Remixing the Transit Cocktail

Past, Present and Future - Montreal (Saint-Henri), Summer 2013

I’ve been busy interviewing local candidates in the run-up to the election for Forget the Box (you can see the series here) and I’ve noticed that pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to so far has spent at least a little while discussing transit. Admittedly I’ve spoken to a lot of Projet Montréal candidates, but that’s largely a consequence of the open nature of the party and how they’ve chosen to communicate with the public. Regardless, Projet Montréal is a big tent with a lot of diverse opinions and interests and transit is something they take very seriously and debate rather passionately. Perhaps more than that; I’m getting the impression – not just from these interviews but also from the party platform – that they really get what’s at stake here.

It’s not just moving people, it’s how people move, and the layers of connectivity we create across the urban environment. We have an excellent public transit system by North American standards, but by world standards, or the standard set by many major global cities and smaller progressive nations, we’re falling behind.

So consider all the transit news of the last month or so. The big one is that PQ announced their eventual intention to extend the Blue Line by five stations further east towards Anjou. This plan has been on the books since Charest included it in a far larger multi-line Métro extension project back in 2009. As you doubtless already expected, nothing came of that plan, and now we’re being told no actual work was done to prepare for that plan either, and so some $40 million will be spent over the next two years to plan something that has been in the planning stage for over twenty years, dating all the way back to the original design of the Blue Line.

The less inspiring is that the province keeps making proposals that are casually ignored or immediately dismissed by the Fed with regards to the new Champlain Bridge design (so far the Tories aren’t interested in including a light rail system, will likely destroy the old bridge without examining possible future uses and have rebuffed an idea to build a double decker bridge). It’s clear the feds are building this bridge their way, and spending $5 billion to build a bridge that should cost a quarter of that amount, regardless of the city’s actual transit and transportation needs. In a similar vein, the unusually retrograde transport ministry is pressing ahead with an illogical redesign of the Turcot Exchange and foolish expansion of a highway to increase volume. The Dorval Circle renovation project may take another six years to complete and is already four years behind schedule. An alphabet soup of government agencies and private entities have so far proven nearly impossible to deal with – their lack of consensus retards our progress, our development, and costs us dearly.

More, more…

Last weekend the AMT fully shut down their most active, highest traffic line so that the substantially retarded Train de l’Est project could continue advancing at its snail’s pace.

And the urban game-changer, Bixi, was recently reported to be a bit too much in the red for upper management’s comfort. Apparently the program will not yet be scrapped, but it’s seeming a bit touch and go. I can imagine it would be pretty embarrassing if we lost that which we created and successfully sold to other major cities around the world.

With all this in mind, the mayoral candidates have managed to come up with a variety of transit related talking points, while Projet Montréal is pretty much sticking to the contents of their expansive multi-stage master plan in which trams feature heavily.

Trams are being poorly described as Richard Bergeron’s obsession. I’d argue he’s perhaps very enthusiastic about the idea, but I don’t think one can truly be ‘obsessive’ with regards to mass transit systems.

In any event, Bergeron’s opponents have all come out in favour of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as an alternative to the tram, which they argue will be too expensive and only serve to add to our already extensive list of scheduled road maintenance.

By contrast, Projet Montréal argues that trams are less expensive than Métro expansion, which is the sole responsibility of the provincial government and thus out of our hands anyways.

This is where things get interesting, in my opinion. It’s true that the people of Montréal and our elected officials really have zero say when it comes to Métro expansion. The AMT, a provincial body, oversees the design and development of the Métro. It gets expanded as per the interests of politicians in Québec City, not per the needs of the citizens of Montréal.

With this situation unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, Projet Montréal’s tramways proposal becomes something very different than a mere people-mover. It’s a way of providing an entirely new method to travel about the city, on a mode that operates in the space between bus and Métro service. Thus, by building a tramways network, the city can actually provide a higher-volume express public transit system. Aside from a tram, all the STM has jurisdiction over is a fleet of a couple thousand buses.

I should point out, no member of Projet Montréal I’ve ever spoken to is against the idea of Bus Rapid Transit, but I think most would argue that buses operating in reserved lanes and on an express schedule should be a given, that we should be doing this already as one component of the broader transit cocktail. Of course BRT systems work very well and are comparatively inexpensive to implement. But because it’s so dumbass simple in the first place, I’m left wondering why Coderre, Coté and Joly are all carrying on like they’ve discovered some magic remedy to the obsessive illness that it tramway enthusiasm. We’re talking about new paint, new signs, new and improved bus shelters and some potential changes to roadway signalisation in the urban core, but not much more.

But this doesn’t mean trams are discounted. For one a tram can carry many more people than oversize articulated buses, and for this reason routes would be planned very, very differently, focusing on establishing connections along major thoroughfares but also linking diverse parts of the city through new mass transit arteries. As I said before, they occupy the space between a bus and the Métro.

Projet Montréal and Richard Bergeron’s enthusiasm for tramways seems to me to be a very direct, affordable and effective means for the city to take more responsibility, and a leadership position, in the realm of public transit. Completing a tram by ourselves would be a coup in a very real sense. Perhaps we’ll start asking ourselves what else we should have control over.