The author is the founder of Vive la allée and content director of the Group of Fifty. He also collaborates in washington post.
Last week, Montreal’s Regional Environmental Council (CRE) embarked on a suicidal mission to get Montrealers to accept, among other brilliant ideas, universal on-street parking pricing in the city of Montreal. The abolition of free parking in the public domain is an idea that is both impossible, absurd… and correct.
A real clickbait, this proposal aroused the indignation of motorists, who rose en masse against this outrage to their quasi-monopoly on our urban public space. “It doesn’t look good,” thundered Yves Desautels on Radio-Canada’s Première Chaîne, before returning to his report on the infernal traffic in the city, without ever considering the possibility that the roads were overused in partly because it enjoys subsidies which make its exploitation and even its over-exploitation advantageous.
In the tsunami of reactions that followed the CRE’s proposal, I had the impression that only one municipal leader had presented the problem correctly: the mayor of Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension. “Me, if I want to store my fridge, I rent myself a warehouse, I don’t store it on the public domain”, said Laurence Lavigne Lalonde to illustrate the quite unique treatment that we reserve for the car in our lives.
The image of a line of refrigerators stored along the parking spaces of Villeray is very funny, and illustrates in the blink of an eye the absurdity of what we are currently doing with these spaces. We live in a city. And in a city, real estate remains the most expensive, because there is nothing more scarce in the city than space to occupy. Real estate, of course, is anything but free in a major North American city… except for cars.
Of course, like many cities in North America, Montreal has built into its DNA a series of standards that have proven toxic to the development of vibrant urban communities. Foremost among these is car-centric planning, which has been ingrained in our urban planning practices for so many generations that we are only slowly, gradually waking up to their pernicious effects.
Societies like ours are in a delicate situation. We can very well recognize, from a theoretical point of view, that the model of urban development that we have followed for the last 75 years has failed to demonstrate that it could be viable, or even very intelligent, and have same time right to want to defend it. After all, we live in a world designed around the presence of cars in our lives and it’s hard to get around without them. It’s clear.
The CRE white paper is taxing on this point: urban sprawl and car-centric urban planning are the result of a long series of bad choices, and free on-street parking is just one of these ill-advised choices. No single reform will be able to undo this model. Universal parking pricing is one of dozens that together could make the city more car-free. The white paper lists others: zoning reforms to make the city more compact, planning services around sustainable mobility, increasing the availability of collective, active and sustainable mobility options, et cetera.
But Mayor Lavigne Lalonde’s fridge principle is useful because it draws our attention to a very specific absurdity. It’s not just that Montreal is self-centered because Mayor Drapeau liked his tank and made all sorts of poor mobility choices 60 years ago. We are the ones who continue to support solo driving day after day through sometimes almost invisible practices that favor the car over other modes of transportation.
Shockingly, as Blaise Rémillard of CRE told me in a recent interview, no one is really able to say exactly how many free on-street parking spaces there are in Montreal. The City estimates them at 470,000. But, since free on-street parking is treated as a given of nature, no one has ever bothered to really count them.
The CRE, for its part, calculates that, while an average parking space occupies 14 square meters, on-street parking in Montreal currently covers 7 square kilometers, an area roughly equivalent to half of the borough of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, where I live. The City is taking this prime real estate wealth — a huge amount of space equivalent to a shocking 27% of the street — tying a ribbon on it, and gifting it to the owners of these deadly CO-spewing devices.2, poison the air, change the climate and hurt our children and cyclists by the dozen. It’s completely absurd.
The wise man says, “Show me your budget, I’ll tell you what your priorities are.” If the CRE figures are correct, the current hidden subsidy for on-street parking is worth almost 10% of the City’s budget and five times what it spends on social housing.
Is free car storage really five times more important for Montreal than the housing crisis that is shaking it? Apparently, and absurdly, yes. It’s not an opinion, it’s the numbers that say it. Montreal has a great opportunity to correct this injustice. You have to enter it.