Montreal tram trams

It’s time to bring the tram back to Montreal

“Building a tramway network in our city shouldn’t just be prioritized because of the climate catastrophe, but also because the pandemic has provided us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

I was reading Daniel Sanger’s Saving the City the other day (it’s an oral history on the rise of Projet Montréal and a decent overview of the last 20 some-odd years of municipal politics that manages to be highly readable) and it occurred to me that we never got around to building any trams in this city. This despite the fact that Projet Montréal was literally founded as a *ahem* vehicle to develop them, chiefly to get Montreal off of cars.

That was nearly 20 years ago, and Projet has now won two mandates to govern. So what are they waiting for? The need to reduce reliance on cars — and, more importantly, to reclaim much of the land that has been lost over the last half century to the exclusive use of automobiles — is more important now than it has ever been.

Building a tramway network in our city shouldn’t just be prioritized because of the climate catastrophe, but also because the pandemic has provided us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are far fewer cars on our streets right now, and fewer people commuting into the city each day. This will likely continue to be the case for as long as the pandemic continues, which, thanks to the complete and total incompetence of the political class, may be another few years. 

Recent news is that island of Montreal lost nearly 50,000 people between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, which is apparently the biggest population loss since the Institut de la statistique du Québec began keeping track 20 years ago. It’s likely this trend will continue for the duration of the pandemic — meaning it will continue for the foreseeable future — and this population loss is coupled with already existing suburbanization trends, along with generally fewer people coming into the city for work, to shop, to go out etc.

This means fewer people in the city, fewer cars on the roads, fewer people using the city’s existing public transit services and all of that means now would be the most ideal time to start ripping up the roads for an aggressive tramways development project. 

What are trams, and why should we have them?

Montreal trams tram
Montreal and the tram have a past — how about a future?

Trams are a kind of light-rail mass transit system that are widely used throughout the world and were once common even in small North American cities, though many of those systems were phased out in the 1950s and 1960s. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being forced to visit Toronto (a pointless city on the banks of Lake Ontario in a neighbouring province), one of its few redeeming qualities is its under-developed tram network, which they illogically call a “streetcar” (I suppose because “road train” wasn’t available). Toronto’s streetcar is woefully outdated though, largely because it is forced to share the road with other vehicular traffic, which on Toronto’s congested streets often makes the streetcar less desirable or efficient than walking.

Montreal had a similar streetcar system for about a century, up until 1959, when it was phased out in favour of buses (so yes, despite what you may have heard, they do in fact work in winter). At the time, buses looked like a much better option, chiefly because they weren’t limited by the extent of the tramway rail network. Moreover, by the beginning of the 1960s, Montreal was already beginning a prolonged phase of suburbanization, and most of the new suburbs weren’t connected to the city by the tram network. The new thinking of the 1960s was that Montreal’s mass transit would be best served by a subway system in the urban core of the city, where each station could become a terminus for a number of bus lines which in turn would connect to the outer reaches of the city proper (and everyone living in the suburbs would drive their own car on the brand new highways the province was building at the time). Trust me, it all made a lot of sense 60 years ago.

The main advantage of trams today is that, unlike buses or cars, they use electricity, which in Montreal’s case would come from renewable and sustainable hydropower. Moreover, trams today are designed to operate on a dedicated right of way, so they’re not actually sharing the road with buses, cars and trucks. Most cities that use trams also have priority signalling, meaning trams cross through intersections alone, without ever interfering with the normal flow of vehicular traffic. In addition, a tram in Montreal would fill the gap between bus and metro service: higher speed and greater passenger volume than a bus, yet far less expensive than building more metro or REM.

Moreover, because a tram is less capital intensive than other major transit projects, and would be built on streets already owned by the city of Montreal, a new tram might be possible to realize entirely on our own — i.e. without financial support from Quebec City or Ottawa. Trams running in parallel with the metro could help alleviate congestion (something which will likely get worse once the REM is completed, or if the lines are extended). More importantly, running trams on major commercial arteries — like Ste-Catherine Street, Parc Avenue or St-Laurent Boulevard — would likely make these streets more attractive shopping destinations. It’s already a well-established fact that pedestrians tend to buy more and visit stores more often than motorists — trams on these thoroughfares would have the effect of turning them into massive pedestrian malls. As more housing units are built in the city centre, the city will have to provide new transit accommodations for these new residents anyways, and more buses on already congested streets won’t cut it. 

Planning for the future

I realize that it may seem odd to make such a proposal while the STM is running a $43-million pandemic-related deficit, but I can’t imagine another time when we’ll have as few cars on our roads, and as few people in the city centre, as we do now. Eventually the pandemic will end, and people will come back to the city. Moreover, climate change is going to put additional pressure on the city to increase its population and population density, and it wouldn’t surprise me if older office towers are transformed — like every empty lot, gas station and otherwise under-utilized property in the city — into new housing. All that made Montreal a desirable place to live in 2019 will in all likelihood still be the case a few years from now, but we need the city government to be proactive rather than reactionary. If the pandemic has taught us any one lesson in particular, it’s that we really need to start thinking ahead and planning for the future. The experts, like Projet Montréal founder Richard Bergeron 20 years ago, have long anticipated what cities will need to do in order to survive and thrive through the era of climate change, and getting the majority of the population off cars is generally agreed to be step one. Tramways are, at least according to transit experts, a fundamental building block for the creation of the new green metropolis of the future. What better place than here? What better time than now? ■

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Cult MTL. 

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.