Friday, April 23, 2010

One Thing All Quebec Residents Can Agree About

Given the past few days of highly contentious posts and comments (thanks, Mrs. Spew) about language policy, rights, and nationalist politics, I thought I should post on something that all those who reside in Quebec, especially in or near Montreal, can agree: that the various governments (QC and Mtl) will inevitably mess up as they seek to renovate the major highways around the city.

There are now conflicting plans for replacing one of the two major east-west arteries into the city of Montreal from the West part of the Island where it intersects the major north-south highway--Turcot interchange.  Montreal city planners (that phrase alone should generate a few laughs) have proposed an alternative to the Quebec plan, focusing more on restricting flow into the city.  This is part of a general endeavor to try to minimize pollution, I guess.  The Montreal folks propose fewer lanes, some restricted to buses and carpooling, a tramway to pick up people who would otherwise drive, and also somewhat different paths so that Montreal can profit from new housing/business development.  Quebec resists, indicating that this would cost more money, take more time, and require more concrete (which requires lots of maintenance due to winter/over-salting and corrupt construction).

I want to raise a few points about this goal of traffic reduction.  The basic idea is that any renovations should not encourage more suburban sprawl but actually discourage it.  By cutting down on the throughput (the number of cars that will use the new highway), the Montreal planners hope to cut down on the number of people who drive downtwon.  This along with cutting the numbers of parking spaces (you can find many parking lots with spaces blocked off and unused) is aimed at encouraging people to take mass transport as well.  What could be wrong with this?

  1. Timing: will the mass transport substitutes come online before, during or after the highways are changed to limit traffic?  Experienced Montrealers would have to bet on "after" given past performance.  We still do not have a train from the airport to downtown nor an approved plan for such a train.  Why should we expect the city to get its act together on a tram?
  2. Quality/quantity: Will Montreal and its neighbors manage to invest in enough trains and buses to give people attractive, semi-affordable, frequent, not entirely over-crowded alternatives to cars?  Again, the best indicator is the recent past.  And that would suggest that Montreal would be behind the demand.  Given the current pattern of suburban train service, one of the effects would be to create traffic jams on weekends and in the evenings since getting into the city at those times requires cars (not much convenient train service in evenings and on weekends, not to mention winter). 
  3. Bizzaro world: Given that the current highway system might have been designed to facilitate the flow of traffic but is actually quite well designed to create jams and slow traffic (the exemplar is the path of Autoroute 15 when it intersects with A-40, and it is astonishing--merging on the right side and then a mile down the road or so exiting on the left).  So perhaps the best efforts of Montreal to block traffic will actually have the reverse effect?  I would like to hope so, but probably not.
  4. How much do Montreal city planners hate Montreal?  I just wonder about this because limiting the ease of transportation into the city will mean that many people will opt to go into the city less frequently.  Why go downtown to shop if it is such a hassle?  If they screw this up at all (and that is pretty likely), it might even give business more incentive to locate outside of the downtown core.  So, a massive renovation of the highway system, itself pretty disruptive during the process, may ultimately lead to businesses and individuals fleeing the downtown and perhaps even the island of Montreal entirely.  There is already a perceived crisis of Francophones fleeing the island for cheaper suburbs, but one could imagine this accelerating.  That is, this effort to make it harder to move in and out of Montreal to discourage suburban sprawl might actually create more sprawl.
  5. Does any one in the city planning office or in Quebec's ministry of transportation understand the logic of collective action?  If the aim is to cut down on global warming and other environmental bads by creating incentives to cut sprawl and driving, then this kind of grand infrastructure effort is pretty puzzling.  That is, if Montreal goes to this effort and the rest of Canada/the world does not, then the money will be wasted as the globe will still warm.  If everyone else does this kind of thing and Montreal does not, the climate will be saved. 
So, why the rush for a unilateral effort with consequences that are not so well figured out?  Might it not make sense to get the mass transport stuff fixed first for all kinds of good reasons--environmental, economic, etc. and then figure out and renovate the roads?


Mrs. Spew said...

Sorry, didn't mean to beat up on Sam, who raises good points and has a fuller perspective. I just think it is a very sad thing that Quebec tends to shoot itself in the foot. I don't think that all its government's goals are awful.

But when it comes to the roads, those are awful.

Sam said...

When I moved to Montreal I kept my driver's license but gave up my car!

You're making good points -- and it will seem scary to most Montreal residents how accurate this is -- but I have to say I find you a bit pessimistic (comes with age? haha).

You know as well as I do that this continent has inherited an incredibly pervasive car culture and Montreal is no exception. The good news is that public transit and cars are heading in opposite directions when it comes to population trends (by a small margin, but encouraging nonetheless.)

I am favourable to decreasing the number of lanes in the Turcot interchange, but that opinion is conditional to the implementation of adequate mass transit solutions. I don't live in the West Island but I know a bit about how unpleasant it can be to commute from there to downtown and back -- given current conditions, it's no surprise people aren't pleased.

The thing is... we're faced here with what I see as the perpetual chicken/egg question of public transit. Should the STM, the city and the provincial and federal governments invest in new mass transit options (a rail link to the airport is long overdue; more dedicated bus lanes and express service to the West Island are good ideas) before they reduce the Turcot's throughput? Logically, yes -- but they'll be hesitant to do it until significant demand and public outcry springs up, otherwise they face the risk of being accused of wasting public funds on empty buses and trains. Should West Islanders and others increase their use of STM services to force a response? Logically, yes, but they want to get to work on time.

In these types of situations it becomes far too easy to place the entire burden on the state to "prove" itself before people will use its services. In the long run it is beneficial for everyone if public transit use spreads, but many are intent on driving their cars no matter what. I am pretty disappointed that there hasn't been more public organization favouring public transit -- or at least, it hasn't been visible.

Sadly, part of this arises from the mutual distrust that exists between people who live outside the downtown core and city governments. I find it pretty depressing that it often comes down to this (at least if you read the Gazette comments -- hint: don't): "English" West Islanders accuse the "French" municipal government of not wanting to extend service there, while "French" Montrealers accuse West Islanders of only wanting to use their cars.

I am enthusiastic about the future of transport in Montreal as it seems more people are catching on to new ideas, but the obstacles you name tend to put a damper on my enthusiasm. Many people are hesitant to support a project that could become another Laval metro (cost overages: a Quebec tradition!)