I Feel Bad For Transports Québec

Photo by Gabor Szilasi, taken from Walking Turcot Yards

Turcot in 1967, by Gabor Szilasi

There were quite a few differences between the protest against police brutality, which took place some weeks ago, and the mobilization against the Turcot interchange. For one thing, the march against police brutality was dominated by police in full-on riot gear struggling to handle violent protesters. The mobilization against the Turcot, on the other hand, only had two unlucky souls from Transports Québec in their fluorescent vests, surely wondering what they were doing out on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s really too bad for our transport ministry. The problem they face is clear: a decrepit interchange. The solution ought to be equally simple: a new interchange, conceived to solve the problem at hand but better-built, longer-lasting, more conscientious of the surroundings. And a little more capacity for future needs.

And yet! The moment you try to get something done, it all breaks loose. Costs balloon and constituencies seep from the woodwork. Neighbourhood groups! Urban planning students! Blogs! And the next thing you know, your agency is vilified left and right. You’re destroying the city.

So, let me get this out of the way first-thing: there is currently an interchange here, and for the time being, there isn’t a way around that fact. And furthermore: if the Turcot were annihilated tomorrow, we would not necessarily be better off.

See, it’s not in question that in some ways, interchanges are Bad Things. They’re noisy, polluting, and ugly. They interrupt the Urban Fabric, which as we all know is sacrosanct. And this interchange, in particular, is a Really Bad Thing: it’s crumbling, it’s on land which could be put to much better use, it’s unsafe, it’s hard to maintain, it “enabled the entire West Island,” et cetera. I agree with all of this.

But now, for better or worse, the West Island exists, and these people basically have to get to work by car. We could, of course, ramp up train service, but that means investing heavily in rails, signals, and rolling stock, and commiting a lot more to the higher operating costs involved in running more trains. Then, we have to build up park-and-ride service, or pay for more buses on suburban arterials (or jitney service down winding West Island roads). It’s expensive, and worse, it’s institutionally really complicated, involving the AMT, the STM, Transports Québec, and the CN Railroad, among others. And we still haven’t fixed the crumbling interchange.

And all the hemming and hawing over the Turcot masks the real problem with respect to West-end road service, which is that there is virtually no connectivity between downtown and points far West. Mighty Cavendish dissolves into a little stub in Cote-St-Luc. Kildare, Mackle, and Côte-St-Luc peter out. St-Jacques dives back toward the freeway. So you’re left driving through Lasalle and Lachine, which barely counts as an alternate path. This is why the arguments that the traffic could simply vanish don’t hold water – at least in this one case, where all the traffic is forcibly channelled into two freeways. And trying to build those missing road links risks ripping open not one, but three separate NIMBY fights. Good times.

For the time being, then, let’s please accept that the Turcot will continue to exist. And if we’re going to rebuild an interchange, we ought to be rebuilding it right. That means building with sensitivity to the neighbourhoods nearby, but it also means building to the highest roadway standards possible for the greatest common good possible, all while making reasonable compromises. And it also means that unfortunately, the neighbours will have to accept some discomfort while the thing is rebuilt.

So I’ll say it again: I feel bad for Transports Québec. When they add in nonsensical bike paths, and carpool-and-bus lanes that link into nothing, and they present with words like “green” and “carbon neutral,” it doesn’t sound like malice to me; it doesn’t even sound like an arrogant technocracy. It sounds like desperation. If there’s something Transports Québec should work on, maybe it’s their marketing.

I can’t help but think that our interchange to hell is paved with good intentions.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Wednesday April 22 2009at 06:04 pm , filed under Canada, Politics, Transportation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

10 Responses to “I Feel Bad For Transports Québec”

  • Owen Rose says:

    I beg to differ.

    I feel that Transports Québec (MTQ) needs to undergo a major internal cultural update. So many factors, put together, point in new directions. For example, many US cities are beginning to deconstruct their urban freeways in order to repair urban fabric and increase urban property values. Peak oil is here and to keep planning the future for continued automobile expansion is not realistic. Economically, Québec does not manufacture automobiles nor produce petroleum. Our local economy is far better served by our electricity production and electrified rapid transit industries such as trains, métros, tramways, buses and trollybuses.

    Montréal’s public health department (DSP) is one of the biggest opponents to both Autoroute Nortre-Dame and the proposed Turcot interchange. Their scientific reasons are directly related to human health for neighbouring populations and Montréal’s air quality in general. In addition to air quality, the health department has demonstrated the direct link of traffic injuries and fatalities to increased automobile circulation that these mega transport projects will further encourage in Montréal’s dense pre WWII neighbourhoods.

    After covering the documented economic and health effects, I still have to mention the ecological impacts of continued automobile dependence. Petroleum based transports are still our major contributor to greenhouse gases and other atmospheric pollutants leading to urban smog.

    How do you encourage urban density and healthy neighbourhoods for families (which is an ecological and municipal goal) when you are giving a free ride to suburban sprawl as much on the West Island as on both north and south shores?

    The Montréal Urban Ecology Centre is working specifically on the issue of Green Active and Healthy Neighbourhoods (Quartiers verts actifs et en santé) http://www.ecologieurbaine.net Our documentation, experience and pilot projects defy the urban freeway logic and propose our transformation to a healthier less petroleum dependant city prepared for a stronger local economy, peak oil, better public health and our global ecological problems.

    We are in the midst of a paradigm shift and the MTQ has to catch up to the times. With 3 billion dollars to spend, we need to spend that money with intelligence and not brute concrete force. We need a global vision that includes the MTQ, AMT, STM, Ville de Montréal, DSP, Chambers of commerce, citizens and community groups to make this transition. The status quo is not working.

    Owen Rose
    Montréal Urban Ecology Centre

  • Jason Prince says:

    I tend to agree with Mr. Rose.

    What struck me about this blog posting was Sam’s conclusion that: (what’s more, it would be) institutionally really complicated,involving the AMT, the STM, Transports Québec, and the CN Railroad…

    The first three are under the Ministere de transport. A clear political directive could make that crooked road straight (Paul Bunyan’s blue ox).

    The CN do need to be brought into this debate. No argument there.

    Those who attended the April 3rd conference organised by the DSP may recall this: Visiting engineers who have been working to remove highways in large US cities reported that sometimes (sometimes) a paradigm shift occurs when a mass-transit person is named to head up the Department of Transport (usually headed by a highway person).

    Is this what needs to happen in Quebec before we see a fresh new approach?

  • Prakash says:

    Just passing through. As someone who is a resident downtown but used to live with my family in the west island, I am fully aware of the complexity of this issue. I agree that a new interchange has to be brought in, and that the traffic from the west island won’t just stop if the interchange is removed completely and will cause a lot of problems and quite impractical.

    However, as a person who has traveled by car on the 20 and used the train service, I would prefer more train service. It will take decades before cars are made into fully electrical(or hydrogen cars). The technology is there but the infrastructure is far away. The plan should be to put in more mass transit.

    There should be an integrated approach to development projects in quebec. There should be more coordination among the departments. They should encourage more mass transit use and less dependence on the car, by expanding the mass transit. The train route is great but it is too infrequent, more people will use it if it is expanded. And if that is too much trouble, the 211 route between Dorval and Lionel-Groulx is a great route. They should expand on that and put more buses on that and encourage people to drive to that station and take that bus to the metro station. It wouldn’t cost that much money.

  • Sam Imberman says:

    Owen Rose mentions a number of American cities which have dismantled urban freeways in order to rebuild the urban fabric – and in the cases of Milwaukee and San Francisco, which I am most specifically familiar with, this has worked wonderfully. But really, it comes down to a question of location. Urban context, really. San Francisco’s Embarcadero blocked a city from its spectacular waterfront. The Turcot, on the other hand, was built in a rail yard. Why, if it’s really a question of restoring the urban fabric, are we talking about the Turcot, when we could be talking about the Décarie (which actually did plow through a working neighbourhood)?

    I fully agree that freeways happen to be yucky, illness-causing neighbours. For what it’s worth, my office fronts on the Décarie, which I’m sure is just great for my health. Hell, I live on an arterial road, to boot. I’ll let the pollution argument stand. But the argument about traffic injuries in “dense pre-WWII neighbourhoods”? I dare Owen to show me a single location on the entire length of the 720 which is even close to pedestrian-accessible. You’d have to have awfully tall stilts.

    In fact, I tend to think that the 720, ensconced on top of a forbidding, relatively unusable slope and invisible across large swaths of downtown, is as successful from an urban planning standpoint as an urban freeway could possibly be.

    The rest of the arguments that Owen presents are all perfectly valid. Peak oil: sure. Healthy neighbourhoods for families: how can we possibly be against that? But these are valid arguments painted with such a broad brush as to be practically useless in the context of one particular interchange; guiding principles, really. And that comes back one of the points that I hope I made: the discourse surrounding the Turcot has thus far been so focused on generalities that it seems to be missing most of the specifics of how our city’s transport actually works.

    So here’s one: Owen says that the Turcot gives a “free ride to suburban sprawl,” and I’ll forego the obvious taxation argument. But Montreal is far more than its centre city, and cutting off the West Island from the centre by destroying a key interchange – remember, the only route from There to Here is via one of two autoroutes – is likely to fragment the commercial base of the region. In other words, West Islanders will commute to some potential edge city in the West Island. Which will, actually, decrease their commute times, and therefore their carbon emissions. But it won’t get them out of their cars, and it will weaken the centre city – including its wonderful central neighbourhoods.

    Since I am liable to complain that the opponents of the Turcot thus far have not actually put forth their own concrete vision for how to solve the problem at hand in the short and medium term, let me try: I like Peter Sijpkes’ solution of reinforcing the structure, as is, using metal arches. I’d invest massively in the rail lines that run through the area. I’d add park-and-ride capacity and quadruple the number of westward commuter trains. But no matter what we do, we’ve still got to fix this interchange. I’d like to know how Owen would approach it.

    For now, we need the Turcot. I repeat: for now. If we really want to change people’s attitudes and bring people back from the brinks of our metropolitan region, we need to induce them into more sustainable neighbourhoods – not to punish them for living in what we, thanks to our superior wisdom and understanding of the situation, consider to be the correct way to live. Let’s create tax breaks for density, and improve mass transit service, and keep renter protection laws strong, and make the city a nicer place to be.

    When it comes to broad strokes of urban policy, I suspect that Owen and I have more in common than he may think.

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    I like the solution they used on the corner of Parc & Des Pins – a great way to solve the problem of an interchange taking up too much space. I agree with Sam that the context here is different, since the interchange doesn’t barrel through the city, but it still takes up a lot of space that could be used for other purposes. Why not do the same here? Seems like it would probably cost less in the short and long term.

    After saving that money, use it as a down payment towards turning the suburban train line into a high-speed high-frequency above-ground metro – a tangible gesture to provide West Islanders with a sustainable alternative to cars that will get them downtown faster.

    And why not teach them a bit of French while we’re at it.

  • walkerp says:

    Would a new interchange cost more than improved rail and metro service? Wouldn’t it create many new jobs? I have absolutely no sympathy for the MTQ, since it is quite clear that they are in the pocket of developers, who think only in terms of short-term gain. They are the worst combination of corruption and bureaucracy. If the would present a plan that actually took into account for one the citizens, maybe they would get a fair hearing. Please.

  • Tintamar says:

    I don’t think you can have both sides of the argument. Either the new Turcot will not carry more cars and it thus will not solve the traffic problem and west islanders will still be frustrated. Or, the new Turcot will carry more cars and thus the city will be flooded with more cars.

  • Owen Rose says:

    Here is a clarification to Sam’s question about traffic injuries.

    I was not referring to pedestrian injuries and fatalities on the actual Autoroutes; rather, I was referring to DSP documentation of pedestrian deaths and injuries on city streets in Montréal. By increasing the number of cars that can drive into the city centre, we are then increasing pedestrian security problems; therefore, the solution is to stop these ‘traffic sewer tubes’ from invading our city centres and dense urban neighbourhoods.

    Here is the link to one of the DSP’s mémoires that illustrates these scientific findings:

    When we have this much money to spend, we have to sit down and take the longer term approach to how to best spend it.

    It appears that the consensus of everyone who has contributed to this article so far is that there is no future for the automobile as we know it and that the answer lies in a cocktail of urban transport options with a heavy emphasis on active and public transportation.

    Great debate and exchange of ideas!

    Owen Rose

  • Owen Rose says:

    Here is a follow-up to the conversation as appears well summarised in Le Devoir today:


    Modernisation de la rue Notre-Dame et du complexe Turcot – Montréal à la croisée des chemins

  • Owen Rose says:

    Another great follow-up to the Turcot saga again in Le Devoir:


    Libre opinion – Pourquoi il faut dire non à Turcot

    21 mai 2009
    Karel Mayrand, Directeur général pour le Québec, Fondation David Suzuki, et membre du Projet climatique d’Al Gore