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People walk on Mont-Royal Avenue in Montreal on June 23. The street in the heart of the Plateau is walking and cycling only for the summer over the span of 36 blocks. It has repurposed pews and ski lift seats for sitting, cooling stations, and street art.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

Taking in the improbable scene around him, on a sunny weekday afternoon in Montreal, Jean Beaudoin looked like a kid who just stepped through the gates of some enchanted theme park.

“It’s Disneyland,” he said.

Instead of roller coasters and a supersized Mickey Mouse, he gazed at everyday life on Mont-Royal Ave. in the city’s Plateau neighbourhood: families strolling with ice cream cones, meandering cyclists, seniors sitting in the shade and – the kicker – not a car in sight.

The busy commercial drag has been transformed, for the fourth summer, into what may be the world’s longest pedestrian street. With a span of 2.5 kilometres blocked off to traffic, covering more than 30 intersections, it’s about twice as expansive as more famous, albeit permanent, promenades such as Bordeaux’s Sainte-Catherine or Stroget in Copenhagen.

For Mr. Beaudoin, an architect and urban designer, that constitutes a boast. His firm designed the pedestrianized stretch of Mont-Royal, installing the church pews repurposed as benches and the wooden planters overflowing with greenery. They also commissioned the snippets of local history written on the pavement and the colourful “horizontal mural” outside the metro station.

It is not an empty boast, however: Voting with their feet, Montrealers have turned the street into a daily festival, with thick crowds almost around the clock, shopping, wandering, packing private patios, or sinking into the baby-blue Adirondack chairs laid out for public use.

A survey by the local business association, the Société de développement de l’Avenue du Mont-Royal, found that more than 90 per cent of visitors view the project favourably.

This summer, Mayor Valérie Plante’s administration is pedestrianizing parts of nine other commercial streets, some spanning over a kilometre. The same initiative helped Wellington Street, in the southwestern neighbourhood of Verdun, earn the title of “coolest street in the world” from Time Out magazine last year.

The spectacle of one major street without cars, let alone 10, has left certain visitors from the rest of Canada marvelling at Montreal’s ambition.

“People would lose their mind if you did that to St. Clair,” said Angus Knowles, a Toronto housing developer and urbanist writer, referring to a major artery in his city that has been a battleground between drivers and public transit.

Brent Toderian, the former chief planner of Vancouver, said, “In some Canadian cities I think pigs would have flown before this kind of thing would have been allowed...To use a technical term, it blew my mind.“

What impressed Mr. Toderian most during a visit to Mont-Royal last summer was not just the exclusion of cars but what replaced them. He noted flourishes like ski lifts borrowed from a nearby alpine resort that have been turned into open-air couches, and a vegetable garden sitting in what was once a curbside parking spot.

  • People walk on Mont-Royal Street in Montreal on June 23.Andrej Ivanov/The Globe and Mail

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“They weren’t lazy about it – they didn’t just throw up barriers and ban cars,” he said.

The annual budget for all that transformation was a little over $1-million, split roughly 60-40 between the city and the business association. “It might be the best bargain I’ve ever heard,” said Mr. Toderian.

At first, the pedestrianization of Mont-Royal was more modest – a pilot project born during the pandemic. As Ms. Plante explained in a recent interview, the city was trying to cope with lines of shoppers spilling into the road when there were capacity limits on businesses in 2020.

But banishing cars from the Plateau’s main street was also a longstanding goal of Ms. Plante’s political party, Projet Montréal, a formerly fringey left-of-centre outfit that got its start in the neighbourhood of tightly packed duplex and triplex apartment buildings.

“Pedestrianizing Mont-Royal was something we dreamed about in our craziest dreams,” said Ms. Plante. But then she was elected mayor in 2017 on a platform of a more walkable, bikeable city – and re-elected in 2021 amid a global health crisis.

“The pandemic was a chance to seize the opportunity,” she said. “It was a gamble that, when people have experienced this, they won’t want to get rid of it.”

There are still gripes from some residents and businesses about the difficulty of parking and receiving deliveries.

Claude Rainville, director of the local business association, said improving transport for seniors and people with disabilities is a priority, since the bus has been rerouted. His organization has been trying to address some of the complaints by offering free taxi service to and from the avenue for residents 65 and up, and tuk tuk-style pedicabs for people with reduced mobility.

Maybe the best measure of the good will around Mont-Royal’s new look, however, is its popularity among business owners. About two-thirds of them support the project, said Mr. Rainville – from grocers to bakers to butchers to sommeliers to discount shoe sellers.

Karl Leblanc, co-owner of the restaurant Chez Victoire, was skeptical of pedestrianization at first. But the car-free months have ultimately been good for his bottom line and – he acknowledged while sitting on his sprawling flower-lined patio – they provide an unbeatable atmosphere.

“You can get lost, just hanging out in summer,” he said.

That’s what Aurélie Pierron and Sophie Dallacasa were doing on a recent wet, smoggy evening. Undeterred by the weather or the air quality, they were using a phone app to identify the plants artfully sprouting out of a concrete barrier installed by the city.

The women are originally from France and they feel right at home among the flâneurs and terraces of Mont-Royal. The pedestrian zone provides the neighborhood with “more life, more community spirit,” said Ms. Pierron.

So, should the street be like this 12 months a year, as some residents would prefer – with cross-country ski paths and skating rinks in the winter? Ms. Pierron answered nonchalantly: “Why not?”

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