It’s time to bring the tram back to Montreal

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I was reading Daniel Sanger save the city the other day (it’s an oral history of the rise of Projet Montreal and a decent overview of the last 20 years of municipal politics that manages to be very readable) and it occurred to me that we never had time to build trams in this city. This despite the fact that Projet Montréal was literally founded as an *ahem* vehicle to develop them, primarily to get Montreal out of cars.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and Project has now won two terms to govern. So what are they waiting for? More important is the need to reduce dependence on cars – and, more importantly, to reclaim much of the land that has been lost over the past half-century to the exclusive use of automobiles. today than it ever was.

Building a tram network in our city should not only be a priority because of the climate catastrophe, but also because the pandemic presents us with a unique opportunity. There are far fewer cars on our streets right now and fewer people are driving into town every day. This will likely continue to be the case as long as the pandemic continues, which, thanks to the complete and utter incompetence of the political class, could take another few years.

According to recent news, the island of Montreal lost almost 50,000 people between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, which is apparently the largest population loss since the Institut de la statistique du Québec began to follow up 20 years ago. This trend is likely to continue for the duration of the pandemic – which means it will continue for the foreseeable future – and this population loss is accompanied by already existing suburbanization trends, as well as a decrease general number of people coming to town to work, shop, go out, etc.

That means fewer people in the city, fewer cars on the roads, fewer people using the city’s existing transit services and all of which means that now would be the perfect time to start tearing down roads for a project. of aggressive tram development.

What are trams and why should we have them?

Montreal and the tram have a past, and a future?

Streetcars are a kind of light rail transit system that is widely used around the world and was once common even in small North American cities, although many of these systems were phased out in the 1950s and 1960. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being forced to visit Toronto (a wasteland city on the shores of Lake Ontario in a neighboring province), one of its few redeeming qualities is its underdeveloped streetcar system, which they illogically call a “streetcar” (I guess because the “road train” was not available). The Toronto streetcar is sadly obsolete, largely because it has to share the road with other vehicles, which on the congested streets of Toronto often makes the streetcar less desirable or efficient than walking.

Montreal had a similar streetcar system for about a century, until 1959 when it was phased out in favor of buses (so yes, despite what you may have heard, they actually run in the winter). At the time, buses seemed like a much better option, mainly because they weren’t limited by the extent of the tram network. Moreover, in the early 1960s, Montreal was already entering a prolonged phase of peri-urbanization and most of the new suburbs were not connected to the city by the tramway network. The new thinking of the 1960s was that Montreal’s public transit would be better served by a metro system in the urban core of the city, where each station could become a terminus for a number of bus lines which, to their tower, would connect to the edges of the city proper (and all suburban dwellers drove their own cars on the brand new highways the province was building at the time). Believe me, this all made a lot of sense 60 years ago.

The main advantage of streetcars today is that, unlike buses or cars, they use electricity, which in the case of Montreal would come from renewable and sustainable hydroelectricity. Additionally, today’s streetcars are designed to operate on a dedicated right-of-way, so they don’t actually share the road with buses, cars, and trucks. Most cities that use streetcars also have priority signalling, which means that streetcars cross intersections on their own, never interfering with the normal flow of car traffic. Additionally, a tramway in Montreal would bridge the gap between bus and metro service: higher speed and greater passenger volume than a bus, but much cheaper than building more metro or REM.

Also, since a tramway is less capital intensive than other major transit projects and would be built on streets that already belong to the city of Montreal, it would be possible to build a new tramway entirely by ourselves — that’s that is, without the financial assistance of the City of Quebec or Ottawa. Trams running in parallel with the metro could help reduce congestion (which is likely to get worse once the REM is finished or if the lines are extended). More importantly, the circulation of streetcars on major commercial arteries, such as Ste-Catherine Street, Park Avenue or St-Laurent Boulevard, would likely make these streets more attractive for shopping. It’s already a well-established fact that pedestrians tend to buy more and visit stores more often than motorists – trams on these thoroughfares would have the effect of turning them into huge pedestrian malls. As more and more housing units are built in the city center, the city will have to provide new transit housing for these new residents anyway, and more buses on the streets already cluttered will not be enough.

Plan for the future

I realize it may seem strange to make such a proposal when the STM is running a $43 million pandemic-related deficit, but I can’t imagine another time when we will have so few cars on our roads, and as few people in the city center as we do now. Eventually the pandemic will end and people will return to the city. Also, climate change is going to put additional pressure on the city to increase its population and population density, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the old office towers were transformed – like every empty lot, gas station and property otherwise underutilized in the city — in new housing. Everything that made Montreal a great place to live in 2019 will likely still be so in a few years, but the municipal government needs to be proactive rather than reactionary. If the pandemic has taught us one lesson in particular, it’s that we really need to start thinking ahead and planning for the future. Experts, like the founder of Projet Montreal, Richard Bergeron 20 years ago, have long anticipated what cities will need to do to survive and thrive in the age of climate change, and it is generally accepted that it is a step a. Trams are, at least according to public transport experts, a fundamental element for the creation of the new green metropolis of tomorrow. What better place than here? What better time than now? ■

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Cult MTL.


Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.

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