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This week, I visited Montreal.

I was there to present the findings, and proposals of my book, “The Land Less Taken”, but what was most interesting was the city itself.  I’ve visited Montreal twice, decades ago, and was struck again by how French it all is.  You cannot help but wrestle with French to live in this city.  My diffident high school education all came back to me.  I wasn’t ashamed to be nearly illiterate in a foreign land, just interested.  Everybody I met was more bilingual than me.


But more than its francophone nature and culture, Montreal is Canadian.  The conference was downtown, but I did not want to pay downtown rates.  So I found a “Warm quiet room” on AirBnB that I thought was a reasonable (2 miles) distance from the campus of Concordia University.  I selected this without knowing a thing about the buses, or even the correct campus, as I thought at the time it was at the Loyola campus of Concordia.  When I did figure out the buses, I was pleased to see that a bus could take me right to the address, and that it left every 10 minutes from the Villa Maria metro station.  The bus I got on to get to the apartment, the 103, was full and got fuller.  Plenty of room for standing, and glad I packed light.

What was jarring about the neighborhood was the preponderance of apartment blocks and towers.  The density of this distinctly suburban neighborhood was akin to the densest parts of Washington DC or New Jersey’s suburban New York.  Probably nothing like it in Atlanta or Philadelphia. Most of those two cities are full of single family homes, detached or in town homes.  Montreal was full of 3-5 story walkups in all kinds of geometric configurations, meant to fit 12-30 households in each parcel.  This may have saved a lot of energy, and may have been a reaction to the cold winters.   I wouldn’t say I ever saw, in my limited tour, a small single family house, though I’m sure they existed in the further suburbs of Montreal.

Using Transit was a pure joy.  I never waited longer than 5 minutes for a bus.  This was partly due to STM’s great website, which gave me a clear idea of bus schedule and routes, and partially due to very low headways.  The operating costs of their bus fleet must be staggering.  The transit stations, unlike DC or New York, but much like Atlanta or San Diego, were all uniquely designed.  I’m sure they all went through an uncanny called of seeming modish and outdated, but I thought they were all great examples of the very freshest 1960’s movements in architecture and interior design.   If a passenger knew what their station looked like, they would have no problem telling when they had reached it.  The electronic messaging boards were HDTVs, with ample advertising, but clearly indicated next train arrival times.  Probably much cheaper to deploy than the older message signs in the DC metro.  This is the best link I could find on the diversity of station designs.  I don’t know what those oddly shaped things are in some of the pictures of the architecture.  I’m sorry*.

While waiting at the bus stop, all too briefly, I noticed that the traffic signals were much more complex than American signals with blinking arrows of various colors in different phases.  I don’t know why I didn’t see more people on fire, as this was a clear violation of the MUTCD.  The lane markings, stop bars and crosswalks were very light,  as iof they hadn’t been repainted in over five years.  My friend later told me they make an effort to repaint everything every year, but the snowplows and freezing takes most of the paint off every year.  Canada should consider relocating to Florida.  Something I hadn’t seen in the US at all, but is a great idea, was “School Corridors”, streets with enhanced traffic enforcement for the safe use of schoolchildren in getting from their homes to their schools.  Montreal probably saves a hell of a lot on school buses and traffic enforcement for school drop off zones compared to American cities, just by enabling their kids to walk to school.  They need the money for their great transit bus system, after all.


There were also no bike lanes in my neighborhood.  Kind of understandable, as the speed limit appeared to be around 45 MPH, but an omission, as we were only 5 miles from downtown.  Once I got downtown, I was elated to see a separate two-way cycle track on Rue Maisonneuve.  Oddly, more cyclists were driving on Rue Sherbrooke, a block up the hill.  Apparently the signaling was better suited to bikers on Sherbrooke, even if there we no bike lanes on Sherbrooke.  

I got to see the biking, walking, and traffic culture on a five mile walk with my LinkedfrIend  Zvi Leve, who lives and works in Montreal.  The business parts of Montreal, during midday, were the most overdeveloped.  There are a lot of concrete towers in Montreal, but they are close enough to the street that they don’t seem to scare people away.  Old Montreal, with a more old world, or even Philadelphian arrangement of townhouses and stately stone architecture, was dead.  I understand it gets busier in the summer, but a tourist existence is a poor form of urbanism for a square mile between downtown and the dockyards.  Park and Saint Catherine Avenues were reminiscent of Georgetown, Chestnut Street, or Central Park East, a lot of activity and soul, punctuated by a vast bit of lawn.  Chinatown was bustling, vital, and tiny.  A couple of blocks, and one of a few walking streets in Montreal that were doing quite well and jewels of activity in an otherwise traffic dominated landscape.

The funny thing about Chinatown in Montreal is that the walking street was nestled between two much larger streets, with much.  That’s something Montreal has like no other: the underground city.  There are about 19 miles of tunnels connecting almost 5 square miles of downtown Montreal, with connections between the Green and Orange lines along several conduits.  Some residents of suburban metro station areas famously never have to go outside for the winter months, living above metro stations in apartment towers and working above other metro stations in office towers.  The 12 year old me loved the notion of the completely connected, interior space when I first saw it in Peachtree Center in Atlanta.  Montreal’s interior mall is an order of magnitude larger than any mere Peachtree Center, Crystal City, or Houston Skywalk. But it is still a mall.  The last day, when I finally had occasion to explore the underground city, I was simply spent and not in the mood to carry my luggage for a quarter mile, much less 19 in tunnels.  I would have enjoyed the underground city more if I were not carrying all my luggage, but I would have enjoyed it more if it was not ultimately, a mall.  There is little happenstance or magic in a mall, and the only places of delight are those where the activity is thick.  On that rainy Tuesday, not much was going on but the walking.  I’d love to come back when I can put my bag down and find the spots of unpredictable delight in the underground city, but the murals along Park Avenue offer more.  Montreal has a great arts culture, found mostly on the streets, not underground.

I’d still like to explore more.   My appetite is whetted.


The Third Place we stopped on our walk.

* Architects and interior designers really need some sort of fumigation system to get rid of those things.  Perhaps they can be coaxed onto the streets for renderings by planners with offers of plentiful cafes.