Austerity Measures & Bad Design in Montreal Public Transit

And now for something completely different...

And now for something completely different…

Not exactly the kind of news regular users of Montreal’s public transit system want to hear, but it looks like the city’s public transit agency is facing a budget shortfall of $20 million, and this apparently is going to result in service cuts – the first since the late 1990s despite increased usage. The city recently tabled it’s 2014 budget, which includes $12.5 million for the municipal transit agency, but this apparently isn’t enough to keep up current service rates according to STM President Philippe Schnobb.

Thus, cuts will focus on evening and weekend bus service, promotions and general cleanliness and maintenance.

I find it surprising that there’s money for new uniforms, however. You’d think the STM would use that money to keep buses moving and our Métro stations clean, given that it’s ridership that provides the primary revenue stream. Cutting back on the availability and quality of the principal service provided by the organization while spending money on new uniforms seems like a piss-poor idea to me. This wouldn’t happen in the private sector. Can you imagine the outrage if Air Canada cut back on flights and the general maintenance of their aircraft in a move to save money, all the while repainting the airplanes and buying new uniforms?

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I guess that’s the key difference between the private and public sectors. Taxpayers aren’t shareholders, though we should be considered as such.

Above is a good example of why austerity measures don’t really work. It starts with cuts to cleanliness and maintenance, then security, and before you know it you’ve got the NYC Subway in the 1980s – filthy, unappealing, covered in graffiti and requiring police K9 units to maintain ‘law & order’. We shouldn’t follow their example. Rather we should learn from their mistakes.

Perhaps it’s political. Maybe there’ll be a back and forth and one day in a few weeks Mayor Coderre comes out and says, as a result of his fiscal prowess, the remainder of the STM’s budget shortfall will be covered by the city.

But I won’t be holding my breath. A 3% cut to service is just small enough it won’t result in mass demonstrations. Just frustration from the people most dependent on public transit, an unfortunately politically inconsequential demographic it seems.

I don’t know why they didn’t consider raising the fare. I think most public transit users would pay more to ensure, at the very least, that there are no cuts to upkeep, cleaning and maintenance.

It’s hard enough to keep our Métro stations and buses looking good – they need to be cleaned and maintained regularly or else they fall into disrepair. Haven’t we learned anything from the Champlain Bridge? Never cut back on regular maintenance – the problem not addressed today will be even more problematic tomorrow.

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I included the photo above as an example. Métrovision is actually running ads boasting about the total number of screens installed throughout the system, but as most regular users will tell you, many of the screens seem to be defective. I took the above photo at Vendome a few nights back – each screen was similarly defective, some had those annoying black spots, evidence of someone having hit or thrown something at the LCD screen. At Lionel-Groulx all four projectors weren’t working on the upper deck of the station – they haven’t worked for months. At Guy-Concordia and Bonaventure the situation was much the same as at Vendome – the screens have either been busted by vandals and/or the image doesn’t display properly.

And the STM is going to cut back on maintenance?

I’d be less concerned if it weren’t for the STM’s ‘half-assing it’ approach to improving the public transit system we have. The Métrovision screens are just one example of a good idea so poorly and inefficiently executed it makes me wonder if it wasn’t done on purpose so as to ensure the need for long-term maintenance contracts. Then there’s the Métrovision screens installed behind concrete beams at Snowdon Métro, meaning it can only be seen if you’re standing directly underneath it (see photo at top). Another example, the new bus shelters at Lionel-Groulx. The STM built what I can only describe as the world’s most ineffective bus shelter:

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Now, if Montreal were located 1,000 km south (and the average Montrealer stood ten feet tall) this might not be such a bad design. But such is not the case, and this is apparently, actually the best the STM could come up with.

If this is what austerity gets us, it would be best not to build at all. These shelters are useless, primarily because they don’t provide much shelter. It’s really just that simple.

I’d prefer the STM stops putting up fancy new bus shelters with interactive advertisements and just focus on making what we already have work better. Figure out a way to get rid of the slush accumulating in Guy-Concordia. Try to eliminate the pervasive stench of urine at Bonaventure. Encase all the TV screens in a plexiglas container (why wasn’t this done from the start?). Run more buses, run the Métro later etc. And for Christ’s sake – install some public washrooms!

Now, that aside, a few questions I have re: advertising.

Recently, I was dismayed to find Sherbrooke station, and several others, looking like this:

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Barf.

Again, who the hell at the STM thought this was a good idea?

If only I could nominate this for the worst advertising campaign in the Métro’s proud history.

I feel it demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the general aesthetic and architecture of the stations (let’s not forget, each was designed by its own team of architects, features its own art, layout etc.), not to mention serves as an excellent demonstration of how we treat our public spaces. That is, cheaply.

This is cheap, that’s the only word for it. We may as well cover all the station walls with cork board and hang staplers on the wall. Is it any wonder we also have to contend with vandals going out of their way to destroy what we have? If the people who run the system don’t appear to be terribly interested with keeping things presentable, how can they expect the people to treat it any better?

Isn’t there a slightly better way to generate advertising revenue than by pasting over the walls of our Métro stations with uninspired marketing gimmicks?

It doesn’t make any sense really. The STM is aces when it comes to designing their own branding, instructional and promotional materials, and I’d argue both the vehicles and the systems are all very well designed indeed. But when it comes to infrastructure, the simple stuff in the grand scheme of things, the STM proves to be maddeningly inconsistent. From garbage cans to benches, bus shelters to tunnels, advertising space, PA systems and TV screens, the STM has demonstrated a lack of imagination at best and incompetence at worst.

But as always, there are some interesting solutions to consider if we open ourselves to alternative ways of thinking.

Take for instance, the TESCO virtual supermarket found in the Seoul Subway.

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There’s no question advertising is a key component of the STM’s overall plan to generate revenue, but it doesn’t have to be so much of the same old thing. As technology develops, advertising can move into interesting new territory. Take the above example. Rather than merely advertise a grocery store, TESCO brought the supermarket directly to the consumers as they wait to commute home at the end of the working day. Using your smartphone you simply scan the items you wish to purchase and place your order with online payment. The order is delivered by the end of the day. In time, developments such as a virtual store app linked to a credit or debit account could render the payment process automatic, and data provided by the user, the subway system and the smartphone could facilitate even more efficient delivery methods, timed to coincide with just after the user arrives home. The possibilities here are endless.

The TESCO virtual store model isn’t just impressive for its efficiency and the service it offers its customers, it’s also the best kind of advertising I could possibly imagine because it actually does something – it responds to my needs rather than telling me how a given store will satisfy my needs like no other. In terms of supermarkets and pharmacies the tired old pitch of incredible savings borders on the absurd (think about those idiotic Jean Coutu ads you hear on the radio set to the tune of Eine kleine Nachtmusik; ah, the refined elegance of simply unimaginable savings potential at my local chain-pharmacy! Gimme a break.)

I’d much rather have something like this serve as an advertisement. Something tells me you could easily justify slightly higher advertising rates in doing so. The STM shouldn’t wait for good design in advertising, they should push innovation in design as part of the broader image of the city as a design hub. Innovation of this type improves the overall experience enjoyed by public transit users due to the potential to save people the legitimate hassle of having to schlep to the supermarket. Yes it’s advertising, but it also provides a useful service too. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the South Koreans would be on top of this – generally speaking the mass transit systems of the Far East are prized by the citizenry, immaculately clean, punctual – a sign of modernity and progress to be enjoyed by everyone. Including a virtual supermarket in the South Korean context is simply the next step in providing an even more exceptional customer experience.

The Montreal Métro came into being eight years before the Seoul Metropolitan Subway commenced operations in 1974. Today we have a modest improvement of the original model and Seoul boasts the world’s largest, most comprehensive and most used subway system. Whereas we are complacent in our approval to cut back on station cleanliness and allow the provincial government to dictate how and when our Métro will be expanded, the Seoul system is internationally recognized for its polished look, air-conditioned cars and 4G LTE and WiFi service, in addition to overall ease of use.

We designed one of the world’s best mass transit systems over a decade before the South Koreans, and have pretty much rested on our laurels ever since. Today we’re riding 40 year-old trains and they’re operating a system generations ahead of our own.

I suppose it’s all a matter of priorities…

Premier Marois to Stifle Opposition with Métro Extension Plan

AMT Métro Extension Plan

AMT Métro Extension Plan

The mayoral contest officially kicked off today with Projet Montréal taking a strong lead, winning the idiotically-named ‘poster war’ thanks primarily to the fact the party is fielding 103 candidates and an immense volunteer effort. Aside from Projet’s street sign ubiquity, Mélanie Joly may have come in second place (who’s counting?) with her unconventional Super Woman pose and dark background posters.

And in response to a week of outright hostility from nearly all quarters of our city, the Premiere, Benevolent Queen Pauline Marois, announced a Métro extension. As the CBC puts it, “Montreal’s Metro system is about to get its biggest and most expensive upgrade since the Laval extension.”

Indeed.

In fact, the PQ has announced that they’ve set aside $38.8 million for a planning office with a two year mandate. Whether the PQ lasts that long is another issue.

So don’t get your hopes up – this isn’t a ‘shovel-in-hand’ announcement of the immediate construction of Métro tunnels. It’s more an announcement of intent to eventually do something.

When it comes to the Métro, that’s pretty much all we’ve gotten for years anyways. The Charest government made a similar announcement back in 2009 though nothing came of it, and the idea to extend the Blue Line further east dates back to the mid-1980s when the line was first developed. Of note, Charest’s 2009 plan called for closing the Orange Line loop, as well as extensions in both directions of the Yellow Line, in addition to the Blue Line extension, as you can see in the above image. Today’s announcement mentioned that a Yellow Line extension would be contemplated once the Blue Line project is completed.

Why not do both?

Why not do the 2009 plan?

Wouldn’t we save money in the long run if we streamline one big Métro expansion, rather than small, piecemeal extensions? It would certainly streamline bidding processes and purchasing, no?

The Blue Line’s proposed eastern extension to Anjou (specifically, to an intermodal terminus at the Galleries d’Anjou suburban shopping complex) will undoubtedly alleviate congestion on the Metropolitan Expressway and extend a convenient and efficient mass transit system into a broad medium density residential area. There’s no question about whether the extension is the right way to go, but we need to be vigilant regarding the estimated cost.

The PQ is projecting a $250 to $300 million cost per kilometre and a total extended length of six kilometres (about the distance from University to the Olympic Stadium along Sherbrooke) with five stations. On the outside that’s a $1.8 billion extension to serve a combined population of about 120,000 Montrealers living in the boroughs of Saint-Leonard and Anjou, one hell of an investment in a relatively small number of citizens.

The cost to extend the Orange Line to Laval by three stations cost about half that amount per kilometre, and that project was announced in the late 1990s but only completed in 2007. As you might expect, post-industrial Québec takes a lot longer to get anything done.

So don’t expect this Blue Line extension any time soon; those making the announcement today were indicating ‘the beginning of the 2020s’ for ‘full operations’.

Christ; I’ll be old by then.

I’ll say it one more time – we built 26 stations between 1962 and 1967 across three lines and it cost just under $1.5 billion (or 213.7 million in 1966 dollars).

Granted I’m obviously not an economist, but I would like to know why the cost of construction has increased so much in the past decade in particular. You’d figure we’d be getting some kind of rebate in Post Charb Commish Quebec, but this is as expensive as ever.

And we’re not exactly reinventing the wheel either – so how the hell did it suddenly become so expensive to build basic mass transit systems in our city?

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Original design of Edouard-Montpetit station's connection with Mount Royal Tunnel

Original design of Edouard-Montpetit station’s connection with Mount Royal Tunnel

There’s another issue we should consider when thinking about the Blue Line and any potential future extensions. It has the lowest ridership of all four lines and the trains are shorter by three cars (you’ll notice that the platforms at Blue Line stations have barricades at either end as the stations were designed to operate ‘full’ nine-car trains). I think this is as a consequence of the line not directly connecting with the city centre.

As long as we’re re-hashing old ideas, why not take a closer look at the original design of Edouard-Montpetit station, which was intended to act as a transfer point between the Blue Line and the commuter rail line passing fifty meters under the Métro in the Mount Royal Tunnel (as you can see in the station’s original design plan above). The tunnel is now owned and operated by the Agence Métropolitain de Transport and is in need of upgrading to support new dual-power locomotives inasmuch as some kind of emergency exit at some point in between the tunnel entrances. I would argue strongly in favour of developing a connection between the Métro and the Mount Royal Tunnel as a means to transfer passengers on the Blue Line to Gare Centrale. This would not only require high-speed, high-capacity elevators (as they have at some Parisian Métro stations), but the potential construction of a short ‘by-pass’ tunnel deep underground. A difficult job no doubt, but far from impossible.

The benefit is that the Blue Line becomes a lot more useful with this upgrade. I’d even argue prioritizing this element of the original design before any eastern extension. If this connection were made, transferring at Edouard-Montpetit would give Blue Line passengers access to the Orange and Green lines via the Gare Centrale and Place Ville-Marie portion of the Underground City. For the hundreds of thousands of people living along the line’s route, Downtown Montreal suddenly becomes much, much closer – about five minutes from Université de Montréal to the heart of the financial district.

Such a development could lead to increased land values of properties within proximity of the Blue Line, not to mention give the Blue Line’s extension a more practical raison-d’etre. Call me a cynic, but I smell subtle vote-buying.

Don’t get me wrong – expanding eastwards is a good if very costly idea, and I’d like to know why this is taking so long and costing so much.

But if we’re going to extend the Blue Line’s reach, why not also expand its capacity and increase its utility as well?

I have a feeling realizing the original plan would have the effect of increasing ridership on the Blue Line to such an extent that the STM upgrades to nine-car trains on the line, thus giving the line the ability to truly operate at full capacity.

In any event, I should close with a thought.

There was once a time in which elected officials had to deliver on promises made, otherwise they’d lose the public’s confidence and the right to govern.

This is not the case today. The people are so incredibly disengaged and cynical we don’t expect anything from our supposed leaders at all. We carry on despite them. Sometimes they do something good, most of the time they’re an annoyance, occasionally they’re discovered to be outright criminals.

I don’t know what was so different about life in this city back in the 1960s and 1970s that made the people here demand action and quick results for their political support. I don’t know what lit a fire under people’s asses to get shit done. I know many people suggest Expo and Olympics being the sole motivating factors, but surely this can’t be the case. The people wanted action and their will was respected. We elected, and kept electing, a visionary mayor, who paid us back by giving us a truly global city to live, love and play in.

Today we get flashy press conferences that ultimately only promise more study and preparation for some interminable project whose only purpose seems to be to sap whatever confidence the people have in their elected officials.

I suppose my question is why the PQ isn’t coming to us with a plan to actually begin development?

I wish government had the self-respect and restraint to only bother the people with announcements of actual accomplishments.

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…

Projet Montréal’s 2013 Platform & A Soft Landing for the Montreal Real Estate Market

Sunset on Beaver Lake

Sunset on Beaver Lake

Projet Montréal, the only clean political party left in Montreal, is first out of the gate with a campaign platform.

With a dozen weeks or so left before the November 3rd municipal election they are so far the only party to have developed a program, including 71 specific campaign promises. No other candidate has come up with anything even remotely similar, as the PM program covers everything it feels a city administration ought to be involved in (from transportation to quality of life, health, culture and economic development, among others), a smart move in that it will play a role in deciding the terms of future debate. With this document PM is pushing an issues and ideas-based election, as opposed to the facebook-styled popularity contest it’s been up to now.

I’ll save my judgement of the other mayoral candidates for when they actually come up with their own plan. As far as I’m concerned elections are supposed to be issues-driven, not personality-based. Thus, this is so far a one-party race; until the other candidates produce some kind of document outlining just exactly what they propose to do for this city, I can’t in good conscience even consider them legitimate candidates. I refuse to vote for a self-described political vedette.

What strikes me about PM’s platform is that it seems to be anticipating a long expected crash in the Canadian housing market and, further, seems designed to carry our local real estate market into the much desired soft-landing. In essence, investment needs to be coaxed away from suburban developments and big-box shopping centres and back towards the urban environment. In this respect, PM’s 71 promises are methods by which that investment will be secured. Our mayors have been of the laissez-faire variety for too many years. Now is not the time for the laissez-faire approach. Investment needs to be re-directed into improving city living as much as possible. The city and its urban neighbourhoods will continue to be a desirable place to live long after interest in suburban bungalows has waned, but we need an active administration to ensure investment follows interest.

It’s clearly one of Projet Montréal’s main goals to correct the population loss our city suffers to suburban development, now in some cases more than an hour away from the city centre. If the housing market bubble bursts, in my opinion it will be these suburban developments that will be suspended first. As it stands these new developments are a burden on available health and education services in the outlying suburban regions. It stands to reason a more forward-thinking civic administration would capitalize on this as part of its broad effort to get people to stay in the city. Simply put the city can offer a far higher quality of life in terms of available services, culture, variety of employment opportunities etc. It’s stylish too, and it just so happens our city benefits immensely from several large urban residential areas, most of which are extremely desirable to live in (case in point the Plateau, faithfully administered by Luc Ferrandez and Projet Montréal and perhaps our city’s most iconic neighbourhood and the envy of urbanites the world over. Consider what makes the Plateau such a success and ask yourself how many other urban neighbourhoods offer something similar).

The plan is hyper conscious of what Montrealers love about living in our city and as such much of the program aims to build on what we already appreciate. More bike paths, urban agriculture, Métro extensions, a tram system, fewer cars and less traffic in the city – the list goes on and on, but it’s all built around improving the lives of urban residents. I can’t help but think the entirety of the plan will result in higher property values city-wide, and I’m also encouraged that the party has outlined new poles for residential development within the existing city; new construction in the city isn’t going to end, it just has to be managed better. I think we’re getting pretty close to maxing out on the need for single or dual occupancy condominiums as an example, so hopefully private developers (who will have many more reasons to build under a PM government, at least based on this platform) will react and adjust appropriately.

Other interesting components of the PM program include a six-point plan to increase and empower independently owned and operated businesses and to revitalize ‘neighbourhood economies’ and the city’s many commercial arteries. PM also wants to improve public education by working more directly with the provincial government and local school boards.

Further, a significant plan to broadly develop the Métro, including prolonging operating hours til 3:30, replacing all Métro cars with the new model over the next seven years, and extend three Métro lines (Orange west to Gouin Blvd., Blue east to Anjou and west to Lachine/Ville-St-Pierre, and Yellow up to Sherbrooke and McGill College, effectively ‘twinning’ the McGill Métro station. A bold plan to say the least, but one that will certainly make it much more desirable to live in the city.

Anyways, here’s the link again – check it out, well worth the time.

Public may panic if provided with basic statistical information…

Montreal's Finest

So apparently the Montreal Police think the public would panic if we knew the Métro’s actual crime statistics, as they apparently have been feeding us bullshit for years.

The Gazette filed an access-to-information request a few years back to get the following basic data from the SPVM: what kinds of crimes happen in the Métro? How often are crimes committed and how do the stations rank in terms of occurrence? Pretty basic stuff I’m actually a bit astonished the Gazette specifically had to request (i.e. you’d figure this would be public knowledge, available on a city website).

The SPVM said no, that divulging such information could compromise their crime-fighting efforts to such a degree they’d be starting from scratch. After a bit of a back and forth the issue has wound up in front of the Access to Information Commission which has so far balked at even reviewing the case at all (which makes me wonder why they wouldn’t – what do these commissions do otherwise?)

During discussions the police lawyer argued that making this information public may cause a panic, as though she knew the SPVM’s argument stats published in the English-language daily might ‘tip-off’ common criminals and derail their efforts was a bit short on substance.

The Gazette, by contrast, argues such information would pretty much reinforce what seasoned Métro riders already know – some stations require a bit more vigilance and situational awareness than others. The Gaz goes as far to suggest the information “could warn métro users about potential dangers and allow them to take preventive measures”.

I don’t think there’s much more that can be done aside from being vigilant, and I’d like to know how many Gazette readers take the Métro come to think of it, but I digress.

The Gazette has a point – this information should be public (and I’d argue far more accessible as well).

The point isn’t so much to warn riders of where they ought to keep their guard up (hint – always be aware of your surroundings, free life pro-tip for ya), but rather to feed a knowledge-hungry citizenry the vital statistical data it needs to study and assess the actions of its elected officials and civil servants.

I want to know where crime is happening to see if the cops are doing their jobs, to see what might be facilitating the crime at those specific stations. Is it the poverty of a nearby neighbourhood? Or is it bad station design?

As I mentioned earlier, the cops made an effort and provided what they call data, though it didn’t quite measure up. For one, they only provided limited information about each of the lines on average, grouping the interchange stations (like Lionel-Groulx, Snowdon, Berri-UQAM etc.) together with the Yellow Line to create some kind of an equilibrium, this despite having highly detailed information for every station at all hours of the day and night.

To put it bluntly, submitting official SPVM data concerning crime in the Montréal Métro wouldn’t pass a CEGEP-level research methods class. Not only is this statistical garbage, it’s purposely deceptive.

And if the Rob Ford scandal is any indicator, the SPVM should be concerned. They run risk of creating a panic by inferring the data would cause a panic. Despite the data’s still secret, unseen status, it may be able to damage police efforts anyways; nothing quite gets under the skin of a young journalist like denied information, and this city is swimming in reporters.

Dumb move gumshoes.

Now I wanna know too. And why doesn’t the STM have this kind of information? Wouldn’t they have some kind of an idea about the crimes that are taking place in the Métro system too?

In any event, the real crime in my eyes is that I can’t get platform gyros:

The Tramways Issue & the Future of Montréal Public Transit

Of the various videos I looked at that featured archival footage of the city and the tramway we once had, this one was the least schmaltzy. Enjoy. It appears as though the STM’s choice of narrator certainly has no beef peppering his orations with English loan-words and anglicisms. I wonder if this was done on purpose to attract a wider audience or reflect the French as it is all too often spoken in Montreal.

Curious stuff…

Anyways.

I didn’t have a chance to get into too much detail on Daybreak, so I figured I’d offer the coles notes version here. Here’s the truncated version of my thoughts on the issue – I’ve expanded below further below.

1. Before we expand our public transit network or implement new systems, let’s ask ourselves whether we can do better with what we have. In sum, let’s prioritize renovation before expansion.

2. There have been many LRT/Tram proposals that have been floated about since we foolishly eliminated the system several years before the city even began construction of the Métro. Trams and LRTs have been proposed (or are being proposed) to connect Brossard and the Sud-Ouest district with the downtown, to connect the city to the airport, to replace the near totally unused 715 bus route, to run on Cote-des-Neiges Road, Parc Avenue (replacing the high-capacity articulated and express buses), Boul. René-Lévesque, Pie-IX and Peel Street (etc.) and even as a potential replacement for express buses running to and from suburban bus depots conveniently co-located at major area shopping malls. If we ever do get around to building any of this, we really should look to build as much of it as quickly as possible and using the same vehicles to streamline efficiency. Developing several different types of trams and/or LRTs is completely illogical.

3. Any new tram or LRT system built in the city should use a reserved lane and be given absolute right of way. If trams are getting bogged down in vehicular traffic (as they do in Toronto), they’re not really helping anyone at all.

4. Tramway routes should be designed to fill the gap between the bus and Métro network. I’d even go so far as to argue trams would be best used to completely supplement buses in the most densely populated parts of the city, allowing buses to be re-directed to suburban routes.

Some questions we should consider:

Are we optimizing the value of what we already have?

Is our existing system as efficient as it could be?

Do we have adequate services?

Could our diverse public transit services use a facelift?

There’s no better example, in my opinion, of how little control Montréal has over its public transit system than the news of the past weeks and months. The Fed wants to invest $5 billion in a new Champlain Bridge, but refuses to use that money for any other public transit purpose. They also insist that this money could not be used to construct an LRT system on the new bridge to serve South Shore commuters, that tolls are the only way to pay for it and that the original Champlain Bridge would have to be destroyed afterwards.

Meanwhile, the place-holder péquiste government insists that it wants the Fed to pay for an LRT on the new bridge, that it will spend $28 million to study a financing initiative, that it prefers spending $1 billion to extend the Blue Line east towards Anjou and St-Leonard, and that no money will be available for tramways development for at least five years.

And then place-holder Mayor Applebaum says that public transit in Montréal requires tens of billions to sustain operations over the next few decades and that no tram could be operational before 2021, some eight years from now. Applebaum won’t be mayor as of this November, leaving promises and proposals in his wake, with nothing actually accomplished.

Mayoral candidate and architect Richard Bergeron makes a good point – taxation could pay for a tram, we don’t need to wait for Québec or Ottawa to green light our transit initiatives.

I like this notion because, quite frankly, we haven’t had a mayor since Drapeau who was determined to lead Montréal, as opposed to letting it be led around by the nose by the often competing interests of Ottawa and Québec City.

We’ve become hostages. Cela doit cesser. Montréal needs to provide the public transit that best suits its citizens and the citizens in its periphery of influence.

As to the bridge, despite the obscene price tag and arguably obsolete transit concept (i.e. of an ultra-wide highway bridge without any high-capacity public transit component), it’s a federal project and we have no real say, at least at the moment. If we want our money better spent we should throw our political support behind either of the two local prime-ministerial candidates in 2015 and hope the oilmen who have taken hold of our nation’s government get swept under by their own operational mismanagement and economic incompetence.

Our city may have better luck negotiating with the PQ, as their minority position and ultra low popularity ratings may be enough to convince them to try and work with their enfant terrible, as opposed to telling Montreal what to do, a losing proposition on any subject.

So it breaks down like this:

The Fed prefers cars and bridges, the PQ prefers the Métro and the city is cautiously suggesting a tram system is in order. The commuter rail network, though valuable, has proven extremely costly to expand with CN and CP generally disinterested in cooperating with the AMT, while the proposed city-to-airport rail link as dead in the water as when they completed the train station in the basement of Trudeau airport’s main terminal some time ago. Aeroports de Montréal was most recently suggesting a monorail, doubtless with its own billion dollar price tag. And though residential expansion off-island has exploded in the last decade, provisions for better STM service in these suburban areas is currently non-existant.

Some commuters living in the Greater Montreal region regularly spend anywhere from two to three hours in traffic, every single day and coming from all directions. This, more than any other factor, is what’s responsible for the degeneration of air quality and the single greatest threat to the long-term viability of sustaining Montreal as a city. As long as we continue to grow, something which I would hope is inevitable, we have to expand public transit service to mitigate the environmental damage caused by so many hundreds of thousands of cars on our roads. Under ideal circumstances, at some point in the future public transit will be the preferred and most convenient method of getting around the metropolitan region. Doing so will not only help us breathe easier and do immeasurable good for the quality of the local environment, but would further serve to allow our roadways longer lifespans and permit vehicle owners to significantly expand the lifespans of their cars. It means savings for the consumer and tax-payer alike over the long-term, something we’d be wise to consider. All the public transit improvement schemes I’ve seen thus far are limited in scope and can only be considered band-aid solutions to far more complex problems.

So where do we go from here?

For one I’d say now is not the time for expansion of the infrastructure of transit, but rather an ideal time to re-imagine, renovate and rehabilitate what we already have.

Why expand the Métro when what we have isn’t being used to its full potential? As an example, the Blue Line remains the least used in the whole system, largely (I would argue) as a consequence of the inconvenience of transferring at Jean-Talon station and the line’s lack of a direct connection with the downtown (consider the popularity and rate of use of the Parc Avenue and Cote-des-Neiges Road express and articulated buses). It just so happens that the Blue Line was originally supposed to intersect the Mount Royal Tunnel at the Université-de-Montréal Métro station. If we were to complete this design the Blue Line would likely operate at full capacity – you’ll notice that trains on the Blue Line are shorter than than the other three. Moreover, the Deux-Montagnes commuter rail line would benefit from an exit at the tunnel’s half-way point and many more potential users.

And it would cost a lot less than an expansion to Anjou. The Blue Line’s proposed eastern expansion would itself be more useful if it offered a more-or-less direct connection with the city centre.

But this brings up two other potential improvements – inter-lining the system and introducing express Métro lines. Inter-lining would permit Métro trains to switch the lines they’re operating on – i.e. a train could go from the Green to Orange line without requiring passengers to switch trains. This could facilitate the introduction of myriad new lines, such as a circular route using the Orange and Blue Lines, or diagonal lines aimed at connecting the first ring urban suburbs and industrial zones directly, as opposed to funnelling everyone through the city core. I can imagine a better distribution of riders this way (which alone could all of a sudden make the while system more useful). Express Métros would simply not stop at certain stations, though this would likely require the development of ‘passing lanes’ or more sophisticated switching and routing systems.

And then there are the improvements that need to be made to most of the existing stations as is, such as basic aesthetic renovations, introduction of elevators for increased accessibility, anti-vandalism treatments (e.g. all those fancy new TV screens don’t have simple plexiglass covers and as such many have been damaged by idiots) and better in-station services, like dépanneurs and public washrooms. Anti-suicide barriers would also be nice.

AMT commuter rail map - 2013

AMT commuter rail map – 2013

With regards to our commuter rail network, this too would be better off without any more expansion. The Train de l’Est project has become a bit of an embarrassment for the AMT, as it is now more than double the initial cost of $300 million and two years behind schedule. On top of it all, there’s an on-going dispute between the AMT and CN as to the new dual-power locomotives and double-decker train wagons procured by the AMT, something which may delay the opening of this train line even further.

Aside from getting this line up and running and finding a solution in which the new train wagons and locomotives could be used, the AMT should prioritize increasing the rate of operation on its network, ideally making all lines run as frequently as the well-used Deux-Montagnes Line (currently the busiest with the highest operational rate of the whole network). Station services need to be improved as well, as almost all are little more than concrete platforms and un-heated glass box shelters; no cafés, no dépanneurs, public washrooms or station attendants. The AMT also has to work out a solution with ADM, CN and CP to establish a rail link to the airport once and for all.

It seems like we’re quick to come up with conceptual renderings of what could be while we drag our collective feet improving that which we’ve already developed. Moreover, I firmly believe the city of Montréal will have to take a leadership role in settling disputes between various transit agencies and the rail giants. We have one of the most comprehensive rail networks of any North American city, but our commuter rail service doesn’t have access to most of the system. Again, an investment in routing and switching technology could help us better optimize what’s already built. City-owned multi-level parking garages at major suburban train stations is another initiative that could maximize the number of commuters, in addition to providing another means of paying for public transit improvements, if not future development. Commuter rail is probably the single best way to get large numbers of people to and from the ever-expanding suburbs, but only if the investment is made to maximize efficiency and convenience.

Proposed Tramway Network developed by the City of Montréal in 2007

Proposed Tramway Network developed by the City of Montréal in 2007

As to the proposed tramways network, there are a lot of good arguments against spending on this kind of public transit at the moment. I would like to see a tram system one day, and believe that it is an ideal system for the city’s urban core, but nonetheless believe we should prioritize making what we already have much better before embarking on new development. François Cardinal provides some excellent arguments to that effect in this article.

I’m in favour of expanding public transit access not only throughout the city, but more importantly in the established suburbs and residential development areas within the broader Greater Montreal region, but I think herein lies one of our biggest problems – we tend to look at public transit either as a city or suburb-specific issue, with various levels of government jostling for different regions of voters. A city such as ours requires better access across the board, no exceptions. Urbanites and suburbanites need better door-to-door service.

However, this must go hand-in-hand with legislation and various other political tools designed to get people to use public transit as the primary means for commuting. What’s destroying our local environment inasmuch as our roadways is primarily the hundreds of thousands of passenger vehicles clogging our roads, all too often going nowhere fast while expelling noxious fumes and carbon dioxide. We all know the drill on this issue.

And we can’t wait for private industry to institute clean vehicles – they’re far too slow. Our own idiotic governments won’t allow electric cars produced here in Québec to be used on our own roads. Perhaps I’m being optimistic in thinking government could institute proactive environmental legislation when the inflated bureaucracy we deal with has such a long and inglorious history of dragging its feet on such vital issues. The city thus needs to take on a leadership role – neither the péquistes or Harper Tories will do much of anything to help our transit system – so far its nothing but delays, potential studies and prohibitive cost projections.

So all that said, I’d prefer we take a step back from discussing expansion and new trams and instead focus on getting the absolute most value out of what currently stands, knocking down inter-organizational conflict and seeking to make public transit as attractive as possible to all citizens. If we can secure higher usage rates across the systems and infrastructure we already have, then and only then can we take a serious look at developing new systems or major expansions to existing networks.

The city of Montreal's current, watered-down Tramways network proposal.

The city of Montreal’s current, watered-down Tramways network proposal.

There’s no question trams could be very useful in the city; the city’s roadways were created with trams in mind, unlike the suburbs that are better served by regular and express bus service. Implementing a tram system in the urban core would allow buses to be re-positioned in more suburban areas, permitting an expansion of suburban public transit access with vehicles we already have. But if people are disinclined from using the bus and Métro, for whatever reason, whatever initial interest there is in trams will likely quickly evaporate. We can’t afford expensive novelties.

Final note – a lot of these projected tram lines closely mirror existing Métro routes. Some would argue this isn’t intelligently designed, that tram lines should go where the Métro doesn’t. On the other hand, if we were planning a major renovation of the Métro network, a surface tram that mirrors the Métro somewhat might not be a terrible idea.

Also, why not co-locate trams on otherwise pedestrian-only streets? St-Catherine’s Street is narrow and consistently jammed with pedestrians; for several summers in a row the street has been closed to cars in the Gay Village, an effort which has not only proven popular but useful as well. Instead of building a tram on René-Lévesque, an urban boulevard specifically designed with cars in mind, why not install it on St-Catherine’s, which was designed with trams in mind, and close that street to cars entirely? A re-developed, pedestrian and tram-centric St-Catherine’s Street could optimize tramway efficiency simply because it would have no cars to compete with.

In any event, just some things to think about.

Maison Radio-Canada

Maison Radio-Canada by Abdallahh

Maison Radio-Canada by Abdallahh

A couple days back I was featured along with opera critic & cutting edge Bohemian Lev Bratishenko on the CBC’s Daybreak Montreal with Mike Finnerty (an excellent program for those of us tired with the lame jokes and mind-numbing repetition of corporate rock and pop radio). We were on to talk about trams in Montreal, officially I was pro and Lev was con, but it became clear as we discussed before the show we’re both rather cynical about the whole affair and would rather riff on it. That said we both got our main points across and it was a fine experience all around, many thanks to Mike, Sarah, Silvet and everyone else who helped make this happen (especially Lev who stated, incredulous, “there’s a 6:40 in the morning?”).

As an aside, for those of you who haven’t visited Maison Radio-Canada (at 1400 Boul. René-Lévesque Est), do – even if only to walk around the building. I honestly think it may the city’s most under-rated architectural gem. I’d put it in movies frankly, it could be a perfect stand-in for the lair of a super-villain.

We’ve all seen the tower lit up by a setting sun as the above photo illustrates. It’s that odd skyscraper (at a mere 24 floors) set on a massive fieldstone-walled base structure, itself seemingly emerging naturally from manicured surroundings. And all of this set on an asphalt pond of parking spaces, the whole vast space heavy with earth tones and stylistically punctuated by the cones of pine tree groves and satellite antenna dishes. The flat façade of the tower’s walls have an immovable permanence to them, while the style of the windows make it look as if a glowing light is being contained within. It’s roof bristles with thin antennae, a crown of communications equipment.

Taken from Wikipedia

Taken from Wikipedia

The hexagonal tower features three solid bronze-brown walls framing slightly elliptical windows like ribs, with three darker, recessed walls of gold-tint glass. It’s position on the base, natural colour palette and the tower’s design remind me of something medieval in form yet decidedly post-modern in function. The interior is impressive in its 1970s Canadian Modern style, again – another space I’d like to see on film. It’s rare to walk into such a serious building and be confronted with such an attractive and exciting red. And red not as a detail mind you – but as a commanding unifying theme. It’s red without being amorous, red without scandal, red without obvious suggestion. Canadian red without the overt patriotism (rendering all the more Canadian in the process, but I digress).

Of the three main broadcast, production and control facilities in the CBC’s network, Maison Radio-Canada is by far the largest, occupying a massive plot of land by the emblematic Jacques-Cartier Bridge and Molson Brewery. The area was once referred to as the Faubourg à m’lasse and it was destroyed in a spate of mass-razings by the Drapeau administration. To be fair, it was a slum, and there was insufficient capital (and interest) to save these communities. We wouldn’t do things the same way today, but we also don’t have slums in the same fashion as we did back in the 1950s and 1960s. Either way I’m glad the Maison Radio-Canada exists today.

Aerial Shot of Maison Radio-Canada

Aerial Shot of Maison Radio-Canada

It occurs to me that this isn’t just a broadcast centre but, in a certain sense, a key cultural centre within our urban environment as well. I’m not just referring to the museum or guided tours which are offered, or the fact that it produces an incredible amount of original content in French and English (and, up until the era of Conservative disengagement in global affairs, many other languages too), but also of the building’s ‘venue component’ – how different is seeing a live-taping from attending a rock concert or ballet? It’s an evening’s entertainment after all. Maison Radio-Canada also anchors a ‘broadcasting district’ of sorts, with CTV, TVA, LCN, RDS, RIS and MétéoMédia/Weather Network and a variety of radio stations all located within proximity of Papineau & René-Lévesque. It’s weird – a quartier with a definable purpose yet it isn’t really conceptualized as such. The area is still badly scarred by the interchange and interface of the bridge’s access ramps, the Ville-Marie Expressway and what is perhaps the widest part of Boul. René-Lévesque. I wonder if at some time in the future the boulevard could be narrowed to accomodate new construction facing Maison Radio-Canada, offering the services one might expect to find immediately adjacent to such an important component of our cultural and intellectual capital. As it stands today the complex still feels isolated from its surroundings, a problem compounded by the fact that the surrounding area is still very much a zone of transition within the urban environment.

Final note – on the drive in (which was remarkably easy at such an early hour), I noticed that Gare Viger is boarded up and there appear to be renovations going on. EMDX, if you’re reading this, what’s going on with out beloved former grand railroad hotel? When I lived up the street in my first apartment in the city the building was being used by the city. I remember the only time Viger Square looked really good was when the office workers came out to eat their lunches there, the rest of the time it was quite literally a hobo campground of epic proportions.

Interesting Day in the News

The video is completely unrelated to this article, just something I found recently that I’ve been enjoying quite a bit.

As to what’s happening this lovely spring day, well, quite a bit.

On the political front, Denis Coderre (who’s starting to remind me of those god awful reality shows that waste twenty minutes building the suspense and then cut to commercial without revealing anything with his ‘will he/won’t he’ pre-campaigning) has once again left us desperately wanting more with his announcement he’ll make an announcement on the 16th of May regarding his political future.

I’m on the edge of my seat, really.

The CAQ has sent Bill 14 to its second reading, though with a laundry list of generally sensible amendments the PQ won’t like. If an election were held today there’s a 97% chance the Québec Liberals under Philipe Couillard would win.

The foiled terrorism plot has taken yet another interesting turn in that the accused refuse counsel and at least one, the well-respected doctoral biotechnology researcher, has indicated he doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the criminal code of Canada because it’s not a holy book, but rather the fallible creation of mere mortals.

Where have I heard that argument before…

Is it possible this guy’s plain old insane? Is this an Islamofascist Kaczynski?

Back on track – there’s a movement afoot that proposes Meadowbrook Golf Club in Cote-St-Luc get turned into a rather large park (roughly twice the size of Parc Lafontaine). The West End could use a park of such size, the problem as I see it is that Meadowbrook finds itself somewhat wedged in between rail yards and industrial parks, chopped up by rail lines and positioned at the back end of Cote-St-Luc.

I’m always in favour of more parks, but this one’s a bit tricky. For one the proprietor, Groupe Pacific, would rather build, what else, a condo development, something the City already rejected part of the plan that spilled over the Cote-St-Luc border.

And while this particular area, from a bird’s eye perspective, sits in a desert of open, accessible green space, it’s completely inaccessible to Lachine. Incidentally, the City of Montreal rejected condo development on infrastructure grounds. Meadowbrook could be a great park, but it’s location is too severely detached from the people who live around it.

On the list of potential could-bes, a plan to revitalize the Marché St-Jacques as, well, a public market, something we could use far more of, but that’s a subject for another day. Apparently the Qataris have made a compelling case to move ICAO from Montreal to Doha, part of a broad plan by the kingdom to recast itself as a major centre of world affairs. Reaction from the Fed and PQ were surprisingly swift and unanimous, both are obviously committed to keeping things as they area.

And finally, though there’s still a lot of talk about possibly building tram lines in Montreal, still no action, just calls for more studies, themselves costing tens of millions of dollars. Today’s transit news started with open discussions about what could be and closed with a reminder billion-dollar projects such as these will take forever to complete and will require provincial and federal financing (and neither are terribly interested, the province having already stated no way until 2018, five years from now). Somehow, despite requiring more study, initial cost estimates are $1 billion.

Just for context, the first 20 stations of the original Métro system were completed in four and half years at an adjusted cost of $1.5 billion.

Installing a surface tram – no tunnels, no stations – is supposed to cost just as much?

Are these figures pre-Charbonneau or post-Charbonneau estimates?

That’s what I’d like to know.

Un Projet Pour Pierrefonds – Building a Bridge to Ile-Bigras

Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 6.14.56 PM

I remember a little while back the PQ announced they would not go ahead with a planned ‘urban boulevard’ along the western edge of residential development in the West Island, part of a planned route that would link highway 40 with the 440 in Laval, cutting across Ile-Bizard. Have a look at the image above and trace your finger along the grey edge of development from the 40 to the 440 and you get an idea of the scale and potential impact of such a route. Yes, it would offer a new connection between the West Island and various northern suburbs, but on a high-capacity scale where currently nothing but pastoral low-density bedroom communities exist.

Seems like overkill to me.

I breathed a sigh of relief – finally, one thing our government has done I actually agree with. Quite frankly I think we need to discourage the construction of high-capacity autoroutes, especially if they happen to cut across some of the remaining natural wilderness we still have in this city. I understand why, from a very top-down perspective it would make sense to create additional ring-roads, especially to divert highway traffic away from already congested roads. But in this case, I fear the potential for environmental degradation and endless suburban sprawl is too great. Besides which, as you can see here a bridge could more-or-less connect the 40 with the 640 with a span the Ottawa River joining Hudson with Oka, offering a far larger arc and a method to both bypass the islands, intersecting with key north-south highways further away from already jammed residential areas.

But this is off point.

Of course, there are the more practical issues to consider that may explain why this project was kiboshed – like Pauline Marois’ multi-million dollar Ile-Bizard estate, most of which is located on land allocated by previous governments for the proposed highway extension.

How Ms. Marois came to build such a magnificent house on land that’s supposed to be the property of the transport ministry is a good question I’d sure like to know the answer to.

Regardless, the big winner here is what remains of the West Island’s once fabulous wealth of wilderness. Low-density development should slow down anyways, what with all this talk of a local housing bubble.

Thinking about these recent developments gave me something to wrap my head around.

We still need a means to get from the West Island to the 440, Western Laval, the North Shore suburbs etc. The issue is why we seem locked-in to planning large, complicated, high-capacity thoroughfares when far smaller, simpler, bridges could be used to efficiently connect residential traffic schemes in one suburb with the virtually identical designs across the water.

In sum, the Back River shouldn’t be the barrier it is, and multiple small bridges could be used to provide a ‘back-door’ from the West Island into ‘West Island-adjacent’ communities northwest of Montreal.

And though such constructions would not facilitate commuters heading towards the highways, it may serve to better connect the West Island in general with the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes Line, by providing access to the four stations further west along the line.

Currently, the West Island uses two AMT stations, even though four other stations could be within car, cab or bus-ride range of a considerable population of West Island residents – as long as we built some small bridges to connect otherwise disparate suburbs. I honestly believe some two-lane causeways is all it would take to introduce far, far greater interaction between several diverse communities and further serve to more evenly distribute AMT Deux-Montagnes Line users, not to mention offer new opportunities to expand the STM’s West Island transit scheme into Laval and Deux-Montagnes/St-Eustache. From where I live in Pierrefonds, Deux-Montagnes is roughly as close as Fairview Pointe-Claire.

More bridges on the back river offer superior traffic diffusion and may serve to get commuters heading north along our three primary vertical axes as opposed to heading south towards the already over-capacity highways.

Here’s what I mean.

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This is an aerial perspective of the train bridge that links Pierrefonds with Ile-Bigras and the Laval Islands (and by extension, western Laval and Deux Montagnes & St-Eustache just beyond), a bridge which is primarily used by the AMT and ever-so-rarely by CN. Once upon a time this rail link provided regular service between Montréal and Ottawa and the vast number of little towns along the way, but nowadays service is nearly exclusively to support the commuting class, on a schedule appropriate to their needs. It has created a problem for some West Island commuters, in that if for whatever reason you should miss the inter-modal station at Roxboro-Pierrefonds, and wind up in Ile-Bigras or Deux-Montagnes, you would need to call for a lift or a cab, as service in the opposite direction drops off after a certain time, and there’s no public transit options available that inter-links with the STM. The cost could be as high as $60 and take as long as an hour, depending on where you eventually got off and highway traffic.

This predicament illustrates our over-dependence on high-volume traffic systems at the expense of low-volume, tactical and in our case far more convenient connections. A simple pedestrian crossing attached to the existing bridge and an illuminated pathway is all it would take to save thousands of commuters from this operational inefficiency and further permit traffic diffusion by providing an alternative for everyone now within walking distance of Ile-Bigras, meaning fewer cars jamming up the intersection of Pierrefonds and Gouin boulevards during rush-hour, a problem which far too frequently results in major traffic jams (and on that note, aside from making this strip of Pierrefonds boulevard uni-directional towards the train station at rush hour, why not see if we can extend Pavilion Street through to Gouin Boulevard through part of the landscaping firm’s outdoor nursery here – both of these measures would allow for superior traffic diffusion between the confluence of major inter-suburban boulevards and the principle arteries of the residential expanse north of Gouin).

But on a broader scale it would be better still would be to extend Riverdale Boulevard north of the tracks towards the northwest, intersecting with an extension of Perron Street towards the CN Bridge, ultimately connecting to Chemin du Mistral on Ile-Bigras and then on to Chemin du Bord-de-l’Eau in Western Laval. Far less expensive than a highway and does a better job connecting Pierrefonds with its neighbours, resulting in new commuting possibilities, access to more schools and services, not to mention new business opportunities. The vast, exclusively residential riverside hinterland of Pierrefonds would suddenly have enough through-traffic to support numerous local small business initiatives. There’s no question Pierrefonds would change, I would even argue somewhat dramatically so. Making it easier to get around, and providing new trajectories and traffic patterns with the aim of opening new yet hyper-localized vectors of exchange, would serve to change Pierrefonds by making it more useful, more usable, and further still, more economically sustainable. By adding little bridges a bedroom community can transform itself into a hub of activity.

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As you can see here, there’s a seasonal ferry running from the northeastern part of Ile-Bizard to Laval close to the Ste-Dorothée AMT station at a point in the river so narrow it truly boggles the mind a bridge hasn’t been built. Doing so would allow for residential development on former farmland in an otherwise difficult to access part of Ile-Bizard. A pedestrian crossing from Ile-Bigras to Ile-Bizard would serve to provide even better access to the crucial AMT link to the city – all of which permitting public-transit-focused residential development. A better kind of bedroom community, one in which the train station is always within walking distance.

And a bridge seems to have once been planned to extend Marceau Street to Rue Cherrier in Ile-Bizard, as you can see here in another logical place.

Consider the numbers – there are 14,000 people who live in Ile-Bizard, and they are connected to Montreal via one bridge, two bus lines and a seasonal ferry that can carry but a few cars on a ridiculous two-minute trip that could completed in a matter of seconds in a bus or car. A bridge built at that location could provide 14,000 people access to the AMT’s Deux-Montagnes Line, and Ile-Bizard is one of the few places left in the West Island that can support new low-density development while still retaining a sufficient proportion of undeveloped wilderness.

There are 68,000 people in Pierrefonds, more than half of whom live in the higher density eastern sectors, of which maybe ten thousand people could be better served if they had direct ‘within walking distance’ access to Ile-Bigras or Ste-Dorothée train stations. Providing high-density public transit systems within walking distance of where most people live in turn could provide a host of new small-scale business opportunities focused on a suddenly more vibrant street life it what would otherwise be but a bedroom suburb.

If I’m lucky maybe we can make this an election issue – Pierrefonds needs a new role and direction as part of Metropolitan Montréal.

The Oldest Buildings in Montréal

New York Life Insurance Bldg

So just how old is this city, really?

We talk a lot about the city’s history and architectural heritage, of its old world charm. And of course we know that the city was founded by the Kingdom of France in 1642.

It may surprise you to learn that much of our historic architecture isn’t actually that old; there are very few 17th century buildings left on the island of Montréal.

The remnants of the Fort de la Montagne date back to 1694 and can still be found today on the grounds of the Collège de Montréal at Fort and Sherbrooke. These were long believed to be the oldest buildings in Montréal, but new evidence suggests that parts of the Sulpician Seminary adjacent to Notre Dame Basilica (1829) actually date back to 1687, though much of what remains today would have been integrated into a large renovation which occurred in 1710.

These would be the two oldest remaining structures within urban core of Montréal, but recent civic amalgamations have brought the single oldest inhabitable building on the entire island into the fold. The LeBer-LeMoyne House sits here at the intersection of LaSalle and Lachine by the western tip of the Lachine Canal. It dates to 1671 and is a national historic site owing to its importance in the development of the fur trade.

Victoria Square Historic

Further west, parts of the remnants of Fort Senneville may date from 1692 when the French Governor rebuilt the original 1671 construction, itself destroyed by fire, but this is difficult to ascertain given how little is actually left. Last I heard there were parts of a stone windmill and parts of the foundation.

In Pointe-St-Charles you’ll find the Maison Saint-Gabriel a farm house dating from 1698 which had been used by the Congrégation Notre Dame as a school, among other things, back in the French Colonial Era.

Chateau Ramezay, across the street from the Hotel-de-Ville (1878, rebuilt in 1922) dates back to 1705 with certainty, as its regal and political importance kept it very much in use until it was developed into one of the city’s first public heritage and cultural sites. The Chateau competes with the Sulpician Seminary as the oldest continually used, continuously important, building.

But this is about it. Old Montréal and the Old Port dates primarily to the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Historic properties in the Golden Square Mile, Shaugnessy Village, Saint Henri, Westmount, Mile End and Plateau are roughly as old.

Port of Montreal from Bonsecours Market ca. 1900

We lack buildings from much of the 18th century thanks to a series of fires which destroyed the city several times over the course of that century. By the early 1800s new fire-prevention measures had been implemented, including the use of tin shingles in lieu of cedar (a point honoured in the mural at McGill Station, near the words ‘La Sauvegarde’). The pre-Confederation part of the 19th century witnessed a revival in ‘Habitant’ architecture dating back to the mid-17th century (in design and materials used) among local architects, while American and British firms worked on larger public constructions, such as the Bonsecours Market (1847) and Saint Patrick’s Basilica (1847) and the original Parliament Building (destroyed by a Tory mob in 1849 and today the location of a converted fire hall at Place d’Youville. In 1815 the old fortifications were torn down, allowing the city to begin expanding outward. In this sense, everything you consider to be city outside of Old Montreal has really only been in use for about two-hundred years, though most of the buildings were built in the last half-century.

That said we nonetheless have a few 18th century examples remaining, including the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel (otherwise known as the Sailor’s Cathedral) built in 1771 on the ruins of another church. There also still stands the Papineau House, built in 1785.

Dorchester Square Historic

Rue de la Frippone owes its name to the Old French government warehouse that once stood on the site, as the government officials would habitually fleece the stocks for their own use. Thus, cheat street.

I can imagine there may be some old treasures lost about Rue Saint-Paul, Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Gabriel and Saint-Francois-Xavier as well, but the prevalence of ‘heritage design’ in the 19th century makes it a difficult task to ascertain just how old something actually is.

Suffice it to say, what we generally consider to be the ‘architecturally significant’ old part of the city is only about 100-160 years old, not terribly representative of our nearly 400 year local history. In effect, the most tangible reminder of our colonial era is a system of roads laid down by surveyor Dollier de Casson back in the late-17th century.

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I drew my inspiration for this article from a City of Montreal tourist guidebook I have that was published around 1900 or so (photographs illustrating this article were scanned form it). Imagine that when this book was published, much of what is now considered to be the historic old city was then very new and very much in use. In fact you likely would have found many more older structures outside Vieux-Montréal back then, ironically enough, as this was then the city centre, and between 1880 and 1930 the focus of a massive redevelopment.

In this book it discusses what would have been the oldest structures in the city back at the turn of the 20th century, and as you might imagine the aforementioned examples are included. However it also suggests that a building on Rue Saint-Vincent may have once belonged to Monsieur De Catalogne, contractor of the Lachine Canal of 1700. The building here in white may be that house. There’s another on Rue Saint-Louis which also looks quite old, an odd small single-family home on a comparatively large plot near the municipal courthouse.

Windsor Station Antique

I think we’re well positioned to maintain a considerable portion of what currently exists in Vieux-Montréal, which will be far more impressive and significant at the end of this century. If we want to keep this rather pristine jewel of Ancien Regime based late-Victorian cityscape we’ll have to maintain (if not increase) the local population, introduce new services (both commercial and civic) and facilitate a renewal of purpose for the citizenry at large. Better public transit access wouldn’t hurt either, but options are limited (for better or for worse) to a re-introduction of trams. My understanding is that the ground might not be stable enough to permit Métro access further south than the Orange Line, but of course if trams were introduced they’d need to operate as independently of vehicular traffic as possible. It would be very much in keeping with the style and design of Vieux-Montréal if we were to re-introduce trams on Rue de la Commune, Notre-Dame, and Saint-Antoine with intersecting lines at Berri, Saint-Urbain, McGill and Peel, connecting to Berri-UQAM, Place-d’Armes & Place-des-Arts, Square-Victoria, Bonaventure & Peel respectively.

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It’s a high concentration of transit in a small but high-traffic area and to secure a greater range of service optimization it may be worthwhile to focus it on a kind of site-specific transit system optimized for the entirety of the Old Port, Old Montreal, Griffintown, Goose Village and Cité-du-Havre/Parc Jean-Drapeau. It would make a lot of sense to people – when you’re in the old part of town you use a trams, an ‘old’ yet still practical form of public transit. And who knows, design it well enough and we may create something truly fitting, wondrously appropriate and efficient as well aesthetically pleasing. It could be a big hit.

But this itself is predicated on the notion that Old Montreal could be more valuable if it were a more viable place to live. We’d be wise not to build modern or post-modern residential towers here, but revisit the style that remains. I’d like to see the few remaining vacant lots filled with new versions of classic Montreal Beaux-Arts architecture, as well as some building variety as well – a good portion of Griffintown already feels too much like a series of large warehouses converted into horizontal apartments; throwing in some classic small-scale buildings could help solidify the rustic charm of our former frontier town. I said before we’re well positioned – interest in this area is generally high even if it’s localized economy is currently too negatively impacted by moderate drops in annual tourist revenue. Adding more people and the means for a viable community to form would help counter this problem, and would add the possibility for multi-generational investment in heritage properties. Fill up the vacant spaces with the buildings required to create a community and ensure the design fits, and then give it its purpose-built mass-transit system and Vieux-Montréal would transform from tourism hub to neighbourhood – a place where one comes from as opposed to a place one merely visits.

DOminion Square Historic

It’s not just that we want to preserve old buildings, function must be preserved as well.

Montréal doesn’t just have a collection of old buildings, we have an old city, an antique urbanism. And it’s viability and utility to the metropolis (for it could be an obscenely wealthy neighbourhood to boot) is tied quite directly to careful planning from City Hall. And this is because we expect the city to, if nothing else, at least preserve the historic built environment, that has now for several generations made every Montrealer feel like they come from a place truly different and distinguished.

Even More Fantasy Métro Maps!

Trams at Place d'Armes ca. 1940s (Montréal)

Trams at Place d’Armes ca. 1940s (Montréal)

I love finding these – so much to think about.

It goes without saying I think we need to prioritize public transit expansion in our city. We need to transition off of our over-reliance on automobiles, cut down considerably on local pollution, gridlock and the endless cycles of roadway destruction. Train, subways, buses, trams etc. are all part of a veritable transit cocktail we’ll need to build over the course of the coming generations to make public transit the principle fashion by which we get around the city.

And there’s really only one fundamental underlying reason why we need to expand – it will make money for the city and allow you to keep more of yours. Cars cost a fortune in terms of fuel, insurance, repairs and maintenance. Roads require constant renovations because of the massive quantities of corrosive salt we need to pour on them every year just to keep the roadway passable in the winter months, and this in turn means every year your tax-dollars are being wasted repeating the same work. The combination of these factors have made driving a bit of a hassle in a city which is lovely to drive in – a shame. If we had a public transit system so well developed personal automobiles were used far more sparingly, not only would the value of the car increase while its associated costs decrease, we’d also be able to potentially cut back on costs associated with road maintenance as well.

And as our recent massive snow-storm has revealed, public transit is absolutely vital when the roads are otherwise impassable, especially the systems we have (such as the Métro and Réso) which allow the city to continue operating regardless of conditions outside. It’s a strong argument for why we need to expand the Métro system and Réso concurrently, and seek to include as much direct access to residential and office buildings as possible.

But there’s no single transit system which will solve all of our transit needs, and I’m very much in favour of utilizing different systems to connect different parts of the city in different ways. That said, even if we use diverse modes, there should be a single agency running the show for the whole of the metropolitan region. I point again to Vancouver’s TransitLink as an excellent example we should follow. A single agency with a single transit police, single fare, single union, single collective bargaining agreement and most importantly, a single (massive) pension fund and planning department. More organized, lower overhead cost, more accessible – we can’t go wrong.

This would be something I’d like to see in the coming years, as it would make public transit not only more effective but efficient as well. Greater public transit integration and efficiency passes the savings back to tax-payer in better service while allowing more revenue to be generated on the whole.

Put another way, the status quo is very expensive and the cost is going to rise. If the city gets out ahead of this issue and plans for a massive transition we can start reaping the benefits sooner, and we’ll be better off the earlier we start.

That said, let’s consider three new fantasy mass transit systems I’ve recently come across.

Métro extension and LRT proposal by Dashspeed

Métro extension and LRT proposal by Dashspeed

I’ve posted plans by ‘Dashspeed’ before as I found them all pretty interesting. This one’s novel because it presents a modest Métro expansion plan along with the development of an integrated LRT system.

Métro expansions would include a five and three-station extension on either side of the Orange Line (west and east respectively) without closing the loop and six stations to the Blue Line towards Anjou. These are very likely developments given population growth in Saint-Laurent, Petite-Patrie, Rosemont, Saint-Leonard and Anjou. What’s fascinating here is the idea that the airport ought to be served by a new Métro line which in this case would follow part of the once-proposed western extension of the Blue Line and link it up with Bonaventure and Peel stations (and Gare Centrale by extension) with an apparent stop somewhere very close to the Mountain. Based on the map I wonder if the idea isn’t to dig out a Métro tunnel alongside the existing Mount Royal Tunnel. What an impressive job that would be!

I like this proposed Red Line development, but I like the proposed LRT network even more. It’s an effective way of providing a higher capacity alternative to a bus while spending less on infrastructure. Examples: the Magenta Line connects Bonaventure and Windsor station with Griffintown, Goose Village, Pointe-St-Charles and Nun’s Island, the Grey Line crosses the Champlain Bridge and serves all the South Shore communities from Brossard to Longueuil, there attaching to the Yellow Line. A Violet Line connects Papineau station, crosses the bridge and on to Saint-Hubert Airport, a Blue Line LRT runs from a proposed intermodal station at the Université de Montréal through Cote-des-Neiges, Saint-Laurent and Laval onto Mirabel Airport. Dashspeed also includes some ‘redundancy’ lines, such as the tram running along The Main from Jean-Talon to Place-d’Armes on the Métro Orange Line and along Boul. Decarie and Marcel-Laurin.

I also like how the tram lines anticipate future on-island densification, and that the West Island requires a comprehensive tram network if we have any hope of cutting back on their car dependency. I think buses have outlived their utility, and reserved-lane LRTs could serve the area much better. Also, interesting idea to have both LRTs and a Métro Line connecting directly to Trudeau.

Métro expansion by JohnQPublic (?)

Métro expansion by JohnQMetro

This plan is pretty bold and would, if implemented, greatly increase the area we consider to be ‘urban Montréal’. A lot of this based on other plans touted about for years, such as extending both ends of the Blue and Green Lines, having part of the Yellow Line twinned with the Green Line in the downtown, using the Métro to connect to Trudeau Airport and closing the Orange Line to form a loop.

What’s novel here is the orientation of the map, more aligned with true north than we’re used to. Doing so makes the case for eastern and northern development a bit easier – I think we too easily forget there’s 500,000 people on the other side of the river and another half-million living in the ring of northern suburbs. These areas need to be better connected to the CBD, in a more direct fashion. The Red Line in this example would connect Griffintown, PSC, Goose Village and Nun’s Island to the CBD in addition to the Plateau and McGill Ghetto. A true North-South Line is a very novel proposal indeed, and would seek to link to separate but nonetheless iconic neighbourhoods. We could call it the Hipster Line.

Other neat ideas here – a Parc Avenue focused Métro Line linking the city with Brossard and Saint Laurent. Also, many more two-line access stations and a Métro linked directly to the Montreal General Hospital and Rockcliffe Apartments over Cote-des-Neiges road.

It also occurred to me looking at this design that spacing out stops farther away from the city is a neat solution to the problem of population density in transitional residential zones. One of the many arguments against Métro expansion is that many think it would require stops as frequent as we currently have, which in turn would make the commute very long indeed. By stretching the average distance between stations Métro trains could conceivably reach higher speeds. As population density increases new stops can be placed in between.

Métro expansion and surface tram proposal by Richard Sunichura

Métro expansion and surface tram proposal by Richard Sunichura

Our final entry is like the former heavily influenced by contemporary planning and proposals, including a Pie-IX Line going up into Montréal North and RdP, closing the Orange Line loop, and adding a few stations to the ends of the existing lines. I find this plan a bit underwhelming and think too many stations have been added to the Orange Line in Laval. I’m also not crazy about having a y-shaped Métro Line even if part of it is attached to the airport. This plan also utilizes trams, but does so as if to build bridges between Métro lines almost as if to bypass them. Final point on this one, utilizing the Mount Royal Tunnel for a Métro Line is one thing, but this makes it seem as if a Métro Line would be built under the CN track and AMT’s Deux-Montagnes Line all the way to Pierrefonds. I’m not sure what the logic is here unless.

In any event, glad people are still making these. If we truly want our city to grow we’re going to have to start thinking big about public transit in Montréal. The bigger and more useful the system, the more we all save in car-related expenses we no longer have. Not having to plunk down anywhere from $15,000-45,000 every ten-to-twelve years would mean a lot more money in your pocket.

Think about it – this isn’t hippy-dippy bullshit, it’s basic economics and the cost of a personal car is high and getting higher. Providing an efficient and comprehensive alternative throughout the metropolitan region by extension transfers a considerable amount of disposable income back into the pockets of the citizenry.

A thought for the New Year perhaps. Change is coming in November.