» City’s transit network would be reinforced with downtown and Côte des Neiges streetcar line.
Montréal was on a roll in the post-war period, opening its brand-new metro system in 1966, hosting the Universal Exposition in 1967, and providing a home for the Olympic Games in 1976. Charismatic Mayor Jean Drapeau wanted to define the metropolis as one of the most important in the Western hemisphere, building sports stadia and the like to provide physical evidence of the city’s importance. In the late 1970s, during the rise of the Québec sovereignty movement and the creation of French language laws, however, Montréal lost its status as Canada’s largest city to Toronto. Ever since, the town has been struggling with its identity.
But the city’s administration thinks it has a solution. Even as its perennial rival invests in a large network of new light rail lines and subway extensions, Montréal has launched a popular new bike share system and it will soon lay the tracks for a streetcar line. The city has picked livability over monumentality.
For years, the city’s administration has been considering a new tramway in the downtown area to reinforce the metro, which provides underwhelming access to neighborhoods directly north and south of Parc Mont Royal, the defining element of the city’s landscape. Montréal’s Transport Plan, which was first introduced last year, lists a streetcar line first among a number of other projects the city will undertake in the coming years, including two metro line extensions (of the Blue and Orange lines), a new commuter rail line (Train de l’Est), and a direct airport link.
Last week, the city revealed the results of its first serious streetcar study, and it demonstrated a great potential for new corridors to fill in the city’s transit gaps. The overall tramway program, which would be constructed over a period of several decades, would begin with a new line connecting the downtown and Old Port with the Côte des Neiges and Outremont neighborhoods along a new route lounging the south side of Parc Mont Royal. Future extensions would run through the Plateau community along Avenue du Parc, Boulevard Pie-IX, Avenue du Mont-Royal, and Rue Notre Dame, as well as into south Montréal. The areas selected for proposed service are the city’s most densely populated; completing the entire project would likely cost more than a billion Canadian dollars.
The first corridor lacks adequate financing, and even the city government admits that it will not be completed until 2013 at the earliest. Yet Mayor Gérald Tremblay sees the C$500-750 million downtown and Côte des Neiges project, running 12.5 km in total, as a key to the city’s future. Together, the lines would carry between 65,000 and 80,000 daily passengers. A line up Avenue du Parc would add 30,000 riders to that number.
Montréal’s impulse — to construct a streetcar as soon as possible even as it expands its Bixi bike share network — seems likely to guarantee a more livable future for the city’s citizens, who are already treated to one of North America’s most wonderful urban environments. Just as Portland and Seattle have demonstrated the developmental value of tramways over the past decade or so, Montréal will likely attract increasing infill construction in areas along the streetcar routes. The emphasis on biking and walking in those neighborhoods will make the atmosphere even more appealing.
While the Côte des Neiges, Parc, Mont-Royal, and Pie-IX lines seem reasonable, filing the gaps in service currently not provided by the metro and reinforcing the density of existing neighborhoods, the downtown project and the Notre Dame lines seem less well considered. Montréal proposes three north-south spines on its downtown route — two more than it needs. Meanwhile, the circulator pattern proposed for the downtown project will not actually fit the needs of most of the city’s inhabitants — people generally do not want to travel in circles. The Notre Dame line seems largely superfluous, since the metro Green Line already runs a few blocks from there and development on the riverfront is relatively sparse, with few opportunities for improvement since a busy freight rail line sits in the way.
Overall, though, Montréal’s investment in tramways is an exciting step forward for a town that seemed to have lost its footing for a while. A city that spends on improvements that make neighborhoods more walkable and environmentally sensitive is one that will make the life of its citizens more enjoyable.