A short list of what the candidates aren’t talking about…

Lachine Canal Sunset - Taylor C. Noakes, 2013

Admittedly this article isn’t based on the results of scientific polling, or polling of any kind really. It’s just a compilation of various ideas that various friends and acquaintances have recommended when asked what they thought was particularly important vis-à-vis improving and developing our dearly beloved city. In essence, it’s what the candidates aren’t talking about, though I think some of these are neat if not really smart and useful, though unconventional and unlikely to be mentioned simply because they likely wouldn’t poll well at all.

I’ll keep the individual ideas short and sweet, let me know what you think. Let’s get a conversation going.

1. Smarter, less crime-infested snow removal. After Maisonneuve Magazine threw the spotlight on bid-rigging w/r/t snow-removal contracts in the city I expected action from city hall, though so far it looks like we’re sticking to the existing plan. Snow removal is of particular concern for Montrealers given our long and generally snowy winters, so I think this one has broad appeal, especially when considering the city subcontracts numerous local construction and landscaping firms to handle snow removal on our city’s streets. Generally speaking it seems to make sense that we subcontract out a lot of this work; private construction and landscaping firms have the equipment and the equipment generally isn’t being used in winter months, so it’s particularly valuable for those firms to get lucrative snow-clearance contracts as it allows them to keep operating in an otherwise ‘dead’ season. This system is also thought to be good for the citizens in that the city doesn’t need to pay for all that expensive equipment and long, often irregular hours of work.

But this system now appears to be broken; not only are we now aware of bid-rigging, there’s the other troubling issue of the state some of these snowplough drivers are in when they’re doing the job. I’ve heard about eighteen hour days without rest being the norm rather than the exception. Granted they’re not doing this all the time, but still. Private contractors take that risk, despite government labour laws. I know a guy who did this for his father’s company for many years; he told me the training, on average, lasts about fifteen minutes and is entirely focused on the operation of the vehicle. There’s no safety training. Each year we lose at least one person, more often than not a child, during the hectic snow clearance operations that take place after every major storm.

Snow removal is something we have to contend with – it’s a fact of life – so why not get smarter about it?

For one there are systems that have been developed – and if I recall correctly are being used in some Scandinavian cities – wherein rubber mats are placed over city streets in which a heating system melts snow atop the mat and then funnels the water into the sewer system. If implemented city-wide, well, I think we may have a possible solution to our snow clearance problem.

Now if only we could figure out a use for all the snow that will inevitably accumulate everywhere else…

2. Open street commerce. Yes, the food trucks experiment is definitely a step in the right direction, but what has so far confounded me and a lot of other people is why there’s such strict regulation. There’s no question there’s a need for health inspectors and service standards, but to limit potential entrepreneurs to only those who already have a restaurant, a truck and ‘who provide products of gastronomic excellence, highlighting Quebec culinary prowess etc. etc.’ The end-result has been that it’s not quite street food, it’s expensive and more a fad or gimmick than legitimate arena for small-scale business.

Ultimately, its this latter point that needs to be addressed – a citizen should still be able to hock a product even if they can’t afford to rent downtown real estate to do so. Walk down St-Catherine’s and see for yourself – the businesses are mostly large chains, often repeated – there’s no room for small-scale operations. The city needs to relax restrictions on commerce, especially at the small-end of the scale. Taking street food as an example, I don’t care if the food is prepared in a restaurant or on the curb, and I don’t mind if it’s from a wagon, a truck, a horse-drawn cart or a 64 El Camino – as long as it meets health code standards I’m down to try it. If the rules were relaxed we’d suddenly have much more choice and many more small business operators and I guarantee you St-Catherine’s Street merchants would see major returns if only there were vendors and kiosks on every corner. We need to bring business back, and the city needs to become more of a market in the broadest sense. We don’t have to go to the extreme one might find in New York City, but I don’t think it would be so bad if we pushed a little in that direction.

3. Our very own Rikers Island. Another good idea from NYC; why not use one of the many uninhabited islands in the Montreal Archipelago as a large jail? I was discussing this one with a cousin who’s completely enamoured with all things New York – Rikers Island is a massive correctional and detention facility that houses about 14,000 inmates and is the city’s main jail for all manner of offenders. It’s accessible only by a single unmarked bridge. Now while we clearly don’t have such a large prison population, we do have several correctional facilities on-island that could just as well be located elsewhere. Moreover, removing these institutions from the island and putting them together on an island of their own not only further facilitates their isolation, but removes some NIMBY-typed obstacles from our urban environment. I think we should ask ourselves whether we want to keep the Pinel Institute or Bordeaux Prison operating where they are – near residential zones – or whether these facilities might be better off relocated.

4. Public rest facilities. Why? Because that’s not what Tim Hortons are for. They could even be their own small businesses, with attendants both keeping things clean and hocking various toiletries, smokes, gum etc. Point is, if we want this city (and the Métro in particular) to stop reeking of piss, we should probably do the bare minimum to address the problem.

5. The Forum. I don’t care who and at this point I don’t really care what, but this eyesore needs to go and get replaced with something better. The Forum, as it stands today, is a hopeless mess that somehow manges to work despite itself and looks like shit every waking hour of the day. I would personally consider it a wise use of tax revenue if the city were to simply pay for a neutral, modernist facelift. The unfortunate people who call Cabot Square their home deserve something better to spend their days looking at.

Back River Bridges

Where Pierrefonds, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Roxboro, Ile-Bizard, Laval and the Laval Islands meet.
Where Pierrefonds, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Roxboro, Ile-Bizard, Laval and the Laval Islands meet.

So if you’ll indulge me, a proposal to dramatically alter (and hopefully improve) West Island public transit in general and substantially increase the passenger volume of the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes Line in particular.

I once heard the West Island described as being ‘disconnected’ from the rest of Montréal. What an odd statement, I thought. The West Island is characterized by the two highways that lead into the city, and is served by two commuter rail lines that go right downtown. Admittedly there’s a rather large industrial zone that surrounds the airport, and this in a sense separates the West Island from the City of Montréal on-island, but considering the people of the West Island are inextricably tied to Montréal, I think disconnected is a bit much.

Now that said, I feel trends in urban renewal and development will gradually increase high-density residential space in the West Island, as land values across the suburban conurbation steadily rise. This will likely go hand in hand with extensions of mass transit systems. The AMT’s Deux-Montagnes line, a piece of our city’s complex public transit scheme I rode nearly every day for the last decade, is indicative of this phenomenon. Since the creation of the AMT and the line’s refurbishment in the mid-1990s the line has served as a major pole of attraction for residential development and quickly became the line with the highest daily and annual ridership. The former city of Saint Laurent has experienced massive growth as a consequence of the three stations located in it, as have all the communities located on its route. As gas prices continue to increase, proximity to mass transit becomes a major factor determining the nature and location of residential development, particularly if oriented towards a commuting middle class.

But it occurred to me, in thinking about this notion of ‘disconnectivity’, that perhaps the problem isn’t so much that the West Island is too removed from the City of Montréal as it is from the other large suburban conurbation it sits next to – Laval and the Northern Ring.

Simply put, there may be a half dozen locations west of Highway 13 between the Island of Montreal and Ile-Jesus in which short, simple causeways could be constructed, linking residential streets on either side of the Back River at distances of less than a few hundred meters. Doing so would not only connect the West Island with Laval, it would further allow a greater distribution of West Island and Northern Ring suburbanites across the Deux-Montagnes Line’s many stations west of Saint Laurent. When you factor in the large amount of open land prime for residential construction in this sector, I think you get a pretty strong case in favour of trying to ‘stich up’ the Back River with simple little bridges.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. For my readers unfamiliar with this part of the metropolitan region, you should know first that the West Island is principally connected to Laval by means of two highways, both of which are located east of the West Island. Despite the many narrow points between the two islands along the northern ridge of the West Island, there aren’t any bridges to connect suburbs with one another. The AMT’s Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line is the only other connection between the West Island and Laval and the Northern Ring suburbs of Saint Eustache and Deux Montagnes, but the line is primarily designed to serve the needs of the commuting class, and thus is ineffective at linking these many similar communities. Hundreds of thousands of people living in similar looking sub-divisions, living similar lives, needing similar services and yet, despite the relative ease of hooking everyone up together, they remain separated. The lack of connection precludes more construction as well as densification, and it certainly doesn’t drive up property values. But if things were different, if this area was better connected, I feel strongly it would stimulate smart suburban development in this area.

Turning our attention to the image above, an index.

The map you are looking at is of the northernmost part of the West Island, including some of its denser residential concentrations. North is up, the river is colloquially referred to the Back River, which separates Laval from Montreal. The northwest quadrant of the isometric view features the Laval-Ouest district, part of Ile Bizard, the western part of Sainte Dorothée part of Laval and the Laval Islands. The northeast quadrant is mostly Laval and the top sliver of Pierrefonds. The southeast quadrant features Pierrefonds, Roxboro and parts of Dollard-des-Ormeaux. Towards the southwest Pierrefonds, Ile Bizard and a sliver of DDO. There are some problems with the labels on the image, such as the Roxboro close to the middle of the screen.

I don’t know how many people, precisely, live here. What I can tell you is that in this image there are at least four high schools and about a dozen elementary schools I can think of, in addition to maybe 20-30 daycares and somewhere in the vicinity of a 20 places of worship, including a mosque and several synagogues. Mind you, these are conservative estimates. This is the centre of a suburban conurbation – it’s where the West Island, Laval and Montreal interact, a crossroads if you like. The AMT’s Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line is illustrated in mauve – out of frame to the northwest are the communities of Saint Eustache and Deux Montagnes. Continuing the mauve line towards the east (and the terminus, twenty-five minutes away at Gare Centrale), is Sunnybrooke Station, serving most of the DDO as well as a sliver of Roxboro and Pierrefond’s A-Ma-Baie district and further serving as the Roxboro-Pierrefonds AMT station’s ‘junior’ equivalent. This mauve line is the highest traffic commuter rail line in AMT service. It is efficient, popular and in high demand. With time, the AMT will both expand operational tempo as well as the capacity of the trains. When the West Island begins to increase in density, I firmly believe it will happen along this corridor. Simply put Saint Laurent borough is running out of room for new condo projects, and this area has a lot of room to grow; a wave of densification expanding west along a high-traffic public-transit axis is very logical.

Yellow boxes denote the three AMT stations in the area, from left to right, Ste-Dorothée, Ile-Bigras and Roxboro-Pierrefonds. Of the three, only the latter is connected to the STM, forming a vital yet over-used inter-modal station and primary transit hub for West Island residents. Residents of Ile Bizard don’t have access to the Ste-Dorothée station, despite being so close to it. Similarly, residents of the central part of Pierrefonds and DDO can’t access the Ile-Bigras station. In the case of the former there is a seasonal barge that runs during the comparatively short ferry season. It can haul two or three mid-size sedans and a handful of people and crosses a distance of only about 250 meters. This is hopelessly outdated. Ile Bizard’s 14,000 (and growing) residents have only limited access to one regular bus and one express bus, the latter of which happens to ferry people to Roxboro-Pierrefonds train station, much farther away that what’s on the other side of the small, shallow river. In the case of the latter, while a CN Rail bridge links Montreal with the Laval Islands, there’s no way to cross it other than by train. If there were a vehicular bridge it would become accessible to the thousands of people who live in the middle of the image. As it stands Ste-Dorothée and Ile-Bigras are underused, while Roxboro-Pierrefonds is beginning to cause very heavy traffic during the morning and evening rush hours.

Building the five small bridges I’ve drawn in blue may, I believe, serve to better distribute passenger access to these three AMT stations, in addition to making it possible to develop new bus lines to better connect this comparatively high concentration of people with each other.

To illustrate my point consider this. Say you were coming home from the city on the train and for whatever reason you missed your stop at Pierrefonds and wound up in Ile Bigras. Though you’d likely be within walking distance (i.e. under 30 minutes) from home, you have no way of getting back to the West Island other than waiting for a returning train (which may not happen for a while, or at all if you’re on the last train out) or getting a ride or cab. The ride back home may take a long time as well; from the West Island you need to take highways 40, 13 and then part of the 440 before it becomes Avenue des Bois to get to these two AMT stations, both located less than half a kilometer from the West Island and its well-connected bus service and familiar road network.

The black lines denote the major traffic arteries of the area. Most of the existing STM bus lines run on the West Island side of the above image, but if these bridges were completed the STM and STL could consider re-designing public transit access in the area to facilitate better interconnectivity between the two cities inasmuch as better distribution among the three AMT stations. Five little bridges to open new markets to existing services, greater convenience, greater interaction. All of these are major pluses for the people living here, a guaranteed way to increase property values and access to important services, like schools, daycares and clinics.

Red lines indicate where new roads would need to be built, while the two small orange lines denote land expropriations that will be necessary so new roads can be built. The one on the right would connect Pavilion with Gouin Boulevard, which would alleviate congestion elsewhere on Gouin and Boulevard des Sources, by cutting across the parking lot of a nursery. The one towards the centre may require expropriating land yet to be developed. A sound barrier will need to be constructed along both sides of the rail line to improve the quality of life of the residents living next to it, especially if increased operational tempo is desired.

The angular lime green line near Roxboro-Pierrefonds station denotes the easternmost part of Pierrefonds Boulevard, where it intersects Boulevard des Sources and Gouin Boulevard. During the morning and evening rush hours this street bogs down considerably, so much so that traffic can become easily backed up on all these aforementioned streets. The problem as I see it is that during the rush hours everyone on this stretch of the street is either going to or coming from the station, and as such only half the lanes are being used. With new traffic signalization, we could ‘open’ more lanes to mitigate the existing congestion. At times of the day only one or two returning lanes would be needed, while, allowing as many as five lanes to be open to heavy traffic going in a single direction.

But why make all these changes?

Aside from the main goal of easing traffic congestion and redistributing West Island commuters across three train stations in lieu of one, there’s the added advantage of making more parts of the West Island public-transit accessible, all of which, I believe, will support residential development and densification on this part of the island. Then there’s the convenience of no longer having the shell out a hundred dollars if you’re so unfortunate you miss your stop. This would be particularly useful for the tends of thousands of students who commute every day to university along this line (and who generally don’t have the liquid capital to pay for such a SNAFU). But perhaps most importantly of all it would effectively eliminate an unnecessary border between Montreal, Laval and many other outer-ring suburbs, and in doing so permit a larger overall population to have access to the services and facilities which exist in the West Island but are in short supply just outside of it. As I mentioned before, there are a surprising number of good public schools in the area above, though the population living on the West Island side is ageing and housing prices are sufficiently high couples with young children are moving further and further away so that they can afford the suburban aesthetic of their own childhood. The problem is that services have not been built to keep pace. As you can see this creates a bit of a predicament – the old schools in the West Island are no longer adjacent to the large quantities of children the area once boasted and rarely at full capacity. Home ownership is in the hands of an increasingly elderly population (whose children have left) while land values increase. This is not to say there are no children in this part of the West Island – certainly there are – but not nearly as many considering all the services available to them. Those kids now live farther away, where services are limited.

Just a thought…