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.
The REM opening ends an exciting and excruciating process. The project was announced in 2016 and for the first few years, with the SNC scandal raging and an unproven public-private partnership model, I was a firm skeptic. But something special has happened. For a North American transit project, the REM is a home run.
Mega-projects usually go wrong. In fact, research by Bent Flyvbjerg estimates they are over budget or off schedule 91.5% of the time. Horrifying failures amongst our peers made it rational to write off the REM.
The Ottawa Confederation Line took 6 years but is currently out of service (again) and rapidly becoming the capital’s Olympic stadium.
Think that’s a mess? The Eglinton Crosstown in Toronto, an incoherent politically-derailed mess of a tram-subway, is about 1/3 the length of the REM despite starting construction seven years before the REM. Now, 12 years later and billions over budget, it still has no opening date.
You just don’t get to build a 67 km rapid transit system within a decade here. It took 41 years for the Metro to hit that length and half of that was done in an era when bulldozing neighbourhoods was common practice. People from across the continent are studying Montreal to work out what changes allowed this to happen — some of those changes include using automation, unique financing and making better use of existing tracks and highway corridors.
So with the South Shore segment opening this weekend, it’s time to ask: After years of negatives, and a few more to likely come, what positive payload is being delivered to the public to make it all worthwhile?
Here Comes The Hipster
For people living in central neighbourhoods, the red carpet is rolling out across Montreal. An IKEA or Costco trip is often an occasion to fork out for a Communato or borrow a car. Brace for some flat-pack furniture bobbing up a metro staircase near you: These two stores are now wired into the rapid transit system.
Effectively doubling the size of your rapid transit system is a game changer for car-free residents. The number of golf courses, movie theatres, parks, shops, art galleries and of course friends you’ll be able to zip off to see is hard to grasp.
The Metro, Times Two
Zip is the key word. The REM is not the Metro, it goes faster and stops less often. Traffic has no impact on it, platform doors prevent “track intrusions,” it's open late and no drivers are there to strike. It’ll probably become the atomic clock of our transit network.
It’s also going to help grow transit more in a virtuous cycle. Expect to see more Metro ridership and a new era for the Bixis. Yes, it’s easy to forget, but Bixis are an ever more important part of our transportation network. Much like existing Metro stations, REM stations will become the reliable neighbourhood rack and form the spine of the suburban Bixi network.
Travel To And From Montreal
But it’s not just a chance to finally visit our quirky Ecomuseum Zoo in the West Island. Tourism beyond Montreal will get easier too. Weekend ski trips to Mont Tremblant will be able to skip the traffic by departing from Deux-Montagnes.
The benefits also go the other way. Osheaga just got a little easier for astute transit followers next week.
This year, many will be able to ditch the car before even hitting traffic in Brossard, get an affordable hotel with parking and take the REM in and out each day. Du Quartier and other future terminus stations are good options for people who want to drive TO Montreal but not IN Montreal.
A keystone tourism benefit for the REM is the airport connection. As an immigrant from the other-land-downunder, my first landfall in Canada was in Vancouver and the fancy skytrain from the airport to downtown. Several years later, I remember a late night, bumpy, sweaty ride on the good old 747 bus — a route so dated that it has outlived its namesake plane.
A Reprieve For Seniors
Big benefits also come to our oldest residents. Many of the West Island neighbourhoods the REM passes through are quite elderly. Car-driving baby boomers may lose the ability to drive later in life which can necessitate moving from homes or neighbourhoods they have lived in their whole lives. The REM will instead allow many to age in place or downsize into a nearby condo.
Life-changing For Suburban Youth
On the other end of the age range, suburban kids just got the keys to the city. An hour on a bus or an infrequent train is being turned into a Metro station just down the street. High schoolers will be able to head downtown to hang out on pedestrianized streets, catch a movie and loiter near grandma’s new condo.
Once they get a bit older, they’ll be able to stay out late, and rather than an expensive taxi or dangerously drunk driving, they can start and finish their night the right way: On the REM. It’s open for longer hours than the Metro and will both reduce road traffic and make the people behind the wheel safer drivers.
Renters and Home Buyers
Probably the most consequential impact of the REM is related to housing. The current crisis is driven by a chronic shortage of housing. Medium density is the cheapest and fastest way we can build homes for people, and in this era where NIMBYism controls our municipal politics, the REM’s 67 new kilometers of densification potential is a sight for sore eyes. We’re still in for a rough ride this decade while the Montreal region puts off politically unpopular suburban densification, but the REM buys us some time, gives us some options, and will at least help slow the rate that rents and prices rise.
What Didn’t Change
Still, the REM hasn’t changed one thing yet: our transit planning culture..
The Blue Line extension is a project costing roughly the same amount as the REM, but it has been in the works since the 1970s and won’t be finished until at least 2029. For the same amount of money, we are getting less than 12% the length of the REM. It marks a return to bad form for the city.
As excited as I am about the REM, there is an unavoidable sadness in realizing that The REM de l’Est would have already started construction — if the mayor had not caved to NIMBYS and made her support dependent on it being tunneled. And yes, I live on the proposed route and it would be literally running past my backyard. I supported it.
Last month, our political class got the quote back for their desired project. Their shorter, 4-times more expensive, fully-tunnelled project with a 13-year time horizon was immediately rejected by the province. It will now enter a decade-long limbo because it’s embarrassing for local politicians to admit they jumped off an electric racehorse to ride a socially acceptable snail while our city chokes in the smoke of a record wildfire season.
This week a project that broke ground in 2018, weathered a pandemic, and still outperformed all comparable transit projects on the continent opens its first phase. No transit project is perfect, but perfect is the enemy of existing at all. Hopefully, as thousands travel across the bridge next week, some people will be changing their minds.