pledging to retain the expressway. Every Ontario taxpayer can now enjoy the estimated five-minute saving in travel time it provides.

Many studies show that building roads causes more people to drive, adding to traffic congestion. Proponents of Gardiner expressway removal noted that this “induced demand” works both ways: removing an expressway causes cars “to simply disappear.”

A 2016 survey, The end of the road: the state of urban elevated expressways in the United States, found that there was only one active urban elevated expressway project in the 50 largest US cities. It noted that certain cities “have been at the forefront of urban elevated expressway removal,” and that this had “shifted the discussion in urban planning from mere mobility of cars from point A to point B to increased multimodal access for pedestrians, bikes, cars, and light-rail transit.”

However, a more recent (2020) review paper, Why are cities removing their freeways?,  found that “only about 50 kilometers of freeways have been removed in the United States” in total. The study’s authors suggested that policy makers “do not appear to have fully embraced the notion that this type of infrastructure is a remnant of another century and, as such, needs to disappear.”

The authors concluded, on a positive note, that “more urban freeways will likely be removed as time goes by and they reach the end of their useful lifecycle,” and that “a few initial removals may have set in motion a virtuous circle, in the sense that they have provided planners and politicians with best practice examples to follow in their own localities.”

Expressway removal seems too radical for many Canadian politicians. But there are other options. The Not Just Bikes video describes the many creative steps Montreal is taking to reshape its car-oriented infrastructure, making a city that is more economically vibrant and friendlier to walkers and cyclists.

For our children’s health and safety, for livable cities with better air quality and more green space, and for a more prosperous future, let’s get on with fixing our car problem.

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.