Save our children, replace downtown highways with housing 

Protest after Mariia Legenkovska’s death

Project Montréal’s response to Mariia Legenkovska’s tragic death highlights the hollowness of their green, livability, rhetoric.

At a recent press conference to announce the city’s response to the seven-year-old’s death I criticized Valerie Plante’s failure to curb the dominance of dangerous, climate destroying, private vehicles. Just prior to my interruption Montréal’s Mayor declared, “there are too many cars, they’re too big and they drive too fast.” But Plante proceeded to announce that three streets near where Legenkovska was killed would be turned into one-ways.

As I told the mayor and assembled media, this move is far from an adequate response to Legenkovska’s death. Nor does it align with Project Montréal’s expressed commitment to making neighborhoods more livable or tackling the climate crisis.

As someone who writes about international affairs, I’ve become somewhat numb to horrible news. Still, I cried learning about Legenkovska’s death. Soon after fleeing the horror of war, the seven-year-old Ukrainian was cut down while walking with her siblings to school.

I’ve taken my 5 ½-year-old – the half is important to him – to the park next to where Legenkovska was killed. I’m both pleased – and troubled – to say Joshua often asks for my hand to cross streets since he understands, as the mayor elegantly put it, “there are too many cars, they’re too big and they drive too fast.”

The dominance of private cars not only restricts children’s freedom to explore and live carefree, it also undermines their future. 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in Montreal are released in transport and climate-altering pollution from this source is growing. Plante will tell you this herself. She’ll also attend climate marches, endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and extol biodiversity pacts.

But six years after “ecologist” Project Montréal won government the number of cars in the city hasn’t diminished. To stem the ecological and social devastation wrought by private automobiles we must demand far greater transformation than some one-way streets, bike paths or wider sidewalks.

As I pointed out in my intervention, there shouldn’t be two highways running through downtown. Public land on René Levesque Street currently devoted to the most dangerous, loud and polluting form of transport should be put to use combating the city’s growing affordable housing crisis. From Atwater to the Jacques Cartier Bridge, most of René-Lévesque is wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. In a direct cars-for-shelter exchange, thousands of social/co-op/rental units could be built while simultaneously improving urbanity.

While it may seem radical, this move would simply reverse an historical error. In the 1950s, hundreds of buildings and homes were demolished to widen the street. If housing were to replace the roadway, thousands — probably tens of thousands — could gain access to affordable housing in an area with easy access to employment and services by foot and bike as well as to the city’s two main Metro lines.

Many other cars-for-shelter exchanges could be pursued across the city. But this requires political courage. Plante doesn’t have it and environmental, cyclist and other progressive groups aren’t demanding Project Montréal align their policy with their rhetoric. While an individual interrupting a press conference is a poor substitute for an organized campaign, I was happy that multiple media outlets reported my call for private cars to be eliminated from the centre of the city.

Radical solutions are needed to lessen the likelihood of future tragedies and further climate breakdown. Those who care about children and their futures shouldn’t shy away from saying so.

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