Montréal Basics: why do we have the Métro?

The Azur Métro is unparalleled in its ability to form a dramatic backdrop for government and corporate photo opportunities. As of July 2015, six trains have been delivered and none are in operation.
The Azur Métro is unparalleled in its ability to form a dramatic backdrop for government and corporate photo opportunities. As of July 2015, six trains have been delivered and none are in operation.

Put it another way, given the hazards and expense that comes with building a subway system, why did Montréal choose to develop the Métro in the 1960s instead of other mass transit systems? Why not elevated trains, like in Chicago? Or streetcars, like in Toronto? Monorails were pretty popular fifty years ago, but aside from the Minirail system developed for Expo 67, we didn’t pursue that idea very far.

The trend in North America at the time of the Métro’s development was generally in favour of buses over all other types of mass transit systems. Indeed, electric trams that had been built in numerous large and medium sized American cities around the turn of the 20th century were for the most part eliminated in the 1950s, and in the 1960s the only other subway system developed in North America was that of Mexico City. The ‘General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy Theory‘ posits that GMC conspired to convince cities and towns across North America to eliminate their tram systems in order to secure bus sales, though despite congressional testimony and the opinions of some experts remains highly contentious, some argue the true rationale, as always, is far far more complex.

At the time of Montréal’s Métro construction, citizens were as concerned about the cost as they are today, and few believed Mayor Jean Drapeau could get the job done in time for Expo 67 (hell, most people thought the fair itself was too great a commitment with too little time to fully realize the vision).

It’s curious that a lot of people today count the Métro as Expo 67’s most enduring legacy; the Métro and Expo were completely separate endeavours, the former was being planned well before the latter was even an option. Construction of the Métro began in April of 1962. Montréal would be rewarded the 1967 exposition in November of 1962, after originally losing the bid to Moscow (who subsequently withdrew due to cost and security concerns).

In fact, the idea to build a subway in Montréal dates back to the early 20th century, more or less around the same time as Chicago, New York and Boston were developing their systems. And the rationale was fairly straightforward too: city streets were clogged with traffic, the existing mass transit system was overloaded and slow-moving and a new high-speed, high-capacity public transit system was necessary to correct both problems.

The 1944 subway plan for Montreal
The 1944 subway plan for Montreal

Still, digging out a subway system isn’t the most obvious solution to the congestion problem, and in the 1950s (when automobiles first became truly affordable and Montréal’s outer ring suburbs began to develop) the city was busy developing a more car-centric transport system. Highways were planned and pushed through into the core of the city, major boulevards were widened, the street railway network was demolished and replaced with a fleet of arguably more agile buses and large tracts of land downtown became massive parking lots. And this didn’t just happen in Montreal either… most large American cities experienced the same process at roughly the same time.

Unfortunately, and again like other large American cities, the rise of the automobile hastened an exodus of the ascendant local middle class to suburbs outside the city proper. By 1966, when the Montréal Métro opened, the city’s population was beginning to shrink, a process that would continue for the next forty years. The loss of middle-class tax revenue would have a detrimental effect on the city’s ability to finance Métro construction.

Curiously, reserved lanes for buses, and bus-rapid-transit (BRT) were not considered as suitable alternatives to a subway system back in the 1960s, though they are apparently considered suitable nowadays.

As far as I can figure we have our Métro largely for the following reasons:

1. Winter snow storms. The idea to build a subway in Montréal dates back to 1910 or so, and had been revised several times by the STM’s predecessors before construction began in 1962. In 1910 the Boston, New York and Philadelphia subway systems were relatively new and their construction was in turn largely influenced by the Great Blizzard of 1888, a storm that killed 400 people across the Eastern Seaboard, from Montreal down to Baltimore. The storm paralyzed major cities for days. Doug Most’s The Race Underground is a fascinating read that further illuminates the race between Boston and New York to develop the United States’ first subway systems.

2. Subways, unlike all other forms of mass transit, offer three specific advantages: they’re faster, they can carry more people more frequently and can operate regardless of weather conditions outside. And to this point, the Métro continued operating during the Great Blizzard of 1971, a storm so severe it shut down the bus system and resulted in Montréal police requisitioning snowmobiles from private citizens just to get around.

The 1966 incarnation of the Métro (though not with original station names)
The 1966 incarnation of the Métro (though not with original station names)

The first incarnation of the Métro involved 26 stations on two lines (Orange and Green), spanning 26 kilometres. It was built in four and a half years.

Twenty stations were opened to the public in October 1966 and the rest of the initial network would open within the next six months. This was completely financed by the City of Montreal (to the tune of $213.7 million in 1966 or $1.6 billion today) and at its height involved 5,000 construction workers.

The city planned the eastern extension of the Green Line (from Frontenac to Honoré-Beaugrand) to open in time for the 1976 Olympics, the western extension to Angrignon would open two years later. The western extension of the Orange Line would begin with Lucien-L’Allier and Georges-Vanier opening in the spring of 1980, and would be completed, along with the Blue Line, in 1988. The three station extension to Laval was completed in 2007.

The idea that the Métro could be extended outside the underground has been fairly common since the late-1970s, and goes hand in hand with the provincial government getting involved in Montréal’s transit planning. Control over the design and development of Montréal’s Métro system gradually shifted from the city to the province, culminating in a provincially-issued moratorium on any further development in 1990. In essence, this moratorium has been lifted, first for the Laval extension, and today for the planned extension of the Blue Line east towards Anjou (an idea that’s been floated by Transport Quebec since 1979), but what remains is the complete and total lack of direct city involvement in developing our Métro system. It strikes me as odd that we should not have this responsibility. After all, we’re the ones using it.

The Métro planned for 1982 in 1967; clearly in mid-late 1960s the city had the long-view in mind. Can you imagine how practical this system would be if we had it today?
The Métro planned for 1982 in 1967; clearly in mid-late 1960s the city had the long-view in mind. Can you imagine how practical this system would be if we had it today?

It’s not just whose ultimately responsible for the Métro’s development that has changed; so too has the vision for the system. Back in the 1960s the city was planning for an immense Métro network by the year 2000, one that would have included nine lines to serve a metropolitan city of seven million people. Obviously the population never grew to that amount, though the the geographic distribution of our current metropolitan population of four million certainly occupies much of the same space.

Montréal benefits immensely from its public transit network but lacks much direct control over adapting the system to population shifts within the metropolitan region. Despite the fact that our public transit system helps alleviate congestion, it now has become congested in its own right. Much like the late 1950s when the extant streetcar system was deemed overloaded and in need of replacement, we now find ourselves with a Métro system that’s feeling the stress of high operational tempo and increasing usage demands. Additionally, planned replacement trains still haven’t been delivered and the oft-discussed Anjou extension still seems to be under study by the provincial transportation ministry. Extending the Métro without new trains doesn’t make much sense, especially on the least used line in the system. That said, tacking on a BRT lane or streetcar line to Saint-Michel station (as proposed by Mayor Coderre) also doesn’t make much sense (i.e. it wouldn’t be the Métro, light rail or buses operating at street level would be slower and have to contend with traffic and congestion and would further require the inconvenience of transferring at Saint-Michel station).

This extension map was proposed by the AMT several years ago. It demonstrates extensions further into Laval, Longueuil and the East End
This extension map was proposed by the AMT several years ago. It demonstrates extensions further into Laval, Longueuil and the East End

However, were we to actually start receiving the new Azur Métro trains sometime soon, then extension becomes a bit more realistic. In the meantime the city and STM should focus on what improvements need to be made to make the Métro operate at an optimal rate, and what should be done to encourage incrementally greater use use over the long term. This involves planning commuter trains and bus lines in conjunction with the Métro; ultimately, the best public transit systems are so heavily integrated they cannot be developed in silos.

An expanded Métro system is still without question the fastest and most efficient method to move large volumes of people throughout the urban core of the metropolis and most of the denser inner ring suburbs, and the city should be planning for a future in which the Métro is the principle method by which Montrealers get around their city. Yes it’s expensive to dig out tunnels, but far more so if the system is only planned in small segments with extensions taking place every 15-20 years. I say again, originally we built 26 stations in four and a half years, and then another 39 stations in the 23 years that followed Expo 67. In the last 25 years only three stations have been added to the network. We have already demonstrated the ability to conceive, design, finance and construct comprehensive subway systems by ourselves, but are presently prevented from doing so.

As such, today’s Métro is inadequate given present and projected use, not to mention real population distribution.

Congestion is still a problem, winter snow storms can still (nearly) paralyze the city, and it’s in our interest to get cars off the roads and passengers into public transit simply by virtue of the realities of climate change and the very finite amount of oil left to be extracted.

We have to plan for a future reality in which the individual ownership of passenger vehicles powered by non-renewable sources is no longer feasible for the majority of the population.

This reality is fast approaching. And it’s not just the volatile cost of oil that will dictate the required development of our public transit system. There’s the additional factor of a multi-generational desire to live far closer to the city than either their parents or grandparents generations. There’s significant cultural cachet to city living, particularly in Montréal, and so that will also place greater demand on public transit alternatives to generally-congested city streets.

I don’t think we can afford to wait much longer, and we certainly can no longer afford to let the province determine how and when the jewel of our mass transit system will be extended. Montréal, now more than ever, needs a twenty-five year plan for public transit development.

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