Back River Bridges

Where Pierrefonds, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Roxboro, Ile-Bizard, Laval and the Laval Islands meet.
Where Pierrefonds, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Roxboro, Ile-Bizard, Laval and the Laval Islands meet.

So if you’ll indulge me, a proposal to dramatically alter (and hopefully improve) West Island public transit in general and substantially increase the passenger volume of the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes Line in particular.

I once heard the West Island described as being ‘disconnected’ from the rest of Montréal. What an odd statement, I thought. The West Island is characterized by the two highways that lead into the city, and is served by two commuter rail lines that go right downtown. Admittedly there’s a rather large industrial zone that surrounds the airport, and this in a sense separates the West Island from the City of Montréal on-island, but considering the people of the West Island are inextricably tied to Montréal, I think disconnected is a bit much.

Now that said, I feel trends in urban renewal and development will gradually increase high-density residential space in the West Island, as land values across the suburban conurbation steadily rise. This will likely go hand in hand with extensions of mass transit systems. The AMT’s Deux-Montagnes line, a piece of our city’s complex public transit scheme I rode nearly every day for the last decade, is indicative of this phenomenon. Since the creation of the AMT and the line’s refurbishment in the mid-1990s the line has served as a major pole of attraction for residential development and quickly became the line with the highest daily and annual ridership. The former city of Saint Laurent has experienced massive growth as a consequence of the three stations located in it, as have all the communities located on its route. As gas prices continue to increase, proximity to mass transit becomes a major factor determining the nature and location of residential development, particularly if oriented towards a commuting middle class.

But it occurred to me, in thinking about this notion of ‘disconnectivity’, that perhaps the problem isn’t so much that the West Island is too removed from the City of Montréal as it is from the other large suburban conurbation it sits next to – Laval and the Northern Ring.

Simply put, there may be a half dozen locations west of Highway 13 between the Island of Montreal and Ile-Jesus in which short, simple causeways could be constructed, linking residential streets on either side of the Back River at distances of less than a few hundred meters. Doing so would not only connect the West Island with Laval, it would further allow a greater distribution of West Island and Northern Ring suburbanites across the Deux-Montagnes Line’s many stations west of Saint Laurent. When you factor in the large amount of open land prime for residential construction in this sector, I think you get a pretty strong case in favour of trying to ‘stich up’ the Back River with simple little bridges.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. For my readers unfamiliar with this part of the metropolitan region, you should know first that the West Island is principally connected to Laval by means of two highways, both of which are located east of the West Island. Despite the many narrow points between the two islands along the northern ridge of the West Island, there aren’t any bridges to connect suburbs with one another. The AMT’s Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line is the only other connection between the West Island and Laval and the Northern Ring suburbs of Saint Eustache and Deux Montagnes, but the line is primarily designed to serve the needs of the commuting class, and thus is ineffective at linking these many similar communities. Hundreds of thousands of people living in similar looking sub-divisions, living similar lives, needing similar services and yet, despite the relative ease of hooking everyone up together, they remain separated. The lack of connection precludes more construction as well as densification, and it certainly doesn’t drive up property values. But if things were different, if this area was better connected, I feel strongly it would stimulate smart suburban development in this area.

Turning our attention to the image above, an index.

The map you are looking at is of the northernmost part of the West Island, including some of its denser residential concentrations. North is up, the river is colloquially referred to the Back River, which separates Laval from Montreal. The northwest quadrant of the isometric view features the Laval-Ouest district, part of Ile Bizard, the western part of Sainte Dorothée part of Laval and the Laval Islands. The northeast quadrant is mostly Laval and the top sliver of Pierrefonds. The southeast quadrant features Pierrefonds, Roxboro and parts of Dollard-des-Ormeaux. Towards the southwest Pierrefonds, Ile Bizard and a sliver of DDO. There are some problems with the labels on the image, such as the Roxboro close to the middle of the screen.

I don’t know how many people, precisely, live here. What I can tell you is that in this image there are at least four high schools and about a dozen elementary schools I can think of, in addition to maybe 20-30 daycares and somewhere in the vicinity of a 20 places of worship, including a mosque and several synagogues. Mind you, these are conservative estimates. This is the centre of a suburban conurbation – it’s where the West Island, Laval and Montreal interact, a crossroads if you like. The AMT’s Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line is illustrated in mauve – out of frame to the northwest are the communities of Saint Eustache and Deux Montagnes. Continuing the mauve line towards the east (and the terminus, twenty-five minutes away at Gare Centrale), is Sunnybrooke Station, serving most of the DDO as well as a sliver of Roxboro and Pierrefond’s A-Ma-Baie district and further serving as the Roxboro-Pierrefonds AMT station’s ‘junior’ equivalent. This mauve line is the highest traffic commuter rail line in AMT service. It is efficient, popular and in high demand. With time, the AMT will both expand operational tempo as well as the capacity of the trains. When the West Island begins to increase in density, I firmly believe it will happen along this corridor. Simply put Saint Laurent borough is running out of room for new condo projects, and this area has a lot of room to grow; a wave of densification expanding west along a high-traffic public-transit axis is very logical.

Yellow boxes denote the three AMT stations in the area, from left to right, Ste-Dorothée, Ile-Bigras and Roxboro-Pierrefonds. Of the three, only the latter is connected to the STM, forming a vital yet over-used inter-modal station and primary transit hub for West Island residents. Residents of Ile Bizard don’t have access to the Ste-Dorothée station, despite being so close to it. Similarly, residents of the central part of Pierrefonds and DDO can’t access the Ile-Bigras station. In the case of the former there is a seasonal barge that runs during the comparatively short ferry season. It can haul two or three mid-size sedans and a handful of people and crosses a distance of only about 250 meters. This is hopelessly outdated. Ile Bizard’s 14,000 (and growing) residents have only limited access to one regular bus and one express bus, the latter of which happens to ferry people to Roxboro-Pierrefonds train station, much farther away that what’s on the other side of the small, shallow river. In the case of the latter, while a CN Rail bridge links Montreal with the Laval Islands, there’s no way to cross it other than by train. If there were a vehicular bridge it would become accessible to the thousands of people who live in the middle of the image. As it stands Ste-Dorothée and Ile-Bigras are underused, while Roxboro-Pierrefonds is beginning to cause very heavy traffic during the morning and evening rush hours.

Building the five small bridges I’ve drawn in blue may, I believe, serve to better distribute passenger access to these three AMT stations, in addition to making it possible to develop new bus lines to better connect this comparatively high concentration of people with each other.

To illustrate my point consider this. Say you were coming home from the city on the train and for whatever reason you missed your stop at Pierrefonds and wound up in Ile Bigras. Though you’d likely be within walking distance (i.e. under 30 minutes) from home, you have no way of getting back to the West Island other than waiting for a returning train (which may not happen for a while, or at all if you’re on the last train out) or getting a ride or cab. The ride back home may take a long time as well; from the West Island you need to take highways 40, 13 and then part of the 440 before it becomes Avenue des Bois to get to these two AMT stations, both located less than half a kilometer from the West Island and its well-connected bus service and familiar road network.

The black lines denote the major traffic arteries of the area. Most of the existing STM bus lines run on the West Island side of the above image, but if these bridges were completed the STM and STL could consider re-designing public transit access in the area to facilitate better interconnectivity between the two cities inasmuch as better distribution among the three AMT stations. Five little bridges to open new markets to existing services, greater convenience, greater interaction. All of these are major pluses for the people living here, a guaranteed way to increase property values and access to important services, like schools, daycares and clinics.

Red lines indicate where new roads would need to be built, while the two small orange lines denote land expropriations that will be necessary so new roads can be built. The one on the right would connect Pavilion with Gouin Boulevard, which would alleviate congestion elsewhere on Gouin and Boulevard des Sources, by cutting across the parking lot of a nursery. The one towards the centre may require expropriating land yet to be developed. A sound barrier will need to be constructed along both sides of the rail line to improve the quality of life of the residents living next to it, especially if increased operational tempo is desired.

The angular lime green line near Roxboro-Pierrefonds station denotes the easternmost part of Pierrefonds Boulevard, where it intersects Boulevard des Sources and Gouin Boulevard. During the morning and evening rush hours this street bogs down considerably, so much so that traffic can become easily backed up on all these aforementioned streets. The problem as I see it is that during the rush hours everyone on this stretch of the street is either going to or coming from the station, and as such only half the lanes are being used. With new traffic signalization, we could ‘open’ more lanes to mitigate the existing congestion. At times of the day only one or two returning lanes would be needed, while, allowing as many as five lanes to be open to heavy traffic going in a single direction.

But why make all these changes?

Aside from the main goal of easing traffic congestion and redistributing West Island commuters across three train stations in lieu of one, there’s the added advantage of making more parts of the West Island public-transit accessible, all of which, I believe, will support residential development and densification on this part of the island. Then there’s the convenience of no longer having the shell out a hundred dollars if you’re so unfortunate you miss your stop. This would be particularly useful for the tends of thousands of students who commute every day to university along this line (and who generally don’t have the liquid capital to pay for such a SNAFU). But perhaps most importantly of all it would effectively eliminate an unnecessary border between Montreal, Laval and many other outer-ring suburbs, and in doing so permit a larger overall population to have access to the services and facilities which exist in the West Island but are in short supply just outside of it. As I mentioned before, there are a surprising number of good public schools in the area above, though the population living on the West Island side is ageing and housing prices are sufficiently high couples with young children are moving further and further away so that they can afford the suburban aesthetic of their own childhood. The problem is that services have not been built to keep pace. As you can see this creates a bit of a predicament – the old schools in the West Island are no longer adjacent to the large quantities of children the area once boasted and rarely at full capacity. Home ownership is in the hands of an increasingly elderly population (whose children have left) while land values increase. This is not to say there are no children in this part of the West Island – certainly there are – but not nearly as many considering all the services available to them. Those kids now live farther away, where services are limited.

Just a thought…

4 thoughts on “Back River Bridges”

  1. Thanks for the comment.

    Part of the problem is the word ‘bridge’.

    People will instinctively think ‘Champlain’ immediately afterwards.

    Of course the scale here is much, much smaller. Smaller spans mean simpler bridges.

    What struck me when reviewing this map is that it seems as though bridges may have once been planed. Some roads come to abrupt ends on either side of the river at about the same place. In other words it really wasn’t hard to imagine where some small bridges might go.

    The bike/pedestrian path attached to the CN rail bridge to Ile-Bigras is definitely the first logical step. It would need to be well lit and there’d need to be some landscaping on either end but it’s definitely very, very feasible.

    The ferry in Ile-Bizard however needs to be replaced with a real bridge. Doing so would serve as a major driver for real estate development on that island, especially along its northeastern edge, but this hinges entirely on having direct connection to an AMT station. If developers are really smart, they’d build large family-sized condo buildings and increase population density. I don’t think people would mind as much given the area is right next to a major nature park (i.e., Ile-Bizard should aim for Nun’s Island’s density and mixture of housing styles.)

  2. I’m glad that someone noticed that these communities so close yet are so isolated. I’m not sure if anyone will get on board with the idea of multiple causeways or bridges but one thing that will go a long way is adding a pedestrian/ bike path along the railway bridge. It would connect Pierrefond with Ile Bigras and Laval and to get to Ile Bizard the ferry is available.

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