Mount Royal Camillien-Houde Mountain Montreal

City of Montreal so-called car ban on Camillien-Houde a missed opportunity for Mount Royal

“Rather than getting rid of an unnecessary roadway that’s disfigured the mountain for 70-some-odd years — and commit to genuine reforestation — we’re getting half-assed greenwashing that still tries to be all things to all people.”

Recent news that the Plante administration plans on permanently closing Camillien-Houde Way up the eastern side of Mount Royal leaves me a little conflicted, even though this is perfectly consistent with the mayor’s unique ‘lower your expectations’ brand of municipal pseudo eco-progressivism. 

“We’re taking out the asphalt and we’re putting in trees” Mayor Plante said.

I’m presuming the bike lane, which will run parallel to a foot path along the route of the soon to be former parkway, will remain paved with asphalt. Moreover, that bike path is supposed to be wide enough to accommodate police cars, ambulances and apparently fire trucks (in case of an emergency), meaning that it will have many if not all the characteristics of any other city street. Including the asphalt. 

From the looks of things, it would seem that the parkway will be ripped up and a new road will be laid down.

Albeit one with apparently many more trees.

According to the CBC story linked above, Plante also has plans for yet another pavilion to be built atop the mountain, as well as an expansion of available parking spaces.

One step forward, two steps back.

Chunk of change

City of Montreal so-called car ban on Camillien-Houde a missed opportunity for Mount Royal

The $90-million price tag is a bit of a gut-punch, too, especially for city beautification at a time when there are far more pressing issues to address. 

Spent anywhere else, this money could go much further. The housing crisis remains the most critical challenge facing our city right now, and $90-million could provide a lot more affordable or social housing. 

If used to build new protected bike lanes along streets most people use on a daily basis, even at the rather exorbitant rate of $30-million per 60 kilometres used for the REV project, the $90-million allocated to ‘velocipeding’ Camillien-Houde could provide us with 180 kilometres of new REV-quality bike lanes.

Contrary to Plante’s statements, applying these funds to extending the REV would likely do much more to get the average Montrealer to switch to bikes as their primary means of conveyance, as Camillien-Houde was used primarily, if not exclusively, by competitive cyclists looking for a challenge.

And keep in mind as well that, as it stands, the existing parkway could be limited to pedestrians, cyclists and emergency vehicles. Creating a new bike lane for a very specific subset of cyclists, at a time in which municipal resources should be applied first and foremost to addressing the housing crisis, is an unfortunate misuse of scarce public funds. 

That matter aside, Plante has also missed a great opportunity to make things right and get rid of one of the worst infrastructure projects ever approved in Montreal. Instead, half the problem will be partially altered. Rather than getting rid of an unnecessary roadway that’s disfigured the mountain domain for 70-some-odd years, and commit to some genuine reforestation, we’re getting half-assed greenwashing that still tries to be all things to all people.

Is it better than doing nothing? Yes, of course.

Is doing nothing a decent bare minimum standard to hold the political class to? No, not at all.

It may seem obvious in retrospect, but people often need to be reminded that roadways and parking lots aren’t naturally occurring features of the environment. Prior to Mount Royal Park’s opening in 1876, there wasn’t much more than the dirt path that was the original Côte-des-Neiges Road, and a few deer trails, to get up the mountain. When the park opened in 1876, horse-drawn carriages could make it up to the summit, but most people walked. Eventually a streetcar line was installed along the same route that Camillien-Houde follows today, though it occupied far less space (mindful not to leave too much of a footprint, the route was limited to the area occupied by the track). This tram served people’s needs just fine from 1930 to 1958. 

It’s a point worth considering: in the era in which Montreal’s centre-most core was at its highest population density (which is around the same time Montreal parks officials were actually complaining that too many children and young people were using Mount Royal), most people wouldn’t have used cars to get to the mountain.

The Drapeau supremacy

Camillien-Houde Mount Royal Montreal
Bald Mountain

Then Jean Drapeau happened.

For those who don’t know, Drapeau was mayor of Montreal, first from 1954 to 1957, and then again from 1960 to 1986. He’s the guy who pushed for the development of the metro, brought a world’s fair to Montreal in 1967 and then tried to repeat his success with the Olympics in 1976. Drapeau is generally credited with why we once had a professional baseball team, too. He was mayor for nearly 30 years, so he did a lot more than just that, but those are the highlights. For good and for ill, he is without question the most transformative and significant mayor in the city’s history, and nearly every mayor since has existed in his shadow. 

Because of all the things I just mentioned, Boomers and Gen-Xers tend to have a warm soft spot for Drapeau. Few Montrealers today remember Drapeau’s first term in office, in the mid-1950s, when he was a crusading social and urban reformer.

This is actually part of the reason why there’s a de facto expressway up on Mount Royal in the first place. 

In sum, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a not insignificant number of Montrealers got it into their heads that Mount Royal was overgrown, under-maintained and that the ‘disorder and chaos’ of this natural environment was therefore a breeding ground for public immorality (read Matthieu Caron’s superb essay on when Mount Royal was a “jungle”).

Thanks to a series of outrageous and highly exaggerated stories in a local newspaper about the supposedly sinister side of Mount Royal, the movers and shakers of respectable Montreal society became convinced that our lovely little mountain was home to a congregation of misfits and other ‘social undesirables’ (to use the language of the era, and which would be used to describe everyone from the unhoused to people with serious mental health problems to people with substance use disorders to people of the LGBTQ community to anyone outside the heteronormative male/female gender dichotomy. Probably communists too, just for good measure).

At around the same time, Montreal was beginning to suburbanize, and the increase in suburban housing development in the post-war era (driven by the widespread adoption of the automobile) led city planners to start coming up with proposals for a new network of urban boulevards, several of which would later be built as fully grade-separated highways (like the Metropolitan, the Decarie and the Ville-Marie expressways). Drapeau thought that with a nice network of highways and urban boulevards, Montreal’s major assets could still be accessible to all those nice suburbanites, and they wouldn’t have to be bothered interacting with riffraff who couldn’t afford to move out of the city.

Drapeau also wasn’t a fan of Mount Royal, and seriously proposed bulldozing it flat, the rationale being that it would free up a lot of prime space for housing, and further allow the street grid to extend all the way into the city centre, which he felt would help alleviate traffic.

Yes, you read that right. Drapeau once considered Mount Royal expendable to help mitigate traffic congestion and satisfy the needs of developers.

His plan was swiftly rebuked by the citizenry — something that’s remained curiously consistent over the past 70-or-so years. Many people have made all kinds of suggestions for what ‘to do’ with Mount Royal (most of the suggestions involve privatizing all or part of the land and filling it with for-profit attractions) and they’ve nearly all been rejected, except for Drapeau’s plan to tame the various imaginary crises and sinful behaviours he believed were transpiring up in the underbrush of Mount Royal Park. Building Camilien-Houde Way and the big parking lots at the top was just part of it. Nearly simultaneously, much of the mountain’s underbrush was cleared out and a number of older and damaged trees were removed. Mount Royal was so throughly deforested by the early 1960s that locals referred to it as “Mont Chauve” or “Bald Mountain.” 

The Camilien-Houde Parkway was pushed right through the area identified in those salacious newspaper stories as “the jungle,” which is essentially the 1950s equivalent of a mayor sending the fuzz in to destroy a homeless camp because suburbanites don’t like being reminded they elected incompetents to run the economy into the ground. 

Plus ça change.

True green

Mount Royal wetlands. Photo by les Amis de la Montagne

So it’s one thing to have a mini highway up the side of the mountain, but quite another to have a homophobic and anti-homeless highway at that.

The other side of the issue is that Plante is framing this as greening project, and while the renderings certainly feature many leafy green trees, expanding the parking lots and building a new pavilion seems like a step in the wrong direction. If the goal is to make Mount Royal greener, then we shouldn’t be increasing parking spaces or building new attractions at its summit. This is counterproductive. If the goal is to respect Olmsted’s vision, as a recent Canadian Press story alluded to, then adding more buildings and parking spaces certainly doesn’t align. Keeping the Remembrance Road section on the west side of the mountain potentially runs the risk of adding more traffic to the already generally congested Côte-des-Neiges Road. If the goal was to respect Olmsted’s vision and increase the green canopy of Mount Royal, the mayor would have advocated ripping up all the pavement and parking and reforesting the whole thing.

As much as I support cyclists, building a bike lane that only a few cyclists will regularly use is misguided. It’s like trying to encourage Montrealers to walk instead of using their cars, but building a challenging hiking path instead of pedestrianizing an existing street.

As to accessibility, it’s unfortunate because Plante doesn’t seem to have consulted with local disability rights advocates, such as RAPLIQ. There are also other ways to make things accessible that don’t involve cars or buses.

If we weren’t in the midst of a housing crisis, I’d advocate removing the roadway and all the parking in its entirety, as well as any building that could reasonably be relocated elsewhere, and replace the route with a tram line running roughly from Parc and des Pins on the east side, to Guy-Concordia metro station on the other. This would free up the most amount of space for reforestation, make the mountain more accessible (and in a more sustainable fashion), get cars off it forever and remove all traces of the problematic parkway. 

Minimizing the human impact on the mountain domain would be more in line with Olmsted’s vision, not to mention maximize the mountain’s potential as a carbon sink, air purifier, groundwater retainer and weather regulator for the urban environment. ■

After publication, Projet Montréal contacted Cult MTL to clarify two key points related to the Camillien-Houde revamp project. The city says they do not plan to expand the total number of parking spaces, but to increase the number of reserved parking spaces for disabled people. They also are not proposing a new pavilion, but rather a new lookout. They do not yet have an estimate for the potential carbon footprint of another lookout on Mount Royal.

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.