Looking down at Montreal from Mount Royal. Photo: Corey Templeton/Flickr

There is a connection between the fierce backlash against any measures to combat climate change and the alarming increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths on the streets of our big cities. I broached that topic in last Saturday’s story. Earlier, The Guardian also took a look at that issue in a piece by Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner of Toronto.

Keesmaat focuses on urban design. She points out that we have planned our cities to enable cars to move through as quickly as possible. For too long, we were in thrall to the notion of the car as an expression of personal freedom, and viewed the street simply as a place “to get through, and fast.”  In that context, “lowering speed limits to ensure pedestrians are safe makes no sense.” 

But what if we adopted a different model and decided that “streets aren’t just for getting through — they are places in their own right, designed for people, commerce, lingering and life?”

With that in mind, let us consider one street, or rather two that run into each other: Remembrance Road and Camillien-Houde Way in Montreal. The two streets cross the mountain that gives the city its name, Mount Royal. They also transect the 142-year-old park that occupies a good part of that mountain. 

Until recently, drivers used the two streets as an alternate route connecting the east and west of the city. Thus, many Montreal drivers were, in effect, treating Mount Royal Park not as Jennifer Keesmat’s place for “lingering and life”, but as something “to get through fast”. 

There are other main east-west routes in Montreal, to the north and the south of the mountain. But the serpentine, over-the-top route, which ascends and then descends about 200 metres, appeals to a lot of drivers as a faster, less travelled and more scenic way to get from one side of the city to the other.

The new mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante, has just put an end to the practice of speeding through Mount Royal Park on your way to somewhere else. 

The city government will allow public transit and emergency vehicles to go over the mountain to the other side. And cars can still go to the top. They can even park and enjoy the dramatic view of the city and the wooded tranquility of the park. Then, however, they will have to turn back and return the way they came. 

Not in my backyard!

Last fall, a driver on Camillien-Houde Way killed a cyclist while doing an illegal U-turn. That was the original motivation for the plan to limit cars on the mountain. The current partial road closure is only a five-month pilot project. Yet the howls of protest have been loud and uncompromising. We are beginning to learn that virtually nothing enrages folks as much as limiting where they can drive their cars and how fast — unless it is charging them more for the gasoline that fuels those vehicles.

Social media is chock-a-block with angry Montrealers’ perorations denouncing the city’s “heavy-handed” decision. 

“It equates to social engineering, telling people how to live,” said one woman. 

The official opposition party at City Hall, Ensemble Montréal, predictably, used the epithet “anti-car” to describe Plante and her party, Projet Montréal. 

A hair stylist whose business is near the eastern flank of the mountain claimed he would lose business from customers who travelled over the mountain to get to his shop. “I’m not talking profits right now,” he said, plaintively, “I’m trying to stay alive.”

And so it goes. The not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome is alive and well in Canada’s second largest and, in many ways, liveliest and most effervescent city.

The mayor does have her supporters, including organizations representing cyclists. Mere pedestrians do not seem to be organized as a political pressure group. The other good news for the mayor is that after the pilot project started on June 4, initial reports have been that it has not created excess traffic on the northern and southern routes around Mount Royal. 

This writer lived in Montreal for a good part of his life and was never comfortable using the over-the-mountain route to get from one place to another. 

It always seemed too twisted and narrow to him, and too many drivers who used the route showed only the most casual regard for anything resembling a speed limit. The other well-established routes always felt safer, more mellow and more relaxed. 

On the other hand, this same writer did, at one time, use the mountain as a bicycle commuting route, to get from his home in near west end Notre-Dame-de-Grâce to his office at the Maison Radio-Canada in the city’s east end. 

He would pedal to the base of Mount Royal on the west side — for those who know Montreal, it was the corner of Côte-des-Neiges and The Boulevard — then carry his bike up a flight of stairs into the park. From there, he would pedal to the top of the mountain and over, using unpaved pathways. At the other, eastern, side he found himself on Park Avenue and Duluth. 

Duluth is a pedestrian-friendly street — by virtue of major traffic-calming measures, including large planters that intrude into the road — and he gingerly cycled it to another large urban park, Lafontaine Park, through which he would cycle from north to south, until he was only a few, comfortable blocks from work. 

For me, back then, the mountain provided a safe way to get through the heart of a big city, almost entirely avoiding busy main streets. That was in the late 1970s, a time when Montreal drivers were, at best, ambivalent about the presence of pesky, two-wheeled, human-powered vehicles; at worst, they were openly hostile. 

Disheartening opposition to Plante’s modest gesture

Montreal has since acquired a reputation for being one of the more bicycle-friendly cities in North America. And while some Montreal drivers still seem to take perverse pleasure in harassing their fellow citizens on foot, the city is probably the most pedestrian-friendly in Canada. 

Because much of Montreal’s urban design predates the age of our collective automobile obsession, the city provides a pleasant and aesthetically pleasing environment for leisurely strolling. There’s always something interesting to see — unlike such cities as Ottawa and Toronto, whose city plans could best be described as urban interruptus. In those cities, you can walk pleasantly for a few blocks only to suddenly find yourself in an alienating, nearly deserted urban landscape. 

When Montreal elected Plante less than a year ago it gave hope that the city was embracing an environmental, social justice ethos. And yet the minute she makes a small gesture toward a more walker and cyclist friendly city many of her erstwhile supports rise up in protest. 

It is disheartening, and more than a bit scary, to be frank.

Looking down at Montreal from Mount Royal. Photo: Corey Templeton/Flickr

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...