Today is Montreal’s fifth annual edition of Car Free Day, known officially (and awkwardly) as “In town, without my car!” The east end of the downtown core, between McGill College on the west and St. Urbain on the east, de Maisonneuve on the north and René Lévesque on the south, will be closed from 9:30am to 3:30pm. (Ste. Catherine in front of Place des Arts will be closed all day.)
The car-free zone will be divided into three sections: the “Active and Public Transportation District,” featuring a sit-in “to take action in favour of streets for everybody”; a “Health and Transportation District,” with “cardio fun” and line dancing; and an “Environment District” providing information on green roofs and urban gardening. This being Montreal, there will also be a “car-free happy hour” from 5 à 7.
It’s easy to be cynical about the AMT’s official celebration of Car Free Day. Already late to the game in 2003, the car-free perimeter has actually shrunk over the past five years. The fact that it begins at the end of the morning rush hour and ends at the beginning of the afternoon rush hour is a reminder that, whatever politicians say about getting people to use alternative modes of transit, the private automobile still rules.
Meanwhile, Montreal’s year-round commitment to getting people out of their cars has been uneven. While new bike lanes and paths have been inaugurated and a handful of streets have had their sidewalks widened, the most important effort needed has been slow in coming: investment in public transportation.
Still, even if you’re inclined to view Car Free Day as token recognition of the need to reduce private vehicle use, you have to admit that it does have a big impact, even during the few hours that it takes place. In 2003, during its inaugural edition, the levels of nitric oxide and carbon monoxide within the car-free perimeter fell by 40% below normal.
So get out there and enjoy Car Free Day. Don’t forget that, along with the AMT-organized event along Ste. Catherine Street, McGill University’s downtown campus will also be closed to cars. Information booths and other special events will take place around the lower field just off Sherbrooke Street. Have fun.
Update: Commuter trains and buses in Laval and the South Shore are free today. As La Presse points out, however, the STM is charging full fare.