Let’s reclaim Montreal from the automobile

For those of us of left-wing persuasion, it’s counterintuitive to call for the privatization of public lands.

But, generally, the less public space there is in a neighbourhood, the more pleasant it is. And the less of a toll it takes on the planet.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that we have trouble seeing it: Most public land in urban areas is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to global warming.

The private automobile is a city- and planet-killer.

So much of our civic resources are spent on enabling cars that we have become slaves to their requirements. It is not just the money we spend to build and maintain roads and the other necessities of automotive existence, but also the way the car shapes the very form of our city. Or, to be more accurate, misshapes.

The problem can best be illustrated by the way many of Montreal’s genuinely attractive public spaces are ruined by our car craziness. A little park I pass daily at the corner of René-Lévesque Blvd. and Amherst St. is a case in point. It’s barely frequented because few people want to relax next to six lanes of traffic. And oddly, the Ville-Marie Expressway has been rarely mentioned in the debate about demolishing the expansive Agora sculpture in Viger Square. Agora or not, Viger Square is uninviting largely because it sits atop the expressway and is surrounded by multi-lane roads with drivers speeding on and off the highway.

Of course, roadways are not the only public lands devoted to automotive worship. The Maison Radio-Canada devotes more space to parking than its building and satellites. In the early 1960s, 5,000 people were forced to move to make way for what’s now largely a parking lot. While socialists don’t generally favour privatizing the public broadcaster, a plan floated in 2008 to sell CBC land to build 2,000 housing units would have done wonders for the neighbourhood.

On a lesser scale, the same is true of the Hydro-Québec headquarters, Jeanne-Mance Housing project and central police station. Their parking lots are blights on the Quartier des spectacles/ Quartier Latin corridor and encourage vehicle use in an area well serviced by transit and lodging options. Privatizing these parking lots would raise tens of millions of dollars for the respective public institutions and the land could be put to commercial or other uses.

When public space is taken from cars and given to businesses, the improvements can be startling. Allowing restaurants, bars and stores to set up terrasses or sell their goods on 15 blocks of Ste-Catherine St. E. four months of the year is incredibly popular, with pedestrians swarming the open streets. Local business profits improve, along with the atmosphere — both ecological and cultural.

We need to build on this experience, to be bold. We need to harness the capitalist drive to privatize with urban planning principles and ecological sustainability.

Our first demand should be to sell off René-Lévesque and turn the street into dwellings and businesses. Large swaths of René-Lévesque are wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Privatizing René-Lévesque would be a major step forward in rebuilding a walking city, a healthy city for its inhabitants and the planet.

Privatizing the arteries that feed the cancer weakening Montreal could lead to a healthier, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city.

Urban dwellers, ecologists and capitalists unite! We have nothing to lose but the public spaces killing us.

(This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette)

Listen to Yves’s interview with Tommy Schnurmacher on CJAD 800  here.

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