Inefficient by Design: Montréal Public Transit

I should start off by saying that this is not a criticism of the STM; I think they mostly do good work and I’m impressed with what they’ve done in terms of branding, marketing and communicating an idea that public transit in general and the Métro in particular as a chic, conscientious and cost-effective element of Montréal urban living. There’s always room for improvement and I’d like to see a system wide renovation of stations, but that’s an issue for another day.

The inefficiency I’m referring to here is the the fact that the Greater Montreal region is served by multiple transit agencies, companies and corporations with what appears to be little effort at organizing from a top-down perspective to ensure excellent coverage across multiple modes throughout the region. And if we, as a society, want to limit the amount of vehicular congestion on our roads by developing a truly world-class public transit system, we must ensure the highest degree of operational efficiency possible. In addition, such a system would always have to be the preferred method of transit within the city and to and from the cities and suburbs, in order to guarantee high general use. If we want our city to grow in population and prominence, then we need to plan for the public transit system which will encourage people to live here precisely because they could use such a system. It’s a marketing tool inasmuch as it is a vital social service, and it requires bird’s eye perspective planning. Ergo, it is time to establish a common fare, across the region and across services. I would further recommend instituting an ‘interconnectivity’ system, wherein, as an example, buses are scheduled to arrive and depart from train stations in such a fashion so as to allow passengers to transfer from one to another within a five minute window. A single transit security force would also be preferable to multiple distinct organizations with differing mandates and training, as would a single maintenance and utilities division. Streamlining transit operations across the metropolitan region would be beneficial for workers as well, given that they would be able to form larger unions with greater bargaining power and a larger pension plan, among other things.

The alternative is only the proliferation of additional transit agencies operating in the metro region as it grows and as the demands of residents, whether living in the City of Montréal proper or any of the surrounding satellite cities and towns, turn towards demanding better public transit services within their own regions. I’ve advocated in the past that the West Island communities would be wise to unite so as to create their own public transit service using trams, which in turn would allow the STM to consolidate their operations within the city and save them the high maintenance and operations costs of bus operations in sprawling suburban regions. That said, I feel a united West Island transit agency would be best employed as a lobby group, and even if such a system were to financed by the West Island communities, I would nonetheless argue in favour of a common fare, inter-connectivity and many other integrating elements. If we want change, we should be willing to put up the capital and subsequently negotiate preferential terms for integration, beneficial to all. But I digress…

Québec transport minister Pierre Moreau has indicated that the public transit agencies of the Montreal region will not be merged into a new version of the Agence Métropolitain de Transport, the Québec government-owned corporation that handles commuter trains and some express buses in the Greater Montréal region. Nor will the AMT be handed over to the control of the municipalities of the region of Montréal, something advocated by Mayor Tremblay. Moreau has indicated that, as he sees it, the new AMT should also involve itself in road planning.

An example of the AMT’s focus on road planning with public transit in mind, and the region’s key axial corridors

Tremblay’s proposal would put the AMT, as is, into the hands of the cities, towns and villages of the metropolitan region, but so far there’s no indication as to whether this would be done solely so as to make the AMT more directly responsible to the communities it serves or whether there would be an effort to stream-line the different public transit agencies of the region into a single all-encompassing, region-wide and single-fare system. I would argue that this ought to be the case for efficiency’s sake, as otherwise we’re left dealing with multiple service providers and multiple communities – there are too many moving parts. We need to streamline the service while incorporating multiple independent viewpoints in a separate over-sight and planning organization. Imagine a Transit Congress making legislative and executive decisions regarding transit development, with proportional, elected representation, administering a single regional system? It’s the ‘best of both worlds solution’ allowing for operational standardization and integration, while further supporting direct community involvement in the decision making processes.

Across the region we’re paying far too much for over-crowded buses and trains, which are all too often late or delayed. Most AMT stations, unlike the one pictured above, are nothing more than cement slabs and unprotected benches and kiosks. Development is retarded because we don’t have an agency which can actually negotiate with Canadian National, Via Rail or Canadian Pacific, and thus projects like the Train de l’Ouest is caught in total deadlock. Meanwhile, the Train de l’Est project is so over-budget the former president of the AMT abruptly resigned after an inquiry was called into, you guessed it – corruption in the construction industry. The Train de l’Est is actively killing the public’s consumer confidence in public mass transit, and this is coming on the heels of the over-budget Laval extension, the endless discussions around implementing gas-taxes and tramways and the never-ending road-work, all of which work together to undermine the public’s trust in government’s ability to get things done.

I think we need a new solution, one which recognizes the needs of the whole as well as the parts, but which is ultimately striving to provide excellent coverage and excellent service across the entire region. There will always be specific local requirements that need to be addressed when you’re building a comprehensive public transit plan – such as which systems should be used and where they need to grow, station-community integration, proximity to schools etc. – but all of this works in tandem towards a single comprehensive goal – to secure public confidence in the publicly-funded mass-transit system so as to raise the common standard of living and the value of metropolitan properties.

The ability to quickly, efficiently and cheaply cross great distances within an urban area in the comfort of a well-designed, clean and secure public transit system is quite literally what distinguishes the very finest cities from your run of the mill cities, and we should demand as citizens united nothing but the very best in this regard – it will only serve to enrich us long-term.