Reconstruction & Obstructionism – the Case for Greater Autonomy

Ville-Marie Expressway Overhead

Early one morning late last week Mayor Coderre announced that a portion of the Ville-Marie Expressway will be covered over in time for the city’s 375th anniversary and by the end of the day the idea was shot down in a terse email written by the transport minister’s press attaché.


There it goes.

In the blink of an eye a reasonable, straightforward civil engineering and city beautification project gets shot to shit by a man who neither lives nor works here in our city.

And it serves to illustrate a point about Montreal; we’re not actually in control of much in terms of how our city is built, developed, renovated, designed etc.

Montreal can’t build a park over a highway used almost exclusively by Montrealers.

We don’t have the jurisdiction to plan and expand the Métro.

If an adjacent community, such as Montréal Est or Montreal West, wanted to join the city of Montreal, we couldn’t arrange it amongst ourselves – we actually don’t have the authority.

Same story schools and hospitals; the city can’t do anything to help the fact that the CSDM has to immediately close 82 schools due to contamination. The school board deals with the province on such matters. And the city can’t be expected to do anything about our hospitals – which remain open, which will be closed, who the buildings are sold to and how they’re repurposed. Nada. The city of Montreal has no say in any of it.

Our municipal politicians, of all stripes, suffer the consequences. All too often they are blamed directly for all the problems we have on these and other fronts. Because local politicians – those closest to the people – are impotent to effect any lasting change to the operational status quo, they become disinterested at best and corrupt at worst.

And the people, realizing that which is supposed to be the most accessible level of government is in fact nothing more than a hindrance to the political process, disengage from said process.

Disenfranchisement via political impotence.

At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter who you happen to be aligned with because this city is political poison to both the current provincial and federal governments. They know they can’t win here so they sew the seeds of discord in an attempt to divide and conquer the people of this city. We have no ‘pull’ for the moment, and given the Duplessis-like tactics of both levels of government we’re going to continue being pushed around, with development dictated to us.

Unless of course we do something about it.

Let’s get back to the details that spurred this article, for a moment.

The mayor proposed a scaled-back version of a Projet Montréal plan to recover the 500 metre open trench running from the Palais des Congrès to the new CHUM superhospital, between Viger and St-Antoine.

What Coderre is proposing is more modest in scope, focusing on ‘segment 1’ as illustrated above. The covered section would be turned into a large open space. Projet Montréal even proposed naming the space after noted Québec visual artist Marcelle Ferron, who designed the stained glass windows at Champ-de-Mars station.

Best of all Mayor Coderre has put Projet Montréal leader Richard Bergeron in the driver’s seat. Bergeron is in fact going to delay his retirement to oversee the project.

I think this is where things began getting interesting.

The campaign wasn’t that long ago and these two men could not have been more different in their approach. They were rivals in the truest sense of the word and represented vastly different interests. And yet, after a bit of time, they seem to have come to see eye-to-eye on this specific project. Coderre recognizes Bergeron’s obvious talents and clearly respects at least one aspect of the Projet Montréal platform.

Cover a highway, build a park. What could possibly go wrong? Two political rivals cooperating to build something bigger and better than themselves.

So when the transport minister told his press handler to fire off an email to shoot down a fundamentally good idea (and I mean good for our local democracy, environment, urban quality-of-life good) I can’t help but imagine it was done to remind the mayor of his place, of the limits of his political authority. Maybe there was more to it than that.

I believe that a Quebec run by the Parti Québécois is one which is fundamentally set in opposition to the wants, interests and needs of Montreal and the people of the greater region. The PQ is looking to win a provincial majority government by ruthlessly exploiting the politics of division, ignorance, fear and intimidation. They are hoping the politics that put Rob Ford and Stephen Harper in power would work just as well here in Quebec and I believe it was a wise gamble.

We’re Canadian after all… clearly the politics of fear work here just as well as anywhere else.

Unfortunately for the people who live here and drive on our roads, anything and everything to do with the biggest and most important ones are all conveniently outside our jurisdiction.

Keep this in mind as traffic grinds to a halt with the redesign of the Turcot Interchange. It’s a provincial area of jurisdiction. Even if we had a better idea, we can doing about it. Those aren’t city streets.

Our highways and our bridges aren’t actually ‘our own’. You’d think a city of nearly two million people could take care of such things by itself – and indeed we once did.

But over time we have had responsibilities taken away from us, and when you lose those your rights aren’t far behind.

It’s not just that the city of Montreal lacks responsibility in key areas, it’s that we don’t have the right to be involved, by provincial decree.

It wasn’t always the case, we were once a little more autonomous, though only because certain political and social circles happened to once interact here.

Our fall from our former glory as a metropolis is not a language issue or a culture issue, it’s mostly a taxation and efficiency issue.

We were once in charge of our fate and now legislation exists that cripples our city’s ability to perform and succeed. Our failures are quite simply not our own – they are imposed. The people of the city of Montreal – the citizens of Montreal – must have control over all key areas of municipal governance and expected public services. We can manage our own house. We must become masters of our own domain.

The future political divide in this province is not between languages or culture or where you were born. It is between Montreal, as it is and for its own sake, in opposition to a Quebec that feels it must define its culture through legislation. Montreal would simply prefer to be left alone, we are not interested in having our culture, our identity, screwed around with.

The Parti Québécois has made it abundantly clear, Montréal is increasingly a distinct society from the hegemonic cultural identity espoused by the PQ.

When the mayor of Montreal can’t even build a park, with his chief rival fully cooperating no less, the citizens must realize that we lack local political sovereignty in our own affairs.

And this is something that must change, forever.

We can no longer afford to run a city with our hands tied behind our backs.

The Redpath Mansion – Now What?

Redpath House - Credit: Guillaume St-Jean, 2005
Redpath House – Credit: Guillaume St-Jean, 2005

Good news in the world of architectural heritage preservation (boy I like writing that) as culture minister Maka Kotto announced a thirty-day moratorium on the planned demolition of the historic Redpath Mansion.

The culture ministry used a law stipulating that if the government feels there’s a ‘real threat of significant degradation of a property that may have heritage value’ it can stop work for about a month during which time it would (drum roll) produce a study concerning the building and it’s architectural and/or historic value.

So…where exactly does this leave us?

The government has a month to produce a study about a building Heritage Montreal already likely has a massive dossier on. I’m not sure what new conclusions the government hopes to arrive at. The home on Ave. de la Musée was once owned by the John Redpath, owner of the eponymous sugar refinery and builder of the Lachine Canal.

*Note – come to think of it, I’ve seen this building named after Frederick Redpath as wellm so this will need to be cleared up.

So there’s the short answer as to whether the house has any historic value. Montreal simply wouldn’t have become the metropolis it is today without the Lachine Canal. Mr. Redpath is as good an example as any of the kinds of wealthy industrialists that once drove the economy of this city (and province, and country) and who populated the Square Mile district over one hundred years ago (note – it was never actually referred to as the Golden Square Mile).

Also, the home was the site of the grisly murder of two Redpaths, a murder unsolved to this day – see more here.

As to the architecture, the building is significant in that it’s one of the few remaining examples of Queen Anne style architecture, and was designed by the noted architect Sir Andrew Taylor (who also designed the Redpath and Osler libraries at McGill) and constructed circa. 1885-1886.

Unfortunately, the building has been left to crumble, an excellent case of ‘demolition via neglect’.

It’s significant in that respect too, and this is why, despite the building’s poor shape, I’m glad this injunction will prevent it’s demolition.

In sum, I want it to continue standing forevermore, and I want nothing to be done to it to save it.

I’d very much like for this city to have a permanent ruin, a once gorgeous, impressive, ludicrously well-appointed Gilded Age mansion destroyed by greed and political incompetence.

Let it stand, a testament to itself.

Plus, I’m curious to see how long it will stand if we just let nature take its course.

It’s been vacant for more than thirty years, and a portion of the home was demolished prior to the previous injunction filed against the rightful owners of the home, the Sochaczevski family, also the proprietors of The Suburban.

How the situation unfolded works something like this. First, the Sochaczevski’s purchased the house with the intention of having it demolished so that a condo tower could be built on the site. Apparently there was no problem until Heritage Montreal/Sauvons Montreal caught wind of it and had a last-minute injunction filed with the provincial authorities. this was done, but not before part of the house had already been demolished. Then there was a lot of legal wrangling in which nothing was done for many years, the building left to crumble.

Now the owners are making yet another attempt to develop a new building on the site – though this time it’ll be for ‘student housing’ (though not actually affiliated with any known university, nor offering the coziness of sleeping in something which is designed buy the same companies who build prisons…) i.e. really expensive flop houses for wealthy foreign students.

And once again someone has stepped in to prevent the demolition from taking place.

We’re literally back to square one.

From what I know the Sochaczevski’s haven’t been compensated one iota for all this dicking around.

And it’s not like Heritage Montreal or the Quebec government has any idea what to do with the building either. In fact, no one does, and because of the poor condition it’s in, no one wants to front the cash to fix it up.

The owners can be blamed for letting it go to waste, but at the same time, it’s ridiculous for us to have heritage preservation laws on the books if there’s no compensation nor any follow through.

It’s quite the penalty to the owners but it also demands that the city and province have a plan and a better way to deal with problems such as these. And you’d think we’d have figured out that solution quite some time ago, given architectural preservation drives our tourism industry.

So all to say I’m encouraged by the government’s decision but would love to get a little further than simply delaying demolition. We need a plan and I don’t think the PQ is going to start dishing out money to renovate a Gilded Age mansion with no plan regarding its use after the job is complete. And the Redpath House is just the tip of the iceberg.

What about the Lafontaine House, crumbling away as the last piece of the forgotten Overdale neighbourhood. Louis-Hyppolyte Lafontaine was arguably more important than even John Redpath and his house is in slightly better condition and there’s no plan at all to save it from being demolished.

Then there’s the Notman House, also historically significant. Last I heard it was being used for local start-ups but that was a while ago and so the project may have fizzled. The old Dandurand Wines office on Sherbrooke (the Forget House?) has been empty for some time, but at the very least is being maintained.

Long story short, the city, province and federal government need to coordinate to save these homes and repurpose them for the public’s use. The same can and should be said for our city’s many churches, which have become exceptionally important not for religious and spiritual reasons, but because they provide vitally necessary space to community groups. As neat as it might be to convert one or two old churches into condominiums and/or spas, we need to remember that these buildings fundamentally belong to the public and not the highest bidder.

But again, without any kind of organization in place to transition these buildings into new roles and secure funding, we’re at as much of a risk of losing significant amounts of our architectural heritage inasmuch as the physical realms of community and civic engagement.

Which in turn begs the question – what is the point of architectural preservation advocacy groups if they’re limited to simply pointing out dangers and cataloguing what has been lost and what might be lost in the future?

This city needs a heritage trust.

In response to Maxwell Turner…


I guess I’m late to the game on this one.

The rant entitled Montreal Sucks and Everyone Knows It by Maxwell Turner was published about a month ago on IXDaily and drove a lot of online commentary. I only just caught wind of it so I guess I’m not as branché as I thought I was. Oh well.

This clip, an interview with CTV’s Todd Van Der Heyden, does a decent enough job summarizing the author’s point of view, though he opens by denying that he thinks Montreal sucks per se (?) and then goes onto to reiterate the broad problems he identifies in the article. In essence he states that we happen to have a lot of problems in our city and that there’s room for improvement. He says we need to be critical of ourselves.

True. I don’t think anyone would deny any of that. But then again, many large cities have various problems that need to be addressed, and to each city a unique set of problems at that. He lists political corruption, economic decline, crumbling infrastructure and social unrest as among the city’s main problems and further argues a small town mentality, coupled with delusions of grandeur, only exacerbate these problems. I guess this is true as well, to a point. The problems mentioned are common and would similarly be exacerbated given the conditions the author mentioned. If anything, he makes me wonder what use it is pointing out broad social problems which are common amongst large metropolises in lieu of pointing out specific problems that could be addressed and fixed.

Unfortunately, when he does delve into the specifics he frequently confuses areas of municipal, provincial and federal jurisdiction.

Glass Supernova
Glass Supernova

Bridges, language laws, Bill 60, pastagate, the student protests etc etc – neither the city of Montreal nor the citizenry in general have anything to do with any of this.

Also, I’m not convinced we collectively suffer delusions of grandeur. If anything we suffer a kind of existential malaise, one exacerbated by deindustrialization (again, something common enough amongst large cities of the Great Lakes region) and our unique political geography at the crossroads of Canada. I think there are a lot of people who live here who are regularly inspired by this city and everything it has to offer. I know I am. Our history is rich, ironic, engaging, utterly fascinating regardless of your individual historical tastes. I think there’s a certain number of people who would like to know how and why we reached the dizzying heights of international prominence in our ‘heyday’ of the 1960s and 1970s, so that we might replicate it in the future. Again, I know I am.

But that said, as far as urban living is considered, I wouldn’t want to return to that period at all – it was an era in which Montreal’s architectural heritage was under constant threat from demolition. Downtown Montreal was being actively depopulated. The FLQ was bombing mailboxes and holding-up armouries and banks. Our crime rate, specifically our murder rate, was far higher than it is today. And say what you will of the Charbonneau Commission, back then we had the Cliche Commission and the Mob was busy putting up apartment towers with concrete purchased to build the Olympic Stadium nearly simultaneously. Urban life in Montreal has improved considerably since our ‘glory years’.

Small town mentality? Perhaps among some STM employees who happen to have grown up in small towns and reflect that mentality. But let’s be clear, Bill 60, and the abortive Bill 14, are legislative ‘solutions’ to problems that simply don’t actually exist. It’s Quebec politics when the separatists are in power. Perhaps if the author had lived here for longer than four years he’d be cognizant the PQ does not speak, nor represent, the interests of Montreal or its citizens.


There are a few specific factual problems with the article I’d like to address. This next part is directed at the article and author more specifically.

1. ‘Montreal is barely able to maintain Canada’s busiest domestic bridge’.

A bit of research would have revealed Montreal has no control over its bridges. Strictly speaking our bridges aren’t our bridges. They are operated by a crown corporation, a federal government agency. Even if the city of Montreal had managed to save up several billion dollars to build a replacement all by itself, we don’t have the political authority to do so. If you want to make an argument that Montreal ought to have jurisdiction over its bridges, that’s one thing (and I’m all ears), but are you actually telling me we suck because after eight years of Tory government we still don’t have a new bridge? It begs the question, would we suck less if we collectively fellated federal Tories by voting for them in order to encourage bridge building?

2. On sinkholes…

Montreal is a city built on a swampy, marshy island with many streams and rivers criss-crossing deep underground. We have all the naturally-occurring and man-made risk factors that lead to sinkholes, and they’re pretty much all in play at all times of the year. Ergo, it’s not exclusively a problem related to crumbling infrastructure. The mayor has pledged to completely renovate Ste-Catherine Street and replace the antique sewers and water mains in time for the city’s 375th anniversary, and further plans to turn the strip into a pedestrian zone. Pledging to dig up the streets and remove cars from our main commercial artery is as politically unsexy as it gets, and yet, this is precisely what Denis Coderre has pledged to do. Action is being taken.

The mayor’s plan, if executed properly, could significantly reduce some of the man-made risks to our roads, and redeveloping Ste-Catherine Street has the potential to save a lot on maintenance, not to mention revitalize the city’s iconic thoroughfare. Coderre took a calculated risk on this issue and I’m glad he did. Again, are we now responsible for the choice of our ancestors to build here? Is erosion caused by suckiness or does suckiness cause erosion?

Beaver Hall Hill on Muggy Summer Day
Beaver Hall Hill on Muggy Summer Day

3. The guy who was crushed by the falling ton of steel.

This is called an accident. They happen. It wasn’t a city construction project, those weren’t city workers. It was an accident that’s being investigated by the provincial authorities who investigate workplace accidents. It’s extremely unfortunate, but this has nothing to do with the city. As far as I know the city has stipulated that scaffolding be erected around the base of construction projects once they begin building above ground, and this is specifically to prevent people from getting beaned/crushed by falling materiel, equipment etc. It just so happens that the work going on at that particular location was excavation, not above-ground construction. From the details available, it seems as though the man was walking near a construction site while the workers were maneuvering the plate into place.

My advice – don’t cross through construction sites, don’t walk under suspended sheets of steel, and keep your eyes up when walking around downtown. But you can’t use this as an example of inadequate infrastructure or the city’s apparent suckiness.

4. Paving the streets won’t prevent sinkholes.

Again, it’s erosion occurring underground. Paving, if anything, exacerbates the problem. You’re literally proposing we cover over our road problem and hope it goes away.

5. ‘Montreal’s two previous mayors were canned after blatantly admitting to kick-back allegations.’

Poor Laurent Blanchard, I didn’t know he admitted to kick-backs… Neither Applebaum nor Tremblay were canned, they resigned, and neither has admitted to receiving kickbacks. Only Applebaum has so far been charged with fraud.

Yes, we’ve had some shitty mayors lately and it’s unfortunate that voter turnout was only 43% in the last municipal election. Voter turnout is low everywhere and at all levels of politics (save, perhaps for the last provincial election) – generally speaking North Americans are at a low point in terms of civic engagement. But it’s a logical fallacy to deduce that all local politicians are corrupt because two mayors resigned under suspicion of corruption. That’s another point – nothing, so far, has been proven about either man. I’m willing to save judgement and give Denis Coderre a chance to prove me right not all politicians, or Montreal Mayors, are corrupt.

I think it’s disingenuous to mention political corruption without also mentioning a) the former political establishment was destroyed and replaced and b) the Charbonneau Commission is actively airing the dirty laundry of our former political establishment. A lot of careers are being destroyed right now, and the citizenry is benefitting in the long run. There’s simply never been a better time to build in this city – everyone’s under the microscope.

Fundamentally, I refuse to take any responsibility for this black eye – it belongs to the corrupt, not the people of this city, nor the city itself. I voted for Projet Montréal and encouraged others to do so as well, so I won’t take the blame or share in the blame for the crimes suspected to have been committed by the Bourque/Tremblay/Applebaum administrations.

LARPers in the Forest
LARPers in the Forest

6. On protests…

Yeah, it really sucks when a group of people use public demonstrations to encourage the discussion of important political issues. It’s not like we’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. The people really should limit their political engagement to blogging eh?

I find it interesting that you don’t recognize the city’s protest movement as a fundamentally good thing. Montreal didn’t dream up Bill 60, the Parti Québécois did. Montréal is rebelling against the proposed draconian legislation, and not just through public demonstrations, but through actions as well. Our city’s major institutions are, one by one, telling the provincial government where they can stick their plan to institutionalize racism and have further made it clear they will openly defy the legislation and use civil disobedience to further their cause.

This doesn’t suck. This is awesome. The people of this city are smart enough to recognize bad policy and are confident enough they make no bones about fighting it. Doing the right thing doesn’t suck.

Doing the right thing never sucks.

Montreal's Finest

7. Some police occasionally act like pricks.

What else is new? I’d rather deal with Montreal police than NYPD or LAPD any day. The fact that our crime rate is at rock bottom tells me they must be doing something right and that our city has figured something out, something crucial. Twenty five years ago we were dealing with over a hundred murders a year. Our city used to have problems with terrorism, armed robbery sprees, serial arsonists, large-scale warfare between biker gangs that resulted in civilian casualties etc. Montreal is recognized today for it’s unbelievably low crime rate. Police aren’t entirely responsible for our drop in crime, but they have played a vitally important role. There are enough good cops in this city who do good work so I’m loathe to universally condemn them all. I’ve never felt unsafe in this city. I know I can go anywhere in complete and total security. Isn’t this worth anything to you? And let’s be really real here – Montreal police are pretty tolerant in some respects. Ever been to the Tam Tams?

As long as you’re not acting a fool as a white man you’re basically invisible to Montreal police. What happened during the Printemps Erable is simply another example of the provincial government fucking around where it didn’t belong. Yes, some Montreal cops acted like assholes when on riot duty. But I’ve been in enough marches and demonstrations I’ve seen the other side of things, like when Montreal police block traffic and actually support the public’s right to mobilize and demonstrate peacefully and keep them safe in the process.

Video Installation at Place des Arts

8. On language laws…

Holy Christ I’m getting repetitive here. It’s a provincial clusterfuck responsibility, not a municipal one. The OQLF is particularly driven to see English eliminated from Montreal and so we have to deal with their BS, but it’s not the city nor the majority of citizens who approve of actions like this. Likely as a direct consequence of the OQLF’s involvement in ‘pastagate’ the proposed Bill 14 was completely scrapped. Oh, and the head of the OQLF who kicked off the whole ‘scandal’ was unceremoniously thrown under the bus by the PQ. From what I’ve heard the organization is going to focus on it’s online translation dictionary and stop taking calls from local lunatics who do much of the frontline ‘investigative’ work.

We can’t possibly suck because as a city our very existence, our continued success is a veritable thumb in the eye of the separatist movement. The language cops have a hard time justifying their existence in an era of austerity budgets, yet, for entirely provincial political reasons it is kept on life support and occasionally pops up in the papers. Of late, the OQLF has earned the scorn of Francophones, Allophones and Anglophones in our city and has only further served to demonstrate just how fundamentally different Montreal is from the PQ’s Saguenay-region perspective on cultural integration.

Steinberg's Stained Glass

9. On neighbourhoods, urban identity and latent racism…

How is it problematic to be interested in which neighbourhood one happens to be from? Montreal’s neighbourhoods are iconic, unique, each with their own local attractions, histories and particular racial/cultural/social mixes. Neighbourhoods say something about the people who live there and vice versa. Neighbourhoods are points of social contact. Neighbourhood pride is a crucial driver of civic engagement. In sum, this city needs people to care about where they live and why they like living there. The Mile End is different from the Plateau, NDG is different from CDN, St-Henri different from HoMa. Each offers something unique, something special that can be appreciated in its own right. Together, the neighbourhoods form this dynamic, fascinating city.

I don’t consider any particular Montreal neighbourhood better or worse than any other, though there may be some gentle ribbing for those in the know. I have a feeling what you perceive as latent racism is really just how Montrealers gauge each other’s connection to and experience with the city. Again, this happens everywhere, especially in Toronto and New York.

It’s an urban thing…


10. Sports.

I get from reading this that sports aren’t really your thing. They’re not really my thing either, so again, a bit of research next time. I don’t even know where to begin. We’re working off the premise that this city sucks and now you’re saying we suck because our sports teams apparently suck. I think we’ve now achieved a grade-school level of maturity in this apparently serious call to enhanced civic engagement.

You should know that the city of Montreal isn’t directly involved in the affairs of the Montreal Canadiens. Denis Coderre has no control over the draft pick. Mayors don’t buy Stanley Cup victories. Say what you will about how well the Habs are doing today, the Bell Centre is regularly sold out and happens to be the largest arena in the NHL.

The Habs are a more profitable franchise today than they were back when they won more regularly. As to the Expos, they’ve been gone for a decade, but existed for 35 years. Warren Cromartie has been busy lining up investors for the Montreal Baseball Project and the proposal is being examined by the Montreal Board of Trade.

If Cro is successful, it will in fact be the second successful relaunching of a pro sports franchise in our city in twenty years. Similarly, the Alouettes were out of the picture for about a decade, then re-launched (in a crumbling old stadium no less) and have since become one of the best franchises in the CFL.

And all that aside, you missed the fact that the Montreal Impact graduated into Major League Soccer two years ago and have an average attendance of 20,000 spectators, about the same as for any Habs game. Our city has three major sports facilities that regularly hold over 20,000 fans (each). Who cares if we’re not winning all the trophies all the time, pro sports have literally never been bigger in our city than they are right now.

It’s good business, it’s good for business.

Tour KPMG Montréal

11. “Almost any day of the week, you’ll see tourists and locals alike wearing Bruins or Leafs memorabilia being verbally harassed”

No. No this simply doesn’t happen. I’ve never, ever, seen anyone give somebody else shit for wearing Bruins or Leafs caps or jerseys, and I’ve lived here my entire life. This is bullshit. Montreal is not some kind of Roch Carrier impression of small-town Quebec life in the 1950s.

12. “I was on the metro the other day politely discussing school with friends when two elderly women began to make comments about the “stupid English that have infested [their] city” and how they “wish Québec would return to being exclusively for the French.”

What can I say, I’m beginning to suspect not everything you wrote can be taken at face value. Did this actually happen to you or is this something you heard happen, once, to someone, somewhere, and you simply decided to invent something for the purposes of good story telling? If it did happen to you, what can I say, sometimes old people aren’t bright but are vocal. Who gives a fuck what these two old bigots think? Fuck them and their ethno-nationalist ideals.

Racism is racism; it’s common amongst the delusional, the demented, the deranged, the geriatric and the profoundly ignorant. You’re living in the centre of a metropolis of over three and half million people – yes, you will occasionally encounter this kind of bullshit, especially in a public space. You had your revenge by telling them off in French, move on. It isn’t happening every day.

I get that your editor had already spun the article for you before you wrote it, as you allude to in the interview on CTV, but please, don’t tell me there aren’t racist old Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers vocally complaining about ‘unclean Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders’.

Hate is pretty universal among the dumb, and with the exception of the Parti Québécois, generally the dumb never get to exercise much political power. You’re going to find loud-mouth assholes in subway systems worldwide complaining about god knows what and you’ll likely be bothered by it. This is why you have an iPod, remember?

Montreal World Trade Centre

13. “Nearly every day, I almost get tackled getting off the metro at Berri-UQAM. I was once pushed back onto the train and forced to ride to the next stop…”



I’m sorry you suck at riding the Métro. Keep your elbows up and don’t be afraid to kick a motherfucker in the shins next time. Seriously though, how can you possibly be having this much trouble using basic public transit? If you’re being jostled about and/or can’t seem to navigate egress I can only make a few recommendations.

First, Berri-UQAM is the single busiest station in the entire system, not only in terms of total passenger traffic, but transfers as well, so be ready for crowds. You can try getting up to leave before arriving at the station.

Second, if you’re planning on getting off a train, make like you look like you’re about to get off a train. Stand up straight, look up and keep your hands in front of you and don’t be afraid to make it clear you’re moving and that they need to get out of the way. You also have a mouth, which you can use to say ‘pardon’ nice and loud. Think of your mouth like how you might use a car horn when backing out onto a freeway…

Given that we’re now well past the 3,000 word mark I suppose I’ll conclude.

If you’re only going to look at the city in a decontextualized, overtly pessimistic light, then yes, we suck the big one.

Suffice it to say I disagree. I don’t think we suck. I think this a shock piece and the natural progression for blog posts once you’ve exhausted the whole ‘I was into it before you were’ schtick and the ‘best of this or that city’ lists that generally populate the blogosphere. I guess once something has been cool/desirable/interesting for long enough it basically becomes a race between hack j-school dropouts to be the first to declare it sucks.

So bold, so brave.

I guess it comforts me somewhat that despite all this city’s many problems (both homegrown and inflicted), true Montrealers know the city still offers far more than she demands in occasional emotional or existential taxation. It has stood and grown for nearly four centuries and we’re still evolving, often at the forefront of key social and political issues. We are the nation’s petrie dish, its incubator, its lynch-pin and focal point. This isn’t boasting or delusions of grandeur, just our history.

And the better we know where we’ve come from, and how we got here, the better we’ll be able to address the challenges of the future.

Ultimately, this city has a lot going for it, but what it could really use right now is a respite from people attempting to cash in on contrarianism masquerading as enlightened criticism.

Taylor out… {drops mic, exists stage left}

Reflecting on Internationalism - Taylor C. Noakes, 2013


Coming haphazardly to a neighbourhood near you!
Coming haphazardly to a neighbourhood near you!

This article was originally published by Forget the Box and can be read here.

There’s really no other way to put it; Canada Post is being sabotaged. It’s politically expedient for the Tories to do so as recently announced cutbacks to door-to-door mail delivery can be spun as a government effort to modernize an ineffective old crown corporation. Lisa Raitt, the minister responsible for Canada Post, has even gone as far as telling opposition MPs critical of the announced cuts that they need to ‘get with reality’ and then sarcastically welcomed honourable members ‘to the 21st century’.

The Tories are pitching this as a sensible method to cut costs and return Canada Post to profitability. They further argue that the elimination of mail carriers won’t have any dire effects on Canada Post’s customer service and that community mailboxes are already the norm in most of the country anyways. Further still, the head of Canada Post, a Tory appointee who scrapped previous revenue-generating schemes developed by his Liberal-appointed predecessor, has referred to market research of dubious quality to back up the decision.

It’s ironic.

The social-media surveys used to justify the government’s position excluded precisely the people who would interact with mail couriers the most. The data’s flawed – Canada Post’s express parcel delivery service is doing just fine. Moreover, the argument that community mailboxes are already the norm is heavily biased towards those living in small communities and rural areas. Of course door-to-door delivery isn’t practical when neighbours live more than a kilometre away from one another. Cities are a different story altogether. Mail couriers play an important social role in large urban areas. It’s not just outreach to seniors and shut-ins; home mail delivery puts a mass of proud government employees on our city streets throughout the day. Eyes and ears walking past your home while you’re off at work. Call it a kind of social security.

We should question the need of our government agencies and corporations from time to time, and the Conservative argument is an enticing one, no doubt, because it has the appearance of modernity, of cost-effective progress. I would argue it’s the Tory approach to nation-building, but rather than giving us something to work towards, the Harper administration is instead telling us what we no longer need or what appears to be impractical. The promise is paradoxical – economic growth by a thousand social cuts.

But here’s the problem. Cuts don’t lead to growth. Reducing government services serves no one better than before. And waste is almost exclusively gathered at the top, rather than the bottom, of these organizations. It’s not the thousands of unionized jobs that need to be eliminated, it’s corporate-level severance packages and executive compensation schemes for the all-too-often unimaginative and incompetent people chosen by equally unimaginative and incompetent government officials to run our government revenue generators and essential services.

The post office is an essential service, even if less mail is being delivered. If less mail is being delivered then perhaps we don’t need quite as many mail couriers, or perhaps they could work less, but eliminating all home mail delivery (and thousands of jobs) without any plan in place to replace them is so unbelievably careless and unnecessary it leads to believe, sincerely, that we are witnessing an act of sabotage.

Canada Post isn’t failing, it’s being set up to fail.

The purported reason for the cuts, that the post office it needs to be ‘returned’ to profitability is a bit of a stretch. It recorded 16 years of profitability before recording one of loss in 2011. The service could afford to cut overhead costs, but could further stand to develop new revenue generation streams. Again, it’s ironic that Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra once stated that his plan was to develop e-commerce solutions for small business as a new Canada Post business venture, yet scrapped a plan to re-develop postal banking in Canada. Many nations (including the UK, France, Germany, Japan, China, Brazil, Korea etc.) have postal banking services which can serve to generate revenue for the postal system, in addition to providing a kind of ‘no-frills’ banking service for people who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t use private banking services. Crucially, postal banking has been used to promote savings among the poor. Instituting a postal banking scheme in this country would be immensely beneficial not only because it would enshrine access to ‘cheap’ banking as an essential service, but would likely further serve to put predatory pay-day loan operations out of business. Who knows, maybe it would serve to get the banks to lower their fees too. A little bit of competition is good for the economy, especially our banking sector.

There are other ways to make the post office more useful to the public and avert the potentially destabilizing effects of eliminating home delivery in urban areas. Why not partner with Service Canada to include passport services at post offices? Why not develop a scheme to share the costs of home delivery with the cities that need the service the most? If one province wants home delivery in its cities and another doesn’t, shouldn’t they each get a chance to negotiate with Canada Post one-on-one?

Unfortunately this isn’t part of the Tory strategy because it’s not congruent with their overall political beliefs. The Conservative Part of Canada and its forebears have followed a strict program designed to eliminate or transfer responsibility of the nation’s essential services, whether via a series of fatal cuts or through privatization. In their opinion government is completely incapable of running a for-profit company and that such crown corporations only serve to undermine the government’s efforts to eliminate debt and deficit. Thus, since the first efforts in this respect by the Mulroney administration, we’ve lost our national airline, our state oil company, our national aircraft manufacturers, our national railway, our uranium mines and have hacked away mercilessly at just about every other service provided by the federal government – including our military, despite all the rhetoric. In almost all cases taxpayer-funded state assets were sold off at a loss with no real return on investment. Worse still, we lost all the intellectual capital that went with it.

Today many of these former crowns continue to exist as private entities, but their current success would never have come about if it weren’t for the incredible investment made by so many Liberal governments of the last century. Though these firms continue to contribute to the Canadian economy, profits aren’t returned to the state. We’ve sold off the former assets of our state oil firm to foreign state oil firms, Canadian National Railways is now officially known as CN for marketing purposes in the United States and Air Canada has a near total monopoly on air travel in Canada. Privatization is always spun as being beneficial to the taxpayer, but winds up hitting the consumer especially hard. It astounds me how often Tories don’t realize taxpayers and consumers are all the same people.

Gutting the state’s ability to sustain essential services and operate an economic foundation of crown corporations has been Tory policy for a very long time, and it contrasts strongly with the economic theories and models put forth by both the NDP and federal Liberals for most of our post-Second World War history. The effects of this policy have only ever been negative. Vital jobs are lost, and the wealth generated by unionized pension plans disappears entirely as it’s not in the private sector’s interest (or ability) to provide anything as competitive in the long-term. Our oil industry isn’t as well regulated, accidents happen and profits go anywhere but here.

In many ways the greatest damage has already been done.

Perhaps this might explain the lack of public outrage at the proposed cuts. We’ve already lost so much of what we invested in, who cares about the post office? We’ve been conditioned into believing the government is incapable of successfully running a business, and yet our economy was considerably stronger, our dollar more valuable and we were far more politically sovereign when our government not only ran multiple, massive crown corporations, but planned and regulated the national economy.

On a closing note, I mentioned earlier that Canada Post provides an unintended social service in that letter carriers provide a kind of a ‘lifeline’ to people living in urban areas who may, for one reason or another, have limited access to the outside world. Letter carriers are responsible government employees with access to trucks and cell phones and they spend most of their time walking around quiet residential areas while residents are off at work. Their presence alone is enough to deter a thief from committing a ‘B&E’. If someone’s calling for help they’ll likely hear it. If they see smoke, they can put in an emergency call and prevent a whole house (or block) from going up in flames. And though the data isn’t available, I wonder how many lost dogs and cats (and even children) have been found by postal workers simply because they happen to be walking the streets of our neighbourhoods. It’s the kind of responsibility, of going the extra mile, that we associate with government employees. The private sector doesn’t have the same social responsibility. Consider the Lac Mégantic disaster (or any other recent derailment or pipeline explosion). There’s a reason this didn’t happen nearly as often (or as severely) back when pipelines and the railway was a strategic federal government interest. The Fed paid for inspections, the Fed organized and operated a better delivery system. Its employees were paid to make absolutely sure there would be no fuck-ups and we got precisely what we paid for. When privatized, the first cuts are always to safety standards and inspections. And when an accident happens, it is the taxpayers who must attend to the bill.

It’s not fair, it’s not right, and the Tories would like you to believe it helps the economy. The announced cuts to Canada Post are unnecessary and overkill considering the nature of the problem and are quite simply a transparent effort to eliminate public sector unions in a misguided sense of ‘getting even’ with people who generally don’t vote Tory. It’s sad, petty and juvenile, and for those reasons an excellent example of the character of our nation’s befuddled government.

You get what you pay for…

The Case for Cabot Square


Poor John Cabot, we hardly new ye.

Most people don’t know who he is or why there’s a sizeable chunk of prime downtown property in a state of seemingly perpetual disrepair named after him.

In fact, it’s not even actually named after him, strictly speaking, as his actual name (in his native Venetian) was Zuan Chabotto.

In English and French, his name was John or Jean Cabot. In Italian it was Giovanni Caboto. In Portuguese he was known as Juan Caboto.

A man by any other name…

Perhaps it is because he is so unknown and comparatively unimportant to the lives of Montrealers that we have allowed the rather large urban park that bears his name to end up the mess that it is. Recent news is that the city is pledging $6.5 million to renovate and revitalize the park, more on which I’ll talk about later.

Hmmm, come to think of it, strictly speaking it’s not a park but a square. In fact, because it’s technically a square there’s no curfew. As far as I know it’s only parks and playgrounds that have curfews in this city.

Thus, this once proud square has become a repository for the city’s homeless, the kiosk has been boarded up for years and the Métro entrance is repository for the homeless in winter months. Lately, efforts to improve the overall aesthetic of the park has resulted in the installation of a multitude of sculptures. So now it’s a repository for post modern art as well.

Montrealers know there’s not much good going on in Cabot Square – at best it’s a poorly designed bus terminus. At it’s worst it’s a shocking example of endemic social inequity.

This is what I find particularly ironic – Cabot Square is generally associated with the city’s transient Aboriginal homeless population. The lasting negative effects of European colonization of North America can be seen just about every day gathered, inebriated, somewhere in the square dedicated incorrectly to a man who was once viewed as our equivalent to Columbus.

I suppose in some ways he is our Columbus. The American veneration of Columbus is as ridiculous as our former veneration of Cabot. Neither Columbus nor Cabot were the first Europeans to reach the Americas, this was done by the Viking Leif Ericson in the 11th century. And neither of them ‘discovered’ the Americas either – this was accomplished by the ancestors of our Aboriginal peoples some ten thousand years ago.

It’s the official position of the government of Canada and the United Kingdom that John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497, so you’re right to wonder why on Earth one and a half acres in the Shaughnessy Village is dedicated in his name. He never had anything to do with Montreal.

And if that all isn’t bad enough, from atop his perch Cabot’s copper gaze is fixed forevermore on the architectural abomination that is the Pepsi AMC Cineplex (awaiting new management) Forum. Our city’s great failure to preserve our shrine to the greatest game is all he has to look at now.

So how did we get here?

The land that became Cabot Square was acquired from the Sulpicians in 1870 for the purposes of a public park in what was then the westernmost extent of the city. Initially it was called, simply, Western Park (the Montreal Children’s Hospital was formerly the ‘Western General Hospital’ if I recall correctly) and it served the large Anglo-Irish middle and upper-class that inhabited the area as a much needed common green. Originally, it featured a large fountain in the middle. The statue of John Cabot was a ‘gift’ from the Italian population of Canada to Montreal and was erected in 1935, though the square wouldn’t be officially recognized as Cabot Square until some time later.

For a good long while Cabot Square was as desirable a place to go as any other large urban space and served as a kind of ‘front yard’ for the Forum throughout that building’s storied time as home to the Montreal Canadiens. It was also immediately adjacent to what became the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 1956, and down the road from the former Reddy Memorial Hospital. The area was, by some estimates, at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s when Westmount Square and Place Alexis-Nihon were built atop and integrated into the Métro system, an early component of the Underground City. At the time, Atwater station was the western terminus of the Green Line and the integration of mass transit, large, contiguous shopping malls, the city’s main arena and residential and commercial towers was at the cutting edge of modern urban design. The Forum was expanded and modified into its ‘classic look’ in 1968 and throughout the next two decades was not only home to the most exciting franchise in the NHL, but was also served as the city’s main large-capacity performance venue. Even into the mid-late 1980s the general area around the square was developing and improving: commercial office towers were added to Place Alexis-Nihon in 1986, Dawson moved into its current home in 1988 and the CCA was completed the following year just down the road.

By the mid-1990s the situation had changed considerably. The Canadiens would leave in the Forum in 1996 and the subsequent ‘entertainment complex’ developed in the renovated building never quite took off as intended. The Reddy closed down about the same time as Ste-Catherine Street West began its steep decline into a bit of a ghost town, as storefronts remained vacant for well over a decade. Today there are still too many unoccupied buildings on that stretch of our city’s main commercial artery, another hospital is slated to close, and the Forum seems to be an even greater disappointment as former ‘anchor’ tenants pack up their bags.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

The city’s plan to invest $6.5 million to renovate the square is definitely a step in the right direction – it needs a lot of work. But there are critics, notably City Councillor for the Peter-McGill district, Steve Shanahan. He argues that an aesthetic makeover won’t solve the square’s homeless problem.

He’s right, but then again, it’s not exactly the square’s homeless problem; it’s Montreal that has a general homeless problem. Mr. Shanahan is arguing that half the allocated sum be used to address the homeless issue as it specifically relates to Cabot Square – though he was particularly outraged the city’s plan doesn’t include the destruction of the aforementioned Métro entrance at the northwest corner of the square, immediately adjacent to the unused Vespasienne (which was, to my knowledge, never actually in use as a public pissoir, but used variously as a flower vendor and bistro or snack bar).

For people unfamiliar with the area, the Métro entrance is a rather cumbersome structure that features an oddly large vestibule and other space used variously by the STM. It’s an unnecessary structure (from a public transit perspective) that blocks access to the square and serves as a kind of homeless hangout.

This wasn’t always the case. When the Métro entrance was built it was, in my opinion, ingeniously well-designed. The entrance is oriented towards the centre of the square and this is important given the square’s former use as the Forum’s ‘front yard’ – large crowds could come out of the Forum and into the square instead of spilling out onto Atwater. Having people move into the square in turn facilitated dispersal amongst STM services – Métro on one side, the old bus terminus on Lambert-Closse on the other.

The placement of the bus terminus across from the Métro entrance also guaranteed a constant stream of foot traffic through the square, and generally speaking we tend to take decent enough care of that which we use most often.

But some years ago the decision was made to eliminate the bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, replacing them with several smaller glass shelters at multiple bus stops arranged around the square. Why this decision was made I’d really like to know. Buses still congregate on the eastern side of the square and, again somewhat ironically, the bus shelters have become makeshift pissoirs, used by the local drunks.

Credit to R.N. Wilkins - photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation
Credit to R.N. Wilkins – photo of the Atwater Terminus before mid-1960s renovation

In the history of Cabot Square’s long demise, I think this was the first bad move. It removed people from the centre of the square and re-distributed them along its edge. Worse, the new shelters, along with hedges and decorative gates, made it difficult for see across the square, allowing people a degree of privacy inside the square. It was only a matter of time before it gained a regular homeless population – Berri Square (Place Emilie-Gamelin) suffers from exactly the same problem. When people can’t see clearly across a square, when there are aesthetic elements that block views, people generally stay out and keep to the edge. Policing these areas becomes difficult. In both cases police have resorted to simply parking their cruisers right in the middle of the squares in a show of force to drug dealers. Is it any wonder people stay out of these public spaces?

All this considered, I don’t think Cabot Square is a lost cause, the city just needs to realize it can’t throw money at the problem and hope it disappears. If we want a better functioning, more welcoming Cabot Square we have to consider what’s around the square too, and how the neighbourhood has changed in the last twenty years.

I’d argue the square could do without the current Métro entrance, but I wouldn’t recommend eliminating the entrance and the tunnel as well. Access to the Métro is a plus for any public space, but we could afford a less obtrusive entrance. Something closer to the Art Nouveau entrance at Square Victoria seems more appropriate.

It would be wise to return to one large bus terminus on Lambert-Closse, and remove all the obstructions along the edge of the square so that it can be accessed from all sides. It is a city square after all, it’s supposed to be ‘open concept’. The city’s current plan seeks to enlarge the square by expanding onto Lambert-Closse, eliminating two lanes. I’d prefer to see expansion to the south instead – that stretch of Tupper has always seemed a bit useless to me. Either way, the benefits of a single bus terminus are wide-ranging. Increased safety and security, concentration of activity, the option to build a large heated bus shelter, and that it would encourage transit users to cross through the square.

More broadly, the city needs to have a plan in place for the future of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. What will come of this massive building, arguably a heritage site worth preserving? I would hate to see it converted into condos, though I think this is unlikely. It’s institutional space and we need as much of that as we can get our hands on. Perhaps it will become a public retirement/assisted-living home, or maybe it will be bought up by Dawson College, given they’ve been over-capacity and renting space in the Forum for a while now.

At least part of the former hospital could potentially be used as a homeless shelter.

But all this will take some serious leadership from City Hall. A $6.5 million renovation plan is a good start, but the square needs rehabilitation as well. The western edge of the downtown has a lot going for it, but the city will have to develop a master plan that tackles a lot more than just the landscaping problems.

A place as ‘Westmount adjacent’ as Cabot Square should be a far more desirable place to be.

Austerity Measures & Bad Design in Montreal Public Transit

And now for something completely different...
And now for something completely different…

Not exactly the kind of news regular users of Montreal’s public transit system want to hear, but it looks like the city’s public transit agency is facing a budget shortfall of $20 million, and this apparently is going to result in service cuts – the first since the late 1990s despite increased usage. The city recently tabled it’s 2014 budget, which includes $12.5 million for the municipal transit agency, but this apparently isn’t enough to keep up current service rates according to STM President Philippe Schnobb.

Thus, cuts will focus on evening and weekend bus service, promotions and general cleanliness and maintenance.

I find it surprising that there’s money for new uniforms, however. You’d think the STM would use that money to keep buses moving and our Métro stations clean, given that it’s ridership that provides the primary revenue stream. Cutting back on the availability and quality of the principal service provided by the organization while spending money on new uniforms seems like a piss-poor idea to me. This wouldn’t happen in the private sector. Can you imagine the outrage if Air Canada cut back on flights and the general maintenance of their aircraft in a move to save money, all the while repainting the airplanes and buying new uniforms?

k-9_subway_std -

I guess that’s the key difference between the private and public sectors. Taxpayers aren’t shareholders, though we should be considered as such.

Above is a good example of why austerity measures don’t really work. It starts with cuts to cleanliness and maintenance, then security, and before you know it you’ve got the NYC Subway in the 1980s – filthy, unappealing, covered in graffiti and requiring police K9 units to maintain ‘law & order’. We shouldn’t follow their example. Rather we should learn from their mistakes.

Perhaps it’s political. Maybe there’ll be a back and forth and one day in a few weeks Mayor Coderre comes out and says, as a result of his fiscal prowess, the remainder of the STM’s budget shortfall will be covered by the city.

But I won’t be holding my breath. A 3% cut to service is just small enough it won’t result in mass demonstrations. Just frustration from the people most dependent on public transit, an unfortunately politically inconsequential demographic it seems.

I don’t know why they didn’t consider raising the fare. I think most public transit users would pay more to ensure, at the very least, that there are no cuts to upkeep, cleaning and maintenance.

It’s hard enough to keep our Métro stations and buses looking good – they need to be cleaned and maintained regularly or else they fall into disrepair. Haven’t we learned anything from the Champlain Bridge? Never cut back on regular maintenance – the problem not addressed today will be even more problematic tomorrow.


I included the photo above as an example. Métrovision is actually running ads boasting about the total number of screens installed throughout the system, but as most regular users will tell you, many of the screens seem to be defective. I took the above photo at Vendome a few nights back – each screen was similarly defective, some had those annoying black spots, evidence of someone having hit or thrown something at the LCD screen. At Lionel-Groulx all four projectors weren’t working on the upper deck of the station – they haven’t worked for months. At Guy-Concordia and Bonaventure the situation was much the same as at Vendome – the screens have either been busted by vandals and/or the image doesn’t display properly.

And the STM is going to cut back on maintenance?

I’d be less concerned if it weren’t for the STM’s ‘half-assing it’ approach to improving the public transit system we have. The Métrovision screens are just one example of a good idea so poorly and inefficiently executed it makes me wonder if it wasn’t done on purpose so as to ensure the need for long-term maintenance contracts. Then there’s the Métrovision screens installed behind concrete beams at Snowdon Métro, meaning it can only be seen if you’re standing directly underneath it (see photo at top). Another example, the new bus shelters at Lionel-Groulx. The STM built what I can only describe as the world’s most ineffective bus shelter:


Now, if Montreal were located 1,000 km south (and the average Montrealer stood ten feet tall) this might not be such a bad design. But such is not the case, and this is apparently, actually the best the STM could come up with.

If this is what austerity gets us, it would be best not to build at all. These shelters are useless, primarily because they don’t provide much shelter. It’s really just that simple.

I’d prefer the STM stops putting up fancy new bus shelters with interactive advertisements and just focus on making what we already have work better. Figure out a way to get rid of the slush accumulating in Guy-Concordia. Try to eliminate the pervasive stench of urine at Bonaventure. Encase all the TV screens in a plexiglas container (why wasn’t this done from the start?). Run more buses, run the Métro later etc. And for Christ’s sake – install some public washrooms!

Now, that aside, a few questions I have re: advertising.

Recently, I was dismayed to find Sherbrooke station, and several others, looking like this:



Again, who the hell at the STM thought this was a good idea?

If only I could nominate this for the worst advertising campaign in the Métro’s proud history.

I feel it demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the general aesthetic and architecture of the stations (let’s not forget, each was designed by its own team of architects, features its own art, layout etc.), not to mention serves as an excellent demonstration of how we treat our public spaces. That is, cheaply.

This is cheap, that’s the only word for it. We may as well cover all the station walls with cork board and hang staplers on the wall. Is it any wonder we also have to contend with vandals going out of their way to destroy what we have? If the people who run the system don’t appear to be terribly interested with keeping things presentable, how can they expect the people to treat it any better?

Isn’t there a slightly better way to generate advertising revenue than by pasting over the walls of our Métro stations with uninspired marketing gimmicks?

It doesn’t make any sense really. The STM is aces when it comes to designing their own branding, instructional and promotional materials, and I’d argue both the vehicles and the systems are all very well designed indeed. But when it comes to infrastructure, the simple stuff in the grand scheme of things, the STM proves to be maddeningly inconsistent. From garbage cans to benches, bus shelters to tunnels, advertising space, PA systems and TV screens, the STM has demonstrated a lack of imagination at best and incompetence at worst.

But as always, there are some interesting solutions to consider if we open ourselves to alternative ways of thinking.

Take for instance, the TESCO virtual supermarket found in the Seoul Subway.


There’s no question advertising is a key component of the STM’s overall plan to generate revenue, but it doesn’t have to be so much of the same old thing. As technology develops, advertising can move into interesting new territory. Take the above example. Rather than merely advertise a grocery store, TESCO brought the supermarket directly to the consumers as they wait to commute home at the end of the working day. Using your smartphone you simply scan the items you wish to purchase and place your order with online payment. The order is delivered by the end of the day. In time, developments such as a virtual store app linked to a credit or debit account could render the payment process automatic, and data provided by the user, the subway system and the smartphone could facilitate even more efficient delivery methods, timed to coincide with just after the user arrives home. The possibilities here are endless.

The TESCO virtual store model isn’t just impressive for its efficiency and the service it offers its customers, it’s also the best kind of advertising I could possibly imagine because it actually does something – it responds to my needs rather than telling me how a given store will satisfy my needs like no other. In terms of supermarkets and pharmacies the tired old pitch of incredible savings borders on the absurd (think about those idiotic Jean Coutu ads you hear on the radio set to the tune of Eine kleine Nachtmusik; ah, the refined elegance of simply unimaginable savings potential at my local chain-pharmacy! Gimme a break.)

I’d much rather have something like this serve as an advertisement. Something tells me you could easily justify slightly higher advertising rates in doing so. The STM shouldn’t wait for good design in advertising, they should push innovation in design as part of the broader image of the city as a design hub. Innovation of this type improves the overall experience enjoyed by public transit users due to the potential to save people the legitimate hassle of having to schlep to the supermarket. Yes it’s advertising, but it also provides a useful service too. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the South Koreans would be on top of this – generally speaking the mass transit systems of the Far East are prized by the citizenry, immaculately clean, punctual – a sign of modernity and progress to be enjoyed by everyone. Including a virtual supermarket in the South Korean context is simply the next step in providing an even more exceptional customer experience.

The Montreal Métro came into being eight years before the Seoul Metropolitan Subway commenced operations in 1974. Today we have a modest improvement of the original model and Seoul boasts the world’s largest, most comprehensive and most used subway system. Whereas we are complacent in our approval to cut back on station cleanliness and allow the provincial government to dictate how and when our Métro will be expanded, the Seoul system is internationally recognized for its polished look, air-conditioned cars and 4G LTE and WiFi service, in addition to overall ease of use.

We designed one of the world’s best mass transit systems over a decade before the South Koreans, and have pretty much rested on our laurels ever since. Today we’re riding 40 year-old trains and they’re operating a system generations ahead of our own.

I suppose it’s all a matter of priorities…