I know it’s a cliché for a Torontonian to fall in love with Montreal, but I went and did it anyway. I’ve spent the past four weeks exploring the parks and restaurants of the Vieux Rosemont neighbourhood and beyond, and my heart has shattered for my hometown a thousand times.
On just about every measure of livability, Montreal beats Toronto.
The most crucial is housing affordability, which in Toronto is nonexistent. The average house cost $772,400 in May and chances are that average house is either very small, or in need of renovations. The rental vacancy rate is shockingly low – hitting 1.1 per cent in late 2017 – and purpose-built rental units saw costs spike 16 per cent in just the last year, which should simply be illegal.
Meanwhile, Montreal has always been an affordable renter’s city. Aside from being a basic human right, secure housing makes a city more vibrant and relaxed. It’s evident in almost every daily interaction, an easy, artistic vibe that’s just in the air.
Unemployment is currently lower in Montreal than in Toronto. The biggest business in the country, Couche-Tard, is based in Quebec. The province’s child poverty rates are the lowest in the country, thanks to generous child benefits and universal daycare – a Globe and Mail colleague in Montreal told me he spent $10,000 on care for three kids last year, when it cost me almost twice as much for just one.
And before you get on some sort of high-income high horse, in 2015, the average family income in Toronto was only about $17,000 more annually than in Montreal, a difference that’s more than made up for in housing and child-care costs.
Let’s not even talk about public transit: 68 subway stations on four lines, with more-or-less consistent extensions since the Metro’s 1966 opening. All that, and a monthly transit pass is just $83.
Toronto’s broken transit system – which requires users to spend their lives waiting for overstuffed streetcars and buses likely to go out of service halfway through a journey – costs $146.25 to ride every month. That’s just one way our transportation morass keeps people from hanging out and having fun.
The country’s most populous city was just ranked the worst in North America for commuting. Toronto drivers crawl through permanent traffic, and they take their frustrations out on their fellow citizens.
The other day, I realized I was actually surprised that a busy downtown Montreal intersection stayed clear during rush hour. In Toronto, impatient drivers clog every single one, because if they have to suffer after a long day earning barely enough to pay their mortgages, then so does everyone else.
Only after more than 90 pedestrian and cyclist deaths has Toronto city council finally sharpened the teeth of its two-year-old Vision Zero plan, and the proposed moves so far simply aim to manage drivers’ dominance of the road, rather than introduce true sharing. Montreal’s city council just approved funding for 33 kilometres of new bike lanes, to add to 846 they already have, 350 of which are totally separate from car traffic. They’re going to eliminate parking spots to build the new ones!
Meanwhile, do you know how many kilometres of separate, protected bike lanes there are in Toronto? Thirty-seven. It’s an actual joke, and enough to make anyone who cares about air quality weep.
As is the laneway behind the house where I’m staying, which is one of 360 car-free “ruelle vertes,” full of toys and children, playing freely without fear of being run over. Parents chit-chat while drinking wine on summer evenings, or tend the plants that help reduce the heat island effect of summers in a concrete jungle.
Oh, and every pool in the city is free.
There are a few things that Toronto wins at: Lake Ontario provides the most delicious tap water in the world, while the stuff here tastes kind of metallic. There’s more ethno-cultural diversity at home and as such, less casual racism (the systemic kind is stubborn in both places).
Though Montreal no longer suffers from overt, bold corruption in its municipal government, business-minded people do still complain about the frustrations of getting anything done through City Hall. And of course, there’s the winter – all in all, I’m still not particularly interested in climbing up one of the city’s famous wrought-iron staircases in one of its famously brutal snowstorms.
I love Toronto, but it’s bringing me down: It’s felt increasingly unlivable for years, and things really seem to be at a crisis point. Every day for a month, Montreal has reminded me of an essential truth that is easy to forget at home – that cities are a place where people live.