Media war against limits to cars continues in Montreal

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 Montreal’s Parc Mont-Royal. 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, Montreal’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 Montreal’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 kilometres of King Street to facilitate streetcars, which move 65,000 riders through downtown every weekday. With auto manufacturers and 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 Montreal Gazette is on the warpath against curtailing car traffic over the mountain, car ads covered the bottom of page one, two thirds of page four, one third of page five, all of page siz and seven, two thirds of page nine, 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 that 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 Montreal 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 Montreal 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 Montreal requires the new Metro line, new buses, multiple light rail lines and more. (Montreal’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 Montreal’s car stock, which increased by 200,000 vehicles between 2011 and 2016. It ignores the depths of our unfolding urban planning and climate disasters, whereby billions of dollars in public and private funds continue to be plowed into far-flung areas designed to maximize driving. These facts partly explain why transport now represents 40 per cent of Montreal’s greenhouse gas emissions and Arctic temperatures have been 30 degrees 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), and more.

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,” or “don’t restrict donations to political parties, offer more public financing,” or “don’t cut military spending, encourage peace.” 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 street, 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 enable walking, biking, and mass transit. Highlighting one impact of the either-or dynamic, University of Waterloo Urban 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 Montreal’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.

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