I hate summer in the city. Growing up in Montreal, summer meant hot, sticky days and airless nights. Kids cooled off at public pools and families slept on balconies, a Montreal tradition as close to camping as I ever got. Today, you’d think it would be easier to appreciate the attractions of what the Lonely Planet travel guide considers the world’s third-best “summer city.” For one, there are Montreal’s festivals – music, comedy, fireworks – name your fetish. For another, there’s the enjoyment of city parks, cool Bixi rental bikes, breezy walks on Mount Royal, and the city’s vibrant terrasse culture, with bars and restaurants spilling out onto the sidewalks and streets.
But for many who live and work here, summer in the city has become unbearable. Montreal is a giant building site, with construction zones all over the downtown core as infrastructure projects drag on. Almost every major roadway is under siege, as are key urban arteries, and gaping holes go on for blocks. Orange traffic cones have become the city’s emblem, and the stuff of nightmares for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians alike.
And there’s an added complication. The Mercier, Champlain and Jacques-Cartier bridges, which encouraged the suburban sprawl of south-shore communities and enabled the weekend lifestyle of many city dwellers, are in dire straits. Weekday commutes have become a hellish experience, and the sudden closure of bridge lanes has thwarted many a plan to escape the city heat.
It’s all taking a toll. In Monocle’s latest hit parade of the world’s most livable cities, Montreal sank to 24th place. The key problem, according to the British magazine: “Getting around is still this city’s biggest hindrance to getting ahead.”
Opinion leaders agree: Last month, the two editorial boards of Montreal’s main newspapers published a joint editorial admonishing the city’s beleaguered administration to find ways to accelerate the timeline and bring some coherence to the infrastructure mess. As if on cue, a slab of the Ville Marie Expressway slammed to the ground – mercifully without casualty.
So what’s the problem? Basically, it’s a combination of lack of foresight and not-so-benign neglect, on the part of city planners and governments at all levels. Since the mega-projects that laid the groundwork for Montreal’s urban growth decades ago, successive municipal administrations have failed to offer a sustained “vision” of the future. Since then, too, the city has become a political orphan, with both its provincial and federal masters often more focused on regional issues. Like other northeastern cities, the fin de siècle was difficult for Montreal. But even as economic interests and political clout shift westward, Canada can’t ignore the fundamental importance of one of its largest urban centres, both to the country’s well-being and to its national character.
And this summer’s disruptions are far from a temporary nuisance: Over the next five years, it will take billions of dollars to shore up the city’s aging infrastructure, and the disruptions to life – not to mention the threat to limb – will be enormous. All this money sloshing around may be good news on the jobs front, but these emergency measures are being implemented in an atmosphere of considerable citizen distrust about the machinations of the construction industry – still an Achilles heel for the Quebec Liberal Party.
As we head into another heated political season, Montrealers may be wondering how the city can continue to function in such chaos.
Antonia Maioni is a professor of political science at McGill University.