Sustainable Transportation in Montreal

Sustainable transportation in Montreal and other North American cities has much the same underpinning: the automobile can no longer dictate the design of the city if we wish to provide an urban environment that is equitable, green, and economically viable in the long-term.  However, Montreal’s unique climate, development history, and local politics all imply that a movement towards sustainable transport may well be greater here than elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Sustainable urban transport refers to the practices, regulations, infrastructure, land use, and policies that support more sustainable passenger and freight travel within urban areas; that is, transportation that uses resources as efficiently and effectively as possible with positive social, environmental and economic outcomes.

Montreal’s density is comparable to most large European cities with 3,600 people per square kilometer (Ville de Montreal 2008). Such a high density creates a compact city and offers improved proximity to stores, schools, and supermarkets when compared to the sprawl of low-density cities. More importantly, high density favours sustainable transportation; people can bike and walk shorter distances to and from places in denser cities, and mass transit can more efficiently serve greater concentrations of activities and users. The denser a city is, the more likely it is that people will use public transportation (Behan and Lea 2011). Having one of the highest urban population densities in Canada, Montreal has the highest usage of public transit compared to other major Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary (Behan and Lea 2011).  In terms of numbers, the mode share for public transit is around 22% (AMT 2008) and the Société Métropolitaine de Transport (STM), responsible for the Island of Montreal’s consolidated bus and subway system, reports a ridership of just under 390 million trips per year (STM 2010) (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Growth in STM ridership between 2006 and 2010 in millions of trips. Source: STM 2010.

In terms of active transportation (human powered transportation such as walking, biking etc.), Montreal is second best in Canada with a modal share of 11% (Vancouver is 16%) (Behan and Lea 2011) (see figure 2). Interestingly enough, Montreal still lags behind major international cities such as Berlin and Vienna in terms of active transport, despite having a comparable density. This shows that surprisingly, there is no clear relationship between active forms of transportation and density. In addition, Montreal’s active transportation does not seem to be increasing by much. Between 2003 and 2008, the AMT claims that active transportation grew by 10%– that is, a 2% annual increase. However, since all modes of transportation increased that year, including public and motorized, this impressive increase is negligible since the base rate grows and hence differs. By keeping the base rate constant, we see that modal share of active transportation has actually gone from 10% in 2003 to 11% in 2008 (AMT 2008: 20).

Figure 2: Active transportation mode share by population density, 2007.
Source: Behan and Lea 2011.

So despite having similar densities, why does Montreal’s active transportation lag behind its European counterparts? In other words, what does Berlin have that Montreal does not?

In our audit, we found that what impedes Montreal’s level of sustainable transportation lies mainly in the city’s changeable qualities: urban planning and street design, safety measures, funding, awareness and education, government policy, and infrastructure.  This means that in regards to active transportation, Berlin’s higher fuel taxes, safer biking environment (as measured in annual pedestrian and cyclists casualties), and somewhat better weather all play a role in promoting biking and walking (see a video of how Denmark does it here) (Behan and Lee). And while weather might not be changeable, aspects like safety and taxation policies certainly are. So while some Montreal rules and regulations might impede active transportation, Montreal has great potential with its already-high population density—all it needs to do is break down the barriers.

That being said, the question begs to be answered: what changes are being made in Montreal to encourage and facilitate sustainable transportation?  What are some good examples?

Source: Ville de Montreal, 2008

Plans, Initiatives and Actions in Montreal

To learn more about MTQs Turcot Complex project please check out Jason Prince’s site that is the product of an ongoing collaboration between researchers and community groups in the affected neighbourhoods. The site offers an amazing amount of information!

In terms of official plans, Montreal’s 2008 Transportation Plan states that it “intends to significantly reduce its dependence on cars through massive investment in various forms of public transit and active transportation” (Ville de Montreal 2008: 13).  It aims to double its network of bike paths, build a tram, extend the metro, and implement a “pedestrian charter” – just a few of some 21 ‘development objectives’ considering all forms of transportation from the neighbourhood to the regional scale.

Figure 3: Projected tramway on Avenue du Parc. Source: Ville de Montreal 2008.

The 2010-2015 Sustainability Development Plan appears just as broad. Although it suggests reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020 (keep in mind that 48% of GHG emissions in Montreal are a result of transportation), the plan lacks the legal authority to incentivize positive actions or punish negative ones (Ville de Montreal 2012).  With no way to hold private individuals and organizations accountable, the plan’s ‘goal’ is better understood as a suggestion.

One of the most publicized outcomes of the 2008 Transportation Plan has been the BIXI bike-sharing system.  Implemented in 2009, while the BIXI program certainly supports sustainable transport, its benefits have been thrown into question by (il)legalities surrounding its implementation (Auditor General 2011).  What’s more, a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the McGill School of Urban Planning found that:

“In most cases, bicycle sharing usage replaces trips previously made by other ‘green’ modes, namely public transit, bicycle or walking. Approximately 8 percent of BIXI users replaced taxi trips, while only 2 percent of the respondents use a BIXI instead of driving, revealing that official estimates of CO2 reduction due to the implementation of the program are exaggerated.” (Bachand-Marleau, Julie, Jacob Larsen and Ahmed M. El-Geneidy 2011:9)

So in terms of reaching the city’s 30% emission reduction, a more efficient synthesis between active transportation and public transportation is needed if BIXI is to close the so-called “transportation gap” (ie. the travel distance not covered by collective transport between the users’ nearest transit stop and their final destination). The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) does not allow bikes on the metro during rush hours and hence deters users. However, the opportunity to replace car usage with combined cycling and rail transit is the greatest for people living within 15 kilometers of the city center, thereby emphasizing the importance of integrated cycling and rail transit and improvement in suburban bike infrastructure. In other words, greater intermodal cohesion is integral to improving Montreal’s sustainable transportation.

Montreal’s transport system is not exceptionally integrated at a regional scale either: 15 public transportation agencies operate across a region of some 3.8 million people (AMT 2010), and distinct fare structures remain an impediment to effectively servicing employment growth on- and off-Island in areas far from existing high-capacity transit corridors.

Figure 4: Map of public transportation authorities and service districts, MMC boundary in dark blue. Source: AMT 2012.

With gaps in Montreal’s grand plans and provisions, smaller local initiatives and organizations tend to fill the void. Projet Montréal, a local political party focused on sustainable urban planning, has focused on urban design to facilitate active transportation and reduce car usage, while the local government in Westmount has implemented traffic calming schemes. Apart from small changes to urban design, organizations like the non-profit Vélo Québec are focusing on the safety and awareness aspects of transportation to encourage employers and employees to bike to work, as well as students and teachers to bike to schools.

These programs provide municipal stakeholders with the tools to create safe biking environments, but government action and better policies are needed to ensure a stronger sense of safety while biking. As active transportation for children going to school is on the decline in Montreal (only 1.2% of elementary school children currently arrive to class by bicycle), awareness and improved infrastructure are some of the many tools needed to ensure methods to change mindsets regarding the ‘dangers’ of active transportation (Lewis 2008).

In regards to private transportation, the emergence of rideshare and carpooling organizations like Communauto, Amigo Express and Covoiturage [The Carpooling Network] reflect the fact that private transportation represents the biggest opportunity for increasing the sustainability of the city’s transportation, even though it remains the hardest sector to regulate and motivate. In addition to providing efficient and affordable alternatives to commuting solo, these types of programs fill a valuable void by capturing the interest of individuals and institutions who may not be ready to make the full shift to public or active transport but are interested in gradually changing their behavior.  Private companies not directly involved in the transportation industry have shown that they can also make a difference by partnering with these rideshare programs, assisted by non-profit transportation consulting services like Mobiligo.

Analysis and Conclusion

In all, we found that public and active transportation initiatives in Montreal continue to slowly improve the city’s transportation sustainability. Nevertheless, private transportation behaviors continue to source negative sustainability outcomes, especially where GHG emissions are concerned. Negative trends in regional density are making sustainable transportation all the more difficult and decrease the feasibility and desirability of public and active transport systems. Montreal is not implementing sustainable, low-emission transport options and programs fast enough to offset the increase in GHG emissions resulting from sprawl practices (Bailie and Beckstead 2010: 35).

Actors from a variety of transport initiatives frequently commented that:

  1. Government policy changes are needed to support their actions (and so that outdated legislation doesn’t continue to unintentionally prevent sustainable initiatives);
  2. greater public awareness and education is needed, especially considering that individuals’ habits and behaviours are difficult to influence; and
  3. public transportation systems can be complementary to private efforts.

The first point complements the fact that cities with lower fuel taxation levels tend to have higher private automobile usage (Behan and Lea 2011).  Organizations such as Clear the Air demonstrate how the combination of public education and financial incentives are a winning combination in motivating populations to move away from traditional mindsets around transportation.

Other challenges faced by Montreal as a whole include the availability of resources and funding for its ambitious transport policies.  Assuming no dramatic changes to municipal tax structure, the city must decide where best to focus its financial and legal resources in pursuit of better environmental practices: which investments made today will have the most positive future outcomes?[1]

Currently, Montreal’s transportation systems do not form a cohesive unit, weakening the integration of cycling, bus and rail systems. Private initiatives targeting carpooling, cycling, and transportation management attempt to reconcile different parts of the region’s complex transportation infrastructure, but individuals and organizations in the private sector need more government support, both policy-wise and financially.  Still, promise can be found in the multiplicity of citizen-led initiatives that are connecting and mobilizing Montrealers.

Sustainable transportation remains a multifaceted issue and its implementation is oftentimes left to smaller scale non-profits and bottom-up initiatives across the transportation spectrum.  With greater public awareness, refined urban design, improved policies, funding and coordination between stakeholders, the efforts of all of the actors identified will increase in number and effectiveness. Accordingly, sustainable transport can make full use of Montreal’s high density, in a way that will mimic Berlin’s accomplishment of low car usage and high participation in active transportation.

For more information on how to get involved with sustainable transportation initiatives in Montreal, explore MUSE’s database of organizations.

Works cited

Agence métropolitaine de transport (AMT).  2012.  “Autorités organisatrices de transport (AOT)”.
Agence métropolitaine de transport.  2010.  “Vision 2020: the Future of Public Transit for the Greater Montreal Area”.
Agence métropolitaine de transport.  “Enquête Origine-Destination 2008. La mobilité des personnes dans la region de Montréal. Résumé des Faits Saillants.” Faits saillants. Enquête Origine-Destination 2008. Vos déplacements quotidiens orientent les transports de demain. 2008.
Auditor General, Office of the.   2011.  “Audit of the Public Self-Serve Bicycle Project (BIXI).”  Special Report of the Auditor General of the City of Montreal to the City Council and to the Urban Agglomeration Council.  June 17, 2011.
Bailie, Alison, and Claire Beckstead. Canada’s Coolest Cities: Mitigating Climate Change Through Urban Form and Transportation Planning in Canada’s Largest Urban Areas : Technical Report. Drayton Valley, Alta: Pembina Institute, 2010. Internet resource.
Behan, Kevin, and Nancy Smith Lea. “Benchmarking Active Transportation in Canadian Cities” Reports and Resources. Toronto Centre for Active Transportation. Sep. 2011. 21.pdf
Bachand-Marleau, Julie, Jacob Larsen, and Ahmed M. El-Geneidy. “The much anticipated marriage of cycling and transit: But how will it work?” Transportation Research Record, 2247 Jan. 2011: 109-117.
CanisLupusSeeUs. “Copenhagen Bike Paths – An Example To All Cities.”
Lewis, Paul et al. “Active Travel and Schools in Montreal and Trois-Rivières. An analysis of active travel by elementary school students in Quebec.”
“STM’s 2010 Sustainable Development Report.” STM Sustainable Development. Société De Transport De Montréal, 01 Jan. 2010.
Ville de Montreal. “Reduce Our Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Sustainable Development. Montreal.,79225585&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL
Ville de Montreal.  2008.  “Transportation Plan 2008.”  Direction des Transports.

[1] Note: a review of the 2008 Transportation Plan is due to be published by the City in Fall 2012.

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