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Cyclists on a Montreal bike lane on a fall day.

Cyclists on a Montreal bike lane on a fall day.

This Opinion article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it just depends on whom you ask. As a growing, changing city at the nexus of debates about identity and economic opportunity, Montreal is full of stirring, important citizen debate — and plenty of grumbles.

Three subjects seem to particularly draw the ire of residents: transit, potholes and bike lanes.

After eight years in Montreal, I've come to realize that these complaints are interconnected, drawing on anxiety about public space uses and the changing ways in which we're called to think about our relationship with our city and neighbours.

Here are three things Montrealers love to complain about — and why they need to just get over them.


Lionel-Groulx station on the Montreal metro.

Lionel-Groulx station on the Montreal metro.

Marc Bruxelle | Dreamstime

Montrealers are spoiled. They have an extensive, entirely underground metro system with five-minute headways; spacious, comfortable trains; consistent, easy-to-understand announcements; and architectural jewels for stations.

I come from Boston, whose metro system, the T, is more like a collection of four mediocre systems than a unified network. Its four rail lines radiate out from the city centre like sickly fingers, meaning commuters have to travel all the way downtown to make a connection, often through dank, century-old corridors. It's like walking through catacombs.

Oh yeah, and the trains combust.

Montreal, by contrast, has a history of visionary transit expansion, beginning with the construction of the metro system and its cavernous stations in the '60s, a monumental public works project.

Extensions have come regularly since, including the creation of the blue line and its cross-town transfer points.

Now, the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) promises to transform commutes across the metro area. The light-rail network has appeared almost from scratch.

There's an element of spectacle and national pride in Montreal transit.


Pothole on a Montreal street.

Pothole on a Montreal street.

Marc Bruxelle | Dreamstime

There's a secret to avoiding the city's many potholes: don't drive. You probably don't have to.

In Montreal's more central boroughs, there's almost always a transit alternative to driving solo. It's a virtuous cycle, Quebec and the City of Montreal invest in transit infrastructure, people make use of that transit infrastructure and so governments invest more.

The inverse needs to happen for the road network: less investment and less use. Less road congestion would allow communities to reclaim some space from cars. Multi-lane thoroughfares can give way to widened sidewalks and bike lanes. Parking lots can become parks and housing developments.

You can see potholes as a disincentive to drive and an expression of our government's rightly-placed priorities. So instead of complaining about potholes, consider them a prompt to rethink your commuting habits and relationship to your community and its built environment.

Potholes, and the state of roads and sidewalks more generally, do raise important accessibility issues. Some people rely on motor vehicle transport, especially since not every metro station has elevator access (though the STM is working on that). And cratered streets, sidewalks and sidewalk ramps pose obstacles to people with reduced mobility. These are the only rightful grounds for Montrealers' pothole complaints. Let's give this conversation some more space.

Bike Lanes

Cyclists on a Montreal bike lane.

Cyclists on a Montreal bike lane.

Marc Bruxelle | Dreamstime

Bike lanes make drivers insecure. And that's a good thing.

The collective eye-rolls of bitter commuters were almost audible when Montreal announced it would undertake an ambitious expansion of its already-extensive bike lane network.

Let's unpack those complaints.

Drivers have delusions of self-importance that I think come from an inherent conflict between public and private spaces. In their personal metal death machines, drivers are making a claim on the public roadways they occupy. They compete with each other to take up the most space and exploit traffic opportunities. It becomes personal. And cars become an extension of the people controlling them.

Cyclists undermine that perception. They take precious space away from drivers and represent a different vision of efficient travel, one in which there's less tension between the public and private. With no walls and a much smaller footprint, bikes are more in harmony with the spirit of shared public space.

So when cyclists zip through traffic or get favourable traffic signals, they force drivers to become more aware of their maneuvers and the space they fill.

Like potholes, drivers' frustration about Montreal cyclists is an invitation for introspection about their role in their communities.

    Thomas MacDonald
    Senior Editor
    Thomas MacDonald is a Senior Editor for MTL Blog focused on Montreal public transit and is based in Montreal, Quebec.
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