Public Space in a Winter City, Part II: Shopping malls

Montreal is definitely a winter city, especially on a day like today. While roads are difficult to navigate by car, and even more on foot, people have somehow managed to dig themselves out and make it to the local shopping centre (I got stuck here en route to the bus that would bring me to work).

Shopping centres are criticized for promulgating consumerism, for being auto-centric and for being located far from dense urban centres – and rightly so. Most have sprawling parking lots, used to capacity only during the days leading up to Christmas. They are not built on a human scale and are usually difficult to get to by other means than a car. However, somehow I spent a considerable amount of time in them growing up. It probably helped that I grew up less than 10 minutes by foot from the local shopping centre. It was a place I went to with friends during the winter months to shop (yes), but mostly to talk, to eat and to be around other people. To be sure, this is not the ideal place to spend one’s time, but many suburban youth (and others)  spend time in malls. Why?

Yes, we shop. But shopping malls are also unique in that they are an indoor public space, free to use. Granted, they exist for shopping and most people do make purchases, but during the winter months when parks and public plazas are far less attractive, shopping malls are among cafés and bars as places where one can be in public, but indoors. It is possible to sit, get a coffee, window shop and meet up with friends and family, outside the home, sheltered from the elements.

While the death of shopping malls looms, it is interesting to think of the shopping mall as more than a place where people spend money, but also as a kind of meeting place.

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Confessions of a suburban environmentalist

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I drive.

I ride my bike to most places, including work, yoga and to run errands. I take the bus downtown – followed by the metro and sometimes another bus, depending on where I am going. Yet, there are times when I don’t have an hour to get to my yoga class, or when my two destinations are more than 15km apart, impossible to get to without taking at least two buses. So, on these rare occasions, I borrow the car.

I try not to. As someone who is passionate about moving society away from single-occupancy vehicle commutes, I am critical of our auto-centric lifestyle. I often sit in the bus and look out the window at all the people sitting in their cars alone, dreaming of how fast I would get home if all these people were on a bus. I think about how we need more reserved bus lanes, so that the buses can zoom through, uninhibited by traffic. I dream of widespread rail with frequent service.

The truth is that I live in an environment where most people drive; it is arguably a necessity. Destinations are far from each other and homes are further still. Moreover, many residents commute daily to a job downtown. The urban form does not help. My suburb is cut in three, once by a highway and once again by a highway/railroad combination. Further still, public transportation is minimal, with infrequent (often unreliable) service. For instance, my job is just a 10-minute drive away, but can take an hour door-to-door by public transit – that is, when I time my trip carefully enough to make the bus that comes once every 30 to 40 minutes, if at all (see “Two-oh-once-in-awhile” in an early blog post). It takes about 25 minutes to bike, which I usually do, but this involves crossing both highways and the railroad tracks.

Nearly 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in Montreal are attributable to transportation and automobiles pollute the air we breathe, but (unfortunately) driving remains the most practical means of travel in low-density, single-use environments. You can enter your car in the driveway and drive to your destination where a large parking lot awaits you. Simple. Along the way there are few stops, as the blocks are long (unfriendly to pedestrians who must often “jaywalk” because the next crosswalk is a half a kilometre away). Few people walk or bike to get around, as distances are too lengthy and the urban form offers little shelter from wind, rain or cold. Further, buildings have large set-backs to allow for ample parking, adding distance to trips made by foot.

The automobile is entrenched in the suburban way of life. At my yoga practice last week, the instructor opened the class by saying, “Relax, take a deep breath, forget about your drive here”. When I listen to the radio, I hear updates on driving conditions, but rarely on buses, metros or trains, or the conditions of sidewalks and bicycle paths. We keep the roads cleared in the winter, but not always the sidewalks or bike lanes. I watch the morning news and the host complains about midday traffic downtown. We accept that to live in the suburbs a car is necessary instead of considering mobility necessary and adjusting land use and transportation networks to facilitate mobility.

Car commercials

I find car commercials fascinating. While the average car is used daily to trudge through traffic on the highway during rush hour to get to work, where it remains parked until it trudges back through traffic to sit in a driveway overnight, commercials focus on images of drivers escaping the city. Usually these commercials feature one car (with one driver, or a family), driving quickly along on a wide country road, uninhibited. One good example is the recent commercial where a man defies his GPS, turning right when she says to turn left and driving into what appears to be a desert. While cars are intended to increase mobility, drivers often come to a grinding halt alongside the large number of other drivers seeking this same mobility and freedom. André Gorz, a French philosopher and journalist, discusses this idea in his 1973 work The Social Ideology of the Motor Car. He emphasizes that cars are luxury goods insofar as they loose their value as soon as everyone (“the masses”) have one. Thus, you will never see a car commercial that depicts cars stuck in traffic on a highway during rush hour, although this best reflects reality.

Public space in a winter city

Montreal is transformed by the seasons. Summer in Montreal is hot and humid and the behaviour of Montrealers follows suit – bars and terrasses overflow with people, festivals bring crowds to the streets and public spaces – parks and plazas – brim with locals and tourists, enjoying the sun and each other’s’ company.

This is the Montreal I rave about to my friends abroad; the Montreal I tell them they must experience. However, last winter I had two good friends come visit during in the winter months. The Montreal they saw was vastly different from the Montreal of May to October.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about public spaces in Montreal during the winter. Large plazas, like Place-des-Arts and Place Jacques-Cartier, vibrant in the warmer months, are virtually abandoned when the cold hits. Understandably, no one enjoys sitting outside, without shelter, in the snow and below zero temperatures. But, is there something we can do to make these spaces more vibrant and better-occupied in the winter?

Exploring Montreal with my visiting friends me realize just how empty outdoor spaces become in the winter. While Montreal is not overwhelmingly dense, it is one of the most densely populated cities on North America (after Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, Honolulu, LA and New York).

Regardless, my friend who had been living in New York prior to visiting Montreal asked me “are the streets always this quiet?” It was true. As we walked through Old Montreal, downtown and the Plateau-Mont-Royal, we were often unaccompanied.

Granted, Montreal is not New York (as all my New York friends make clear). However, there are people in Montreal; they are just very good at taking shelter from the cold. They dive into the underground city, spend time catching up with friends in cafés and bars, and simply stay in. The Underground City offers access to jobs and schools (three of Montreal’s four universities are connected to the metro) as well as restaurants and shopping. This realm has public spaces with fountains, benches, restaurants and cafés – and it is all heated. Shopping malls and centers abound in Montreal – sometimes they are even called “plazas”.

Montrealers are also proud of their winters and their ability to tough them out. There are outdoor activities – skating rinks, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on Mt-Royal, and festivals, like Igloofest. This outdoor rave brings folks, often dressed in ski gear, to dance to electronic music and drink warm alcoholic concoctions. However, beyond these events that successfully draw Montrealers into the streets, the public realm remains tranquil, a sharp contrast from the vibrant summer streets.

Can we transform public spaces to be more enjoyable in the colder months? I recently stumbled upon the WinterCities Institute. Although it seems inactive for the time-being, it was attempting to propose urban design solutions for colder climates. Ideas include heat lamps outside of bars and restaurants, plastic coated benches, trees and arcades to cut the wind, south-facing, colourful building façades, and restaurants that provide blankets to clients who wish to sit outdoors.

I had the opportunity to visit Copenhagen and Stockholm in December 2009. Although it was chilly and days were short, I saw a lot of street life (Granted, both cities are more densely populated than Montreal and have more pedestrian-friendly environments). They use festive lights and brightly coloured buildings to brighten the streetscape; street food was abound, with warm sugar-coated almonds (yum!); cafés offered blankets to their clients wishing to sit outside; and there was street entertainment, like choirs, every day.

 

 

 

Montreal does have some of this: there are Christmas lights on main boulevards and Ste-Catherine crawls with people, regardless of the weather. Street food is not allowed in Montreal – perhaps this could add some more warmth to public life. Regardless, weather transforms the public realm. Whereas Montrealers cover the streets, parks and squares in the summer, the often unmediated cold prompts them to take shelter in the winter. This has a visible effect on public life.

Cross-border travel: the good, the bad and the ugly

When a friend of mine first suggested I take the “Magic Bus” from Montreal to New York City, I was skeptical. However, he told me it was the fastest, least expensive mode of transportation between the two cities. Intrigued, I contacted the driver. After a few e-mail exchanges which involved him telling me I could only book one week in advance and that I would have to meet him at a particular metro at a specific time, I was still a bit uncertain but my friend reassured me and I left for the magic bus, money and backpack in hand.

I noticed some other luggage-laden individuals standing at the intersection where I was told to wait. A white van pulled up and people I assumed were experienced “Magic Bus” riders flocked towards the vehicle. I said “Hi” to another girl, gave the driver my bag and hopped into the van. Soon it was full, primary of young people. Several individuals said they took the van regularly. I quickly became comfortable, chatted with my fellow passengers and was impressed by this unique lift to New York: No long lineups at the bus station; no need to arrive an hour before departure; and considerably less expensive than the bus or the train.

The driver told us that Greyhound has a monopoly on ticket sales to individuals. This makes organizing rideshares difficult, as drivers cannot charge each passenger a fee, technically. This is unfortunate, as it is currently the most efficient way of getting from Montreal to New York: the bus takes 8 hours and always gets stuck at the border. The train takes an incredible 11 hours. Both other options are more expensive than the cost of a rideshare.  This makes rideshare a competitive option for those of us without cars. There are obvious restrictions: rideshares do not leave as often buses and do not usually have Wi-Fi as do trains.

Some of my friends and family were a bit perturbed when I told them I was getting a lift to New York with a man I did not know. The idea of a rideshare – getting into a car with strangers – does not bode well with most. Even the border guard warned me I should be more cautious; as he took my name and my passport he said: “Ma’am, you have to be more careful; you can’t get into a car with folks you don’t know, that ain’t safe”.

The fear of getting into a vehicle with a driver or individuals that are unknown deters us from rideshares, carpooling and taking the bus. On a continent where rail was long ago relegated to sporadic service, on tourist circuits, the results are inefficient, expensive and unsustainable: People fly from New York to Boston, Montreal to Toronto – or they drive alone.

How can we make rideshares, carpooling and buses more appealing, in lieu of (or while we await) better rail, recognizing that people are afraid of strangers. Perhaps we need to take advantage of social networks to show individuals that they are connected, in even the most remote way, to their fellow passengers (dynamic rideshare). Perhaps we need to create a community of rideshare users that is based on a rating passengers and drivers on their past behaviour, like Couchsurfing does for accommodation. These are just two ideas that have already been put into motion.

This can all come into place as we begin to structure our environment around more sustainable modes of travel, and away from single-occupancy vehicle commutes and air travel over short distances.

Highways: Increasing accessibility by car, decreasing accessibility by foot and by bike

I have given a lot of thought recently to the suburb in which I live. As most suburbs in North America, it is difficult to get around without a car. However, at times I think it wouldn’t be so bad if the city were not divided in three by two highways and a freight–sometimes commuter–rail line. It is a sort of cruel irony that these pieces of major transportation infrastructure, built to increase accessibility to jobs and workers (mostly by personal automobile but to an extent by bus as well) actually decrease accessibility to destinations within the West Island, especially by active transportation.

One of the highways (for you locals, the 40) cannot be safely crossed on bicycle. There is just one spot to cross the 40 in Pointe-Claire, on boulevard St-Jean. This means that no matter where you are coming from or where you are going to, you have to bike or walk to St-Jean (or in an adjacent city, to Boul. St-Charles or Boul. des Sources) to cross the highway. On St-Jean, there is no space for cyclists and barely a sidewalk for pedestrians.  This makes trips by foot and by bicycle even longer, more dangerous – and less likely.

At this point, the city is already divided by major infrastructure and this is difficult to change. What we can change are two things: 1) the number of points at which pedestrians and cyclists can safely cross major highway infrastructure and 2) the safety of existing crossings. All of the boulevards that cross the highways have heavy, fast-moving traffic and no designated lanes for cyclists. While it is not ideal that cyclists ride on these congested roads, they are the one means to cross the highways.

If we are going to start increasing the walking and cycling mode share in the suburbs, we need to make it easier to walk and bicycle – starting by making it safer and more convenient.

Simple yet so effective: Arrow stickers in the Montreal metro

Arrow stickers on the floor of the Montreal metro, in front of the metro doors.

I take the metro almost every day and have been for years.

I still remember the days when people rushed into the metro as the doors opened, making it difficult for people to first exit the metro. People waited for the metro, right in front of the place where the doors would open, making it very hard to exit.

I realize the arrow stickers on the metro floor are nothing new, but I want to highlight their simple yet effective design. Now, instead of standing directly in front of the doors, people stand off to either side, and wait for those who are exiting to exit the metro before entering. While there are still the odd few who ignore the arrows and barge right into the metro, most people, miraculously, have (perhaps subconsciously) started to follow the directives on the floor and now wait for their co-transit-riders to leave the metro before jumping in themselves. A simple, effective design solution to a vexing problem.

The Pointe-Claire Village: the once walkable village

The Pointe-Claire village is my favourite part of Pointe-Claire and the West Island. I spent a lot of time there growing up, at the once library Stewart Hall cultural center, walking along the Lakeshore with family and friends and watching Canada Day fireworks over Lac St-Louis.

The Pointe-Claire village is a popular pit stop for cyclists who pass through going West to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue and off island and East towards downtown. It has cafés, bakeries, restaurants and small boutiques. It is really a piece of the Plateau of Montreal in the West Island, just with a much older, wealthier demographic, limited to one main street and much quieter evenings than in the Plateau. And, of course, transit is much less frequent (the two-oh-once-in-awhile passes though the village).

There are cute cafés, nice restaurants, and over-priced “vintage” clothing stores. There is a yoga studio, a used book store and a Dix-Mille Villages. There are two bicycle shops, three bars (including a Ye Ol’ Ochard) and a Bilboquet. And a post office — but not for much longer.

The Pointe-Claire village used to be quite self-sustaining, a true village. There was a grocery store, but it recently closed. There was a bank, but it also closed. And presently the government is to close the post office. These are essential amenities for a community, to which residents were able to walk or bike, for many years. Considering the aging population in the village, amenities within walking distance are essential to ensuring the continued mobility and independence of aging residents.

The village still has cafés, restaurants, boutiques and a dépanneur, but the absence of essential services such as a bank, a grocery store and a post office is the beginning of taking away the vital organs of a thriving village body.