Dust off your walking shoes, cause pedestrian streets are back, baby.
Montreal is making 10 streets pedestrian-only during the summer and promised to continue summer pedestrianization through at least 2024. In a remarkable display of unity, everyone is happy and no one on the Internet complained about it.
Some folks are gonna grumble. Parking will be a bit more difficult, some bus routes might take longer, and some businesses fear losing customers.
However, to be completely honest, summer pedestrianization has a lot going for it.
Mayor Valérie Plante announced the initiative in early April, saying the conversion will inject life into businesses and communities after a difficult pandemic.
This idea isn’t new. The city has experimented with some degree of summer pedestrianization since at least 2006.
But it's only in 2020 that we saw some of Montreal's major streets, like rue Saint-Denis and avenue du Mont-Royal, take a significant part in the initiative.
The idea, at the time, was to give people an easy way to enjoy the city while maintaining social distancing. It also allowed restaurants to expand their terrasses, so they could welcome patrons outdoors when dining room capacity was limited due to pandemic restrictions.
Jump-cut to today, the mayor hails the initiative as a way to increase economic activity, quality of life, and tourism in the city.
So is it really a slam dunk? Sorta.
There's a lot of evidence to suggest pedestrian-only streets are a good thing but we really need to be careful about who is left behind.
Out with the old, in with the new urbanism
Pedestrianization, as a city planning concept, is experiencing some kind of renaissance.
We can trace it back to the pedestrian malls that emerged during post-war North America. These were streets closed off to cars, meant to encourage people to shop on foot.
At the time, they were supposed to prevent the hollowing of downtowns as people migrated to suburban neighbourhoods. From the 1950s onwards, suburban living became the dominant preferred lifestyle. And as a result, people, businesses, and other services ditched tightly-packed urban cores in favour of detached homes and car-friendly roads.
People walking, decorations and terrasses on Montreal's ave. du Mont-Royal closed to vehicular traffic in the summer.Marc Bruxelle | Dreamstime
These days, pedestrianism is a key tenet of the New Urbanist movement, an urban planning philosophy that embraces multiple kinds of transportation. That means creating a city environment where people can walk, cycle, and use public transit — in addition to driving. It also involves communal spaces such as plazas, cafés, and public squares for people to gather and hang out.
We saw this in full swing last summer on avenue du Mont-Royal. The street was jammed with terrasses and art installations, all in service of creating a communal space.
Breathe it in. That's the smell of a longer lifespan.
Around the world, cities are using pedestrianization to combat CO2 emissions and reduce the heat island effect (basically: cities are hotter because there are more concrete and fewer trees). In some places, this even has the positive side effect of improving people's overall health.
For example, Barcelona, Spain introduced its first "superblock" — an area of the city in which cars are routed around a large pedestrian-only zone — in 2016, with plans to build more in the future.
If they build all 503 currently planned, one study predicts that they can prevent 667 premature deaths annually and raise people's life expectancy by 200 days. This is thanks to reduced car and motorcycle use, green space development, and a reduction of airborne nitrogen dioxide.
Barcelona's Baby Brother
In 2020, Montreal announced its plan to be carbon-neutral by 2050. One of the proposed methods for reaching this goal is to "accelerate the adoption of more sustainable modes of transportation (public transit, walking, cycling)."
Our pedestrianization initiatives are nowhere near the same level as Barcelona's, thus it's hard to tell whether we'd see a scaled-down version of environmental and public health benefits. On paper, though, it seems like pedestrian streets would help.
Ahmed El-Geneidy, professor in Urban Planning at McGill University, said it's unlikely this small number of street closures would significantly impact emissions.
"It's a start," he said, "but greenhouse gases are much bigger than the local things we are doing here and there."
Instead, he explained, it makes sense to look at pedestrian streets as a community and economic revitalization tool.
The economic benefits are real
There's been some debate over whether pedestrian streets are actually good for business but a quick look at the currently available research suggests that, in some urban areas, it really works.
A study conducted in Portland, for example, found that customers who arrive on foot or by bike are "equally competitive consumers" to those who arrive by car. Non-drivers also tended to be more frequent customers.
In Montreal, the pedestrianization of rue Wellington in the Verdun borough increased the number of visitors and shoppers by 17% since pre-pandemic levels, according to Luc Rabouin, the mayor of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough and member of the city's committee on economic development
How cities and businesses can win
Rue Sainte-Catherine has 16 summers of experience with pedestrianization.
Gabrielle Rondy, interim executive director of the SDC du Village (the local merchants' association), concedes that pedestrianization requires overcoming some logistical hurdles but she also said they can be mitigated with a bit of planning.
Rue Sainte-Catherine sign in the Montreal Village. Stefania Arca | Dreamstime
For example, between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m., Monday through Friday, they temporarily allow delivery trucks in order to allow businesses to re-stock their supplies.
"The merchants who have been there for years, they know," said Rondy, but new merchants need time to adjust.
The city's commitment to three more years of pedestrianization also helps with long-term planning.
It allows the SDC du Village to invest in higher-quality equipment, like performance stages, knowing that they can use them for the next three years.
Connecting commerce and community
These kinds of investments are important for community-building — especially in a neighbourhood like the Village, where supporting and celebrating 2SLGBTQIA+ identities is paramount.
For example, last year the SDC du Village used its equipment to host weekly outdoor drag king and queen shows. These kinds of performances are usually hosted indoors, in bars.
Hosting them out in the open helps normalize gender fluidity and non-conformity for people who might not have been exposed to it otherwise, explained Rondy.
The Plateau felt a similar sense of community-building since avenue du Mont-Royal. first pedestrianized in 2020.
Rabouin said the initiative has wide support from community members.
"Every time we remove the pedestrianization of the Plateau in September, people ask to maintain it for longer," he said.
The reason they can't, he added, is to accommodate other needs in the community. The early removal of the pedestrian street is a compromise between merchants who were in favour of it and merchants who were disadvantaged by it.
The borough also wants to restore transit for those whose bus journeys were re-routed off avenue du Mont-Royal.
A community for me, but not for thee
Pedestrianization can do a lot for communities and businesses but they don't do much for the people who live on those streets.
The Montreal Ombudsman recently called the Indigenous homeless situation in Montreal a "humanitarian crisis" — something that is felt acutely in the Plateau.
Rabouin says the borough is working with local organizations to support the unhoused community but, for some, the pedestrianization of avenue du Mont-Royal raises concerns.
Pierre Parent works with the Indigenous Support Workers Project, acting as a community liaison in the Plateau. He offers culturally-sensitive support to unhoused Indigenous people in the area. He also fields calls from businesses and citizens in case an issue arises with a member of the street community.
He's concerned that the pedestrianization of avenue du Mont-Royal. might lead to more clashes between businesses and people from the street — especially since tensions between the groups have historically been high.
"There's 500 years of history that we need to be aware of," he said. "We just want people to be informed and to understand."
Here are the 10 streets that will be pedestrianized this summer:
- ave. du Mont-Royal from boul. Saint-Laurent to rue Fullum;
- rue Wellington from 6e ave. to rue Régina;
- rue Sainte-Catherine E. from rue Saint-Hubert to ave. Papineau;
- rue Ontario E. from boul. Pie-IX to rue Darling;
- ave. Duluth E. from boul. Saint-Laurent to rue Saint-Hubert;
- rue Saint-Denis from rue Sherbrooke to boul. de Maisonneuve;
- rue Sainte-Catherine O. from boul. Saint-Laurent to rue de Bleury;
- place du Marché-du-Nord (Jean-Talon Market) from ave. Casgrain to ave. Henri-Julien;
- ave. Bernard from ave. Wiseman to ave. Bloomfield;
- and rue de Castelnau E. from rue Saint-Denis to ave. de Gaspé.