Opinion: Sidewalk sale is evidence cars don’t belong on Ste-Catherine

People fill Ste-Catherine St. west of Peel during sidewalk sale and street festival in Montreal Sunday July 16, 2017.
John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Those who regularly argue against the idea of the making sizeable segments of Ste-Catherine St. a pedestrian zone were handed a significant setback last weekend. The overwhelming success of the three-day sidewalk sale that saw the celebrated artery closed for the occasion to all vehicular traffic between Guy and Aylmer Sts. is surely something for city officials — including a seemingly reluctant mayor — to think about.

It will be recalled that the argument most frequently presented by those who oppose the barring of motorized traffic from the east-west thoroughfare is that it would have a nefarious effect on harried merchants, or so the opponents suggest. Potential consumers, the reasoning goes, will not travel to the city centre if they are unable to bring their automobile along with them, and perhaps even park it on Ste-Catherine St.

But last weekend’s commercial street festival proved the naysayers all wrong. Given the opportunity to participate in a vehicle-free street happening, 300,000 people (according to the Ville Marie borough’s own estimates) enthusiastically showed up, despite the mixed weather conditions. “It is amazing that they can close the street off for three days. The atmosphere is great,” said one ebullient reveller.

Indeed, it is amazing that this could be done, given Montreal’s historically entrenched car-culture approach to most everything in this city.

The overwhelming popularity of the three-day occasion (including a work day, Friday) raises the question: How did all those individuals get there, even though they were not permitted to bring their personal vehicle onto the street?

Clearly, when all is said and done, when presented with the rare opportunity to be in a peaceful and safe setting, where there are no motorized conveyances of any sort, most people can find a way. It’s a formula that is working in many, if not most, cities of the industrialized world.

And yet, notwithstanding any of the above, municipal government after municipal government that Montreal chooses for itself falls significantly short of the goal line when it comes to restricting vehicular access to certain parts of the city centre. Progress, if there is any, is at the proverbial snail’s pace.

The recent creation of the River to Mountain walkway, which officially opened Monday, is just one case in point. While the original plan for the now over-budget urban promenade suggested that one complete side of McGill College Ave. might be pedestrianized, City Hall eventually announced that only half of one side of the divided street would be off limits to motorized traffic — and this on a seasonal basis only.

In the densely crowded city centre, events have clearly demonstrated that vehicles, walkers and cyclists do not mix — or at least not well. Yet, part and parcel of the universally acclaimed Vision Zero method (which Mayor Denis Coderre ostensibly supports) is to limit access to motorized transport to the urban core of any metropolis as much as humanly possible.

This city’s conflictual relationship with the automobile goes back a long way. On Aug. 14, 1909, a letter to the editor appeared in the now defunct Montreal Star in which the writer, describing himself only as a “Pedestrian,” lamented his daily experiences and close calls with death in the streets of the burgeoning municipality. Unbelievable as it may seem, 108 years ago the prescient penman argued for the complete elimination of automobiles from the downtown district.

In the case of Montreal, with so many more cars than a century ago, what better place to pursue that goal than on Ste-Catherine St. itself?

Last weekend’s sidewalk sale proved the potential benefits of just such an approach.

Robert N. Wilkins is a local historian and author of Montreal 1909. (


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