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You can’t have it both ways

The effectiveness of public transportation depends on making cities less car-centric

by Natascia L

Engler and Mugyenyi's "anti-car road trip" account of the car's grip on North American cities (Natascia Lypny photo).
Engler and Mugyenyi's "anti-car road trip" account of the car's grip on North American cities (Natascia Lypny photo).
"Stop Signs" author Yves Engler rallied the crowd with his anti-car rhetoric (Natascia Lypny photo).
"Stop Signs" author Yves Engler rallied the crowd with his anti-car rhetoric (Natascia Lypny photo).


“The car has been a vehicle of the socialization of costs and privatization of profits,” said Yves Engler Tuesday evening at the Divan Orange on St. Laurent.

He and coauthor Bianca Mugyenyi were promoting their new book Stop Signs: cars and capitalism on the road to economic, social and ecological decay, which argues that North American transportation systems have been developed for, and dominated by, the private car.

Their thesis was framed in what Mugyenyi dubbed their “anti-car road trip”: a voyage around the United States without a license between them.

The challenges they faced in finding suitable alternative transportation were not unlike those of their audience members. Armed with helmets and Opus cards, the book launch attendees were largely made up of non-drivers living in a driving-based city.

One such audience member was Robert Silverman. In 1975, Silverman cofounded La monde à bicyclette. The organization has fought for, and acquired, many rights for cyclists in the Montreal area.

“We had many, many fights; many, many campaigns to reduce ‘cyclofrustration,’ that is to say, to eliminate or reduce the impediments to bicycling,” he told the audience.

Thanks to La monde à bicyclette and newer groups like the event’s coorganizer Right to Move, Montreal has become North America’s bicycle city. It now boasts nearly 500 kilometres of bike paths and over 300 Bixi stations, including the recent service extension to Westmount.

Public transit is experiencing improvements as well: last week, the Société de transport de Montréal announced it will add 300 to 400 bus departures come autumn. Both bus and métro ridership have been steadily on the rise, reports the agency.

“Montreal is the best Canadian city to get around via bike or mass transit,” says Engler, adding that Montrealers get around without cars more than any other Canadians.

When the car culture was encroaching on other North American cities, much of downtown Montreal had already been developed, he explains. The Plateau and Nôtre-Dame-de-Grâce are examples of neighbourhoods that were “built to a scale that is not designed to maximize car travel.”

Nevertheless, about 75% of Montrealers still depend on private cars more than any other form of transportation, according to the most recent statistics.

“Most drivers don’t have an option,” says Mugyenyi of the current transport system. “They have to drive.”

Why this deviation from our idyllic active and collective transportation past? Since the end of the Second World War, automobile-centric city planning has overtaken Montreal, explains Philippe Cousineau Morin of Vivre en Ville.

He describes the ever-sprawling Montreal suburbs where sidewalks are a rarity and strip malls placed outside residential zoning are the only source of, well, anything. Morin says it’s this kind of city evolution that has come to favor cars over alternative modes of transport.

“Territorial planning has major impacts on the possibilities of moving,” he says. These possibilities are unequal across the province and within Montreal itself, both in terms of car dependency and other mobility options.

The Quebec government has not adopted province-wide objectives for transportation systems. So, municipalities are left up to their own planning and fiscal devices, many of whose strategies are less than appealing to the non-driver.

“By doing nothing in territorial development, in urban planning (and) by under-investing in public transit, yes, (the Quebec government) has contributed to favoring cars and car-dependent neighborhoods and cities,” says Morin.

Vivre en Ville and Equiterre are determined to stop the infiltration of the car culture in Quebec. “Changer de direction” is a 120-page report calling the provincial government to shift the way it views and funds its transportation system. Released last week, it details 30 concrete strategies for decreasing the province’s car dependency and greenhouse gas emissions by taking a non-automobile-inspired approach to urban planning and encouraging more active and collective transportation.

One of its main principle echoes in Stop Signs: improvements to active and public transit cannot work independently to effectively move cities toward a sustainable transportation system; a drastic break from the car culture must occur as well.

Take the Bixi bike sharing service, for example. Stationnement de Montréal, a private car-parking company, has had a powerful hand in the development and financing of the Bixi system. This active form of transportation has been inextricably tied to the economic profits of car usage in Montreal.

This combination of, on the one hand, promoting alternative transportation while, on the other, supporting the mechanisms of a car-oriented city is seen as highly contradictory by the authors of Stop Signs and the report.

“It fosters the citizen’s habit of taking cars and taking cars alone,” says Morin of the overwhelmingly more effort put into car networks—take the Quebec government’s annual $4 billion expenditure on roads, for instance—than that put into public transit.

The report proposes that the Quebec government devotes the total sum of its highway and road development money into active and collective transportation. It also insists that buses, metros, trains and bike sharing services are funded by citizen’s taxes as are roads today. The report contains several other fiscal recommendations, as well as those devoted to urban planning strategies geared less toward the automobile.

“We’ve got to change the way we think,” says Morin of a province that has been heavily influenced by a car industry that does not generate much profit within its own borders. Instead, he believes people must adopt the attitude that active and public transit can benefit everyone, equally.

“The upside of those of us who are critical of the private car is that, in fact, it’s not just a question of people making sacrifices but rather that life will actually be better, people will be healthier, people will be less likely to die in transport, (and) people will have more integrated communities if we move away from the private car,” says Engler.

It’s a realization that Engler and Mugyenyi hope people will come to by reading Stop Signs. They want their readers to become aware of how deeply the car culture is embedded in our daily lives—and do something to counteract this unsustainable trend.

“I think there’s a degree of passive, mostly passive, hostility to the private car. People are aware of (the) issues, but (they haven’t) been politicized against the car per se,” says Engler.

This political push from ordinary citizens is exactly what Morin believes is needed for his report to be approved the Quebec government. He encourages Montrealers to approach Mayor Tremblay or their local councilors explaining their specific needs for active and public transit in their neighbourhoods.

“Hopefully, if more people take transit,” he adds, “the offers of transit will get better.”

And therein lies the catch-22 of Montreal public transportation: increased ridership is needed to convince ‘those in charge’ to increase service, but only more options—and better options—for alternative transport will get people out of their cars.

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Natascia Lypny (Natascia Lypny)
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Member since Décembre 2010


Natascia Lypny, a Montreal native, is a contributing member of the Halifax Media Co-op and sits on its editorial collective. She has also been involved with starting up the Montreal Media Co-op and interned at The Dominion in the summer of 2011. Currently, Natascia is a journalism student at the University of King's College entering her fourth year of study. She is also pursuing social anthropology studies at Dalhousie University. Natascia writes regularly for King's student newspaper, The Watch, and is the acting President of the Journalists for Human Rights chapter at her school. She is heavily involved with the King's Theatrical Society and other areas of school life. Natascia has freelanced, and interned at, several other publications across Canada, including The Coast, the Chronicle Herald and Spacing. Her work can be found on her personal website.

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Salutin in the Star

Great piece. Rick Salutin wrote about the piece in yesterday's Toronto Star:

It's "Le", not "La" Monde à Bicyclette

Can't get to their site at present, but I'm pretty sure, eh!

The site for the Montreal local of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.