Montreal public transport climate emergency

Photo by J-F Savaria

Montreal’s free metro plan is fundamentally flawed

From the choice of stations to the timing of the free weekend project, the city’s plan doesn’t gel with its supposed goal of encouraging transit use.

On June 16, Mayor Plante announced that seven downtown metro stations will be free to use on weekends this summer, from la Fête Nationale right through to Labour Day weekend. The idea is that, by making several stations free to use on the weekends, the city of Montreal will help encourage people to use public transit.

It sounds like a really great idea, aside from the fact that it makes absolutely no sense.

The city chose the wrong stations

The seven stations that are to be free to use include: Saint-Laurent, Place-des-Arts, McGill, Peel, Champ-de-Mars, Place-d’Armes and Berri-UQAM, all of which are located more or less in the centre of the city and provide immediate access to most of downtown and Old Montreal. 

If you live in the city centre or anywhere within a short bus ride or walk of any metro station on the island, there’s a really good chance you already have a fully charged OPUS card and use the STM regularly. This likelihood tends to drop off as you move farther away from the centre of the city, so the population that needs to be encouraged to use public transit is more likely to live out in the suburbs, closer to the metro stations  at the ends of each of the lines. Stations in Longueuil and Laval would have been excellent choices, as would have Angrignon, Côte-Vertu, Honoré-Beaugrand, Saint-Michel and Lionel-Groulx. By putting the free stations on the periphery, rather than the centre, the incentive to use public transit is moved closer to the people who may be most disinclined to take it, presumably achieving the mayor’s goal of encouraging transit use.

Moreover, shifting the free stations to the periphery would give more people more reasons to try out the metro, chiefly because it would offer so many more choices in terms of where people could go. Think about it: is the goal to get more people to use the metro, and by extension, enjoy the benefits of public transit, or is it to get Montrealers a 50% discount on a public transit trip to visit downtown Montreal on the weekends? If the mayor’s true goal is the former, making peripheral stations free on the weekends makes much more sense, as it would increase overall accessibility as well as increasing accessibility to all the neighbourhoods in this city that are, quite frankly, far more interesting than downtown Montreal.

How will transit cops determine who’s riding for free?

According to La Presse, free access to the system will not require a ticket. According to CBC Montreal, free access is limited to going between the seven listed stations. The city’s June 16 press release doesn’t even mention the word ticket or how transit cops will (or won’t) enforce the use of tickets. As for the STM and ARTM, the two transit agencies with whom the city of Montreal is collaborating on this venture, neither of them have any press releases whatsoever about this project, and thus, no additional details. Radio-Canada mentions the concern some Montrealers might have about free access, but STM spokesperson Philippe Déry only mentioned that the STM will “plan their enforcement efforts with the free access period in mind,” but then veered off into detailing how free access to the metro only begins at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, and not at midnight. The Journal de Montréal and CTV News Montreal both specify that the seven listed stations will be free to use, but that metro users getting on elsewhere will have to buy a ticket. Seemingly every news story about this project, in French and in English, all quoted the exact same press release and the pre-packaged quotes provided therein. 

But how the transit cops will determine who has paid and who hasn’t still isn’t clear, and this isn’t a trivial detail either.

Assuming the CBC article is wrong and free service isn’t in fact limited to travelling between the seven listed stations, then the simplest option would be to leave the gates open at those stations and tell the transit cops to stand down on those weekends, given that it would be effectively impossible to tell who was taking advantage of the free weekend offer from those who were finding alternative methods to access the transit system. If this ultimately ends up being the case, it really does beg the question why they simply didn’t make the whole system free on weekends to begin with.

Alternatively, if the STM already planned for that possibility, they might opt for printing out a bunch of tickets to hand out to people at the stations, which they will then use to access the system. It would be a colossal waste of paper and would likely require a bunch of STM personnel, far more than each station normally requires, working overtime to hand out tickets (and a bunch more transit cops to then verify everyone using the system is holding a valid ticket), so this is presumably the preferred method of the STM union. Invariably a bunch of people unfamiliar with how the metro works (because the whole point of this exercise is to encourage people to give it a try) will immediately discard their free tickets and then get fined and never use public transit again. Mission accomplished!

Why not the whole weekend?

Given the point of this project is to encourage public transit use and specifically to encourage Montrealers to use transit as a means of accessing the downtown’s vibrant nightlife and cultural scene, why then is the STM very explicitly stating the free service only begins at 5:30 Saturday morning and ends at around midnight Sunday? Why not extend the free access to better match when Montrealers actually go out? At the very least the free service should start at midnight Saturday so that people who go out on Friday night could get a free trip home. Aren’t there many more people going out, presumably somewhere downtown, on Friday nights than Sunday nights, especially if this whole project is geared towards suburbanites who may not use transit that much? 

And if supporting downtown’s primary cultural attractions, tourist destinations and nightlife is indeed the goal, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense (and have a much greater overall positive impact) for the city to implement free service at these stations during the evenings and nights from Wednesday to Saturday, given it is those nights when most Montrealers go out? You know who’s not going to be at Peel or Place-d’Armes at 9 in the morning on a Saturday or a Sunday? Exactly the people this project is ostensibly intended to serve. 

All the other problems

There are more than a few other holes in this plan I can’t quite wrap my head around. Among others, why not include free transit access to Parc Jean-Drapeau or Mount Royal, two places Montrealers who don’t live in the city habitually complain are difficult to reach and where we don’t want to encourage more car use? Or why did the city choose the seven metro stations that are located the least distance from one another? If the aim is to make downtown more accessible and (hopefully) to stimulate downtown businesses, why not spread it out a bit? The walk from Peel to McGill, or from McGill to Place-des-Arts, takes about five minutes. Don’t we want people walking between these stations so that they patronize the nearby businesses, rather than riding between them? And what about Guy-Concordia, Atwater, Square-Victoria, Bonaventure, Sherbrooke and Mont-Royal stations? Aren’t there a lot of small businesses and various points of interest located near those stations as well? Will the cost of a monthly metro pass come down for that period of time to reflect the days in which use will be free? If not, isn’t this a de facto penalty against the very people whose habitual use of public transit is what keeps the whole thing going in the first place?

Don’t get me wrong, I favour free transit and I think we should be moving in the direction of a no-fare system as the primary method by which we encourage more transit use, all with the end goal of drastically cutting emissions, as well as the pollution and congestion caused by vehicular traffic. But this isn’t a meaningful step in that direction. This feels a lot more like partially subsidizing people to go shopping at underused downtown malls on the weekend. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.