Category Archives: Montreal Quebec

Exchanging Cars for Housing

Who could possibly be against doing something that would be both good for the environment and improve housing affordability in our biggest cities?

By turning public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles into social/co-op/rental housing it is possible to put a dent into runaway climate change while improving housing affordability and urbanity.

Radio Canada recently reported on a 14-storey co-op set to be built just behind the Bell Centre on the southern edge of downtown Montréal. The Coopérative Montagne Verte will have 136 units, which will make it the largest housing co-op in a single building in Montreal. Having received a piece of city land, the co-op will be financed in equal measure with public funds and a long-term mortgage. If all goes according to plan, hundreds will gain access to affordable housing in an area with easy access to employment and services by foot, bike and mass transit.

In discussing the barrier to building more co-ops Radio Canada claimed, “the scarcity of land in Montreal is also an important issue.”  This is absurd. In fact, one of the city’s principal problems is the abundance of public land devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis (40 per cent of Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions are from transport.)

Near where the Coopérative Montagne Verte will be located, for instance, is a highway that has gobbled up a large swath of the city centre. Thousands could be housed on the public roadway and adjacent areas destroyed by it.

In what would be a more straightforward cars-for-shelter exchange, Boulevard René-Lévesque is wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Thousands of family sized social/co-op/rental units could be built and it would improve the city for its inhabitants and the planet. While it may seem radical, this move would simply be a return to before buildings were demolished to widen the street in the 1940s and 50s.

Other car spaces in the city centre could easily be turned into affordable housing. The three blocks of McGill College between Cathcart and Sherbrooke and a number of other non-through streets between Sherbrooke and Saint Catherine on the western edge of downtown could be reclaimed for multi-story dwellings. To the east, avenue du Parc Lafontaine between Sherbrooke and Rachel is wide enough to build a row of smaller units with a narrow street on each side.

With housing affordability an even bigger issue in Toronto and Vancouver there would be much to gain by turning public roadway into co-op/rental/social housing there. The land destroyed by the centrally located Gardiner Expressway could house thousands. Rather than spending $3.6 billion to fix the monstrosity, Toronto could subsidize co-op/social housing on this prime piece of public real estate.

Proof that cars-for-housing exchange is not pie in the sky, Vancouver’s city council voted to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts at the eastern edge of downtown. Their plan to build thousands of housing units (30% “social housing”) is better than the status quo, but not ambitious enough. The city should eliminate the boulevard that is part of the current plan and turn it all into a car free social/co-op/rental housing oasis. Ideally located for getting around by foot, bike and Skytrain, the area reclaimed for housing should also be extended along Georgia Street into downtown.

A whopping 27.4% of Toronto is roadway (another 13 per cent is parks and open spaces — a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic filled streets). I was unable to find the exact proportion of Vancouver and Montréal devoted to roadway, but a significant share of those cities is also devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles.

We need to build an environmentalist/urbanist/housing rights coalition that would push to turn swaths of this land into social/co-op/rental housing.

Project Montréal is Right to Stop Car Traffic over Mountain

Do you support humanity and livability? Or the “right” of people to use private cars?

This question is aimed particularly at the left end of the political spectrum, to that part of the public who should know better.

It’s been dispiriting to see progressives echo a right wing municipal party/dominant media campaign against curtailing car traffic through Montréal’s mountain park. Anyone concerned with humanity’s fate should avoid amplifying the reactionary backlash to a move that would mitigate Québec and Canada blowing past unambitious carbon targets for 2020 and probably 2030.

Recently Montréal’s new city government announced a five-month pilot project that will block through traffic on a road over Mount Royal — a dominant geographic feature and the city’s namesake. Private cars would still have access to parking lots at the top of the park, but there will be cul-de-sacs to deter drivers from using Camilien Houde street to cross the mountain.

Project Montréal’s rationale for curtailing through traffic is that a cyclist was killed by an SUV on the roadway five months ago while city reports dating back many years have suggested curbing traffic to improve the park.

Unfortunately, numerous leftists have joined the all too predictable reaction to this modest challenge to auto hegemony. While the particulars of each meltdown differ, almost every challenge to car dominance elicits a media storm. There have been howls of outrage since Toronto reduced parking spots and car traffic on 2.5 km of King Street to facilitate streetcars, which move 65,000 riders through downtown every weekday. With auto manufacturers/dealers their biggest advertisers, the media gave King Street business owners ample space to drone on about lost sales yet four months into the year-long pilot project credit card and Interac data show that business activity was actually up (in line with seasonal patterns).

(To get a sense of why the Montréal Gazette is on the warpath against curtailing car traffic over the mountain, car ads covered the bottom of page 1, two thirds of page 4, one third of page 5, all of page 6 and 7, two thirds of page 9, two thirds of page 11 and the entire back of the 12 page front section on March 12. Additionally, nearly half of an eight page “Driving” section was car ads.)

On Facebook progressive auto enthusiasts have presented two specious arguments to oppose the pilot project to ban through traffic across Mount Royal. They’ve cited the needs of older and differently abled folks, which is bizarre since private cars will still (unfortunately) have access to the mountain. More fundamentally, do people actually believe a city structured around the private car is better for the blind and differently abled? Or, older people who no longer have a license? And how about those under driving age?

People without licenses and with physical mobility issues generally benefit from dense living spaces that have goods and services nearby.

The most commonly expressed argument for opposing the mountain pilot project and – other efforts to reduce car pathways – is that it’s wrong to punish driving until new transport services are in place.

It is no doubt imperative to expand mass transit as part of inducing individuals to ditch their cars. In a small step in that direction the city council recently purchased 965 buses. Yes, the provincial and federal governments should be pressed to fund the large new Metro line Project Montréal proposed during the recent election, but every mass transit supporter – instead of opposing a pilot project to curtail traffic on the mountain – should challenge Project Montréal for dropping their previous proposal to build light rail along a number of major streets. While our ecocidal political culture may view a new Metro line as ambitious, a post–private car Montréal requires the new Metro line, new buses, multiple light rail lines and more. (Montréal’s per capita share of the federal government’s $60+ billion warship program would cover the cost of the Metro line or multiple light rail lines.)

The ‘we cannot encumber the private auto until there’s greater public transit’ is effectively an argument to continue the steady expansion of Montréal’s car stock, which increased by 200,000 vehicles between 2011 and 2016. It ignores the depths of our urban planning/climate disaster whereby billions of dollars in public and private funds continue to be plowed into far-flung areas designed to maximize driving, which partly explains why transport now represents 40% of Montréal’s greenhouse gas emissions and Arctic temperatures have been 30°C above normal this winter.

More concretely, the don’t ‘encumber private autos until all alternatives transport modes are in place’ argument ignores the fact that the dearth of political pressure for better mass transit is tied to the convenience of getting everywhere by car; the billions of dollars plowed into roadway every year could go to public transit; when roadway and parking are largely free, and injury, policing and pollution costs externalized, people cross town for what is often available closer at hand (and certainly would be if folks weren’t driving multiple kilometers for groceries), etc.

Or to look at it from a broader perspective, the ‘we can’t encumber the auto’ argument is akin to saying don’t oppose pipelines, encourage alternatives to oil dependence; don’t restrict donations to political parties, offer more public financing; don’t cut military spending, encourage peace, etc. In fact, it makes even less sense than these examples since urban space is finite. There will either be a road, light rail, bike path or sidewalk on a piece of land (ideally large swaths of public land currently devoted to roadway would be turned into social/co-op/rental housing). Camilien Houde Road, for instance, replaced a trolley line through the park.

To a large extent urban planning is an either-or proposition. Either we make decisions to enable private car travel or walking/biking/mass transit. Highlighting one impact of the either-or dynamic, University of Waterloo planning professor Brian Doucet recently noted, “there’s no sugar-coating it: We can only make our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists when road space is taken away from cars.”

By feeding the backlash to Project Montréal’s modest pilot project curtailing car travel through a public park, leftists are increasing the likelihood it will be reversed. More troublingly, they are putting a brake on larger scale efforts to reorient the urban landscape away from the most dangerous, loud, classist and polluting form of transport.

The sooner private cars drive off into the sunset, though not over the mountain, the better off our cities and planet will be.