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More stupid ideas

More stupid ideas coming from the city of Montreal, whose councilors seem to have nothing better to do. The city has floated a plan to get rid of all the surface parking lots downtown by developing them into housing units, high-rises, or multi-level parking lots, or turning them into green space:

City council wants to eliminate all 240 surface parking lots, potentially reducing the number of spots available, in a push to beautify Montreal and encourage commuters to use public transit.

It has commissioned a study to determine the availability of parking spots and the need for parking downtown, said Robert Libman, the city’s executive committee member in charge of land use.

“We’re not talking about eliminating parking spots, we’re taking about eliminating the outdoor parking lots,” he said yesterday at city hall.

“They’re ugly, they’re messy, people throw their garbage there, you have these run-down shacks sitting in the middle of them, and they have great development potential.”

Fine. They’re ugly. But they provide the majority of the parking spots downtown. Thousands of people park there daily, and it certainly won’t improve commerce, industry, or pollution if they have nowhere to park.

And “encourage people to use public transit” would seem like more of a sincere goal if public transit was a viable alternative. But, as anyone living in the suburbs will tell you, it’s far from. There’s no metro out where I live, and buses are infrequent and inconvenient.

For example, heading downtown on a Saturday night in the summer would take 25 minutes to drive each way. According to the STM website’s “Tous Azimuts” tool, it would take 1 3/4 hours to make the same trip down, and require taking two buses and the metro. I couldn’t calculate the route to come back home at closing time, because the search tool only works between 6am and 10pm. But from experience I can say it takes well over 2 hours. And that’s straight home – imagine having to pick someone up or meet up elsewhere first!

Another example: when I was a university student, coming home from downtown in the middle of the afternoon after a class would take me 25 minutes by car. Tous Azimuts tells me it would take 1 1/2 hours, with a route involving two metro lines and a rush-hour bus. Attempting the same route outside of rush hour would tack on an extra 45 minutes.

Going shopping downtown on a Sunday afternoon? Forget it! By the time I got there, it would be time to turn around and come home.

To be sure, I have at times driven halfway into the city and left my car at one of the STM public lots to take the metro from there. But it is an additional 10 minutes from that point to get to virtually anywhere downtown. And leaving my car to take the metro means that not only am I paying for both public and automotive transport, but that it will take three times as long.

Some major cities have managed to implement prohibitive driving measures aimed to prevent people from taking their cars downtown. London, for example, recently added the “congestion charge” that keeps cars out of the downtown core at peak hours, or forces owners to pay a stiff charge. However, London has a world-class public transit system. The Underground, while expensive and often on strike or in repair, does go virtually everywhere in all directions. And there’s a fairly extensive night-bus system after hours. Or New York City, which has a natural deterrent to driving, namely the traffic, has created a culture of dedicated walkers and subway-goers, and the subway is convenient for most commuters.

None of this is true in Montreal, where the metro goes to only one stop on the South Shore, nowhere in Laval, and nowhere West of Cote-Vertu. Not only that, but lines are infrequent, stoppages constant, and the idea was even floated of stopping service on weekends. The commuter trains – a good idea in theory – are even worse, as there are virtually no trains outside rush hour, and the lines are only useful to people going straight downtown.

Montreal is going about this backwards. If you want less people to drive, give them a viable alternative. Increasing gas taxes and parking fees, removing parking spots, and other “stick” methods don’t work without the “carrot” of improved public transit. Until the government makes a real commitment to improving public transit, we’ll keep on driving. And eliminating parking lots won’t improve the situation, it’ll only make things worse.

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