Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Impressions of Montreal

Jul 1, 2017

A Vancouverite visiting Montreal, as I did recently, cannot help but feel that he is witnessing the giant bullet that Vancouver dodged back in the 1960s.

Driving in from the West Island, one discovers that Autoroute 20 is under reconstruction (and has been for some time apparently). The vehicle moves slowly (because it is always gridlock) through an appalling scene of destruction. Giant diggers and dump trucks lumber to and fro, carrying dirt and rock from one place to another across a lunar landscape. At one point a concrete ramp looms above us, then stops, hanging in mid-air, waiting (and again I am told it has been waiting for years) for some act of completion. For kilometre after kilometre it despoils the view, perhaps the largest construction sight I have ever seen. Sitting in the traffic one thinks that if we had to devise a transportation system today, from scratch, we would never come up with this.

The reason this has resonance for a West Coast visitor is that in the 1960s Vancouver came close to this nightmarish scenario. Developers and the government had plans to smash a freeway through the historic heart of the city, destroying Chinatown and Gastown and much of the waterfront. This was the era when urban "renewal" meant urban destruction. Elevated expressways and swooping cloverleafs were signs of modernity.

But in Vancouver's case it was stopped. Citizens of the threatened neighbourhoods organized and fought back in a movement that is now legendary in the city's history. The developers were seen off and no freeway was built. (You can read the whole story here.) Vancouver has other problems but at least it was spared the kind of monstrous travesty that Montreal is currently experiencing.

But before I allow my smugness to get the better of me, something else I noticed in Montreal was the ubiquity of the bicycle. Vancouverites think that they invented cycling but I witnessed many more urban cyclists speeding down Rue St-Denis than I ever see in my home town. Bicycle paths were everywhere and a map showed pedalling routes cutting across the city from all directions.

So, the visitor is left with contradictory impressions. On the one hand car culture at its worst; on the other, cycle culture thriving.