The 1980s signalled a watershed moment for the world, as a political pendulum came swinging back. The individual boasted a victory over society, the public domain was privatized, and public investments dried up at all levels of government. In the process, the very idea of “we” was whittled away, as the impacts of the new agenda immediately began to ripple out through rising inequalities and environmental devastation — both of which were concentrated in our cities.
In Montreal, the last metro station built on the island opened in 1988. In the three decades since, the number of vehicles on our roads has skyrocketed, with cars — the potent emblem of the age of the individual — today accounting for 70 per cent of all trips across the metropolitan region.
Inequalities soared in tandem with the planet-warming emissions coming from the road network. With 39 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions coming from transportation, this poses the greatest obstacle to our climate efforts.
In Montreal, lower-income neighbourhoods nearly doubled between 1970 and 2005 to reach 36 per cent of the metropolitan territory, while middle-income neighbourhoods declined from nearly two-thirds to just under half. Wealthy neighbourhoods were unaffected, and the ultra-wealthy grew slightly.
This story should sound familiar to readers. We can change the names and scales of places — country, province, state, or city — yet the narrative seems to remain stubbornly the same.
Rebuilding society, one metro line at a time
We often discuss the benefits of public transit projects from a technocratic perspective: the predicted ridership, minutes saved between destinations, sometimes the dollars of anticipated real estate and commercial development spurred. But behind the dollars and cents are hundreds of thousands of human realities, the way we live together and move (or not) throughout the city, and the shape and texture of the society that emerges from the sum total of our daily experiences, interactions, and the values they inspire.
It matters, for example, whether we travel to work or school in the company of people of all social and economic backgrounds, or move about in our cars isolated from the diverse tapestry of lifestyles and realities that compose our city. It matters whether it takes 20 or 60 minutes to travel across the city by transit, as it will determine whether we can accept a job offer, have time with our loved ones and ourselves, or choose to abandon venturing too far beyond our immediate worlds. Neighbourhoods that are disconnected from efficient transit lines are neighbourhoods that are disconnected from economic opportunity, better qualities of life, and each other.
So, what kind of city is Montreal when a working-class woman living in Montréal-Nord has to spend 10 hours a week on buses and metros to get to and back from work, while her counterpart — who can afford the rents of a central borough or the gas to drive — spends a third of that?
What kind of a city is Montreal when it leaves its citizens to stew in traffic jams, inviting them to become complicit in a warming climate without offering attractive alternatives?
Montreal likes to talk a great game about social inclusion and environmental leadership, but the very structure of our city’s transportation networks — the veins of a city in physical form — tell a different story. Montreal’s 68 metro stations are clustered in the wealthier western portions of the island, and an investigation by Le Devoir in 2016 found that Montreal’s poorest neighbourhoods are the ones least connected to public transport.
As a growing body of research shows transit investments to be instrumental in lifting areas out of poverty, Montreal’s inertia on this front speaks volumes about our values as a city.
The great urban transformation
In this light, mayoral candidate Valérie Plante’s proposed Pink metro line, which would target some of the most disadvantaged areas of the island, is a welcome proposal. Taken within the context of Projet Montréal’s complete platform, it appears as even more: it is an emblematic policy that singularly captures the party’s push for a paradigm shift, and crystallizes a vision of society that breaks with the destructive and atomizing urban development of the latter 20th century.
Predictably, Projet Montréal’s establishment adversaries are claiming that what was done in the 1960s is somehow “unrealistic” in 2017, despite enormous advances in technology and know-how. They claim it is too expensive, ignoring the enormous sums earmarked at the federal and provincial levels for such projects, as well as the important long-term returns tied to economic development, social cohesion, a cleaner environment, and the effects on human health and well-being. And most of all, they neglect the fact that, as the billions invested in expanding our highway network attest to, at the end of the day, it’s always about one thing: choices.
What kind of city will Montreal choose this century? Will it find its inspiration in cities like Stockholm, where 100 metro stations serve 1.4 million inhabitants? Will we look to Stuttgart, Germany, with its 200 stations for a population barely half of Montreal’s 1.7 million? Or instead, will we continue to live in our 20th-century bubble, blocking our ears and dragging our feet while the world’s urban leaders point the way to a viable future?
Tipping the balance: The fast train to a safe and democratic future
Paris just announced its intention to ban all gas-powered cars by 2030. Cities across Europe, from Oslo to Copenhagen to Madrid, are moving in the same direction. Why are such policies not political suicide for their proponents? It’s not because of anything in the municipal water supply. It’s because citizens there have had alternatives for years that have rendered car use more an option than a necessity — and an increasingly costly and cumbersome one at that.
The message is simple. Before Montrealers get to the point of accepting such restrictions on their cars, they must first be offered superior alternatives. We must build our way fast towards a critical mass, so we can finally challenge the culture of car dominance and open people’s minds to the idea of a world with few cars.
This isn’t just about raising up those on the bottom of the economic ladder. It’s about bringing us all together through an enduring cultural shift. In the words of former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa: “An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.”
A robust and accessible transit network offers more than a comfortable and efficient way of getting from point A to point B: it is the great equalizer, the spinal cord of a city that’s built around principles of democracy, inclusion, and — let’s not forget — responsibility towards those who will face the consequences of climate change, if we don’t urgently change the way we live and move through our cities.