Why Trams Work in the 5-1-4, No.2 – Historical Perspectives

Place d'Armes in the 40s or 50s, back when it was a major transit hub. Not the work of the author.

At left is a neat picture I found recently depicting Place d’Armes before the Métro, back when it was a vital link to the city’s public transit infrastructure for trams and buses. Today there’s so little traffic in this sector the city can afford to close down streets to allow for a major renovation of the Square, something I doubt could have been done when this picture was taken. I could do without the overhead wires personally, and the trees look sickly, but I do love the dynamic nature of this street-scene.

Consider as well that the trams are operating on congested, narrow, Old Port streets and doing so with a fair number of cars and pedestrians. Horse-drawn carts would have been considerably more common back then as well, and we managed pretty well.

Mount Royal tram tunnel, 40s or 50s - not the work of the author.

I both love and hate this picture as well. Here’s the hate: Drapeau built a trans-mountain parkway in the late-1950s and named it after his former political adversary Camillien Houde. Houde, incidentally, had been against a proposed parkway over the mountain for years, and Drapeau named it after him posthumously as a kind of sick joke. What a character!

The Parkway is useful and has become a practical method of quickly getting across the city. Apparently it’s useful to ambulances, hacks and the fuzz as well. Moreover, I gotta say – crossing the Parkway with a jazzed-up young cabbie blasting Dire Straights in the middle of a storm a few years back was thrilling. That said, I don’t think the total traffic usage has ever really justified the Parkway’s existence, and there aren’t nearly enough tourists going up the mountain for the ‘bus-access’ argument to be fully justifiable either.

Consider as well the total surface area atop the mountain currently used for parking purposes. It’s a significant waste of space, and worst of all, the park is disconnected from the cemetery and the lands behind the Université de Montréal.

This leads me to why I love this picture. As we can see above, before the Parkway, the route was used by a tramway. Moreover, the city was conscious not to disrupt the ‘natural flow’ of the park – as we can see, there’s a guy walking along a trail above the Tram Tunnel. The tunnel was located close to the Eastern Lookout – you can see where they blasted out the rock. This means that back in the day, the total green space of Mount Royal Park was considerably higher than it is today and further, that this space was a continuous green zone. I can imagine that this would have provided additional space for local wildlife, as there is a somewhat large sector of green space in Outremont, behind the university and adjacent to the cemetery which is still quite ‘raw’ and somewhat difficult to get to. I look at a picture like this and it makes me think of those ‘green crossings’ they build over highways in rural area to allow animals continuous access to green spaces.

As you can probably imagine, I’d vote for tearing out the parkway and replacing it with a tram line, and then building a new tunnel so as to accomplish the ‘continuous green access’ we had back when the picture was taken. This would mean that the parking lots would be disconnected, and that would be great too – more park land. I’d keep the road access to the Western-most parking lot (near Beaver Lake) and by extension access to Cote-des-Neiges with the tram line merging onto CdN Boulevard – ideally the new ‘No.11 Tram’ would link Guy and Mount-Royal Métro stations.

In any event – all this to show that we once used trams effectively herein Montréal, and further, that Trams may be a legitimate traffic-congestion solution on Montréal city streets. Our city is very particular, and I can’t imagine a well-designed public transit infrastructure would actually be feasible if we only ever focus on specific transit types. We need multiple types, and should look to see which routes might be better served by different technologies. The Old Port and the Mountain seem like two areas where vehicular traffic is too problematic and destructive/disruptive, but that may nonetheless potentially draw more people if access to cars were limited and replaced with excellent tram service. The call to make more of the Old Port ‘restricted access’ is a strong one – but in order to accomplish this goal, something needs to be brought in to help move the large quantities of people who live, work and play there.

Food for thought – let me know what you think about all this, and the pics too!

More on Boul. de Maisonneuve’s prior history as a massive parking lot

View of Uptown Montréal (President-Kennedy & Aylmer near centre of pic) - 1970 from CIBC Observation Deck; not the work of the author

Man I love looking at this picture.

I mean I hate it as well – what a massive wasteland of parking lots. Look at it!

Today the area is considerably different. Boul. de Maisonneuve was literally carved out of existing cityscape back in the early and mid-1960s at the same time as the Métro tunnel was carved out of the bedrock almost directly beneath. I can understand the argument against this kind of destructive construction in general, but I feel that the city, and this sector in particular, actually benefited immensely from this development.

For one, Boul. de Maisonneuve now serves as a prominent link between diverse neighbourhoods – from NDG/St-Raymond through Westmount, Atwater, the Shaughnessy Village, New Chinatown, the Concordia Ghetto, Crescent Village right into Uptown Montréal, the area largely re-developed as a consequence of Boul. de Maisonneuve’s construction (back in the 1970s it was referred to as Place du Centre and I believe part of the Master Plan would eventually lead to McGill College’s redevelopment in the mid-late 1980s). Extending East, Boul. de Maisonneuve further links up with the Quartier des Spectacles, the Lower Main, the Habitations Jeanne-Mance & Quartier Latin etc. It’s a belt, and this city needs multiple East-West arteries simply to help move the millions of people who flood into the city centre each day.

It’s unfortunate that this sector was developed almost exclusively to serve the skyrocketing demand for retail corporate office space in the 1970s and 1980s, and I think a major fault in that plan – lack of residential housing – is at least partially responsible for the Tremblay administration’s aim to build residential buildings primarily in remaining parking lots in this area. Again, there’s a problem in that most of the new development is condominiums, while the area needs mixed housing and social-services (primary and secondary schools, cultural/community space etc) in order to be a viable neighbourhood with a distinct character, considerations which are vital to its long-term survival.

That being said, we’ve come a long way from above. I would have hated this area back then – I wouldn’t have been able to walk through it without obsessing as to why no one had put a park here (and I think we can all agree this area could use some more public green space). Today, it seems dynamic, clean and well-used. During the day it bustles and it’s pretty clear that the sector is of vital importance to the city’s economy.

What do you think about this picture? Have we been moving in the right direction? Let me know – I’d love to get a better understanding of what the readership honestly thinks about new development in Montréal.