St. Denis Street is the francophone equivalent to Crescent for the anglos: to visitors, this is the place to find a variety of restaurants, some live theatre, and much more, even on the “sinful” side, especially in the lower part of the street, below Sherbrooke. But St. Denis is much more than that, in fact it is one of the central north-south axes of the city: you can drive from its northernmost point near the Rivière des Prairies to the heart of Old Montreal, arriving at the corner of St Paul and the old Bonsecours Church (the Sailors’ Church). Its long extension also gives the street different “personalities”: residential for mostly francophone middle-class families in the northern part, some immigrant families, especially oriental ones in the segment near Jean Talon, and then a mixed residential-commercial character from Saint Joseph to the south.
It is this last section of the street, which is the focus of heated debates these days. That was the case this past May 28 on the French network TVA, when former NDP leader Tom Mulcair called the project put forward by the City of Montreal, an attempt by which (the city rulers) “deliberately want to kill Saint-Denis Street” and he went on adding that “this is a monumental error by the (Valerie) Plante administration.”
Mulcair was alluding to the new project Résau Express Vélo which would include that main artery as one to be transformed from a wide street with four lanes into a two-lane road with no parking allowed; instead, two cycle paths will be incorporated one in each direction. The proposed changes are consistent with the policy the city has implemented primarily in the Plateau Mont-Royal, the area where the changes would be introduced, which emphasize the use of bikes over cars. While most people may sympathize with the idea of making Montrealers less dependent on cars and instead encourage them to rely more on public transit or the environmentally-friendly bicycle, on the other hand, there is also the impression that some people in the city’s ruling party are taking that approach to extremes that ultimately may damage the metropolis.
“The anti-car dictators at City Hall don’t want people to stay in Montreal to enjoy a meal after attending a show. So, people will go to Brossard or Laval because they (the city rulers) are on course to kill downtown with projects like this one” says Mulcair in a very incensed tone. Interesting words were coming from someone who during his past in provincial politics used to be an Environment Minister.
Mulcair’s words were responded by former Bloc Québecois MP and former Longueuil Mayor Caroline St-Hilaire: “You’re already unable to park on St. Denis Street, you can drive on and park on the intersecting streets” she said. After noting again the portfolio that Mulcair once held, she added “if we don’t do this turn (away from car use), then we will not dare to do things differently. We will continue doing as we do now.”
What will come out of this new controversy? Of course, restaurant owners and other businesses in the area are very much opposed to this idea that would make it difficult for their customers to find parking. But some other problems ultimately come from the conception that the Projet Montréal as a political party has about this city. First of all, a very obvious misconception: Montreal is not a summer city, like Miami or San Francisco might be, on the contrary, with five months of rather cold weather (going to six if you look at temperatures these days) Montreal is primarily a winter city. Biking is fine, be it as a means of transportation or as a leisure activity and, given its health benefits, nobody would question the facilitation of its use, as long as the reality of Montreal as a winter city is also recognized. Otherwise, we risk doing silly things such as permanently alter some important arteries just to accommodate the demands of people who in any case won’t use the facilities more than half the year (of course, riding a bike on snowy roads is not only irresponsible but plainly stupid too).