Ste-Catherine Street and the reconquest of public space

The below article was originally published on Ricochet.

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Last week Montreal’s city government led by Valérie Plante hailed a “paradigm shift” as Projet Montréal unveiled their long-awaited vision for a transformed downtown core around Ste-Catherine Street, the city’s main commercial artery.

For the paradigm shift to become a reality, the reimagining of Montreal’s most emblematic thoroughfare — to be reborn as a pedestrian-first promenade — must usher in a new way of thinking about how we share our streets in Montreal. On that score, the Plante administration’s push to recast Ste-Catherine Street as the spine of a greener and more people-friendly downtown raises hopes that Montreal might finally join the global movement to reconquer our city spaces from cars.

This first phase of the Ste-Catherine Street revamp will see cars limited to one lane that will be shared with bikes and occupy a mere 30 per cent of the street space, thus flipping the usual car dominance on its head. All on-street parking for this 670-metre stretch will be removed, with the space given over to pedestrians, restaurant terraces, trees and vegetation, street furniture, and public art. Importantly, the design will also allow the street to become fully pedestrian when desired, so that these periods, be they summers, evenings, or weekends, could grow longer with time.

The surrounding public places, including Phillips Square and Dorchester Square, will be enlarged and embellished. And at the beating heart of this new downtown, a pedestrianized McGill College Avenue, with its magnificent vista towards Mont-Royal, will begin life anew as one of the largest and most iconic public squares in North America.

Getting with the urban program

Finally, Montreal has learned to dream again. With scientists warning that we must decarbonize our cities within decades to meet the Paris climate goals, forward-looking municipal leaders have begun transforming their cities to wean them off their dependency on cars. During this time Montreal has dragged its heels, with successive administrations caving to the entrenched habits and mentalities of another century rather than summoning the courage and creativity required to change them.

The unveiling of this vision for the downtown core signals a new chapter for Montreal, and an awakening to the inspiring possibilities of a city with fewer cars. Indeed, cities around the world are discovering that reclaiming our streets for people, bikes and public transit allows us not only to beautify our daily environments, transport more people, improve public health and safety, stimulate local economies, and transition to less carbon-dependent lifestyles — but also to breathe new life and magic into our streets, and to stitch people and communities back together by inviting them to reappropriate the public domain.

Leading from the front

For a long time, Montrealers were ahead of their politicians on this.

In 2014, the vast majority of participants to the Ste-Catherine Street public consultations called for a “bold and striking” redesign that would prioritize people over cars, and demanded at least seasonal pedestrianization. A full 40 per cent envisioned a street that was pedestrian year round.

Yet Denis Coderre largely ignored the results, and catered his plans to the unfounded concerns of business leaders instead. For 1.9 of the 2.2 kilometres in his proposed street revamp, the sidewalks and streets, while newly manicured, maintained their car-era dimensions exactly.

Valérie Plante has rightly jettisoned Coderre’s status quo and put forth a vision that’s in phase with the public’s expressed ambitions. In the process, her administration has rallied the business community to her side — and done so, remarkably, by leading from the front, and treating Montrealers to the sight of a mayor who reaches for their aspirations instead of pandering to fears.

The global is local

Doubtless, the usual voices will erupt to defend the status quo, but this knee-jerk opposition must not be allowed to eclipse the fundamental asymmetry in this debate. You simply cannot on the one hand claim to respect the scientific consensus that shows our planet heading for a 3-degree Celsius rise by century’s end, and on the other hand consistently refuse to inch forward towards the systemic changes that are essential to avoiding this calamity.

Let there be no confusion on this point: with transportation accounting for 42 per cent of Quebec’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, our society’s addiction to cars poses the single greatest obstacle in the war that we are presently losing against climate change.

Responsible cities around the world have understood that they are on the front lines of this fight, and are responding with appropriate urgency to break the hold of car culture over their domains. Oslo will ban all private cars from its central district by 2019. Madrid has already banned most traffic from its city core and aims to both expand the zone further and ban all cars from its main thoroughfare, the six-lane Gran Vía, by next year.

Paris is moving aggressively to pedestrianize vast swaths of the French capital, and aims to ban all gas-fuelled cars from the city by 2030. London, Dublin, Berlin, Milan, and New York are only some of the cities moving in the same direction.

Montreal is far behind. But as the perennial bridge between Europe and North America, our city is also uniquely positioned to learn Europe’s lessons and, through courage and collaboration, to lead North America’s cities out of the age of the automobile.

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