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Canada Fighting for the streets: A Montreal mayor takes on the car

The mayor of the trendy and traffic-jammed Plateau Mont-Royal district has a vision: Some day children will descend from their walk-up apartments to play hopscotch on quiet, leafy streets.

Parents will send older brothers and sisters skipping out to the neighbourhood bakery without fear they will be run down by a frantic commuter.

But first, Luc Ferrandez has a war to win. Over increasing protests, the mayor of this densely populated Montreal borough of 101,000 people is trying to make automobiles less welcome. It may be the fastest and farthest-reaching campaign against the automobile that any Canadian city has seen - and it has not been without unintended casualties: not just businesses deprived of parking, but a church that can't host a funeral or a senior's centre that is no longer quite so accessible for seniors.

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Filled with shops and sprawling parks, the Plateau should be a walker's paradise. Instead it is one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods for pedestrians in all of Canada. About 84 per cent of the 651,555 daily trips through the Plateau's eight square kilometres are by commuters heading downtown from Montreal's northern neighbourhoods and suburbs. Mr. Ferrandez's main objective is to force drivers off narrow residential streets, which have become favourite shortcuts, and onto the big boulevards designed for heavy traffic.

Elected last fall in a neighbourhood often derided across Quebec as a sort of Snobville for artists, intellectuals and media personalities, the bicycle-riding mayor wants to make sure a local baby boom doesn't result in more people fleeing to the suburbs.

"There is an inalienable right to have peace in the city. You have the right to raise kids here, you have the right to live here," said Mr. Ferrandez.

"We believe family life in the city is possible. Lots of people don't think this, obviously, because they moved out. But we're not going to accept having our life defined by those who moved out."

Drivers are already exhibiting their annoyance. The first coat of green paint, used to mark a street that will become a park, was barely dry when the protests began. Mr. Ferrandez has received e-mails urging him to "go back to Mexico." (He was, in fact, born here; his father in Morocco.)

Acting on a platform that won him a surprise victory in last fall's election, Mr. Ferrandez has started with steps that sound small. He closed one block of a side street to traffic, promising to convert it into park. He has evicted cars from large Laurier Park and chipped away at street parking where green and patio spaces could work. The backbone of the plan involves more bike lanes, better crosswalks, more street closures and new one-way streets, many of which will switch directions to impede motorized traffic.

In front of Saint-Enfant-Jésus church on St. Dominique Street, parish volunteer André Corriveau is not enjoying the new-found peace and quiet of a closed street.

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Some aged parishioners who once parked right out front have stopped coming. The collection basket is down about 15 per cent, he says. While his church is one of the few in central Montreal with its own parking lot, many of the elderly won't walk the big city block to get around to the front entrance, he says. Funeral and wedding processions can no longer park out front.

The church has started a petition, backed by local business owners who miss their free parking.

"I think there's a little ageism at work here; it's easy to forget the old people," said Mr. Corriveau, himself a retiree. "It's also about history. The church is one of the oldest in Montreal, it was designed for the street."

A few blocks away, at the Jardin des Ainés seniors drop-in centre in Parc Laurier, Yvette Ethier's regular bridge game is going on without her. The closure of the centre's driveway and parking means she can't roll up to the front step. She's staying home instead.

"I'm 77 years old, I'm not going to start riding a bicycle," said Ms. Ethier, who lives a few kilometres north of the neighbourhood. "You can't count on street parking. There's a little hill, my bridge game is on the second floor. … I find the city is being very inhospitable."

Mr. Ferrandez says he didn't expect such a strong reaction. He admits some of the consequences of his car-reduction scheme were unintended, but he also says the reaction points to the degree to which car culture has taken over Montreal.

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"People who complain about parking," he said, "are thinking about one thing: 'Where am I going to park my car?' There's more than this to life in the city."

Over decades, Toronto has also created so-called "traffic mazes" to push vehicles away from midtown residential streets. One of Mr. Ferrandez's staffers has taken inspiration from the bewildering array of traffic-control measures on Toronto's streets.

In Toronto, those streets were often won block by block by residents. In Montreal, it's municipal government leading the campaign while the grassroots, accustomed to ample free parking, is rising in opposition.

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